Terra Incognita, Mr Box – 12th December 1918

The Scottish Women’s Hospitals wrote to my Great Grandfather, John Robert Box, on the 12th of December 1918, sympathising with his frustration that he had to communicate with his daughter, my Great Aunt, Margaret Box by way of Salonica (Thessalonica) in Greece, when she was working as a Red Cross Nurse in Sarajevo, over 300 miles away. This is one of many letters which cover the time Margaret was nursing in the Balkans at the tail end of the First World War.

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The Elsie Inglis Unit of the Scottish Women’s hospitals was based, for administrative purposes in Salonica, but the medical staff moved to where they were needed

Miss Durham

I suspect this was Edith Durham who had written ‘Through the Lands of the Serb’ in 1904. She seems to have been another determined British woman who roamed the Balkans fearlessly in the early years of the 20th century.

Scottish Women’s Hospitals to Mrs Box – December 6th 1918

During the First World War Elsie Inglis, a Scottish Doctor, realised the urgent need for medical assistance to treat the wounded, but as a woman, her offer of assistance was declined by the War Office. Undeterred she established the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, and recruited women to go and and tend the casualties of war. My great aunt, Margaret Box, a trained nurse, was one of those women. In December 1918 she had been nursing near Skopje, but was now en-route to Sarajevo to join a hospital there. The war was over, but it had left many sick and wounded in its wake. This letter, one of many I have inherited from my Great Aunt, is from the London office of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals to my Great Grandmother to inform her of Margaret’s move. I think Margaret’s mother wanted to send her a Christmas present.

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I think the parcel that Margaret’s mother would have liked to send was to include a tartan tie, which was designed by Elsie Inglis as part of the nurse’s uniform.

Dorothy Willis also writes to the Box Family on:

  • 3rd October 1918 – to reassure her father that Margaret is safe
  • 29th November 1918 – to tell her father that Margaret may be on her way home
  • 12th December 1918 –
  • 20th December 1918 – twice – once to tell her father that she might be returning soon, and later that day to tell him she would probably be in Serbia for another three months.

Elsie Inglis Nursing Unit returning from Serbia – November 1918

The Elsie Inglis Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals was one of 14 Units of women who went abroad to provide medical care during the First World War. My Great Aunt, Margaret Box went to Serbia as a nurse with them. By the end of November 1918 the war had ended and Margaret had moved round Serbia with the Unit. During this time she wrote letters home telling her family some of what her life out there was like, and I am scanning and publishing them on this site.

On the 29th November 1918 the Scottish Women’s Hospitals wrote to my Great Grandfather, John Box, to tell him that the Elsie Inglis Unit has been recalled, so Margaret should be on her way home.

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I think John Box’s note says “called up on ‘phone – Margaret at Uskub

Although the telephone had been invented in the 1870’s, with the UK’s first regular telephone service dating back to 1877, they were probably still quite rare in 1918, however John Box may well have found one useful in his business as a nurseryman.

Edith Palliser (Chairman)

An active campaigner for Women’s Suffrage, her war work was commemorated by a bed in the maternity unit of the Royal Free Hospital.

Viscountess Cowdray (hon Treasurer)

As well as her good works in supporting nursing, she and her husband donated Cowdray Hall (a concert venue) to the City of Aberdeen.

Hilda Petrie (Mrs Flinders Petrie) (Hon. Secretary)

She took a break from being a prominent Egyptologist to support the Scottish Women’s Hospitals during the First World War.

Margaret Box -Dear Dad, November 1918

My Great Aunt, Margaret Ada Box, was a nurse with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, tending patients in what was then Serbia. She recorded her activities in diaries, and a number of letters home which give some insight into the world of that time. She wrote this one on the 7th of November from a Field Hospital near Skopje, run by Dr. Lilian Chesney.

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c/o Dr. Chesney, etc

Nov 7th 9.30 p.m.

My Dear Dad,

I have just received 2 more letters from you. The 2nd one, written Oct 7th.

Some more people arrived tonight & we were lucky to get another post in – just fancy – only 2 days since the last ! We nearly shouted the house down (what there is left of it).

