‘Sapper’ Dorothy Lawrence: A forgotten Wiltshire Heroine


In June 1915 Dorothy Lawrence boarded a boat bound for France armed with a bicycle and a notepad. With little money in her pocket and a vague promise from the editor of the Times, she had one thing on her mind: to establish herself as the first female war correspondent. This astonishing story of ambition, bravery and cross-dressing ultimately cost Dorothy both her sanity and her freedom.

Despite publishing an account of her experiences in 1919, Dorothy has remained relatively unknown: until now. This article has been written by Lizzie Crarer, whose theatre production ‘Over the Top: the true-life tale of Dorothy Lawrence’ will tour to venues in the southwest in spring 2016. When Lizzie began her research last year, she discovered that Dorothy had a previously unexplored connection with Salisbury. The following article is based on Dorothy’s account of her experiences, and on Lizzie’s own research over the past year and a half.

In the summer of 1901, newly-orphaned teenage Dorothy Lawrence was sent to live at no 31 The Close with her appointed guardian, the wealthy and well-respected Mrs Josephine Fitzgerald. Up until that point, Dorothy had enjoyed a rather unconventional existence with her mother in London. As a single parent in Edwardian society, Dorothy’s mother was unusual to say the least. Therefore an education at one of the numerous small private girls’ schools in Salisbury would have been a radical change for young Dorothy. But whatever the difficulties of those teenage years, Dorothy later came to refer to ‘that dear old Cathedral city’ with affection, and her links with the city and its inhabitants continued to exert an influence on her life.

By 1911 Dorothy had returned in London, eking a living as a journalist. The radical tactics of the suffragette movement were everywhere challenging perceptions of what women could do and be. But despite this atmosphere of empowerment, Dorothy’s status as a woman severely limited her career prospects. Although she contributed regularly to Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine and to the Times newspaper, she would not have been allowed her own by-line, and her journalistic work remained limited to light entertainment stories and showbusiness interviews. When war broke out in 1914, Dorothy spied an opportunity.

“I’ll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money can accomplish. I’ll see what I can manage as a war correspondent!”

She marched up and down Fleet Street, knocking on the door of every publication she could find with her unusual proposition – and was laughed out of every establishment except one. On the vague pretext of further entertainment reportage, Dorothy managed to persuade the editor of the Times newspaper to help her to procure a passport to get across the Channel to Paris. She sweet-talked a courier into smuggling her bicycle onto the boat, and on midsummer’s day 1915 she set out for France.

As soon as she arrived Dorothy left Paris and headed for the smaller town of Creil in search of a story. A young woman travelling alone, she was greeted with curiosity and amusement by the large numbers of bored troops waiting to be deployed. She appears to have spent a considerable amount of time hanging around in coffee shops, getting by with a smattering of French and trying to avoid misunderstandings with the soldiers who assumed that she was ‘out for love’. After about six weeks she became tired of the monotonous reality of war behind the lines. She made a resolution: ‘to get into the thick of it – right to the front of the front’. She packed up her bicycle and headed back to Paris.

Upon arrival it became clear that she needed to come up with a new plan if she was to accomplish her aims. Her gender and youth restricted where she could go and the information she could access. She soon realised that she would only be able to get the story she wanted if she undertook a radical transformation. She set about enlisting her ‘little army’ of soldiers, whom she variously persuaded to crop her hair, forge her papers and find her uniform. Newly transformed, ‘Private Denis Smith’ set out on an illegal journey right into the heart of the fighting.

Sleeping in ditches, forests and even haystacks ‘Denis’ made her way closer to the thundering enemy fire. A narrow escape from a suspicious Gendarme in Amiens Cathedral sent her off course, and she ended up on the outskirts of the frontline town of Albert. The skyline of the town was dominated by the shadow of a statue of the Virgin Mary – which the Germans had taken to using for target practice. The Virgin now hung precariously at a 90 degree angle, and the locals held that when she fell so would the town.

Dorothy’s disguise was incomplete, and a half-dressed woman presented an easy target for battle-toughened soldiers who hadn’t seen a member of the opposite sex in weeks. Shortly after her arrival in Albert, Dorothy was forced to hide in a flea-bitten dugout in order to escape unwanted male attention. Only one soldier, Lancastrian Sapper Tom Dunn, objected to her treatment and took pity on her. He brought her food and water, and after some persuading, finally agreed to take her on a night shift with him. However, ten days into her stay in Albert, Dorothy began to suffer fainting fits. Afraid of causing problems for Tom and the others who had helped her, she turned herself in.

