The Fortescue-Cholmeley-Brownes were top-drawer country types. Her great-great-grandfather had entered the Indian civil service in the 1820s, and the tradition had progressed through the generations. Her father was Governor of Rajasthan (an area the size of Wales), which he still, even in the 1950s, traversed on horseback.
All this we learned from the collection of photographs on display in Chummy’s room. She was the only girl amongst six brothers. All of them were tall, but unfortunately she was about an inch taller than the rest of the family.
All the children had been educated in England, the boys going to Eton, and Chummy to Roedean. Apparently Chummy had been at boarding school since she was six years of age, and knew no other life. She clung to her collection of family photographs with touching fervour – and particularly loved one taken with her mother when she was about 14.
“That was the holiday I had with Mater,” she said proudly, completely unaware of the pathos of her remark.
After Roedean came finishing school in Switzerland, then back to London to the Lucie Clayton Charm School to prepare her for presentation at court. Those were the days of debutantes, when the daughters of the “best” families had to “come out”, an expression meaning something quite different today. At that time it meant being presented formally to the monarch at Buckingham Palace.
Chummy was presented and two photographs were proof of the event. In the first, in a ridiculous lacy ballgown, with ribbons and flowers, Chummy stood amongst a group of pretty young girls similarly attired, her huge, bony shoulders towering above their heads.
The second photo was of her presentation to King George VI. Her size and shape emphasised the petite charm of the Queen and the exquisite beauty of the two princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret. I wondered if Chummy was aware of how absurd she looked in the photos, which she was so happy to display.
After the debutante bit came a year at a cordon bleu school. Chummy learned all the arts of the perfect hostess – the perfect hors d’oeuvre, the perfect pâté de foie gras – but remained ungainly, awkward, oversized, and generally unsuited to hostessing in any society. So a course of study at the best needlework school in London was deemed to be the right thing.
For two years Chummy crocheted, embroidered and tatted, made lace and quilting and broderie anglaise. For two years she machined and set shoulders and double hemmed. All to no avail. While the other girls herringboned and chatted happily, or sadly, of their boyfriends and lovers, Chummy, liked by all but loved by none, remained silent, always the odd chum out. She never knew how it happened, but suddenly, unsought, she found her vocation: nursing and God.
Chummy was going to be a missionary. In a fever pitch of excitement, she enrolled at the Nightingale School of Nursing at St Thomas’s Hospital in London. She was an instant success, and won the Nightingale Prize three years in succession. She adored the work on the wards, feeling for the first time in her life confident and competent. Patients loved her, senior staff respected her, junior staff admired her.
In spite of her great size she was gentle, with an intuitive understanding of patients, especially the very old, very sick, or dying. Even her clumsiness left her. On the wards she never dropped a thing or crashed into things. All these traits seemed to beset her only in social life, for which she remained wholly ill-adapted.
Of course, young doctors and medical students, 90 per cent of whom were male, made fun of her and passed crude jokes about the difficulty of mounting a carthorse, and which of them had the organ of a stallion suited to the job. Freshmen were told of the ravishingly lovely nurse on North Ward, with whom it would be possible to fix a blind date, but fled in horror when the blindness was given sight.
Fortunately, such pranks passed straight over her head unnoticed. Had she been informed, it is likely she would not have understood, and would have beamed amiably at her tormentors, shaming them with her innocence.
Help us find the real Chummy
Jennifer Worth’s daughters remember her in photographs and stories, but we don’t know her real name. So we scoured all three of Worth’s memoirs to find clues.
Worth tells us Chummy’s father was a Governor of Rajasthan, in northern India. However, records suggest that every Governor of Rajasthan has been Indian, not British. As the state was only formed in 1947, he may have been governor in a part of India that later formed Rajasthan, but tracking him down has proved difficult.
Another tantalising clue is the Nightingale Prize. Worth tells us that Chummy won it three times at St Thomas’s Hospital in London. We’ve contacted St Thomas’s, but they have no record of such a prize. The British Red Cross have awarded a Nightingale Medal to exceptional nurses since 1912, but they have never given it to the same nurse twice, let alone three times!
So the mystery deepens… unless you know more? If so, we’d love to hear from you.
Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org (subject line Chummy). The quest goes on!
Call the Midwife continues on Sunday nights on BBC1 at 8:00pm
This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published 7 February 2012