The sensational and tragic Alma Dolling

Part of what intrigues me about the story of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals is the individuals themselves.  Of course researching their experiences, travels and service during WW1 are at the heart of my interest.  But what is fascinating, is how diverse and unconventional many of these women were.    And although while many of the women endured an arduous struggle to obtain recognition in their careers, homes and from within politics, they all shared the desire, with various degrees to improve the lot of women. For some tho, the journies, both pre and post war were very different.  Alma Dollings life and death were both sensational and tragic. 


 Alma Victoria Radcliffe Clarke was born in Kamloops, British Columbia Canada in 1896 to Walter and Elizabeth Clarke.  Her father was a printer, publisher and owner of a weekly newspaper called the Kamloops Standers. Alma was a spirited child who loved the limelight. She walked in her mothers footsteps in her love of music. She was a gifted performer and was completely at ease playing the piano and violin.  She was educated in Toronto and Victoria, British Columbia. In her teens she studied music at Toronto’s college of Music where she played solo for the  Toronto Symphony Orchestra.  Alma was charismatic and extremely attractive. The boys loved her as she flirted in low cut dresses, drank cocktails and smoked.  At 19 she married the love of her life, Ulsterman Caledon Dolling, they traveled to England where he enlisted to fight in the great war.  In 1916 there was  tragic news, Caledon had been killed at  Battle of the Somme.   

Left Heartbroken, Alma joined the French Red Cross in 1916 as a driver. She was wounded twice and was awarded Croix de  Guerre. In 1917 she joined the Scottish Womens Hospitals as on orderly. Alma served initially at Royaumont Abbey.  The orderlies role within the hospital was not an easy one. Long hours, heavy lifting and stomach churning tasks often day after day. The hauling of stretchers up and down the hundreds of stairs at the abbey; the dragging the bags of dirty, blood soaked linen along corridors; the washing down the floors and operating tables; the stench of the chloroform; the screams coming from the men of the Poilu. In their blue bonnets they worked the wards, stores, kitchens and the laundry.


In the summer of 1917 she traveled up to Villers-Cotterets. Villers was a satellite hospital of Royaumont. That summer they were just a few kilometres from the front line. Villers had though been battered in the months before. The surrounding countryside was stripped of trees, trenches lined the roads. Shell holes some 30 feet deep splattered the fields, villages were reduced to piles of stone. Refugees tramped the roadside, begging for help as German prisoners attempted to mend the roads. The wooden huts at Villers, which were to become wards and accommodation for the hospital , were basic. Corrugated iron roofs, oil-papered windows and duck boards for paths, with the mud being so bad.  At night the huts would shake from the booms of the big guns and half dead men would be brought in. On the day she left Villers there were 231 wounded, 7 operations, 74 admissions and 44 were discharged.  Alma left the hospital at Villers in October and returned to Royaumont for a short time before returning to England.
In 1921 Alma had remarried.  She had fallen in love with a Coldstream Guard officer named Thomas Compton Pakenham and were living in America. She had a young son but the marriage soon broke up.  Two years later with the marriage over Alma and her son were back in Canada. She returned to her music career. 
 In 1925 Alma falls for a distinguished young architect, Frances Rattenbury, who becomes her third husband. After a few years of living in Canada, Alma and Francis have a child of their own. In 1927 they move to Bournemouth, England.  Francis by this time is having financial problems that accelerate over the next few years. In 1934 they employ  Chauffeur/Gardener George Percy Stoner.  With Francis often depressed by his money worries Alma turns to young  George for her needs and an affair begins.
Over the next few months the affair intensifies and with Francis drinking heavily, George begins to visit Alma’s bedroom at night.  George also becomes jealous of Alma’s husband and resents any time the couple do spend together.  In the wee hours of March the 23rd,  George takes a carpenters mallet and beats Francis with vicious blows to the skull. A few days later Francis dies.  By the time the police turn up Alma is intoxicated and she admits to the crime and is taken away.  A few days later George confesses to the housekeeper that he is the murderer. They were both tried  for murder at the Old Bailey,  Alma was acquitted with George Stoner sentenced to death by hanging. However public sympathy was in favour of young George, Alma had been booed from the court as the crowds felt young George had been led astray.
 Days later Alma walked into the river Stour and stabbed herself to death  with a dagger.
George Stoner was never hung and only served seven years of his sentence. He died in Christchurch Hospital in 2000 aged 83, not much more that half a mile from where Alma perished and on exactly the 65th anniversary of Francis’s murder!
Super video bellow of her life. 
Alan Cumming