Writer and local small business owner Elaine Pritchard has completed the first draft of a play about a woman she believes was Burton’s greatest home front hero of World War One.
Lily Thomas was a 39-year-old widow living in Stapenhill with her four-year-old daughter when war broke out in 1914. She was touched by the plight of five local men taken prisoner early in the war who had sent letters back to their loved ones asking for food.
After getting the names of the men and the prison camps they were in, she sent them five shillings each so they could buy hot water, milk, vegetables and other goods sold in the camp canteens. She did this for a few months. Eventually, the men wrote to say that the money had lost its value and the goods were too expensive to buy. So, Lily, and a small band of volunteers she had recruited, switched to sending each man a fortnightly food parcel. As the number of prisoners from Burton grew, so did Lily’s Burton Prisoners of War Fund.
Food parcels saved lives
By the end of the war, in 1918, she’d sent out 25,750 parcels to hundreds of Burton prisoners. A remarkable 90% reached their destination – although some took longer than others. Many men told her the parcels had literally saved their lives. Yet, today many people in our town have never heard of her.
Elaine explained how she first heard Lily’s story from local historian Malcolm Goode: “Malcolm has written some excellent articles about Lily in the Burton Mail, but as someone born and bred in Burton I’d never heard about her anywhere else.
“I was captivated by the story of this determined woman, the battles she fought with red tape and the ingenuity she used to stay really well-informed about what was really happening in the prison camps. Families across Burton came to her first for news of their loved ones. They knew she’d hear through her network of contacts before the official sources.
No official honours for Lily
“Her voice just leaps off the page when you read the letters and columns she had published by the Burton Mail and the book she self-published after the war. I knew I had to find a way to share her story.
“It was shocking to learn that she didn’t receive any official recognition for her years of vital service and sacrifice on the home front. There was a local reception thrown for her in the town after soldiers were repatriated. But when others around the UK were being put forward for newly-created honours such as the OBE, Lily’s name was never mentioned.
“Malcolm and I both suspect that her forthright, outspoken attitude was unpopular with the authorities – and possibly viewed as unfeminine and unbecoming. This was an era when suffragettes were still fighting for the vote and their activism was seen by many as an unnatural threat to society. Maybe Lily was viewed in the same way?”
Elaine is working on plans for her play to be performed in Burton and we’ll keep you informed about that. Meanwhile, you can follow her new Twitter account @LilyThomas_WW1