No, we have not electric light. Candles are rationed out to us each week & we have an oil lamp in the mess room. I am sorry to hear Mother has had a cold & sincerely hope it was not the ‘flu’. I have seen enough of that disease coming out & I hope you have not been working too hard & got the rheumatism. I have got a most lovely wool cap for you to wear indoors but dont know how to get it home. You say you had no letter from me between Paris & Rome, well I don’t suppose I wrote one. We were in the train for 2 nights & days & changed trains at Modane waiting about an hour for a much needed meal & then we changed again at Turin where we did not have time for a meal. Mother’s biscsuits & chocolate came in useful in those days. When we did arrive in Rome we were rather dusty. I shall never forget the state of the bath after I got out of it ! The Italian trains are about the dirtiest I have ever come across. I can’t tell you what Salonica is like as I only stayed there one night, but I know it was very hot & we slept under mosquito nets in tents.

I am awfully sorry to hear about Uncle Arthur’s burglars. It is what you might call ‘tiresome’ to lose your belongings like that. I must try to write to some of the relatives for Xmas – but we have just heard that a post is going out tomorrow & I want to write so many letters.

The weather was bitterly cold here last week & the snow was right down the mountains – but now it is quite warm again & very hot out in the sun this afternoon. It is not usually very cold till after Xmas.

I hope you are sending me some of my photos. I wonder if they are any good.

Very best love to all

Your loving Daughter


A p.c. from Mary & Norah – jolly nice too. Many thanks to them.


Transit time for post

John Box wrote “Arrived 22 Nov” on the letter, so it took 15 days to get from (near) Skopje to Croydon – a distance of about 1935 miles, so the letter was travelling at slightly over 5 miles per hour – if it went on the direct route.

The journey from Rome

Margaret would have changed trains at Modane Station, and taken the Modane-Turin railway through the Fréjus Rail Tunnel. Yet another spectacular railway journey !

Uncle Arthur (who was burgled)

This would be Arthur Williams Box (1853-1940). He lived both in Brondesbury, London which was his address in the 1912 Census and in Launceston, where he owned the Iron Foundry. He did sell the Foundry in 1912, so the burglary was presumably in London.

December 1918 – Margaret Box home soon, or not

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By late December 1918, Margaret Box had been Nursing in Salonica and Serbia for around three months, and her Father, John Robert Box must have written to Scottish Women’s Hospitals, with the aim of sending her a tie as a Christmas present. On the morning of 20th December they sent him a letter, telling him that they would not obtain the tie, as his daughter would be returning home soon.

On the afternoon of the same day they wrote again, to tell him that she would probably be there for another three months, and that it was very cold there !

Margaret did indeed return to Britain in April 1919, but it must have been a little worrying for her parents to have Margaret in such a distant and cold foreign country over Christmas.

Burns Night

On or around the night of January 25th, many Scots celebrate the life of Robert Burns with a Burns supper, eating haggis and neeps, drinking whisky and listening to the works of Robert Burns. My Great Great Grandfather, John Robert Box, although not born in Scotland, may well have celebrated the night. He had a copy of ‘The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Burns’, dated 1875, when he would have been around 26.

He had also lived with his uncle, Robert Bryson, in Edinburgh for several years around 1871, so would have been exposed to the National Bard during that time.

Although born and growing up in Edinburgh, haggis did not feature prominently in our diet at home. My brother and I worked summer jobs in a cafe called County Fayre on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. As it was, at the time, the first place, if you set off down the hill from the Castle, where you could sit down for a hot meal, it was very popular during the Festival, and many of the customers were American tourists. Haggis was one of the traditional Scottish dishes on the menu, so it fell to the person serving at the counter to explain Haggis to the customer, without putting them off. We did discover that Americans do not use the term ‘mince‘, which we had been using, and that ‘it is a bit like ground beef, but made from sheep’ worked better. The job was an eye opening experience, and gave me a lasting insight into what goes on behind the scenes when eating out, and an understanding of what it is like to be working in the industry.

Arrived Safely in Salonica in 1918

My Great Aunt Margaret volunteered as a Civilian Red Cross Nurse in 1918, traveling to Serbia via Salonica (Thessalonica) to work at the military hospital in Sarajevo.

The post ‘Margaret Box, nursing in Salonica and Serbia‘ acts as an index to the letters she wrote. On 20th October she sent a telegram to her father, John Box to let her parents know that she had arrived safely in Salonica.

