A fine hospital: The Astor family and the Canadian Red Cross

What do Lady Astor, war hospitals and cut-glass containers have in common? They all intersected in England during the First World War.

In our collection, we hold a cut-glass and silver biscuit jar, formerly owned by Nursing Sister Ethel Kathleen Moody. The jar has the initial monogram of the Astor family and comes with a heartwarming back story.

Image above: Biscuit jar, cut glass and silver plate, [1914-1918]. Collections CCGW/CCGG 2015.04.07.02

When Sister Moody served with the CAMC, part of her service was at the Canadian-run HRH Duchess of Connaught Hospital, which used space on the grounds of the Astors’ English mansion property, Cliveden. The grounds of Cliveden had been temporarily given to the Canadian Red Cross by Waldorf Astor and his wife Nancy, for the building of a hospital there that existed until the end of the war.

Sister Moody writes of the Astors frequently visiting the hospital entertainments put on for the patients. When they attended, the Astors would also raffle off gifts for the staff and patients, one for the men and one for the women. Sister Morley won the biscuit jar during one of these nights, which was given to her by Nancy Astor herself. She kept the jar for nearly fifty years before it was sold to an antique dealer, and from there arrived in our collection in Montréal.

The Astor family fortune began with John Jacob Astor, who immigrated to the United States in the 18th century and is still today considered one of the wealthiest people in history. The Astors were involved in a wide variety of businesses, including real estate, and the English branch of the family held two peerages. Waldorf Astor was the American-born son of the 1st Viscount Astor; he travelled extensively before settling in England and taking up a career in politics as an MP. During the First World War he was parliamentary private secretary to Lloyd George.

Nancy Astor’s marriage to Waldorf was her second; she had been married at eighteen to a member of the Shaw family and had had a son, Robert Gould Shaw III. After her divorce, she travelled to England where she met and married Waldorf Astor. Her work at Cliveden and with the Canadian Red Cross during the war founded the basis of her own entry into politics, and Nancy Astor became one of the first female MPs, elected in 1919[1].

The HRH Duchess of Connaught Hospital was equipped by the Canadian Red Cross and provided a small nursing staff for the care of seriously injured soldiers, many of whom would not be passed as fit to return to service. The gardens at Cliveden provided extensive walking for those that could, and later in the war a graveyard was built for those who died at the hospital. Cliveden was again used as the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital during the Second World War, and the graveyard from the original hospital may still be visited. The estate is now operated as a luxury hotel and is publicly owned by the British National Heritage Foundation.

[1] The first woman MP was Constance Markievicz, elected in 1918. She was an Irish Republican and did not take her seat in protest. Nancy Astor is therefore the first woman MP to take her seat in the British Parliament.

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