Partner Mary Parker Follett, Rachel Crowdy

Queer Places:
Clifton Hill House, Lower Clifton Hill, Bristol BS8 1BX, Regno Unito
112 Beaufort St, Chelsea, London SW3 6BU, UK
15 Stanhope Gate, Mayfair, London W1K 1LN, UK
St Peter's Churchyard Frimley, Surrey Heath Borough, Surrey, England

Dame Katherine Furse, CBE, RRC, Director of the Women's Royal Naval Service, 1920 oil on canvas 60,9 x 50,8 cm signed b.l.: Glyn PhilpotDame Katharine Furse, GBE, RRC (née Symonds; 23 November 1875 – 25 November 1952) was a British nursing and military administrator. She led the British Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment force during the First World War, and served as the inaugural Director of the Women's Royal Naval Service (1917–19). Furse was also the first Director of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (1928–38). In Geneva in 1928 she met Mary Parker Follett. Dame Katharine later recalled taking the initiative: "Being a real Bostonian with Puritan traditions, Mary would not have made such fast advances but she talked to me of her philosophy . . . [which) seemed to me to be exactly what we human beings needed." Parting in Geneva, the two women arranged to meet in Italy the next spring, and Dame Katharine's memoir of their travels there has the glow of romance. Follett soon moved to Furse's house, with Furse living downstairs and Follett above. Katharine Furse was remembered in obituaries, as much for her physical prowess as a champion skier, as for her role in international feminism.

Furse was born in Bristol, England, on 23 November 1875, the daughter of poet and critic John Addington Symonds and Janet Catherine North. Educated by governesses and her mother, Furse spent most of her early life in Switzerland and Italy.

Katharine Furse and Virginia Woolf were childhood acquaintances with Katharine having attended the schoolroom at the Stephen household at 22 Hyde Park Gate. In 1900 she married the painter Charles Wellington Furse, who died four years later leaving her with two young children. Virginia’s letters at the time reflected on Katharine’s strength of character. In a letter to Madge Vaughan, Katharine’s sister, she wrote, “I had a talk with Katharine which I very much enjoyed. She is very sad and splendid, and strikes me at once as full of a grave kind of courage—a reasoned courage I mean, which will last her all through this terrible time I know”. Two years later Virginia’s letter to her friend Violet Dickinson, at a time when their friendship was deepening, demonstrates a continued admiration for Katharine’s courage, “She has a real thread of courage running through her, which is better than genius, and better than virtue; indeed I put it first of all qualities”. Katharine’s apparent strength and courage at the time was something that drew Virginia to her in friendship, “I spent Sunday motoring with Katharine Furse. Who is much like a Greek statue draped”. In another letter from Virginia to Violet, written in December 1906, Virginia seems to raise the question of Katharine’s sexuality, "Katharine Furse is a fine woman as you know; only I don’t think she is a woman at all, but a great virgin tomboy with a lifetime of sorrow set down in her suddenly. She doesn’t know what to make of it; it is all crude and uncomfortable. You know only very soft natures like Nessa’s absorb their experiences".

In 1909 Furse joined the British Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment attached to the Territorial Army. On the outbreak of the First World War she was chosen to head the first Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) unit to be sent to France. Aware of her administrative abilities, the authorities decided to place her in charge of the VAD Department in London.[1]


Clifton Hill House, Bristol

Furse realised that the existing number of nurses would prove totally inadequate to deal with the enormous amount of work which might be expected, and in September 1914 she proceeded to France with a number of assistants, these forming the nucleus of the VAD force. In January 1915 she returned to England, and the VAD work was then officially recognised as a department of the Red Cross organisation. She received the Royal Red Cross in 1916, and was appointed a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire in June 1917.[2] Although she considered it a great success being head of the Voluntary Aid Detachment, Furse was unhappy about her lack of power to introduce reforms. In November 1917, she and several of her senior colleagues resigned due to a dispute over the living conditions of the VAD volunteers and the Red Cross refusal to co-ordinate with the Woman's Army group.[3] [4]

Furse was immediately offered the post as director of the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS), this was equivalent to the rank of rear admiral.[5] The Royal Navy was the first of the armed forces to recruit women and since 1916 the Women's Royal Naval Service took over the role of cooks, clerks, wireless telegraphists, code experts and electricians.[4] The women were so successful that other organisations such as the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and the Royal Air Force; the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF) were also established.

After the war, Furse joined the travel agency of Sir Henry Lunn (later known as Lunn Polly). Working mainly in Switzerland, she became an expert skier and did a great deal to popularise the sport with British tourists.[5] Her achievements were acknowledged when she became President of the Ladies' Ski Club.[1]

A series of letters from Katharine Furse to Rachel Crowdy dating from 1917 until Furse’s death in 1952 indicates that they shared a woman-loving friendship. The letters to Rachel continue until Katharine’s death in 1953 at the age of seventyseven. On her death Katharine had an executrix rather than an executor of her estate. Rachel Crowdy, who was born in 1884, died at the age of eighty in 1964.

In 1920, Furse formed the Association of Wrens and this led to her becoming head of the Sea Rangers (formerly known as the Sea Guides),[5] and for ten years, from 1928 to 1938, was director of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts,[5] whose constitution she drafted.[6] Furse's autobiography, Hearts and Pomegranates, was published in 1940.[7] Her last public appearance was at the Conference of Former Scouts in London in September 1952. Furse died in London, two days after her 77th birthday and two months after her last public appearance.[8]


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