Saturday 6 February 2016


Dorothy Morris is sitting in the early morning sun with a very young patient on the roof of a children’s hospital in Murcia, Spain, in 1938, at a time when the refugee crisis caused by the Civil War was getting steadily more desperate.   A few months later she wrote home expressing her anger about ‘that wicked old devil of a Chamberlain’ and the British government which refused to help or sell arms to Republican Spain, yet turned a blind eye to the support given to Franco by Hitler and Mussolini:

‘This minute, we have here two children, most piteous little rascals of his ‘Non Intervention’.  They were bombed by huge ½ ton incendiary bombs dropped on them in Barcelona by his fellow fiends the Italians and Germans, and by ‘Non Intervention’, Spain can’t buy the means to defend them.  I don’t want to rant but you can imagine how I feel.’

You won’t have heard of Dorothy.  She died eighteen years ago, after a lifetime of looking after people at their wits' ends, of organising ways to provide hope and sustenance for the hopeless and hungry. In other words, she’s exactly the kind of person who usually sinks into oblivion.  Except now she won’t, because as you can see, there’s a book about her, Petals and Bullets by Mark Derby, and it’s exactly the kind of book which is meat and drink to the writer of historical fiction. 

Dorothy was born in New Zealand and when she first came to London, she lived at the Grosvenor Court Hotel, just round the corner from Selfridges, where she worked as private nurse to an elderly company director on his last legs. Everything changed in 1936 when she went to a rally in support of Republican Spain at the Albert Hall and wrote a note on the back of the cheque she donated to the funds:

‘she wished it could have been more but she was only a poor nurse from New Zealand on a working holiday in England.’

Poster from TUC archives
The message was read out from the stage, Dorothy was invited to volunteer, and before long she was on her way to southern Spain with Sir George Young’s Ambulance Unit.  Her instructions were to bring just one small suitcase and not tell her family she was leaving for fear of alerting Franco’s sympathisers in Britain to the Unit’s plans.  The first refugees she encountered were in flight from Malaga, ‘pathetic bundles on donkeys trailing along the dusty endless road that we were tearing down at 50 miles an hour’.  They made such easy targets for the machine-gun and bomb attacks of Nationalist aircraft that out of one group of 80 children evacuated from an orphanage, only ten survived. 

Posted to the southern frontline, Dorothy Morris worked in almost impossible conditions in mobile field hospitals in the mountains south of the Sierra Nevada. She and her medical colleagues cleared out hovels that had neither light, water nor sanitation, and managed to set up an operating theatre.  Men arrived, frostbitten, on mule litters.  The next move was to Cabeza del Buey in Extramadura,  (‘a wild, desolate area’), then to Belalcázar where they set up in vacated school buildings, before being stationed in the ‘high hills of the Sierra Morena’, from where they could see ‘the smoke, flashes and movements of the battle below’. 

When I first began to research the book which became A World Between Us, although I knew that advances in blood transfusion methods during the Spanish Civil War would be important as both theme and plot, in my ignorance I initially dismissed the idea of making my female lead a nurse.  What a cliché, I thought to myself.  It didn’t take long to change my mind, and six years later I’m all the more ashamed at the memory of my mistake as I read of Dorothy Morris’ experiences in Spain.

Three other NZ nurses, Renee Shadbolt, Isobel Maguire and Millicent Sharpes in Huete,
soon after their arrival in mid-1937.  Isobel Maguire tells her
story in this programme made by Radio New Zealand. 
In August 1937 Dorothy was transferred again, to the ‘abyss of misery’ which was Murcia, according to Quaker relief worker Francesca Wilson, whose book In the Margins of Chaos describes her own arrival as being a scene from a nightmare. As Málaga, Cadiz, Seville and other southern towns fell to Franco, almost 60,000 refugees poured in to the city: ‘They surged around us, telling their stories, clinging to us like people drowning in a bog.’ 

To her fury, Dorothy was sent back from Spain to England in February 1939, when the tragic outcome of the war was all too clear. She agreed to go only because her involvement with the International Brigades put her and her Quaker colleagues in danger. ‘As the German secret police – the Gestapo – are expected to start work right away on Nazi models, the Quakers became alarmed for my safety in case I should be arrested!  Imagine – for nursing sick men!’   But her work with Spanish refugees didn’t end there, for the Retirada (retreat) was in full swing.  After the fall of Barcelona, over 450,000 refugees crossed the border from Spain into France, only to be herded into camps on the beaches of Argelès, St Cyprien and Barcarés. (You can read more about their horrors in Rosemary Bailey’s brilliant Love and War in the Pyrenees.) 

