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Violetta Thurstan - weaver of words & weft

One of Penryn's most famous residents may soon be celebrated with a plaque.

Read about her here, first!

Tucked away just off the high street of Penryn, set away from the road behind a small square, you could pass The Old Mill House without noticing it. Yet this where one of the most remarkable women of the 20th century lived for the last 12 years of a long and very interesting life, which encompassed many of the most significant events of the twentieth century.

Violetta was born in Sussex as the eldest child of a medical doctor, in 1879, and travelled extensively with her parents and three younger brothers in her youth. She was partially educated abroad, perhaps sowing the seeds of her love for language and place, which flourished later in her life, and took her in to realms beyond that thought ‘typical’ for a woman at that time.

Thirst for knowledge and a sense of service were recurring themes in her life: as a young woman, Violetta gained her Honorary Certificate for nursing in 1905 and between 1907-1913, enrolled on distance-learning courses at the University of St Andrews, receiving awards in French, Geography and English all to Honour’s standard, and Fine Art and physiology to a pass grade. When the First World War broke out, Violetta was called up for service in the British Red Cross; she served in Belgium during and after its occupation by the German army, prior to being deported with other British nationals to Denmark, after which she voluntarily embarked on an assignment to work near the Eastern Front with the Russian Red Cross.

It is the book she wrote about her experiences in Russia at this time – Field hospital and Flying Column – which first drew me to explore Violetta’s life more closely. The Eastern Front of the First World War, where Russian troops were engaged in combat with those from the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and Bulgaria, is often displaced in UK-consciousness in favour of the geographically closer Western Front through France and Belgium, where many British soldiers fought. Yet the Eastern Front was extensive – up to 990 miles long – and the numbers of men who fought there was concomitantly large: Nik Cornish suggests there were over 2 million military deaths, and over 1.5 million civilians.

Whole back of jacket in Penryn Museum

Through her existing contacts, Violetta found a way to volunteer as a nurse in a mobile first-aid unit – the Volkonsky Flying Field Ambulance - which took her close to intense fighting in and around the frontline at Lodz. Violetta learnt enough Russian to work alongside her fellow medics and drivers, and she tended to catastrophic injuries in very challenging and often primitive conditions. The intensity of the experience drew her close to those she worked alongside, including a Russian ambulance driver, Nicholas, who she portrays as a romantic interest in her book ‘The Hounds of War Unleashed’.

Detail of jacket embroidery

Sadly, their relationship did not have time to develop; Nicholas was shot and killed while driving his ambulance near the front line, in July 1915, at around the same time that Violetta and her colleagues were awarded the St George Medal in recognition of their service in the field. Penryn Town Museum has a collection of artefacts relating to Violetta, including an embroidered jacket: I wonder if that has links to this period of her life?

After the end of the War, Violetta trained as a weaver in Sweden: maybe she had made contacts here during her stay in Denmark after being expelled from Belgium in 1914. Dedication to handcrafts was to be a pervasive theme in her life thereafter: in the early 1920s she was appointed as the Director of the Bedouin Industries for the Egyptian government, which entailed setting up and presiding over a carpet-weaving factory in the desert. Subsequently, Violetta lived in various places in the West Country – Somerset, Dartford, and Flushing most prominent among them – maintaining an active role in teaching, exhibiting and practising weaving, and published two books which are still in demand: ‘Vegetable Dyes for Beginners (1930), and 'A short history of decorative textiles' (1934).

Sample of cloth woven by Violetta Thurstan, kept at the Penryn Town Museum

At the approach of the Second World War, Violetta joined the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service (WRVS) with a brief to take responsibility for educational duties. She travelled extensively in the UK to recruit members, set up Centres, gave lectures and organised social events and – later in the war – put her talent for language to good use when she worked with the Navy to search ships entering UK waters. In 1944, Violetta enrolled with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association (UNRRA), working to help those displaced by the war – a complex task, made more difficult by the movement of national boarders at the end of the war, and the scarcity of official personal documents of those who had fled their homes. Violetta worked between Egypt, Italy, Libya and Austria, where her knowledge of the languages and cultures of these countries, gained earlier in her life, must have been extremely important. Her role with the UNRRA did not come to an end until 1948, when Violetta was in her early fifties.

By June 1966, Violetta was living at the Old Mill in Penryn with a female companion and housekeeper, Kathleen Defee, who developed a friendship with Violetta that lasted until her death. She published a novel that year, ‘The Foolish Virgin’, and continued to play a very active role in the crafting community, giving talks and tutoring courses in to her early nineties. Violetta had extensive involvement with the creation of The Dyers Garden at Probus, north of Truro, in 1976 – a garden which offered a range of plants useful for natural dyeing - but this was sadly closed in 2004. Violetta’s final talk was in March 1978, a month before she passed away.

Violetta was adept at weaving, both with her hands and with her words: her books are an evocative passage in to the past, and provide us with an insight in to both the events of the twentieth century, and Violetta’s courage to ameliorate some of the suffering that two World Wars brought to those alive at that time. A loom that she used is preserved in the Penryn Town Museum, along with some fabric that she wove, and copies of some of her books, and her house in Penryn may soon be marked with a plaque to celebrate her life. She is laid to rest in the Roman Catholic portion of Falmouth Cemetery, overlooking the sea at Swanpool, which seems appropriate: the tides are as constant, and as varied, as the history that Violetta lived through, and as timeless as her courage in the face of difficulties.

To send a token of remembrance to Violetta's resting-place in Falmouth, click here.

Books by Violetta Thurstan

  • Field Hospital and Flying Column - April 1915

  • People Who Run – Being the tragedy of the refugees of Russia – 1916

  • A text book of War Nursing – 1917

  • Vegetable Dyes for beginners - 1930

  • Weaving patterns of yesterday and today – 1930s

  • A short history of decorative textiles – 1934

  • Weaving without Tears – 1956

  • Stormy Petrel – 1964

  • The Foolish Virgin – 1966

  • The Hounds of War Unleashed - 1978.

Books about Violetta Thurstan include:

Violetta Thurstan – a Celebration. Authors: Muriel Somerfield and Ann Bellingham

Other information found at:

Nik Cornish – The Russian Army and the First World War. (Spellmount, 2006)

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