In the autumn of 2013 the Friends of Wrexham Museum (FWM) in north-east Wales began a project to identify all the individuals from the town who lost their lives as a direct result of the conflict of 1914–18. The town’s war memorial records the names of some 330 men, but it was felt that there must have been some who were overlooked for whatever reason. A detailed trawl through the local newspapers and records of the period brought to light more than 300 names that should have been included, amongst whom was a lady who delighted in the name Florence Missouri Caton. No one in Wrexham today has ever heard of her and as her story began to unfold it became obvious that she should definitely have been included on the memorial. A short newspaper obituary noted that Florence had been working as a nursing sister with the Scottish Women’s Hospital in Serbia when she died in 1917. A second obituary added a few more details and prompted the FWM to look further into her story. The obvious first step was to search the internet an exercise that immediately turned up trumps by finding the site scottishwomenshospital.co.uk. This in turn led to our contacting Alan Cumming who generously assisted us in uncovering further information from the data held by the site and in the Glasgow City Archives. He also identified a second Wrexham link to the medical teams that went out to Serbia in Miss Lily Fraser, a cook and orderly, who came from the Shropshire town of Oswestry and befriended Florence when both were working in Salford. When Lily left for Serbia she gave her address as Holt Street Cottage, Wrexham.
Florence was the daughter of American sea captain John Henry Caton and his Welsh wife, Elizabeth (nee Evans) and was born aboard her father’s ship Missouri, off the coast of Cuba in 1876. The eldest of three children, she was brought up at her parents’ home 1 Bryn Draw Terrace in Wrexham. She was educated locally and may well have begun her nursing career at the local Wrexham Infirmary. The only extant records show her working on the staff of the Hospital for Infectious Diseases at Pendleton, Salford in 1901 and, ten years later, at the Ladywell Sanitorium in the same city. In 1915 she signed to jin the Scottish Women’s Hospital for a period of six months at an annual salary of £50. Giving her sister’s home in Exeter as her poste restant address, she embarked on 10 September 1915 bound for Dr Alice Hutchinson’s hospital in Valjevo. She was one of the group that became prisoners of war when the Austrian Army overran the hospital at Vrinjatcha Bania in November. Eventually, the party was released to the Swiss authorities in Zurich and returned to Britain on 12 February. Amongst Florence’s companions throughout this period was Lily Fraser.
The normal procedure when granting prisoners of war their freedom during the course of a conflict was for them them sign a form of parole agreement which stated that they, as citizens of a belligerent nation, would not return to the front line before the end of hostilities. Breech of this parole could have serious consequences if they were captured for a second time. Florence, however, was a citizen of a neutral country as she had applied for and been given an American passport in July 1915 (on the grounds that her father was an American and she had been born aboard an US-registered ship) and seems to have been determined to return to the Balkans. On 28 June 1916, she signed a twelve-month contract of employment with the SWH and travelled to join the American unit, the 4th Serbian Hospital, tending to the wounded in Salonika. There she died on 15 July 1917 following an operation for appendicitis. She is buried in the Lembet Road Military Cemetery, Thessalonika.
Florence Caton’s service with the SWH, like that of so many other women who served in medical units all over the world, certainly merits her being remembered as one of the casualties of the Great War and perhaps the FWM’s project will mean her name is not forgotten by future generations. I would like to thank the scottishwomenshospital.co.uk., in particular Alan Cummings, for their assistance in researching the background to this remarkable and courageous Wrexham woman.
W. Alister Williams
Chair, Friends of Wrexham Museum
20 July 2014