“Work, which to me was the passport to the outer world”
Mabel Florence Lethbridge arrived into the world on 7th July 1900. Born into long established Somerset gentry she was the fifth of six children. In 1907 her American mother took them all to Mombasa in Africa to see her father and from there they travelled on to Italy to visit her grandmother, Countess Sergardi. When they returned to Hampshire Mabel fell victim to what she calls, ‘some sort of a wasting disease.’(7).
In 1909 under doctor’s orders, her mother took her and her two brothers to live in Ireland where Mabel could recuperate and ‘run wild and free for three years, no school, no fuss’ (7).With her brothers in school during the day, Mabel made strong bonds with the villagers. It was during these formative years that her strength of character and independent spirit began to flourish.
In 1913, her mother fell sick with cancer. Once again Mabel’s childhood was disrupted when the family were forced to return to England and she was left in Ireland to attend boarding school. Although she dedicates a full chapter entitled ‘Boarding School’ Mabel doesn’t mention the name. I can only surmise she has purposefully omitted the details due to the traumatic experience she had while there. For example, she writes of the terrible food and her dreadful hunger as she grew thinner and weaker every month. Mabel even swallowed a bottle of ink in protest against lukewarm tea. Ever resourceful and rebellious, Mabel smuggled letters to her mother begging her to fetch her home.
In 1917, the progressive yet naïve Mabel was determined to step down from the middle class social ladder and enter the working world. Against her mother’s will, she signed up for a job nursing the troops who had been maimed and injured in the war. Mabel’s sister had recently completed her training at The Royal Eye and Ear Hospital in Bradford and due to a dearth of nurses, Mabel was taken on as a probationer. Her mother objected strongly to the job she had undertaken and due to Mabel being only sixteen she was forced to leave. Nevertheless after much begging, her exasperated mother allowed her to seek other work.
At the age of seventeen she began work at The National Munitions Filling Factory in Hayes, Middlesex where she lied about her age. Volunteering to work in the ‘Danger Zone’ she suffered catastrophic injuries when the condemned ‘monkey’ machine she was working on exploded. Mabel suffered thirteen serious injuries including the loss of a leg and TNT poisoning. Told with candour, she recounts the events in graphic detail. Her lyrical style of writing allows us to connect with her pain and fear.
In 1918 Mabel was awarded the O.B.E in recognition of her wartime service; however, because she had lied about her age, no pension was forthcoming.
Undaunted by her injuries and walking with the aid of an artificial leg, the unstoppable Mabel continued her quest for work. In the chapter entitled ‘Freedom’ she describes leaving home to pursue life and all it had to offer. Flabbergasted by her daughter’s strength of character, Mabel and her mother had many rows. But as Mabel writes, ‘I suffered intensely now from a restlessness and wanderlust which was to torment me to the bitter end’ (117).
She began an independent life living in a hostel in Victoria, London while working for the Ministry of Pensions. When she became sick she was forced to leave her job, ever determined not to return home she took a variety of jobs including charring (scrubbing steps) and selling matches. She even lived on the streets until she developed scabies.
During the war Mabel had exchanged letters with “Daddy” a married soldier. Together they found work as a butler and housekeeper but Daddy’s wife refused to divorce him. Some years later Mabel married his nephew, a decision she later regretted.
As well as going ‘on the busk’, she hired out chairs to theatre goers in London’s west end, which drew her into a turf war with the criminal underworld. Later she became known as ‘Peggy the world’s first chair girl.’
It was Mabel’s strong will and courage that initially drew me to her autobiography. Little did I realise what a multi-faceted woman she was. Instead of complaining about her injuries, she talks about her love for Daddy and her desire to divorce Noel Eric Kalenberg. Mabel recounts how her husband of sixteen days shot himself in the shoulder when she attempted to leave. In 1923 she had become a mother to Suzanne and by the end of 1927, her determination to strive forward sees her as England’s first woman estate agent. The irrepressible spirit of such an inspirational woman doesn’t stop here and true to Mabel, she went on to write a further two accounts of her life, Against the Tide published in 1936 and Homeward Bound published in 1967.
Published by Geoffrey Bles in 1934, the memoir is in typescript and contains two hundred and thirty eight pages. The title Fortune Grass alludes to the fields of Ireland where she played with her brothers.
Lethbridge, Mabel. Fortune Grass, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, Vol.4
“Wedding Stopped.” Daily Mail [London, England] 2 Jan. 1923: 5. Daily Mail Historical Archive. Web. 27 Feb. 2019.