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Vera Brittain - Famous Derbyshire People

Vera Brittain

Reading Vera Brittain’s haunting biographical book “Testament of Youth” about her early life and experiences of the First World War, one gets a rather stuffy picture of life in provincial Buxton in the first part of the 20th Century.

Her father was a well-off industrial man who moved his family to Buxton in 1904 when Vera was 11 years old.  He reasoned that by moving to Buxton, Vera and her brother Edward could attend “good” day schools.  Edward’s was a small prep school with a “vigorous Buxton man” as head-teacher and hers “a school for the daughters’ of Gentlemen”.  Not long after Vera started her school, a new principal arrived with a degree from Cheltenham - considered a remarkable qualification for Buxton in those days.

Initially, the family lived at a house called “High Leigh” on the Manchester Road, moving in 1907 to “Melrose”, on Park Road - a large, comfortable Edwardian house which still stands next to tennis courts. It was a very genteel existence; long lawns, games of tennis, servants - and, as Vera got older, there was the round of hunt balls and various dances at the Peak Hydro.

It sounds idyllic but for Vera, it was a stifling existence; she was sent away to school in Surrey as she got older and then graduated to Oxford.  As her views broadened she resented the provincial snobberies and alien atmosphere of the town she called Derbyshire’s “Mountain Spa”, describing the heather clad hills surrounding the town as the walls of a prison.

As WW1 broke out, her brother joined the Sherwood Foresters and she herself joined First Aid and Home Nursing classes; a hotel in Spring Gardens became the Red Cross supply depot.  In 1915 she began nursing at The Devonshire Hospital; the building, originally built as a riding school, did not make for an easy life.  The domed feature, (still with us and now part of the University of Derby) was used for convalescing patients and the nurses were not allowed to cross its diameter, having instead to run around the ¼ mile long outer edge for anything forgotten or newly needed.

Some months after this, Vera joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) and was then enrolled as a fully fledged member of the Red Cross. Knowing her views on Buxton society, there must have been a lightness in her step as she went off to Millers Dale station to catch the London train, on her way to work at Camberwell General Hospital.  Her relief being short-lived however, when her fiancé, Roland Leighton was killed in action just before Christmas 1915.

There were war-time visits home, but her ties with Buxton were almost at an end.  In 1916 she went to Malta as a VAD, just after her brother was awarded the MC, but returned the following year to be close to one of her brother’s best friends who had been blinded at the front.  Sadly, he died a short time after she arrived; Vera learnt of the death of another of their close friends just before she left Malta, so was grieving as she arrived back in England.

Her brother Edward was by now on the Western Front and she had a desire to be as close to him as possible, so requested to be drafted there also.  She was sent to Etaples, France, in the summer of 1917 where she was exposed to the full horror of war - finding it particularly awkward when it came to treating German prisoners.

The tragedy continues for the Brittain family when Edward was killed in Italy in 1918 - his name is inscribed on Buxton’s War Memorial, although strangely, his MC was not added until 1980.

After the war, Vera moved away from Buxton permanently; she became a life-long pacifist, feminist, journalist, public speaker, novelist and poet.  She is best remembered for her book “Testament of Youth” however - written to try and help her to cope with those tragic war-time experiences - and published in 1933.  Her other claim to fame of course, is that she is the mother of the Right Honourable Shirley Williams - one of the founder members of the SDP and now Baroness Williams of Crosby.  Vera Brittain died in 1970.

Simon Corble