The Littleport Button Tree
The Littleport Button Tree project
Field Theatre Group
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I am a contributing artist on the Button Tree project.
I created the textile Button Tree with volunteers from the community, and this is my story.
It all started when I broke one of our plates at home.
I was fond of them and when I saw a replacement for sale I sent off for it. The plate came wrapped in newspaper.
(I always save newspaper, because as an artist, I never know when I might need some!) I was folding up the paper when a news article caught my eye.
Pearls for Heroes, ran the headline, and the story was illustrated with a photograph of a very beautiful and grand-looking lady. I was intrigued, so I sat down to read it.
In 1918 Lady Northcliffe wife of Alfred Harmsworth
(Lord Northcliffe, founder of the Daily Mail) appealed for women to donate pearls from their necklaces to raise money for wounded troops. The donated pearls were to be formed into a new string, which would be sold to support the British Red Cross. It soon proved to be one of the most successful fundraising campaigns of World War I.
In 1918 Britain was a nation in grief, and Britain’s prospects of winning the war had never looked bleaker. Countless mothers, wives and girlfriends who had waved off their loved ones would never see them return. Among these was Mary Northcliffe. Lady Northcliffe and her husband were childless, but they had four nephews who they loved like sons. All were killed in action.
Fired by the need of the nation’s women to bear their losses with pride, Mary came up with a plan. She asked women to donate a pearl from their precious necklaces to raise funds for the British Red Cross. It proved to be one of the most successful fundraising campaigns of World War I.
The appeal raised £94,044 (£5 million at today’s values). Among the first women to give a pearl was Queen Alexandra the Queen Mother. Another extraordinary donation was made by Noël Leslie, Countess of Rothes.
The pearl that Noël gave was from a necklace she had worn as a passenger aboard the Titanic! As the ship ploughed into the iceberg on that fateful night in 1912, she dressed in her warmest fur coat and grabbed her pearls, before clambering into a lifeboat. She explained to the sailor in charge of the craft that her husband owned a yacht ‘so she knew how to take a tiller and row'!
And now to my connection to this pearl story.
I never met my mother-in-law Josephine Robinson. She died before I met my husband. She worked in a specialised branch of the jewellery business. Josephine was a ‘pearl stringer.’ And she worked at the top of the tree. She carried out restoration work for the Victoria & Albert museum, and for the 70th anniversary of V. E. day.
When I got married I inherited her workbox containing pearls and other tools of her trade. I have used these to create a pearl cluster in commemoration of Josephine, Lady Northcliffe and all those who sacrificed their lives in the Great War.
Pearls for Heroes