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Buttermarket tribute to Ethel Parker who died in First World War

By Gerry Warren

Of the 531 names inscribed on Canterbury's memorial to the fallen of the Great War, only one is that of a woman.

Gerry Warren tells the remarkable story of a city waitress who was killed in active service 100 years ago this week, aged just 21.

The inscription on the imposing sacred stone cross in the Buttermarket simply reads Parker E.F.M.

Yet is it unique among the hundreds of men from the city who gave their lives, because it records the only woman to be commemorated on the war memorial - Ethel Frances Mary Parker.

Wednesday was the 100th anniversary of her death in a bombing raid in France on May 30, 1918.

Ethel Parker is the only woman commemorated on the Buttermarket war memorial (2225771)
Ethel Parker is the only woman commemorated on the Buttermarket war memorial (2225771)

It was marked by a small gathering of her descendants who visited the monument to lay a wreath.

Among them was Dawn Garbutt who has been researching the life of her extraordinary great aunt.

“We only discovered her name was on the memorial about 18 month ago and it brought us to tears when I came down to see it with my mum,” she said.

“It also made us very proud and we could not let the 100th anniversary of her death pass without marking it.”

Like many young women at the time, Ethel volunteered to serve and joined the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

She was sent to France in April 1918 but killed by an enemy bomb on May 30.

Ethel Parker in her uniform (2242239)
Ethel Parker in her uniform (2242239)

She is believed to have been working as a waitress to the officers in Abbeville when their billet was hit by a German shell, killing her and seven others.

It was a tragic end for the young woman, who like many, wanted to do her bit for the war effort.

Having died in active service, she was later awarded posthumous British and Victory Medals and is buried in the Abbeville Community Cemetery.

Born in 1898 in Islington, Ethel moved to Bridge near Canterbury when her father William began working locally as a miner.

She was the eldest of eight and the family later moved to Adisham and then to East Street in Canterbury.

Ethel and her fellow workers are believed to be the first women killed in active service. It was her father who urged cathedral authorities to include her name on the memorial, which was unveiled in 1921.

“The Buttermarket memorial is clearly dedicated to ‘the men of Canterbury’ who gave their lives, so we are not quite sure how he managed it,” said Dawn.

“But I found reference to it in the cathedral archives and clearly somebody decided there should be special dispensation for Ethel.”

Descendants of Ethel Parker gather to lay a wreath at the Buttermarket memorial to mark the 100th anniversary of her death
Descendants of Ethel Parker gather to lay a wreath at the Buttermarket memorial to mark the 100th anniversary of her death

Dawn, 51, from Rough Common, is a pharmacy assistant at the Northgate surgery, but trained and worked as a nurse for many years.

It was while she was researching her family tree that she found out about her great aunt, who she initially thought was a nurse.

“Because I had chosen a nursing career, it sparked my interest,” she said. “I knew from the family that Ethel had died in the Great War but it was only when I dug a bit deeper that I found out she was probably a domestic worker or waitress.

“I also found a fascinating reference to her and the women who died in that bombing in a book about the women’s army auxilliary corps by Samantha Philo-Gill, who has done a lot of research on it.

“Ethel arrived in Abbeville, France in February 1918 where she was in Camp 1 at Mautort. Many of the WAAC were drivers, telephonists, signallers, mechanics, secretaries and cooks to the officers.

“She was probably a waitress as this is detailed on one of her Army records. They released men from more menial jobs so they could be sent to the frontline, and gave the jobs to women.

“The women came under attack while in camp and sheltered in basic trenches but otherwise slept in their huts.

“Much of my information has come from my research with the Commonwealth War Grave Commission, The Imperial War Museum, Ancestry.co.uk, and via many photos which are online of the women within the camps.

“The more that I find out about Ethel, the prouder I become" - Dawn Garbutt

“They had basic rations, were hard working, had to put up with negativity at first from the soldiers and were treated very differently from the men, even though they had to endure the same conditions.”

On the night of May 30, 1918, the trench in which Ethel and the other women were sheltering suffered a direct hit.

She was buried the following day along with her colleagues in Abbeyville Cemetery with full military honours.

Dawn said: “Being the first women to die, the Army were keen to be seen making a massive contribution to their final resting place.

“The RAF flew over and soldiers saluted and lined the route as the coffins passed by on gun carriages. The Last Post was also sounded. Her commonwealth war grave headstone is inscribed with ‘In Honour lived - For Honour died’ - as per her father’s asking.”

She added: “The more that I find out about Ethel, the prouder I become. A hundred years after she was taken from the family, we have finally been able to commemorate that she gave her life for her country.”

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