Amelia and Christina Culbard

Amelia and Christina Culbard

Amelia Jane Chisholm Culbard, born Elgin, 26 August 1860; died Elgin, 21 April 1942.

Christina Margaret Culbard, born Elgin, 19 February 1869; died Elgin, 24 March 1947.

Brought up in a comfortable well-respected family, Amelia and Christina Culbard were middle-aged spinsters by the start of the First World War. Both joined the Red Cross Society in Elgin. Amelia became a VAD Commandant and was awarded an MBE for her efforts. Christina joined the Scottish Women’s Hospital as an administrator and served with them in the front line. She resigned from the SWH and the Red Cross in 1917. Both women returned to the family home where they remained for the rest of their lives.

Amelia, who proclaimed her occupation as gardener, joined the Red Cross Society in Elgin in 1912. She was fifty-four years old when the war started and spent her VAD service in Moray. She was on the Red Cross committee in Elgin from 1915 and spent time working at the War Dressings Depot in the town.

By the end of 1915 Miss Culbard was officer in command, or commandant, of a convalescent home for Belgian officers in Spey Bay. The Spey Bay Hotel had been requisitioned in October that year and Amelia was responsible for both staff and patients. At the end of the war she remained on the council of the Moray branch of the Red Cross. For her services she was appointed an MBE.

As Amelia began her work in Spey Bay Christina enrolled in the Red Cross Society as a VAD. She immediately began service with Elsie Inglis’ Scottish Women’s Hospitals unit. She was attached to the Salonika Commission and travelled to Salonika with around seventy other women, including Dr Mary Blair, who was head of the unit. They arrived in there at the end of October 1915 expecting to be deployed around the area. They found that there was little to do and nowhere to go. Serbia was in enemy hands and the SWH there was evacuated. Dr Blair set up a reception centre for Macedonian refugees. The entire unit used their skills to look after the destitute families. It is likely that Christina’s organisational talents came to the fore in finding temporary accommodation and food for the starving people. Meanwhile the SWH’s Edinburgh committee was pondering the problem of too many people in one small area. It was agreed that Dr Blair’s unit would go to Corsica.

Christina arrived with the unit on Christmas morning. The Serbian Relief Fund welcomed the women but there were clashes about where the new hospital should be sited. Miss Culbard and Dr Blair, now the hospital’s chief medical officer, were concerned that the CMO of the island appeared to assume he was in overall charge of the SWH as well as the Relief Fund. They disregarded his plans and set up the hospital at The Villa Miot, Ajaccio, which was sited in a beautiful position on the coast. Miss Culbard was appointed administrator, in overall charge of the nurses. The equipment ordered from Britain suffered many delays; Christina set to with relish: ‘in a sort of beg and borrow picnic style…the hospital is wonderful’ she wrote to committee member Mrs Lawrie in February 1916.

Dr Blair moved to another unit fairly quickly which caused Christina to wonder if there should be a change of administrator as well. Dr Blair’s successor was Dr Mary Phillips, who was in close alliance with the Serbian Relief Fund. Christina made no secret of the fact that she disapproved of this and gathered her own cohort around her and proceeded to ‘make life hell’ for Dr Phillips. It appears that there was a power struggle between the two women over who was the head of the hospital.

According to reports to the Edinburgh committee of the SWH, Dr Phillips was thinking of resigning from the SWH altogether; her assistant Dr Jackson wrote to the committee saying that her first few weeks there had been a nightmare and many of the best nurses had left. ‘Miss Culbard’, she added, ‘seemed focussed largely on picnics and playing cards for money’.

Both women wrote regularly to members of the Edinburgh committee with their grievances; in the spring of 1917 a delegation from Edinburgh visited Corsica to assess the situation. It concluded that Miss Culbard’s allegations were without foundation and that she had ‘overstepped her powers’.

Christina left Corsica immediately and was discharged from the Red Cross Society on 24 April 1917. She returned to the family, who by this time was living at Oldmills. Christina received the King of Serbia’s St Sava’s medal for service to his country and served her own town of Elgin as a justice of the peace.

With grateful thanks to the contributors to, and editors of, Women of Moray: a celebration of the women of Moray and their contribution to history (Luath Press: Edinburgh, 2012)

Spey Bay Hotel
Spey Bay Hotel which served as a convalescent home during the First World War. Amelia Culbard was a VAD here.