She also wrote to her mother, giving more details of her journey from Bralos.

You need not feel anxious about your daughter, Mr Box

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My Great Aunt, Margaret Box, left Britain on the 17th of September 1918 to serve as a nurse in Salonica and Serbia.
Her father, my Great Grandfather, John Box, clearly did not hear from her for a while as he contacted The Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Home and Foreign Service (London Society of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies).
They wrote back to him on 3rd October, with the following letter:

This was a different world, where communication was much slower (as well as women not yet having the vote in the United Kingdom). Fortunately there was indeed no cause for concern, and Margaret was on a Troopship in the Gulf of Corinth. She wrote to him from Bralo in Greece on October 5th.

John Robert Box

John Robert Box was my Great Grandfather. He was Born on 17 August 1849 at  21, Upper Charles St, Clerkenwell, and died Died on 17 June 1926 at Lynwood, Emsworth , Hampshire aged  76.


He went to Highgate School, which was known in those days as Roger Cholmeley School, after is founder, Sir Roger Cholmeley. He was a pupil from September 1860 to April 1868.

He was awarded a copy of Richard Whatley‘s commentaries on Bacon’s Essays as School Mathematics  Prize in 1868.


He was a nurseryman, Begonia specialist, Seed Merchant.
In the 1861 Census he is visiting his Great Uncle, George Braund, who was a Linen Draper in Dartford, Kent at the time.
In the 1871 Census he would have been 21, but is not in his parents household and is probably at the home of Robert Bryson, his uncle in Edinburgh.
In the 1881 Census he was 31 and living with his parents, in Hornsey,  at 1 ??Caln Terrace, and his occupation is “Seedsman, Nurseryman and Florist at 7, ??Dest (possibly Forest??) Hill, Kent employing 50 men and boys”
His advertisement in The Gardeners Chronicle of 1887 says

BEGONIA SEED.- Box's Jubilee varieties,
choicest from latest prize singles, per packet, ls. and
2s. 6d; double, the most reliable, very special, per packet,
2s. 6d. and 5s; very extra pure double white, per packet, 5s.
and 10s. Sow now. See other Advertisement of Tubers.
J. R. BOX (for last ten years J. Laing's partner), Surrey
Seed Warehouse, Croydon.

John Laing (whose catalogue from 1894 is shown below) was another Begonia specialist.

Note that this would tie in with John Box 1881 Census entry being Forest Hill as that is where John Laing’s nursery was.
John Box advertised in The Gardeners Chronicle of January to June 1894 where his advertisement reads

BOX'S BEGONIA SEED.— For germination
and quality of flowers superior to all others. Per
packet, single mixed, 1s. and 2s. 6d. ; larger packets, 5s. ;
double mixed, packets. 1s. Qd. and 2s. 6rf. ; larger packets, 5s.
Sow now. Ask for PRICE LIST of Tubers, and Pamphlet
on Culture.
JOHN R. BOX, Seedsman and Begonia Grower, Croydon.

Begonia culture for amateurs says

I have never been able to obtain such good results, either in germinating power or in quality, from bought seed (single or double) as from that of my own saving ; but I may perhaps be allowed to say that by far the best Begonia seed, double especially, I have ever obtained was from Mr. J. R. Box, of Croydon ; both in quality and germinating power nothing better could be desired.

It is possible that the Begonia Rosie Box was named after his eldest daughter Rosina.

In the 1891 Census he was living at 65, Wellesley Road, Croydon, Surrey, England, with Ada, Rosina, Leonard, Dorothy and Margaret, as well as Margaret Waller (22), a Nurse, and Jessica Giles (18), a general domestic servant.

In 1918 he was living at 80, Northampton Road, Croydon (OSM), as  The Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Home and Foreign Service writes to him at this address, reassuring him about his daughter, Margaret, who had gone off as  a volunteer nurse in Serbia.


He married Ada Webster on 6th February 1894 at He had one son, my Grandfather – Leonard Box (1886 – 1967) and five daughters, Rosina Janet Braund Box (1884-1969), Dorothy Box (1887-?), Edith Mary Box (1889-1959), Margaret Ada Box (1890-1986), Norah Constance Box (1898-1987).