Helping in Britain: The American Women’s War Relief Fund.


Shortly after hostilities broke out in August 1914, a group of American women married to British men met to discuss how they might assist the war effort in Britain.

The organization they formed, the American Women’s War Relief Fund, sent seven ambulances to the front (priced at about $20,000 each) as well as established two hospitals for wounded (the American Women’s Hospital for Officers in London and a hospital at Oldway House in Paignton, Devon, which converted the residence of Paris Eugene Singer, an heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune). The hospitals were turned over to the Red Cross in January 1918. By the time the Devon hospital closed in March 1919, it had cared for 7000 servicemen. The American Women’s Hospital for Officers became Red Cross Hospital No. 22 and also closed in 1919.


Patients at Red Cross Hospital No. 22. Nat. Library of Medicine, NIH

In addition, the fund’s Economic Relief Committee helped women and girls facing hardship because of job loss or family members serving in the war. The committee established workrooms that produced clothing and socks for residents and staff of hospitals and other institutions.

The U.S.-Born Organizers
Ava Willing Astor
(first wife of John Jacob Astor; later married Lord Ribbesdale)

Lady Randolph Churchill (aka Jennie Jerome, mother of Winston Churchill)

Viscountess Harcourt (aka Mary Ethel Burns, a niece of J. P. Morgan). She also organized and ran two London clubs for American Army and Red Cross nurses. Her brother, Walter S. M. Burns, served as treasurer of the fund.

Lady Henry (aka Julia Lewisohn). Lady Henry lost her only son in the war. Her 1927 will provided a $1M bequest to provide scholarships for Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge University exchange students.

Lou Henry Hoover (future First Lady)

Lady Lowther (aka Alice Blight). Lady Lowther was also involved in an effort to assist women who found themselves stateless as a result of the war.

Duchess of Marlborough (aka Consuelo Vanderbilt; niece by marriage of Lady Randolph Churchill, above)

Ruth Bryan Owen (daughter of William Jennings Bryan, later Florida congresswoman as well as the first female U.S. ambassador, who served in Denmark and Iceland). Nurse and organizer of troop entertainment events in Egypt-Palestine Campaign, 1915–18.

Willa Alice Wilson Page (wife of Walter Hines Page, U.S. ambassador to Britain)

Lady Paget (aka Mary “Minnie” Stevens, daughter of hotelier Paran Stevens). An AP article in 1917 credits Lady Paget with raising £250,000 for British wounded, £35,000 for Russian wounded, £32,000 for French wounded, and £25,000 for U.S. hospitals in Britain. Toting up the amounts and converting to present-day values equates to approximately $21.5M.

Anita Berwind Strawbridge (daughter-in-law of Justus C. Strawbridge, co-founder of the department store Strawbridge & Clothier)

Lady Ward (aka Jean Templeton Reid, daughter of former U.S. ambassador Whitelaw Reid)

Further resources:
The American Women’s War Hospital at Ordway

• (BBC audio) “Paignton, Devon: The Singer Palace Becomes a Hospital

Report of the American Women’s War Relief Fund, 1914–15

• “Work of American Women’s War Relief Fund in London,” The [NY] Sun, 31 Dec. 1916

WWI relief worker, WWII internee: Rosina Marguerite Wolfson.


Rosina Marguerite Wolfson, from her 1917 passport application

A longtime resident of the Philippines, Rosina Marguerite Wolfson (1887–1965) worked for Belgian Relief (chaired by Herbert Hoover) in London from 1914 to 1916. Although the bio notes on Wolfson from Harvard’s Schlesinger Library state that she led a Red Cross ambulance unit during World War I, her 1917 passport application indicates that she left New York in November 1917 for Red Cross canteen service in France. The Louisiana-born daughter of attorney and Spanish-American War veteran Joseph N. Wolfson and niece of Louisiana Court of Appeal judge Max Dinkelspiel, she is identified as Jewish by the B’nai B’rith Messenger.

This item from the 8 June 1918 Journal des réfugiés du nord refers to Marguerite’s work with refugees (see also this reference from the 2000 Bulletin de la Société archéologique et historique de l’Orléanais mentioning Marguerite and the Red Cross role in giving refugees land to cultivate). She later was honored for her WWI service. According to the February 1919 Bulletin of the Commercial Law League of America, she was granted honorary citizenship by the French city of Orléans and presented with a statue of Joan of Arc. In the article, Marguerite describes the ceremony:

The mayor [of Orléans] made a very touching speech, stating his pleasure in granting this honor to me in my own capacity, as well as that of a daughter of New Orleans, the young and splendid sister of their own historic town. Then the parchment was handed to me and the superb bronze statue of Jean[n]e d’Arc produced. . . . After my health had been drunk in champagne, [Lt.] Colonel [William H.] Bishop, the American Commanding Officer [of Base Hospital 202], and my very dear friends, took me over to the Red Cross recreation room, where another reception was held, this time by the officers who had known me, before the whole Red Cross personnel and my dearest friends and volunteer nurses (82).

She returned to the United States in December 1918. In April 1919, she traveled on the Empress of Russia to take up a Red Cross position in Siberia, which was facing a typhus epidemic as well as inadequate care for refugees and Czech soldiers. In 1936, she was elected to the Republican National Committee. She assisted refugees from China in 1937 as head of the Red Cross Emergency Committee in Manila. In early 1943, Marguerite’s lawyer brother, Julian, was interned in the Philippines by the Japanese; by early 1944, they both were in the Santo Tomas internment camp near Manila. Their parents died in February 1944, and Marguerite and Julian were not liberated until 1946.

Marguerite passed away in San Francisco in 1965. Her will provided a $132,000 bequest to Julian’s alma mater, the University of Michigan law school.

Further reading:
• “. . . a bond . . . being forged of love and understanding that would stand the test of time”: Rosina Marguerite Wolfson’s account of celebrations in France for July 4, 1918, repr. Louisiana Historical Quarterly, 1918.

• Marguerite Wolfson, “Shanghai’s Refugees Descend Upon Manila,” Red Cross Courier, 1938

• Rosina Marguerite Wolfson, World War II reminiscences, Schlesinger Library.