She was immediately arrested and removed to relative safety of the Third Army headquarters, where she was tried and cross-examined by no fewer than 6 British generals. No-one knew what to make of her: she was neither ‘camp follower’ nor spy, and the men who interrogated her could not understand her motivations for making the treacherous journey to the heart of the fighting. With the Battle of Loos imminent, it was decided that she should be detained to prevent her from passing on sensitive information that might compromise the British position. Dorothy was sent to a convent in St Omer where she was to spend 2 weeks before at last obtaining permission to return to England.

In October Dorothy finally arrived back in London to face homelessness, unemployment and secrecy. Upon arrival in Folkestone, she was required to sign an agreement for the DORA forbidding her from relating her experiences. As a journalist who made a living by her pen this was a disaster. In later letters she relates how she drafted a book in the months following her return, but burnt it in desperation shortly after. Her physical health went into decline due to ‘septic poisoning’ contracted from dirty water in Albert; and her mental health suffered too. She later writes of a ‘nervous complaint’ that caused her to shake so much that she ‘could not easily hold a pen’. These symptoms were perhaps the initial manifestations of an illness that, unchecked and misunderstood, was to consume her.

Dorothy’s whereabouts during the rest of the war have remained something of a mystery. But some new evidence has recently come to light that suggests an answer. Below are two photographs: the first is an image of Josephine Fitzgerald, Dorothy’s guardian (image provided with kind permission The Salisbury Cathedral School). The second image shows a group of wealthy ladies who lived in the Salisbury Cathedral Close, dressed for some kind of voluntary war work (image provided with kind permission of Sonia Jacob). The woman standing second from the left bears a strong likeness to the image of Josephine Fitzgerald. And the young woman on the far left with a ‘buxom’ figure, an uncomfortable gaze and suspiciously short hair seems to resemble Dorothy. It is entirely plausible that, returning to London with fragile health and without a home or employment prospects, Dorothy would choose to seek refuge with her wealthy guardian in the relative security and comfort of ‘that dear old Cathedral city’.

But something happened between Dorothy and Josephine that led to an irreconcilable rift. By the end of the war Dorothy had moved back to London, hell-bent on finishing her book and getting it published. In doing so, she was keenly aware that she was ‘incurring the risk of personal reputation’. In the tight-knit and traditional community of the Salisbury Cathedral Close, ‘personal reputation’ would have been paramount. It is possible that Dorothy was suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress following her experiences in northern France. Unwell and unable to explain her symptoms to those around her, she eventually confessed everything to Josephine – along with her intention to publish her story. Josephine offered Dorothy an ultimatum, and Dorothy resolved to return to London and go it alone. One thing is for plain: when Josephine died she left money to numerous ‘godchildren’ – but nothing to Dorothy.

By April 1918 Dorothy was living in Islington and had re-drafted the book in spite of the official injunctions against her doing so. Perhaps she obtained permission from the authorities, or perhaps it was an act of deliberate disobedience: either way, by the end of that year she had secured a publishing deal with John Lane Publishers. The war was over and she could at last tell her story. The book was released in mid-1919 to mediocre reviews. The Spectator described it as ‘a girlish freak’, related in ‘circumstantial detail’. By the mid-1920s the book had been all but forgotten, and Dorothy’s psychiatric condition had deteriorated.

In 1925 Dorothy was admitted to Hanwell Lunatic Asylum. She was ‘difficult to interrogate’ and had no surviving family to support her or intervene on her behalf. Her only friend is named as Mrs Josephine Fitzgerald of 52 the Close, Salisbury. Whatever had happened between them in those war years, in Dorothy’s moment of need she turned to her old guardian. But Josephine never made contact, and she died shortly afterwards. Nowhere in Dorothy’s medical records are any other visitors mentioned at any point during what was to be a 40-year incarceration. Dorothy is buried in an unmarked grave in north London, and her story has been all but forgotten.

The Heroine Project Presents is a new theatre company that aims to give a voice to women from history who have been overlooked or misrepresented. In this First World War centenary year, we are making our first piece of theatre about this extremely brave but forgotten heroine.

‘Over the Top: the true-life tale of Dorothy Lawrence’ will feature two performers and an original score, and will be touring to venues in the southwest in March/April 2016.

Further details can be found on The Heroine Project Presents website.

If you have any further information that might shed light on the mystery surrounding Dorothy’s years spent in Salisbury, please contact Heroine Project Presents director Lizzie Crarer:

heroineprojectpresents@gmail.com


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