A Dorset Woman at War: Mabel Stobart and the Retreat from Serbia 1915

Lady of the Black Horse by George Rankin

Painting of Mabel Stobart – ‘Lady of the Black Horse’ by George Rankin, 1916, Red Cross Museum and Archives, courtesy of Studland Village Hall Committee

Summer 2014 will see a special exhibition at Dorset County Museum commemorating the centenary of the start of the First World War. The exhibition will focus on the story of one Dorset woman, Mabel St Clair Stobart, exploring her life and the role she played during the epic retreat of the Serbian army in 1915.

The Museum has a collection of unique photographs recording Mabel Stobart’s experiences in Serbia. They trace her intrepid journey from the tented field hospital she established near the front line and the relentless 250 mile trek through the Albanian mountains to her final escape from Scutari.  Already in her mid-fifties, she travelled to Serbia with female doctors and nurses whom she had recruited and trained to help the war effort. Her story is exceptional, not only for the adventures she experienced – in 1914 she had been arrested by the Germans and sentenced to be shot as a spy – but because she was motivated by bettering the lot of women. A supporter of the Suffragette movement, Stobart believed that women should earn the vote by demonstrating that they were as valuable to society as men. She led her mission to Serbia in the face of opposition from another famous Dorset figure, Sir Frederick Treves, who felt there was no place for women in the Serbian conflict.

The photographs of Stobart’s adventures are highly graphic and do not flinch from the horrors of war. It was notable that as well as managing all aspects of her medical team she still had an eye to the future by organizing these photographs. When Kodak developed them for her subsequent lecture tour of America, they were so impressed that they were blown up, mounted and hung in the Kodak head office.

Kate Adie

Kate Adie © DCM

The exhibition will reveal the extraordinary story of a powerful and determined woman who frequented the salons of London Society but was also a feminist, playwright and farmer. A born organiser, Stobart was daring and fearless. She buried two husbands and tragically lost both sons in the Spanish flu epidemic. As a result she became a spiritualist with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and held séances like those shown recently in Downton Abbey!

Dorset County Museum is delighted that former BBC Chief News Correspondent, Kate Adie is lending her support to the exhibition through the recent publication of her latest book: Fighting on the Home Front: The Legacy of Women in World War One.  Her book includes the amazing story of Mabel Stobart and many other outstanding women of that time.

The exhibition opens at Dorset County Museum on Saturday 31st May 2014 and runs until 15th November 2014.

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