Mabel Lethbridge

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Mabel Florence Lethbridge
Mabel Florence Lethbridge.JPG
Portrait taken for Imperial War Museum by Colin Gill
Born(1900-07-07)7 July 1900
Luccombe, Somerset, United Kingdom
Died14 July 1968(1968-07-14) (aged 68)
London, England, United Kingdom
Other namesPeggy Lethbridge
OccupationWriter, street performer, estate agent

Mabel Florence Lethbridge OBE (7 July 1900 – 14 July 1968) was a 20th-century English writer and business woman. She is the youngest person to date to receive the United Kingdom Order of the British Empire (OBE) awarded for her services in the Great War as a munitions factory worker. She was severely injured when a shell she was packing exploded and described her experiences in a series of autobiographies.

Early life[edit]

Mabel Lethbridge was born on 7 July 1900 in Luccombe, Somerset, the second youngest of six children of John Acland Musgrave Lethbridge (1869 - 1934) and her American mother Florence Martin (Mary) Cooper (d 1931). Her Grandfather was Sir Wroth Periam Christopher Lethbridge, 5th Baronet (1863–1950) and her paternal family were long established Somerset gentry.Her parents divorced in 1903[1] and the first volume of her autobiography conspicuously brushes over her childhood years[2] although she later records that her father worked overseas in the Empire and that she had a peripatetic upbringing that variously included Kenya, Italy and Ireland.[2] Her father was at one time a professional soldier and big game huntsman who had served in South Africa but by 1907 he was a declared bankrupt in Kenya.[3] He abandoned his family thereafter and although he lived until 1934 he did not see his children again dying in poverty in Mexico .[4] She suffered several years of poor health necessitating a period of convalescence near Ballinhassig and later at Coachford in Ireland from 1909 to 1912 during which she received little formal education for eighteen months before attending St Angela's Convent, Cork, an Ursuline foundation in Cork City.[2] Her Mother's illness (which was survived) required the family to leave Ireland at short notice and return to London. She attended Haberdashers’ Aske's School for Girls [5] describing her period as a pupil as a mixture of good friends, boredom, bad food and teaching that she loathed.[2]

Great War service[edit]

In 1917 Lethbridge took a job as a nurse at Bradford Hospital where she tended troops who had been injured and maimed in the War. Returning to London she applied to work at the National Munitions Filling Factory in Hayes, Middlesex lying about her age since she should have been barred had it been known she was under eighteen years. She volunteered for the dangerous work of filling shells with Amatol explosive. On 23 October she was working on a recently condemned machine that packed the Amatol into the shells. It exploded killing several workers and seriously injuring Lethbridge whose left leg was blown off. Although temporarily blinded she managed to apply a tourniquet to her thigh, an act that certainly saved her life.[2][6] In recognition of her war time service she was awarded the O.B.E. at a ceremony in Maidstone in Kent in 1918.[7] However her grateful nation did not approve an invalidity pension for Lethbridge because she had lied about her age in order to work at the munitions factory.

Post War life[edit]

There followed some years of penury and struggle which are recounted in her autobiography published in 1934[2] She worked variously as a house maid, sold matches and hired a barrel organ to entertain crowds on Armistice Day in 1918 earning a meagre living for several years. In 1923, she spotted an opportunity with the long queues that used to form outside London theatres and cinemas and hired out chairs and stools for the waiting patrons to sit on, thereby earning the sobriquet 'Peggy the Chair Lady'. Her enterprise drew her into a criminal underworld that flourished in the aftermath of the Great War.[6] In 1922 she married Noel Eric Sproule Kalenberg, a Cambridge University graduate[8] and a member of a Jewish family of Dutch extraction long established in Sri Lanka.[9] The marriage produced one daughter but failed and they divorced in 1932, Kalenberg remarrying shortly thereafter in Sri Lanka. Lethbridge's liaisons included a romance with Silas Glossop, a civil engineer and one of the founders of Geotechnical Engineering in the UK[10] and a long-standing affair with Colin Gill, who was commissioned to paint Lethbridge for The Imperial War Museum. Gill's studio occupied Lethbridge's first floor at her Tite Street, Chelsea residence whilst Mabel, her daughter Suzanne and a butler occupied the rest of the house. Suzanne Lethbridge posed for Gill's The Kerry Flute Player[11]

Mabel Lethbridge had recognised that people wanted living accommodation in Chelsea where her family resided and accordingly opened an estate agency with a prestigious address in Cheyne Walk. It was a major success allowing Lethbridge to remove herself from the poverty of the immediate post war years, maintain a house in London and a rural retreat in Chertsey, Surrey. In her first volume of autobiography she describes herself as the first woman to own and run an estate agency.[2][12]

