“I hope it won’t be so exciting as this”: Sister Hayward’s Great War Diary

Working on a project commemorating the Great War, I came across the incredible story of Sister Jessie Clementia Hayward, a nurse from Norfolk who survived the sinking of SS Transylvania in 1917. Sister Hayward was on her way to a hospital in Salonika with thousands of troops when a U Boat torpedoed the vessel. A copy of a diary entry at Norfolk Record Office, and her Service Record at the National Archives, help us to tell the following story…

Jessie Clementia Hayward was born in Hardley in 1883, the daughter of Edward Walter Hayward and Clementia Eliza (nee Goddard). She grew up at Hardley Hall Farm, near Loddon in Norfolk, just as her mother had done a generation earlier.

Jessie was probably youngest of six children. Marion Jane, the eldest (1876-1957), went on to become housekeeper when her mother Clementia died in 1892, leaving her father Edward with five children between 9 and 16. The other children were Ellen (1877-1914), Edward Nelson (1879-1938), Hylton Goddard (1880-1881) and Ada Goddard (1882-1958).

The censuses of 1891 and 1901 show Jessie at home with her family in Hardley. She later trained as a nurse at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and by 1911, we find her working as a Charge Nurse at the Workhouse on Woodbridge Road, Ipswich (part of which is now part of Ipswich Hospital).

At some point, Jessie was recruited to the Territorial Force Nursing Service which had been set up in 1909. As a sister organisation to Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, their role was to supplement the QAIMNS during national emergencies – all those recruited to the TFNS were already nurses in civilian life with a minimum of three years’ experience. The TFNS was renamed the Territorial Army Nursing Service in 1920.

Sister Hayward was called up on 10 August 1914. For two years she worked at the 1st Eastern General Hospital in Cambridge. During the Great War, the hospital was headquartered at Trinity College, growing into temporary buildings at Clare and King’s Colleges. According to http://www.roll-of-honour.com/Medical/CambridgeEasternNo1Hospital.html (which also has some photographs), by the end of 1915, there were 1500 beds at the hospital. The Matron of the 1st Eastern was also Matron of Addenbrooke’s, where the archives of the hospital are still held.

With a year’s service under her belt, Jessie was noted as “conscientious, hard working and sympathetic. Not always firm enough in administration, but keeps a good tone in her ward”, the Commanding Officer described her as “very satisfactory”. A year later she was reported as “a refined woman who looks after the interest of her patients”. However, the Matron also noted that she lacked a “little self-confidence”. The Commanding Officer of the Royal Army Medical Corps stated simply “A capable sister”; a comment with which his colleagues concurred.

In February 1917 Jessie received a typhoid inoculation and was subsequently examined and found fit to “undertake nursing duties in a military hospital abroad in an Eastern climate”. Shortly thereafter she found herself on-route to Salonica, via France. A copy of a diary entry at Norfolk Record Office allows us to follow her adventures and we can join her at camp in Marseilles on Wednesday, May 2nd.

Jessie tells us that she was glad to be going to Salonika, but for the fact that the mail was not yet in. She was awake by 4am on the morning of Thursday May 3rd, and, along with 64 other nurses and Matron, said her farewells and left camp. By early afternoon, all were aboard the Transylvania and Jessie had made the acquaintance of the Steward (“a good sort”) and eaten a good meal. The life boat drill, which took place afterwards, was, apparently, “a farce as usual”. Jessie reports that 3500 Tommies were aboard and that Matron wore a new alpacca. During dinner, the ship started, while Jessie and five others are sitting with Matron (“some have honours thrust upon them”).

The Transylvania was a Cunard passenger liner. Having been completed just before the outbreak of war, she was taken over as a troopship on completion.  It seems Jessie thought the boat “lovely, beautiful berths, lovely saloons…my eiderdown looks so nice”. A few of her companions were sea sick and took Mother Sills’ pills. The ship was accompanied by Japanese Destroyers for safety from U boats.

After dinner, the Sisters had a private rehearsal, with Matron, of what to do if torpedoed. “We walk to our life boat. I am to be in charge of our corridor. Life belts always to be worn (some grumble)”.

Next morning, Jessie met a Tommy in ‘her’ life boat. It turns out she had cared for him, Private Francis, in hospital in Cambridge. Later, “Sister Swinford and I choose chairs and get our work and books and settle for the morning. Our VADs come along and we all have a chat and everything seems so nice. At 10am Matron comes along and insists all life belts are to be worn continually. We obey.”

15 minutes later:

“A bang which those who heard will never forget…There is no panic, everyone goes to her allotted place, what white faces all around…we are to get in “Ladies First” how often I have read but never expected to hear that cry…Private Francis helps me in I immediately find my feet wet, but this a mere detail. Matron and 45 of us all pushed in, three Tommies, and then the boat is lowered. I really think this is the worst moment.”

