This month we are sharing the story of Bridget Talbot, a political campaigner, inventor and World War One VAD nurse. She spent her life channelling her energy, innovative mind-set and influence into addressing injustices.
Bridget Elizabeth Talbot was born in January 1885, at Little Gaddesden in Hertfordshire. Her father, Alfred Talbot, was the youngest son of the 18th Earl of Shrewsbury and her mother, Emily de Grey, was the eldest daughter of Lord Walsingham. As the daughter of aristocracy, Bridget lived a privileged life alongside her three siblings, Humphrey (1883-1944), Geoffrey (1888–1916), and Kathleen (1893-1958). Although Bridget was not born in North Yorkshire, she had familial connections to the county through Kiplin Hall, a Jacobean country house located between Northallerton and Richmond. Kiplin Hall was owned by Bridget’s paternal uncle, Admiral Walter Carpenter, and the family would enjoy regularly visiting Kiplin throughout Bridget’s childhood.
Bridget’s mother, Emily was a creative influence on her family. She spent much of her time photographing the family and their outings, including at Kiplin Hall, and creating scrap books. Scrapbooking is something that Bridget continued throughout her life. Bridget was an all-round creative thinker, writing poetry and plays, drawing and painting. In her younger years, Bridget helped to edit and compile the Talbots’ own family magazine, The Cadogaddesden Gazette.
We spoke with Susan Lay, room steward volunteer at Kiplin Hall, who notes that despite the Talbot children’s idyllic childhood, the children were nonetheless made aware of those less better off than themselves, through running soup kitchens and making clothes for poor families.
It was perhaps these experiences that led Bridget to pursue a career in politics and helping others. As Sarah Mayhew Craddock, curator at Kiplin Hall stated:
“Miss Talbot could quite conceivably have lived out her days enjoying a comfortable, convivial, upper middle-class existence. Perhaps she may have concentrated her efforts on pursuing her creative talents alone; however, something propelled Miss Talbot into the political arena from an early age.”
Role in World War One
At the outbreak of World War One, Bridget was 29 years old. By this stage she had already begun campaigning for causes including road safety and providing help for the unemployed. Bridget continued supporting others throughout the war, including setting up an allotment scheme in her home village of Little Gaddesden. Bridget also volunteered for the Red Cross, and in 1914 she became a VAD nurse (Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse), and housed injured soldiers at Kiplin Hall.
During World War One, Bridget also travelled to the Austrian-Italian front line to care for soldiers; Susan Lay describes her day to day work:
“The task of the nurses there was to receive the trains of wounded soldiers, address their needs and arrange their transfer to base hospitals. The trains usually carried about 500 men, fifty thousand men passed through in just six months.”
The mountainous terrain and extreme climate worsened soldiers’ injuries. As recognition of her work during the war, Bridget was awarded the Italian Croce di Guerra and the OBE for her war service. After the war she went on to work with refugees in Turkey and Russia.
A life saving invention
Bridget had a lifelong passion for the sea, and in 1934 she fulfilled her dream and sailed on a four-masted windjammer vessel from Cork to Finland. Bridget thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and her journey sparked a desire to improve the safety of sailors. It led her to invent a watertight torch that could be used to rescue naval crew and boats, especially at night. Believing so strongly in her design, Bridget campaigned for several years for her invention to be recognised. Bridget’s persistence paid off, and eventually the torch was made a compulsory addition to all life belts for men serving in the Navy and the Royal Air Force. Her invention saved hundreds of lives during World War Two.
Sarah Mayhew Craddock, curator at Kiplin Hall quotes an extract from a letter to Bridget which shows how important her invention was for saving lives at sea:
“While serving in the Channel in 1943 a Norwegian destroyer was blown up. We picked up the survivors – over 100 – and believe me, we would never have seen them except for the little red lights.”
In 1931 Bridget joined the National Labour Party. Later she ran in elections as a Liberal candidate for Bermondsey in 1950, and as an independent candidate for Richmond in the 1964 general election.
The fight to save Kiplin Hall
By the 1930s, Kiplin Hall had fallen into disrepair. Bridget’s paternal uncle, Admiral Walter Carpenter had inherited Kiplin Hall in 1868, and his daughter, Sarah Carpenter inherited the Kiplin estate in 1904. Sarah and her husband, Christopher Hatton Turner had no children to pass on the estate to, and as such, Sarah sold most of the associated land and property. As a result, there was little income to maintain the hall, and it had started to decline. After already successfully saving the Ashridge estate near her home in Hertfordshire, in 1937 it was agreed that Bridget would buy Kiplin Hall and its furniture from Sarah for £5000. Susan Lay commented that Bridget was a wise choice due to “her affection for Kiplin, which was deeply rooted in her childhood memories but she was also experienced in attempts to save historic buildings”.
Bridget tried many different avenues to save Kiplin, including trying to spark the interest of the National Trust, as she had with the Ashridge estate. The National Trust remained uninterested, and in 1953 she wrote a pageant called ‘Farewell to Kiplin’ which was repeated in 1960 and 1963. She believed it was important to gather local community support and did her best to motivate others to join her campaign.
In 1968, Bridget made the decision to form a Kiplin Hall Trust, with the aim of preserving the history and beauty of the hall for future generations. Miss Bridget Elizabeth Talbot died at Kiplin Hall in 1971 leaving the contents of the house, including many of her personal and creative possessions to the Trustees. Bridget had fulfilled her goal to save Kiplin Hall, and as a result of her fierce determination, the hall still stands today as a well-loved North Yorkshire tourist attraction. As Kiplin Hall curator, Sarah Mayhew Craddock states, “it was clear that Bridget was emotionally attached to Kiplin, and to the north of England, and its people, in general”.
We would like to thank the staff and volunteers at Kiplin Hall for their help and co-operation, and for sharing their knowledge and stories of Bridget Talbot with us.
If you would like to find out more about Bridget Talbot and the Kiplin estate, details of the Kiplin Hall estate collection (Ref: ZBL) can be found on our online catalogue.
Kiplin Hall ran an exhibition, ‘The Creative Life of Bridget Talbot’, in 2020.
Please see the Kiplin Hall website for more details about the hall and current opening hours and exhibitions.
You can also listen to Kiplin’s past curator, Dawn Webster, speak about Miss Talbot in this episode of A Kiplin Treasury: