When we look back at the Second World War, we often cast our eyes upon the countless men who served during the six-year conflict. But what about the scores of women who lent a hand?

One Suffolk-based author has just released a book looking at exactly that, commemorating the life and times of some of the period’s most brilliant women.

Entitled ‘Remarkable Women of the Second World War: A Collection of Untold Stories’, Victoria Panton Bacon’s tome closely examines the lives of 12 ladies, each with their own fascinating story to tell.

Explaining what inspired her to write her third book, Victoria says: “After releasing my second book, ‘Remarkable Journeys of the Second World War’, my agent suggested to me that a book on women’s memories of the war would be interest. My ears prick up when I hear a wartime memory, and I feel compelled to write it up – they're poignant memories.”

And one of these very women that she spoke to is Sudbury’s very own Mary Wilson.

Mary worked as a lady almoner during the war, and vividly remembers what life was like during that time.

When Victoria first met Mary, she recalls: “As she began to talk to me about her memories of the Second World War, I suddenly noticed a cheerful, smiling photograph of Queen Elizabeth II on a mantlepiece over the fireplace of her cosy sitting room.

“I knew that Mary had her 100th birthday in 2020 and the photograph on her centenary birthday card, served as a useful reminder of Mary’s great age.”

Victoria realised that as soon as she met Mary, she could not write about her as 100 years old – but rather 100 years young.

“For much of the time, Mary spoke faster than I could write, recollections flowing like water from a tap, as though the war ended only yesterday. It was a truly and engaging conversation.”

Mary Wilson (née Dawson) was 19 years old when war was officially declared in September 1939, and initially she had intentions to become a land girl.

“She wanted to be useful, and a national recruitment drive was calling for girls of her age to sign up – so it seemed like the obvious thing to do,” explains Victoria.

But a countryside placement as a land girl wasn’t for Mary, as her parents felt she was too bright, and would therefore be more useful continuing her studies.

And that’s exactly what she did. Mary enrolled on a two-year social work diploma at the London School of Economics – which upon completion would allow her to help hundreds of needy children and family.

Despite earning her diploma, Mary was actually evacuated to pastures more rural and studied for it in Cambridge, much to her delight.

“It was a relief for her parents too that she was to spend at least the beginning of the war in a relatively safe place,” adds Victoria.

Mary was the youngest of four siblings – both of her brothers were fit for service, while her sister Katharine was working as a radiographer at the Passmore Edwards Hospital in north London.

While Cambridge was only 60 miles away from the capital, it was, for the most part, safe from the ravages of war and its ensuing raids – except on a few occasions.

Sudbury Mercury: Author Victoria Panton Bacon, who spoke to Mary Wilson for her bookAuthor Victoria Panton Bacon, who spoke to Mary Wilson for her book (Image: Victoria Panton Bacon)

“February 24, 1941 was the worst night of loss of life for Cambridge during the war, as 11 people were killed following the dropping of many incendiary bombs near the Grantchester Meadow area of the city, from German Heinkel aircraft, which were one of the Luftwaffe’s most used medium range bombers,” explains Victoria.

Mary, however, was fortunate enough to have escaped any potential attacks, as she adds: “I can only remember once an explosion happening just down the road from where I was having supper one evening, and my friends and I diving under the table.”

She also admits that her two years of study were far from easy. “She had youth and a positive spirit on her side – but much to learn too – driven on I expect by the thought of not only a proper salary to follow; but also – perhaps more importantly – a need to serve during such a crucial time,” explains Victoria.

As her time at Cambridge came to an end in the summer of 1941, Mary soon decided she wanted to train as a hospital lady almoner.

“This role can best be described as a ‘medical social worker’ – an important job during the war because it was the responsibility of the almoners to assess patients who came to them,” explains Victoria.

“The doctors would assess their medical needs and the almoners would then assess the individual family’s potential ability to fund even a proportion of their care. This was Mary’s position at the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in central London for the last three years of the war.”

