How Did Thimbles Help Thousands of Servicemen in the First World War?

War Memorial Shelters
The Broad Walk, east of Kensington Palace,
Kensington Gardens, London

Listed: 2014
Grade: II
NHLE entry: Listing details for the War Memorial Shelters

The year 2015 marks many centenary anniversaries, from the 2nd Battle of Ypres to the landing of ANZAC troops at Gallipoli. Yet closer to home, in Kensington, London, sit two war memorial shelters erected by the Silver Thimble Fund, established 100 years ago. The shelters owe their existence to a remarkable First World War story: how one woman's sewing zeal led to a fundraising campaign on an international scale.

Damaged thimbles and discarded trinkets

The war efforts of Miss Hope Elizabeth Hope-Clarke of Wimbledon arose from a problem common to all embroiderers: a broken thimble. Many Edwardian women were sewing warm garments to send to the front line, and reasoning that many of her fellow sewers would experience this problem, Miss Hope-Clark began collecting damaged thimbles and other trinkets made of precious metals. She reasoned that, once these items were sold to be melted down, the profits could go towards medical equipment - one new ambulance, perhaps.

In July 1915, she appealed in The Times for thimbles and trinkets and The Silver Thimble Fund was born. She ran operations from her Wimbledon home for the entirety of the war, supported by both ordinary women and influential philanthropists like Lady Maud Wilbraham. An ambulance was purchased, and Queen Alexandra, mother of George V, was so impressed by the fund's efforts that she agreed to become its patron.

From Wimbledon to worldwide

Between 1915 and 1919, 30 appeals ensured some 60,000 broken thimbles were converted into 15 ambulances, 5 motor hospital launches, 2 dental surgery cars and a disinfector. The charity went global: as well as sending hospital launches as far as Mesopotamia - modern-day Iraq - 160 collecting centres were established across the Commonwealth, from New Zealand to Canada.

By the armistice in 1918, enough donations of old bracelets, brooches, thimbles and trinkets had flooded in, including a one-week collection at Central Hall Westminster, to buy an entire radiological outfit. If that wasn't admirable enough, further sums were donated to such charities as the Star & Garter Home for Disabled Soldiers in Richmond. The fund would contribute to the recovery and rehabilitation of returning servicemen long after the war ended.

Proving the Sure Shield of Britain – and America

Money remaining in the Silver Thimble Fund in 1919 was used to erect the rectangular shelters outside Kensington Palace, which stand 100 metres apart and offered visitors a place to sit when strolling along Kensington Gardens Broad Walk. The simple neo-vernacular timber design consists of four corner posts with cross braces supporting a hipped roof.

Commemorative panels are fixed to a low timber screen. One has the inscription:


The other says:


'Britain's sure shield' is a reference to George V's address to Admiral Jellicoe at the declaration of the First World War, in which he said that the officers and men of the Navy would 'prove once again the sure shield of Britain and of her Empire in the hour of trial'.

Although 1918 marked the end of Silver Thimble's First World War appeal in Britain, its legacy continued in the United States. In the 1920s, Miss Hope-Clark moved to New Orleans and established the Silver Thimble Fund of America, which supported injured British and American soldiers until the end of the Second World War.

Correspondence, leaflets and posters from the Silver Thimble Fund in both the USA and Britain can be viewed in the Louisiana Research Collection and the Museum of Wimbledon archives.