Christine ‘Heaven’ Bradhurst – Society Lady, Actress, Playwright, Red Cross VAD and Fundraiser

Throughout the centenary of the First World War, the Friends of Historic Essex are running the Essex Great War Archive Project. One of the aims of the project is to collect First World War documents relating to Essex to add to the ERO collections to preserve them for current and future generations. One such document acquired recently is a scrapbook kept during the First World War by Minna Evangeline Bradhurst of Rivenhall Place, now catalogued as Acc. A14491 (you can read some more background on it here). Caroline Wallace, a History MA student from the University of Essex, has been researching the contents of the scrapbook, to see what it can tell us about the lives of Minna and her family during the First World War.

Born on 21st May 1894, Christine Evangeline Minna Elizabeth Bradhurst was the only child of Minna Evangeline Bradhurst, née Page Wood of the county ‘Wood’ family, and Augustus Maunsell Bradhurst of New York. As a family of social standing in the county, Christine grew up as any other upper-class daughter would at the turn of the twentieth century with a life full of country houses, society families, large birthday parties and lavish gifts (listed painstakingly by her mother in one of her many scrapbooks). By 1913, Christine was off to debutante balls with the cream of British society.

Christine pictured in costume for one of her plays during the First World War.

Christine pictured at Rivenhall Place. The notes on the photograph refer to her ‘swish’ hat, which was part of a costume for a play she was in.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Christine was 20 years old and expected to do her bit for the war effort. As a society lady with no need to work for a living, there was one occupation that was both suitable and acceptable – that of British Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment, or VAD, worker. She could have become a VAD nurse, as many other middle and upper class ladies did, including most famously Vera Brittain and Agatha Christie.

However, Christine chose to work as a general service VAD, undertaking general duties at Earls Colne Auxiliary Hospital, whilst putting her considerable artistic talents to use to raise funds for war charities in the county, the number of which had grown substantially nationally. The Essex Record Office hold several scrapbooks (three on microfilm, one original) put together by her mother, Minna Evangeline Bradhurst, that document her life and record the concerts, plays and musicals that she put on and performed in. Fundraising was not only seen as ‘the thing to do’ by society, but was encouraged by Queen Mary with her Needle Work Guild, and it is believed that the First World War inspired the greatest level of philanthropy that Britain has ever seen.

The first mention of Christine on stage in the scrapbooks is in 1914 at the Colchester Hippodrome, where the East Lancashire Regiment put on a performance in which she assisted. Another of the scrapbooks but together by Minna has details of the entertainment that Christine organised and paid for in December 1915. It describes how 100 wounded soldiers were entertained for 2 days at the family home at Rivenhall Place, near Witham, coming from the Earls Colne hospital as well as Stansted Hall, Witham Hospital and Colchester Military Hospital. Performed each day were plays written by Christine called ‘Spy Mania’ and ‘The Companion’. These plays were also performed in theatres across the county, including at Colchester and Kelvedon on a regular basis to raise funds for the Red Cross Hospitals in Essex, in which Christine acted along with plays and comedies written by others.

A programme for an ‘entertainment’ held in aid of Coggeshall Nurse Fund in which a play by Christine was performed.

Alongside her Red Cross fundraising work, Christine helped to raise funds for other county, national and international associations and societies, including the French Wounded Emergency Fund, the Coggeshall Nurses Fund, the Friendless Soldiers Guild and the Khaki Prisoners of War Fund. Somehow, she also managed to find time to organise ‘Pound Days’ with her mother (events were people were encouraged to donate a pound in weight of particular necessities) and to be the secretary of the Rivenhall War Savings Association. These fundraising efforts were not unusual for a woman of Christine’s social position. Many middle and upper class ladies used their society connections to raise money for the Red Cross across the country, often in combination with voluntary work in the Red Cross hospitals, work depots and convalescence homes.

Details from Rivenhall parish magazine about a fundraiser organised by Christine in aid of the Essex Red Cross Society.

A letter to the people of Rivenhall with details about a Red Cross entertainment to be held, and the Rivenhall War Saving Association, of which Christine was the secretary.

A poster advertising War Saving Certificates, advertising for people to apply to Christine at Rivenhall Place for information.

After the war, Christine married and had a daughter (who, it turns out, of her own who, it transpires, is the mother of the current home secretary The Right Honourable Amber Rudd MP). It appears that Christine carried on singing and dancing on stage for a few years, but any trace of her in later life has not been found.

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