Mabel Lethbridge: A woman of substance
It was thanks to the Writing Lives collaborative research project on working-class autobiography that I gained an insight into the complex and intriguing life of Mabel Florence Lethbridge. It was the extract from her first autobiography Fortune Grass that drew me to her story.
In 1917 during World War 1, Mabel joined the nursing staff at Bradford Royal Ear and Eye hospital where she helped tend to the wounded and dying men. But at only 16 years old, Mabel’s mother intervened and curtailed her short career. Undeterred and determined to do her bit for the war effort, the irrepressible Mabel went to work at Hayes National Filling Factory where she volunteered to work in the ‘Danger Zone’ filling shells with amatol, an extremely dangerous explosive. What really drew me into Mabel’s story was the catastrophic explosion that caused Mabel devastating life-changing injuries including the loss of a leg and TNT poisoning. At only 17 her fatalistic decision was to shape Mabel’s future and serve to empower her strong will. Refusing to become an invalid she quickly regained her independence and left the family home and headed to London to find work.
Mabel’s story, which you can read in my Writing Lives blog, gripped me from the outset and introduced me to her last memoir Homeward Bound. The third and final autobiography not only tells us how this inspirational woman assisted on the home front during World War 2 but also talks of her personal battles. Published in 1967 just one year before her death, it offers a rare insight into Mabel’s personal war subsequent to the devastating effects of the munitions explosion.
It has been humbling to learn so much about the life of a woman who was so severely injured and who unselfishly went on to help others; no wonder at age 18 Mabel was the youngest person ever to be awarded the medal of the order of the British Empire.
The more I read about Mabel, the more fascinating she became. In 1962 she appeared on the BBC show ‘This is your Life’ and from here serendipity played a hand and led me to Mabel’s great-granddaughters Karen and Suzy.
Mabel lives on through her family, and the girls were able to tell me their personal anecdotes about Mabel’s daughter Sue, their grandmother, who had worked tirelessly alongside Mabel during the London bombings. I was also fortunate to receive private family photos of Mabel and Sue bringing them both to life.
I feel very proud to have contributed to a highly praised public history resource such as Writing Lives. The idea behind the module is to understand the importance of working-class autobiography. It was fascinating to engage in studies of memory and trauma, which helped me to have some insight into Mabel’s reason for writing three autobiographies. When I Compared Mabel to other memoirists she is not a typical working-class writer, in fact she was born into aristocracy and had the privilege of class, but Mabel, a progressive woman spent her life going against her middle-class status to join the working classes.
It was an honour to metaphorically meet Mabel, her spirit and values were inspirational and through my blogs I hope to have contributed to public history by extending and enriching the archive for future studies. Lastly, I would like to thank Dr Louise Raw who contacted me through Twitter and invited me to speak on BBC Radio London about the life of the exceptional and unstoppable Mabel Lethbridge. An honour and a privilege indeed.