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Sheila Macbeth Mitchell scrapbook

Sheila Macbeth Mitchell scrapbook
Sheila Macbeth Mitchell scrapbook
Sheila Macbeth Mitchell's scrapbook was kindly loaned for digitisation by her family. It tells the story of a remarkable woman who led an extraordinary life.

Sheila was born on 12 June 1890 in Lancashire and was educated at Polam Hall, Darlington. She was an accomplished golfer in her youth and wanted to become a teacher of physical education, but her family would not let her work. However, World War One enabled her, like many other women of her generation, to leave home and gain her independence. She trained to become a nurse at the London Hospital in Whitechapel and served as an auxiliary in Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Hospital Nursing Services. On 21 November 1916, she was on board the HMHS Britannic en route from a re-fuelling stop in Naples to pick up wounded troops, when disaster struck.

Time on board the Britannic began as normal. On returning to the hospital ship, Sheila wrote:
"Leave up - so back to Southampton to join our ship. Such a relief to find the same cabin and room-mate, and to see how homely it is now looking".

The nurses were kept busy getting ready 3,000 beds and keeping fit:
"One of the sergeants gives us a gymnastic class each morning on the boat deck, much to the amusement of the M.O.s, who come up and take snapshots of us when looking most ridiculous and unable to retaliate".

It was on the morning of 21 November when passing near to the Greek Island of Kea, that a loud explosion echoed around the ship. Sheila recalled:
"Up late - so only managed to get two spoonfuls of porridge before: Bang! and a shiver right down the length of the ship...
We did not realize that while we were hanging over the side of the ship, the whole of the fore part of her was under water - we might have been more frightened if we had seen it. The Captain called out to hurry as she was sinking fast..."

The Britannic disappeared fifty-five minutes after being hit. Sheila and the medical crew waited until there was no likelihood of more explosions before sailing back to check for further survivors. After a time, they saw three trails of black smoke in the distance, and knew that help was on its way. After three hours in a lifeboat, Sheila was taken on to the Scourge, a torpedo destroyer. The sailors:
"gave us all the food they had - tea, dog-biscuits and oranges out of sacks...Several of them gave us their cap ribbons as souvenirs".

They eventually made their way to Malta where after 17 days on the island they boarded HMHS Valdivia and set sail home to England.

After serving on the Britannic, Sheila nursed the wounded in France. In 1919 while on holiday in Switzerland she met her future husband John Fowler Mitchell who was home from leave from the Indian Civil Service. They were married in 1920 and returned to India where three of their four children were born. As a memsahib during the British Raj, she had to learn how to cope with a large household of servants and their dependants. They stayed in India until 1935 when John retired.

At the age of 86 Sheila answered an appeal from Jacques Cousteau for survivors of the Britannic, and she flew to where Cousteau had located the wreck on at the bottom of the Aegean. She even descended to the seabed in Cousteau's mini submarine to see round the wreck. As the star of the film, 'Cousteau in Search of the Britannic', she enjoyed a six week publicity tour of the United States. One American fan in her seventies wrote to her:
"Mrs Mitchell, you have made me realise that I have been wasting my life".

For many years Sheila and John systematically recorded all the pre-1955 inscriptions in numerous Scottish kirkyards, creating an invaluable resource for genealogists. They are commemorated with a bench in the Archivists' Garden at the National Records of Scotland. Sheila was appointed MBE for her services to genealogy in 1980.

Sheila Macbeth Mitchell died on 15 February 1994, aged 103.