Before taking up the post of almoner however, she needed to complete a year-long training course – so she continued her almoner traineeship at hospitals in various cities across the country, including Manchester, Bristol, and St Albans, describing these tenures as “very interesting”.

Sudbury Mercury: Mary Wilson punting along the River Cam during her student daysMary Wilson punting along the River Cam during her student days (Image: Mary Wilson)

Following completion of her training, Mary eventually reached her post at Great Ormond Street Hospital in the summer of 1942.

Her job was to talk to parents (usually mothers as fathers were often away) to establish if they could afford to pay anything towards care after their child had been medically assessed. This was of course extremely important – the National Health Service had not, by this point, been established – so hospitals had to raise money to survive. At that time, they were mostly funded by generous endowment payments, but this was rarely a reliable or regular source of income.

Mary thoroughly enjoyed the work she did, and adds: “I think because I was so busy I really felt I was doing something useful, and we worked well as a team. Sometimes I would arrive at work at 9am, and a long queue of families would build up during the morning, all wanting to be seen. Sometimes there would be up to 60 children. Fortunately, most of the parents were quite upfront about whether they could afford to pay anything – in those days you had to just trust people. Very often you simply knew people couldn’t pay, and I wouldn’t press them. How could I push an exhausted mother who looked very poor and had travelled for miles with a very sick child, who hadn’t seen her husband for weeks, and didn’t even know if she would see him again?”

The war affected the health of everyone – from adults engaged in combat, to children back home. “First and foremost, their mental health suffered; many had to become ‘adults’ from an early age, helping out with manual tasks that absent fathers or brothers would have done,” explains Victoria.

Physical injuries that lady almoners such as Mary saw included head lice, skin diseases and poor nutrition due to food rationing.

“Young people were ‘rationed’ more eggs and milk than adults because of the calcium contained in these foods that is vital for growth, but most children simply did not get enough, the result being a prevalence of rickets – weak bone disease caused by a vitamin D deficiency,” says Victoria.

Sudbury Mercury: Remarkable Women of the Second World War by Victoria Panton BaconRemarkable Women of the Second World War by Victoria Panton Bacon (Image: The History Press)

Mary's work was taxing – and took its toll on her. “During my first year I kept getting ill. I got measles, mumps, tonsillitis and jaundice – each time I thought I would lose my job, but my boss kindly didn’t lose patience and took me back, thank goodness.”

But she persevered – even going above and beyond, as lady almoners were expected to carry out additional duties, such as fire watching.

“We were paid three shillings and sixpence an evening for doing this. We basically had to sit and look out of a high window on the top floor of the nurses’ home and look out for any bombs or fires that might appear. It was on one of these shifts that I did see a bomb – a ‘buzz bomb’. It was really frightening. I could see it and hear it coming down, it was falling very fast and was really noisy before it landed nearby in Russell Square. I don’t think that bomb hurt anyone but it was horrible. I have never run down the stairs so fast to alert people in all my life,” explains Mary.

Mary helped hundreds of children and families during her tenure at Great Ormond Street.

When the war ended, she got married in 1945 and eventually moved to Cambridge before relocating to Sudbury in 1984. “She is now really a Suffolk girl,” says her daughter Sarah Hawker.

Mary, who turned 100 while in lockdown in 2020, says the secret to a long life is ‘in her genes’, but adds: “I was the youngest of four. My sister was 96 when she died and my brother was 94 and the other was 85. My parents both died when they were 70. Also, before the war it was a very different life from now, we had good food and plenty of exercise.”

Most of us can only hope to achieve half the things Mary has in her long and fruitful life – she certainly is one remarkable woman.

‘Remarkable Women of the Second World War’ by Victoria Panton Bacon is out now.

A retelling of the book will take place at Bungay’s Fisher Theatre on Saturday, October 8 at 7.30pm.