Wilhelmina Lee was born on 22nd December 1877, the youngest daughter and thirteenth of fourteen children, including two sets of twins, to William and Caroline Lee of Randleholme, which was a farm of 1,000 acres.
Together with her brothers and sisters, Wilhelmina attended the Sunday School and the Confirmation Classes run by Wilhelmina Martha James, the daughter of the Reverend Octavius James, vicar of Kirkhaugh Church who lived at nearby Clargyhll Hall. Wilhelmina Martha James was a prolific authoress under the nom-de-plume of ‘Austin Clare.’ It’s highly likely that Wilhelmina Lee was named after her.
By the time she was in her twenties Wilhelmina, like so many other young ladies of her class, had no need to work; she had no occupation and was expected to simply wait around until she got married. But Wilhelmina was made of more determined stuff and in 1906 at the age of 29 she went to Cumberland Infirmary to train as a nurse.
At the end of her training, on 21st December 1910 she was given a letter and a certificate for her work in ‘Private Nursing,’ her work and her conduct had been excellent. Straight away she went to Bristol Royal Infirmary to specialise in midwifery, after which she moved to Edinburgh where she held “a very lucrative position.”
Soon after the outbreak of war in August 1914 she offered her services to Lady Wemyss of Wemyss Castle, who had set up a voluntary field hospital to nurse wounded French soldiers near Compiegne in France.
From the hospital, which was housed in a chateau, Wilhelmina wrote letters home telling of her experiences that were published in the local press. She was one of thirty nurses and she became sister in charge. She wrote that her ward had twenty cases, all surgical, many with septicaemia, which was no surprise because the soldiers often had to wait for twenty-four hours in their muddy, bloody uniforms before they received attention.
Back in Alston in the summer of 1915 a Roll of Honour was placed in the Post Office window, the list of names included ‘Nurse Lee, Hospital DU, France.’
The voluntary hospital closed shortly afterwards and Lady Wemyss wrote references for her nurses. Wilhelmina’s read:
30th September 1915, The Wemyss Hospital
Miss W. Lee has been with me since Dec. the 7th & has been in my Hospital at Le Fayel until it closed on the 28th of this month.
I am more than grateful to her for the way in which she has worked all the time she has been with me.
Wilhelmina immediately joined Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve that sent her to Salonika to nurse the British Expeditionary Force in the Balkans, and where, by coincidence, Wilhelmina Martha James and her sister Mabel were working as volunteers for the Red Cross. On her way out Wilhelmina Lee was stationed temporarily at Alexandria in Egypt, where she had the opportunity to do the things that tourists do, and was photographed with fellow nurses on camel-back.
In May 1918 with the war still raging, Wilhelmina returned to England where, after a month’s rest in Alston, she was appointed to work as a Staff Nurse in the Royal Victoria (Military) Hospital at Netley near Southampton. Then on 25th June the Penrith Observer reported,
“ALSTON: Miss Mina Lee, Park House, and formerly of Randleholme, has been officially mentioned for gallant conduct and distinguished services by the Commander-in-Chief of the Salonika Force.”
In the meantime ‘Welcome Home’ associations had been set up on Alston Moor for returning soldiers. Their names are often reported in the papers but there was no mention of the nurses. However, Wilhelmina was recognised at the highest level in the country when,
“Staff Sister Wilhelmina Lee had the honour of being presented to his Majesty at an Investiture held at Buckingham Palace, where she was decorated with the Royal Red Cross for services rendered during the war. She was afterwards received by Queen Alexandra at Marlborough House, and presented with a signed photograph and a book.”
After the war Wilhelmina continued her training until, on 28th October 1921, the General Nursing Council for England and Wales awarded her the title of ‘Registered Nurse.’ A note on the back of her certificate says that she nursed again during the Second World War, when she would have been in her mid to late sixties, but nothing of this service is known.
Wilhelmina Lee retired to the village of Skinburness on the Cumbrian coast near Silloth, and when she became frail she moved to a home in Wigton where she died in 1975, just short of her ninety-eighth birthday.
(For Wilhelmina’s letters, see ‘Alston Moor and the Great War’ by Alastair Robertson, on sale at the Post Office and the T.I.C. and to borrow from the library.)