Monday, 24 November 2014

Hunting Geoffrey Moulson

 A nurse portrayed in Vera Brittain’s classic WW1 work Testament of Youth turns out to be the elder sister of a former RAMC officer painted by Budleigh artist Joyce Dennys. 

Local journalist Eleanor Pipe wrote recently about Budleigh artist Joyce Dennys. Illustrated with paintings ranging from wartime posters to amusing street scenes, her article was published in the Journal on 16 October 2014 and was read with much interest.

Fairlynch Museum has many of Joyce Dennys’ paintings on display. There are also folders cataloguing her works, both art and writings.

In the Fairlynch folder’s section on oil on board figurative paintings, no 21 is described as ‘Old man on bench with basket’.


This painting, identical in every detail to the photo in the Fairlynch catalogue, was recently sold on the open market. Described as ‘A portrait of Geoffrey Moulson, widower, resting with his basket of shopping at Lion House’,  it was bought by a private collector according to the article in the Journal.

A cursory search of The London Gazette via the internet showed that a Geoffrey Moulson was gazetted as Lieutenant with effect from 1 January 1917. A later announcement in a supplement to The London Gazette of 5 September identifies him as a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

I’m not really into all that serious family tree research but learning about the Great War has been an eye-opening experience. By now I was intrigued.  Joyce Dennys is noteworthy not only as the writer of Henrietta’s War but as the creator of the famous WW1 recruitment poster for VAD nurses.

A glance at the British Military Lists website showed me that Geoffrey Moulson was born on 17 February 1892, making him just a year older than the Budleigh artist and writer. 

Were they friends? Did he live in Budleigh? Had he come across Tom Evans, Joyce Dennys’ husband and the town’s GP, through their shared experience with the RAMC during World War One?

While searching the net, I found Geoffrey Moulson’s name mentioned on the useful RootsChat website by a researcher in Australia who wanted to know more about him. Geoffrey, it seems, had had a distinguished medical career, having been a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and was quoted by the Australian researcher as a Colonel in the RAMC.

He’d studied Medicine at St Thomas’ Hospital in London before war broke out. At an early stage of the conflict,  he had evidently volunteered, serving in France and Belgium from 2 November to 23 December 2014 and being awarded the 1914 Star medal.  One comment on RootsChat was that during this time he served as a dresser with the Number 6 Red Cross Hospital at Boulogne.


Doctors placing a patient's broken thigh in traction at a base hospital during World War One
Image credit: Imperial War Museum Q 33472

According to the Red Cross website, this hospital was actually at Etaples. There is conflicting information about the location of Number 6 Red Cross Hospital. It was a mobile unit funded by Liverpool Chamber of Commerce - it was known as the Liverpool Merchants' Mobile Hospital - and was not set up until April 1915, when it was based temporarily at Le Touquet-Paris-Plage on the French coast near Boulogne.


In whichever hospital in Northern France he was based at this time, Geoffrey Moulson would have found himself at the forefront of theories about the treatment of wounds in the early days of the Great War. In a 1996 article by Elinor Meynell published in the British Medical Journal the author drew attention to the role of  the celebrated bacteriologist Sir Almoth Wright, seen above,  and the need for pathological investigation of wound infection. Wright had set up a laboratory at the 13th General Hospital in Boulogne; his staff included Alexander Fleming, the future discoverer of penicillin.

But back to Geoffrey Moulson. His University of London OTC war record gave some useful information. However, following his stint at a hospital in Northern France in 1914 I found no information about his war service until he’s recorded as an officer in Mesopotamia from August 1916 until June 1917. What had happened during the two-year gap, I wondered. Had he been wounded?

At some stage he may have returned to Britain. His surname is listed on a photo dated 2 January 1918, showing the RAMC England football team - a real find via RootsChat. There was, it seems an RAMC international charity match between England and Scotland. The RAMC had a large facility during World War One at the Lancashire Military Convalescent Hospital, Blackpool, and the photo was taken by a Blackpool photographer.

That was followed by a spell in India, where he remained until December 1919.  But he seems to have remained with the RAMC, being listed as a Major on 15 July 1928.   

The Ancestry site lists a Geoffrey Moulson born in about 1892 in Kent and living in Hampshire. His mother was Lydia. Now I don’t subscribe to Ancestry. I believe in making information free of charge to my readers, though I suppose that the Ancestry site has to be maintained. But it does seem to charge rather a lot for membership.

However I’m grateful on this occasion to Ancestry because by chance I’d been reading about Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth and had come across the name of Faith Moulson. “I wonder...” I thought to myself.

Sure enough, according to Ancestry, Faith Moulson, born in about 1886, had a mother called Lydia and lived in Hampshire.

According to the National Archives,  Faith Moulson was a Reserve Sister with Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service at the British Red Cross Society Hospital.  As Sister in charge of the ward for German prisoners in the hospital at Etaples, Northern France, she was one of the two nursing sisters with whom Vera Brittain worked. She would later be portrayed as Hope Milroy in Brittain’s classic WW1 work Testament of Youth.               

If Joyce Dennys completed her painting in the year of Geoffrey Moulson’s death it seems that it was a fitting tribute from an artist who, like Vera Brittain, had played her own role in the medical history of the Great War.

If anyone out there can help to fill in the gaps in Geoffrey Moulson’s life I’d love to hear from them.

‘The Great War at Fairlynch’ 2015 exhibition at Budleigh Salterton’s very special museum! Reviews included: “Wonderful display on WW1, informative, bright and relevant. Well done!! 



  1. I came across this while researching Faith Moulson and other members of the family - many thanks for the link to the RAMC. Another sister, Muriel, also served as a trained nurse in France during the First World War as a member of the Territorial Force Nursing Service. Geoffrey has a very long entry in 'Drew's Medical Officers in the British Army 1660-1960' and served through two World Wars and retired on March 1st 1954 with the rank of Colonel. Happy to send it if of any use.

  2. Many thanks Sue. Yes, please. Do send the Drews's Medical Officers entry to me via email: Geoffrey Moulson seesm to have lived at Sidbury, near Sidmouth. I must go grave-hunting.

  3. very interesting to read this article as Geoffrey Moulson was my great grandfather, You may have spoken to my aunt, Muff Dudgeon with regards to the grave hunting in sidbury.

  4. Yes, indeed. Muff contacted me out of the blue. I think I need to complete another part of the story, or maybe I have already somewhere. Essentially, it is that Faith Moulson ended up living in Exeter before moving to a nursing home in Exmouth. A blue plaque in Exmouth records the fact that Vera Brittain stayed in a hotel nearby: I wonder whether she was visiting her old friend. Another curious link: Joyce Dennys great-great-grandson Kit Harington had a star role in the recent remake of Testament of Youth. I wonder whether he realised the link. Possibly not.