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Baroness  Elizabeth Blackall  de T'Serclaes (1884–1978), by S. A. Chandler & Co., pubd 1916 [left, with Mairi Chisholm]Baroness Elizabeth Blackall de T'Serclaes (1884–1978), by S. A. Chandler & Co., pubd 1916 [left, with Mairi Chisholm]
T'Serclaes, Baroness Elizabeth Blackall de [née Elizabeth Blackall Shapter; other married name Elizabeth Blackall Knocker] (1884–1978), ambulance driver and first aider, one of the two Women of Pervyse, was born on 29 July 1884 at 1 Barnfield Crescent, Exeter, Devon, the fifth child of Lewis Shapter, physician, and his wife, Charlotte Bayly. Orphaned at an early age, Elsie, as she was known, was cared for by a maternal uncle. Privately educated, she attended finishing school at Lausanne, Switzerland, and a cookery school at Trowbridge, Wiltshire. On 5 April 1906 in Wiltshire she married Leslie Duke Knocker (b. 1874/5), an accountant, and went out to Singapore; she returned to England for the birth in 1907 of her only child, Kenneth Duke Knocker.

After parting from her husband, she trained as a nurse at the Children's Hip Hospital, Sevenoaks, Kent, and worked for a time in Java and Australia. She then trained in midwifery at Queen Charlotte's Hospital, London. About 1913 she went as housekeeper to a brother at Fordingbridge, Hampshire. With a legacy she purchased a Chater Lea motorcycle, and, nicknamed Gypsy after the club she founded, she became a leading light in the motorcycling fraternity. It was through this shared interest that she met , with whom she was to work in Belgium.

In August 1914 Elsie Knocker went to London as a dispatch rider with the Women's Emergency Corps, where she was noticed by Dr Hector Munro, founder of the Flying Ambulance Column, who invited her to join. The Flying Ambulance Column left for Belgium on 25 September. Unlike the British military authorities, the Belgians welcomed the volunteers who were based at the Belgian headquarters at La Panne. Equipped with a Wolseley ambulance, donated by the people of Sutton Coldfield, Elsie Knocker, followed shortly by Mairi Chisholm, went up to the Belgian front line at Pervyse.

Elsie Knocker early realized that many of the wounded being transported were dying unnecessarily because the effects of clinical shock were not treated quickly. She was one of the first volunteers to recognize that giving the wounded basic first aid before moving them increased their chances of survival (‘Mairi Chisholm’, Yesterday's Witness). With Dr Munro's support, she got Belgian agreement to set up a forward first-aid post in the partly ruined Cellar House of Pervyse on the front line. She left a graphic account of her work in the diaries she kept at the time (later deposited in the Imperial War Museum).

The work of the Cellar House attracted considerable publicity. The enterprise was accorded celebrity status, which Elsie Knocker rather enjoyed, and this contributed to the rapid breakdown in relations with Dr Munro. Not a woman to mince her words, Knocker described him as an ‘idiot’, adding, for good measure, ‘I simply loathe him’ (diaries, 1 Nov 1914). Disgusted and disturbed by what she regarded as major failings of leadership and organization, she increasingly sought support from the Belgian authorities and from friends among senior British and Belgian officers. After spending Christmas 1914 in England, she returned to the Cellar House and on 31 January 1915 was appointed chevalier of the order of Leopold by King Albert of the Belgians. This award brought to a head the personality clash between Mrs Knocker and Dr Munro and effectively ended their association. Thereafter, the Cellar House distanced itself from the Flying Ambulance Column (ibid., 31 Jan 1915).

In April 1916 Elsie Knocker married a Belgian pilot, Baron Harold de T'Serclaes (d. 1919). The baroness continued her work until early 1918, when a gas attack during the final German offensive forced the evacuation of the Cellar House and her return to England. Contemporary photographs show her in the uniform of veil, long coat, breeches, and knee-length boots that she designed; she was a striking woman of above average height, with dark hair and strong, well-defined features. The two Women of Pervyse treated some 23,000 casualties in nearly four years at the front. The baroness finished the war as an officer in the newly formed Women's Royal Air Force.

With the war ended, the baroness's life seemed to lose direction. Widowed in 1919, she tried several jobs, charity work with former servicemen, setting up a small business, driving, and housekeeping on country estates. During the general strike of 1926 she ran a medical post in Poplar in the East End of London. When war broke out in September 1939 she joined the reformed Women's Auxiliary Air Force, as an assistant section officer, but resigned shortly after her son, an RAF wing commander, was killed in action over Holland on 3 July 1942. She later worked for the RAF Association in Epsom, Surrey, and from 1949 to 1959 for the RAF Benevolent Fund.

In 1964 Baroness de T'Serclaes emerged from obscurity with the publication of her memoirs, Flanders and Other Fields. The book reveals little of her life before 1914 and is less than generous in its mention of the enormous contribution made by Mairi Chisholm at Pervyse. Ironically, given her strength of character and flair for publicity, T'Serclaes remains an enigma. Hers was a character brought sharply into focus in time of war, yet one that seems curiously diminished and lacking focus in time of peace. That she herself was aware of this contradiction is clear in her summing up of her life:
I have always had to make my own way, I have been lonely, and I still am. But for all my feeling of deprivation, I do not despair. This life of mine has been a bungled affair. Only in time of war have I found any real sense of purpose and happiness. (T'Serclaes, 213)
In 1977 the baroness was featured in the Imperial War Museum's exhibition ‘Women at War, 1914–1918’, where her diaries and medals, including the Military Medal awarded on 10 October 1917, were shown. She also featured in an episode of the BBC television series Yesterday's Witness, broadcast that same year. She died aged ninety-four in a nursing home at 1 West Park Road, Epsom, from bronchopneumonia on 26 April 1978 and was cremated at Randalls Park crematorium, Leatherhead, Surrey, on 4 May.

Diana Condell and Jean Liddiard

Sources  

E. de T'Serclaes, Flanders and other fields (1964) · E. Knocker, diaries, 1914–18, IWM · The Times (6 May 1978) · D. Condell and J. Liddiard, Working for victory: images of women in the First World War, 1914–18 (1987) · ‘Mairi Chisholm’, Yesterday's witness, BBC, 1977, IWM FVA [television programme] · b. cert. · m. certs. · d. cert.

Archives  

IWM, MSS |  IWM, Chisholm MSS; Women's Work collection  

FILM

 

IWM, film archive

 

SOUND

 

IWM SA, interview Miss M. Chisholm of Chisholm MM


Likenesses  

H. Nicholls, photograph, c.1915, IWM · S. A. Chandler & Co., photograph, pubd 1916, NPG [see illus.] · photograph, c.1917, IWM