Beach at Argelès-sur-mer today
By April, Dorothy was back in action, running the Perpignan office of the International Commission of Child Refugees in Spain. Since it's National Libraries Day today, I should mention that one of the first things she organised was books for the refugees. She was to spend most of the rest of her life working in humanitarian relief, joining UNRRA (newly formed) after the Second World War. 
From R to L: Dorothy Morris, Mary Elmes and
their delivery van driver Juan in Perpignan, 1939.
Unfortunately only a portion of Dorothy’s letters survive, and her biographer never knew her.  I’m not sure she comes alive in quite the same way as Patience Darton does in Angela Jackson’s biography in the same series. As Mark Derby admits, telling a story of ‘organised altruism’ is a considerable challenge. But the inspiration offered by early refugee workers like Dorothy (and her colleague Mary Elmes, pictured above), dealing for the first time with the effects of 'total' war on civilian populations, is needed now more than ever before.  And of course everything that adds to the visibility of women far too easily dismissed as ‘do-gooders', politically active women, women who could perhaps be difficult and abrasive but needed a very particular kind of heroism to cope with the challenges they tackled, is very much to be welcomed.  So too is the growing body of literature on the medical advances made in the Spanish Civil War, and I only wish (selfishly!) that more of both had been published while I was working on A World Between Us.

The other good news is that women are the focus of this year’s Len Crome Memorial Conference on March 12th in Manchester, an annual event held by the International Brigade Memorial Trust which is always fascinating.  There’ll be talks about La Pasionaria, the Spanish politician whose farewell speech to the departing Brigaders is impossible to read without tears, Aileen Palmer, the Australian activist and poet who worked as a Medical administrator in Spain, Fernanda Jacobson of the Scottish Ambulance Unit (‘Samaritan or Spy?’), and also the Barcelona photographs of Austrian-born Margaret Michaelis. You can book here
Margaret Michaelis
No title (Doctor and child) c.1936
gelatine silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Gift of the estate of Margaret Michaelis-Sacs 1986
If you’d like to read more fiction about the women of the Spanish Civil War, you’ll be pleased to hear that a novel by pioneering historian Angela Jackson, series editor for Petals and Bullets, is now available as an ebook. Warm Earth can be downloaded free in the week following the conference.
       'Spain veined with blood and metals, blue and victorious,
       proletariat of petals and bullets,
       alone, alive, somnolent, resounding.'
                                   From 'What Spain was like', Spain in my Heart (1938), Pablo Neruda

Mark Derby, Petal and Bullets: Dorothy Morris, New Zealand Nurse in the Spanish Civil War (Cañada Blanch/Sussex Academic Studies on Contemporary Spain, 2015)


Carol Drinkwater said...

what a wonderful post, Lydia, thank you

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this, Lydia!

Catherine Johnson said...

Great post Lydia thank you

Stuart Walsh said...

Lydia, have you ever come across a coulour image of the ambulances in Spain, which are all American I think, that have a white, not a red cross ? There is some dispute as to whether they are white on a red, or green background,or if not an image, then any written reference to the colour ? Great to say hello at the Len Crome btw., hope you enjoyed the day.

Unknown said...

...A Wonderful post....Thank you. Angel Canut.

Unknown said...

...Lydia, my name is Angel father was also Angel grand father was Angel Canut....I find about my gran father because his name is at the 113 page of the book Petals and Bullets in the narration of Dorothy Morris and writer by Mark Derby...My grand father die t Mauthausen in september 1941....My father Angel and my aunt Montse was crossing the Sapanish-France border in 1939....I´m very happy to know about my grand father in Sainte-Cyprien plage...I would like, if is possible, to contact with Mark Derby to seak more...Can you help me??.Please, can yo tell me the adress of Mark ??...Thank you..Angel Canut i Baque....From BARCELONA SPAIN.

Lydia Syson said...

Apologies for not responding sooner to you both, Stuart and Angel. I don't think I've ever seen a colour photograph of the ambulances, nor spotted a reference to the colours, but I will look out for them, and let you know if I do. Yes, this year's Len Crome was a particularly good one, I thought.

Angel, I'm very glad you enjoyed the post, and very interested (and saddened) to hear about your family's experiences after the war. I will try to put you in touch with Mark Derby. If you don't hear from him soon, please contact me via my website:

Lydia Syson said...

Angel, you will probably find Rosemary Bailey's website very helpful too:

Unknown said...

Salud, Snr Canut. I apologise for not replying sooner to your message of 3 May above, which i have only just noticed.
I am delighted to hear from you and I hope you will make contact with me directly. The best way to do this is by emailing my NZ publisher -
Just let them know that you want to contact me, and I'll get back to you immediately.
With best wishes from New Zealand,

Mark Derby