St Ives[edit]

In 1939 Lethbridge volunteered for the Ambulance Service working with her daughter Sue throughout The Blitz . It was by necessity often harrowing work which she touched upon in her third and final volume of autobiography ‘’Homeward Bound’’ published in 1967.[2] When the war ended in 1945 Lethbridge moved to St Ives in Cornwall. The severe injuries that she had received as a worker at the Hayes Munitions Factory necessitated many more operations and her health was not improved by living in a polluted London. In the post war period St Ives maintained a vibrant writing and artistic community with whom Lethbridge became involved in part, because of her enjoyment of bohemian values but also as a benefactor. She provided the abstract painter Sven Berlin and his wife with a cottage and a studio and championed Bryan Wynter, the latter subsequently marrying her daughter Suzanne in 1949.[13] Later tensions and strains arose between the tradition of established figurative painters and the generally younger abstract painters but St Ives continued to attract aspiring artists over subsequent decades. In 1948 Mabel converted to Roman Catholicism and in 1962 her life was the subject of BBC’s This Is Your Life. The guests for the programme included Lady Megan Lloyd George, daughter of war-time prime minister David Lloyd George, who had mentioned Lethbridge’s injuries in his memoirs.

In 1964 she was interviewed at length by the BBC on her experiences in the Great War with particular reference to her work at the National Munitions Factory. An edited account was shown on national television in 2014 and again in 2016 as part of the BBC’s commemorations of the war [14] rekindling interest in Lethbridge’s life.

Mabel Lethbridge died in London in July 1968 following yet another operation resulting from her injuries. She is buried at Longstone Cemetery, Carbis Bay, Cornwall.[6] Her daughter Suzanne Lethbridge Murray died at Wivenhoe, Essex, in September 2013.[15]


In 1933 Lethbridge met and befriended the publisher Geoffrey Bles who persuaded her to recount her life in an autobiography Fortune Grass published by Bles publishing in 1934. Her account of the explosion at the munitions factory in October 1917 that so severely injured Lethbridge was graphic but told without sentimentality. The book sold out its initial print run within months and generally received good reviews. The Sydney Morning Herald noted that Lethbridge’s success ‘depended upon her quick recognition of the change of fashions… One can marvel at this story of immense and unscrupulous pluck and can but admire the dauntless ‘’Peggy’’.[16] A further autobiographical book Against The Tide followed in 1936.[17] In the 1930s she also contributed regularly to the Daily Sketch and to various journals and periodicals. In 1962 she was featured in a national television programme creating enough interest for a further volume Homeward Bound published in 1967 that included her trails and tribulations in the Second World War and her post war life in Cornwall.[4]


  • Fortune Grass (G Bles Publishers, 1934)
  • Against The Tide (G Bles Publishers, 1936)
  • Homeward Bound (G Bles Publishers, 1967)


  1. ^ National Archives: Divorce Court File 3658
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Mabel Lethbridge, Fortune Grass, G Bles, 1936.
  3. ^ The Kenya Gazette, 1 July 1907.
  4. ^ a b Mabel Lethbridge, Homeward Bound, G Bles, 1967.
  5. ^ WWL Centenary Exhibition 11/14 – 4/14.
  6. ^ a b c St. Ives Times and Echo, two-part article, May–June 2013, Paul Moran.
  7. ^ "Medal For Kent Heroine", Daily Mail, 18 May 1918.
  8. ^ Cambridge University, Fitzwilliam Hall matriculation listing, 1921-22
  9. ^ The Journal of The Family of Blaze of Ceylon, Dutch Burgher Union, Vol. 40, 1950.
  10. ^ Emily Holmes Coleman diaries held at The University of Delaware
  11. ^ Liss Llewellyn Fine Art catalogue entry for "Study for The Kerry Flute Player", 1934.
  12. ^ London Gazette, 15 February 1935, trading as The Cheyne Walk Estate Agency.
  13. ^ "Sven Berlin 1911 - 1999", Finishing Publications Ltd, Herts, UK.
  14. ^ "The Great War Interviews: 7. Mabel Lethbridge, BBC Radio Four.
  15. ^ Deceased Estates notice, The London Gazette, April 2014.
  16. ^ "A Book to Read", The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 February 1935.
  17. ^ Mabel Lethbridge, Against The Tide, Bles, 1936.

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