Amazing Grace: Ipswich’s ‘forgotten’ heroine
PUBLISHED: 05:15 01 December 2019
She risked her skin smuggling people out of occupied Belgium. So why don’t we remember her?
Shouldn't Ipswich unveil a statue to honour one of its daughters who helped countless vulnerable people? Consider the evidence:
* Grace Vulliamy was once famous - becoming a life vice-president of the Save the Children Fund and being compared to nurses Florence Nightingale and Edith Cavell.
* She risked her skin in smuggling people out of occupied Holland and Belgium and back to England, including fugitive prisoners of war
* Grace battled the class system that excluded low-rank soldiers from deals to free or swap military prisoners
* A mental nurse, she realised the damage incarceration did to prisoners' mental health, and did what she could to help
* This "extraordinary lady" helped Quakers in civilian internment camps holding women, children and non-fighting men
* She met prisoners being exchanged at borders, and travelled with them back across the Channel
* Grace was made a CBE
* She did relief work in several countries, including Poland following the Russian Revolution
* Later, she helped homeless and poor black people in South Africa.
Her biographer, Dr Katherine Storr, believes wider recognition is deserved. She accepts Grace wanted to remain in the shadows: anxious to keep her efforts private; keen to avoid recording anything that might be considered contentious, compromising or personal.
So Grace left the faintest of "footprints"; the thinnest of paper-trails.
Katherine was teased by snippets she found while working on her PhD thesis, but they were limited. Until 2014, when the Vulliamy family revealed it had Grace's archive material and would she like to see it.
It led to the publication last year of book Shining While the Lamps were Out: The life of Grace Charlotte Vulliamy CBE, 1878-1957.
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Katherine is heartened that Edinburgh was persuaded to put up a statue honouring Dr Elsie Inglis, famous during the First World War for work with the Scottish Women's Hospitals. Later, though, her name was "almost forgotten".
The author says: "It would be wonderful if Ipswich, where Grace was born on 12 September 1878, would do the same for her."
In 1881 we'd have found four-year-old Grace living at The Oakstead, a big house overlooking Spring Road in Ipswich. Flats stand there now.
She was the child of solicitor and coroner Arthur Vulliamy, a Liberal, and Anna. Grace's mother was involved with St Lawrence's Church (Dial Lane), the Mothers' Union and Girls' Friendly Society.
Grace went to boarding schools. Unconventional and a rebel, she was expelled a couple of times. Later, she became a mental nurse.
When the First World War broke out she joined the Women's Emergency Corps and helped refugees flooding into Britain. Many years followed of helping prisoners of war, post-war refugees and others.
After "retirement" to Cape Town in 1937 she turned a big crate into a shack and launched a club for deprived black youths. After the war, with other women, she started a soup kitchen and relief centre. A children's nursery followed.
From these grew CAFDA. It's still there, as The Cape Flats Development Association - providing education, training and other programmes.
The greatest happiness
Adopted son Misha described his Ma in later life as "a charming, lively 'old lady' with a gorgeous sense of humour". She died in April, 1957, aged 78, at her cottage near Table Mountain.
Grace had been a born leader, though had not suffered fools gladly. Katherine writes that she "was a woman who pushed at boundaries… could be caustic and reduce inefficient workers to a 'quivering jelly'."
However, she was greatly loved, "because she expressed love for others, not in a sentimental manner but in one which restored their self-respect".
Katherine's 2018 book Shining While the Lamps were Out can be bought from Amazon for £15.30.
The author sums up this forgotten Ipswich woman perfectly: "She told her adopted son that the greatest happiness was to be found in thinking of others and it is evident that she spent her life doing exactly this."
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