There is no crew available and the Captain asks for volunteers, resulting in two coming down the ropes. One is Jack. “We shall never forget him. Only a lad of 17, but how brave and splendid he was throughout…[his] smiling face at the rudder, cheering us all and shouting our orders.”

“Our boat sets out and the men from the ship give three cheers! I cannot look back. The sea seems quite rough. The Sisters help with the oars, we are in sight of shore…I feel pretty fit at this stage…”You did not get me well at Cambridge for nothing, Sister Hayward.” It seemed strange to hear my own name…It seems a long way to shore. A second torpedo strikes our ship…the Transylvania seems to be going down…Many boats are now launched all around us. Why don’t they pick us up?”

“Our boat is filling with water, we start bailing out, but it seems so fruitless and the waves are so big…Another band and H M S Transylvania is no more…The sea seems alive, men clinging to oars, rafts and boats, they look sadly at our boat and we are sinking…I and all the Sisters think we shall sink with the boat. I wonder what they will think at home. A lot flashes through my mind…Each wave we think must be the last…I am washed out and find myself clinging to an oar and piece of rope. At first I felt very frightened and believe I was calling out. Francis is also washed out and I still find I am next to him. He said “Hold on Sister don’t be frightened”. All around we see boats. Will no one pick us up?”

“After a time I felt calmer, but my arms were aching and I felt I must give in…the waves so big, quite over my head, the salt water makes me feel so sick. I thought of home and all my dear ones…I could see and feel little now. A Cheer! From the distance it seemed and then someone said the destroyer was alongside. I thought my head was going to be knocked and it was a pity to be killed after all the “holding on”.”

Sister Hayward was rescued just before it “all went black”. She was given brandy and wine out of a bottle and a towel for warmth. It was not long until she was able to laugh and talk again and bask in the relief of survival. “Officers, Tommies and Sisters were all helping each other. It was a strange sight.” On reaching Savona, the Sisters went on deck, from where they could see a shoreline crowded with men rescued from the Transylvania and already delivered to shore. “What a reception we had…The Cheers! We felt quite heroines and had done nothing to deserve it…We must have looked weird, some wrapped in blankets, others in men’s coats and all with wet draggled hair (I saved two hairpins only).”

The Sisters were looked after by kind Japanese, Italian and English armed forces and civilians. They were eventually taken to a convent where they were treated very well and were “literally put to bed”. Despite worrying about getting pneumonia or pleurisy, Sister Hayward was relieved to find her ribs ached only due to bruising. There were tea parties hosted by women in Savona, and then, sadly, a mass funeral on Sunday 6th.

By Tuesday 9th, Jessie was back at the Nurses’ Camp in Marseilles, from whence she began the journey back to England on Sunday 14th. It was on the train that she wrote her diary “out of sheer ennui”. The nurses embarked on Tuesday 16th. “None of us slept very well and [we]clung to our life belts although the steward said they were not necessary!”

The diary transcript ends with ”Father and Min meet me on the door step. How lovely to be really home. I am very thankful. Go to bed and sleep well and that’s the end. I must try and write another diary if ever I get out to the East, but I hope it won’t be so exciting as this.”    

Ten crew, 29 army officers and 373 soldiers lost their lives. The Transylvania was discovered again on 8 October 2011, 630 metres down.

On 16 May 1917, Jessie sent a letter to her Matron reporting her arrival home to Hardley Hall, Loddon, a day before her diary would suggest. Just over a week later, a letter dated 27 May 1917, again to her Matron-in-Chief, confirms that she will “proceed to get my kit ready”. The only note in her record to indicate that anything amiss had happened during her first, thwarted, journey to Salonika is the statement in this letter that “I am still in possession of my TFNS badge as I was wearing it at the time of the catastrophe”.

Being fit for general service, she travelled back later that year, arriving in Salonika on 09 September 1917. She later served at the 41st General Hospital as a Home Sister. On demobilization in 1919, Jessie returned to her civil appointment – Health Visitor for East Suffolk County Council, a position which had been held open for her through the war. She received British War and Victory Medals (after the exchange of a few letters!) as well as the Territorial Force War Medal. By the gracious permission of Queen Alexandra, she was allowed to keep her TFNS badge due to completing more than four years approved War Service.

Sister Hayward resigned from nursing on 4 March 1936, and died in 1971 at the age of 87. She is buried at Hardley along with both of her parents and at least four siblings.


Service Record, National Archives: WO/399/11927

Diary, Norfolk Record Office: MC 2127/1, 441X7

Update on 2014-02-17 19:59 by Your Local History

A couple of additional sources for the above story:

1. Voice  recording of a survivor  on board the ship and he references the nurses on board . This is held by IWM 


2. Also this link from the Great War Forum – a doctor’s  description of the event 


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