Plaque commemorates Dame Elsie Knocker, heroic WW1 nurse

Exeter Civic Society’s blue plaque to Elsie Knocker was unveiled by Paul Baker, the regional director of the Royal Air Forces Association, on 4 November 2017. The unveiling was attended by the Lord Mayor of Exeter and about fifty members and guests of the Society. An appreciation of Elsie’s life was given by local historian Todd Gray, there was a display of archive photographs from the Imperial War Museum and a reception, generously provided by Patrick and Mark Simpson, the owners of the property. This enabled the Society to view the magnificent interior of no. 1 Barnfield Crescent, the home of Thomas Shapter (1809–1902), the noted physician and epidemiologist.

Elsie was born here on 29 July 1884, baptised as Elizabeth Blackall Shapter, the daughter of Dr Lewis Shapter, surgeon at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital and granddaughter of Thomas, who had by this date moved to London. Elsie, as she became known, was orphaned at an early age and adopted by Lewis Edward Upcott, a teacher at Marlborough college. She trained and worked as a nurse and midwife and married Leslie Duke Knocker in 1906 but the marriage was dissolved after the birth of her son. She became an enthusiastic motor cyclist which is how she met Mairi Chisholm.

On the outbreak of war in 1914 she volunteered with Mairi Chisholm to work as despatch riders on the western front but they soon found that their nursing skills were more in demand. Working independently they set up a first aid post in the cellar of a bombed out building on the front line in Pervyse and from a series of locations in that town they worked for four years in atrocious conditions, during which time they cared for some 23,000 casualties. They had to raise funds to support their work and, when they visited the Barnfield Hall in 1916, Exeter citizens raised sufficient to run their dug-out, two ambulances and one lorry for three months. They were visited by King Albert of Belgium and other dignitaries and were awarded the British Military Medal in 1917 for rescuing a wounded pilot in no-man’s land. In 1918 they were invalided out following a gas attack. Elsie finished war as an officer in the Women’s Royal Air Force. In 1916 she had married a pilot, Baron Harold de T’Serclaes but they separated after the war when he learned of her divorce.

Between the wars Elsie had a variety of jobs, at one time running a knitwear shop in Torquay. In 1939 Elsie joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as a senior officer working with RAF Fighter Command and was twice mentioned in despatches. On 3 July 1942 she lost her son, Wing Commander Kenneth Duke Knocker, who was killed when his plane was shot down over Groningen. She withdrew from the RAF after her son’s death but was active as a fundraiser for the Royal Air Forces Association during and after the war. The Red Cross arranged for her to acquire a cottage at Ashtead through the Earl Haig Homes charity which she called Pervyse. In 1964 she published her memoirs, Flanders and Other Fields and died in 1978 aged 94.

While they were celebrities during and after World War 1, being known as the angels or madonnas of Pervyse, the two women became relatively forgotten until recently and a memorial to Elsie in her native Exeter was long overdue. Thanks are due to Ernie Milverton who for some years has been campaigning locally for her recognition – and for the recognition of other women who dedicated themselves heroically as nurses, clearing up the carnage that men had inflicted on the world.

As well as her autobiography there is an excellent work on her life by Diane Atkinson, Elsie and Mairi Go to War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front (Cornerstone, 2009). The Wikipedia article at also gives links to other sources, both printed and online and there are a large number of illustrations as well as her diaries and some moving images at the Imperial War Museum.

Many of these sources miss the sting in the tail – what happened to her second husband, the Baron de T’Serclaes. Far from dying in 1919, as the Oxford dictionary of national biography entry states, he in fact died in Rome in 1952. After the separation he took up with another woman who also went under the name of Baroness de T’Serclaes. During World War 2 he informed on Antwerp resistance fighters and those protecting Jews. He fled from Belgium in 1944 and in 1947 was tried in absentia by the War Council of Brussels, stripped of his honours, and sentenced to death by firing squad. He remained in hiding, initially in Austria and then in Italy and was never brought to trial. Elsie cannot have known of this as she continued to be known as the Baroness de T’Serclaes until her death