Looking for Mary Lee Milne

Gordon MacDonald, volunteer at Hawick Museum, has been researching the mysterious provenance of a collection of lantern slides and a certificate from Serbia…

I have “worked” as a volunteer in Hawick Museum since 2004 and some time ago my attention was drawn to a collection of WW1 medals which included a Scottish Women’s Hospital Lapel Badge. Being interested in the Women’s Suffrage Movement, I was aware of Dr Elsie Ingles’ connection with the SWH, and as Secretary of the Edinburgh National Suffrage Society, I knew she paid several visits to the Borders. My curiosity was instantly aroused!

Scottish Women's Hospital Lapel Badge

Scottish Women’s Hospital Lapel Badge

The 1978 Museum Accession Register revealed that along with the medals and lapel badge there was a collection of lantern slides, and a certificate awarded by the Serbian Government. Who had owned this archive? The answer was Mrs Mary Lee Milne and my research would reveal a remarkable life and valiant service to the Serbian nation during World War One.

In August 1916 aged 43, Mary Lee Milne, a recently widowed Church of Scotland minister’s wife, sailed from Liverpool bound for Southern Russia with the Scottish Women’s Hospital. She is listed as the unit’s cook and travelled with seventy-five women led by Dr Elsie Ingles. The lantern slides, taken by her on her travels, give a unique insight into the sacrificial work of the SHW with the Serbs in Russia. They show the women at work and reveal the conditions they endured. On a lighter note they also include snaps of the women relaxing, picnicking and site-seeing.

Mary Lee Milne on a picnic with a colleague

Mary Lee Milne on a picnic with a colleague

One slide shows Prince Dolgourokoff, presenting some of the women with the St George’s Medal, March 20th 1917 (Mary Lee Milne’s is in the museum collection). During her service Mary was caught-up in the 1917 Russian Revolution and endured the physical and mental devastation of war. Due to rapidly deteriorating conditions, the SWH unit returned home, disembarking in Newcastle 27th November, 1917; Dr Ingles died the following day. From November 1918 to May 1919 Mary served in the SWH Elsie Inglis Memorial Sanatorium, for Serbs, Sallanches, France.

Scottish Women's Hospital members being awarded a medal

Scottish Women’s Hospital members being awarded medals

In April 1925 Mary Lee Milne was honoured with the ‘Serbian Cross of Mercy’ with its certificate written in old Serbian script. We were fortunate to have it translated by Sergejs Kravcenko, a Russian marine engineer with Norbulk Shipping Company, Glasgow:


Aleksandar I

Upon God’s grace and People’s volition

Bless you with my decree on 27th of April 1925 year

Grant Miss Lee Mary Milne

With Cross of Graciousness

For the service of our casualty and wounded

in period between 1914-1920 years.

After her war service she went to live with her brother William Bowden, Acting Governor of Sierra Leone. After he retired in the early 1920s they purchased “Hobsburn” Bonchester Bridge, Scottish Borders where she became an active member in her adopted community. Mary Lee Milne, née Bowden, died August 1948 aged 75 and was buried in Hobkirk Churchyard.

My research led me to discover much about the SWH and its contribution to the cause during WWI.   Through my enquiries the museum was contacted by a retired farmer who remembered Mrs Milne and had in his possession a collection of coloured lantern slides, taken in Africa which are thought to have belonged to Mary Lee Milne, these have been donated to the museum and add to this story. My next step is to visit the National Library of Scotland who hold journals written by Mary Lee Milne to finish what has been a fascinating piece of research towards the Next of Kin exhibition.

In August 1914 Dr Elsie Maud Inglis offered her services to the War Office and was promptly told “My good lady, go home and sit still.” This archive brings to our attention the contribution of these remarkable women of the Scottish Women’s Hospital who refused “to go home and sit still” and, despite personal sacrifice and intense opposition, were motivated to leave their ‘Next of Kin’ and go off to War.

Scottish Women's Hospital, with Elsie Inglis at the front

Scottish Women’s Hospital, with Elsie Inglis at the front


4 thoughts on “Looking for Mary Lee Milne

  1. I was fascinated to read this as a distant cousin of mine, Phyllis Shakespear, also served with this unit in Serbia. Mary Lee Milne must have known her as Phyllis was also a cook. I have her gold Cross of Mercy medal and the certificate that goes with it. Have any of the photos or the journal been published or made available online?

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