WORKING ABROAD: Alice May Brodie as a nurse in New York (1912). –Photos courtesy Jennifer de Verteuil

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The amazing life of Alice May Brodie

From Trinidad to NY in 1909...

By Richard Charan richard.charan@trinidadexpress.com

Part II

Jennifer de Verteuil née Thomson

Born in Trinidad to Trinidadian parents. Attended Bishop Anstey High School, Port of Spain, then university in England. De Verteuil taught at her alma mater before retiring to Tobago four years ago. She is married to Alex de Verteuil.

THE newspaper of the day noted the passing of Alice May Brodie-Thomson in March of 1947: Daughter of Charles Brodie, granddaughter of Rev George Brodie (minister in the Greyfriars Church in Port of Spain), graduate nurse of the New York Hospital, volunteer medic in the battlefields of France during World War I, awarded for her service, married to Bertie Thomson; to settle on that cocoa estate in Siparia, where they raised three children, while spending much of her time caring for the sick and suffering until her death, the funeral service held at the very Greyfriars Church sold last month and now destined to a fate unholy.

Three paragraphs summarised that extraordinary journey, and May’s 66-year-old life passed into history, remembered by those whose lives she touched. Then those memories faded too, as time tumbled on, leaving only her name to show up in the colonial archive as one who had served in the war, and in the meticulously kept records at Ellis Island, New York, where she is listed as passing through America’s gateway, to chase her dreams.

But the remarkable story of Alice May Brodie is not lost. It lives in the letters she wrote during her time in New York, aboard the steamships to the US and Europe, and in the hospital filled with war wounded coming from the savage frontline. It is told in the faded photographs—May as a young woman, as a nursing student, on the day she became engaged, and of Coora Estate in Siparia, where the Amerindians, wearing the loin cloth of their tribal ancestors and the hats of modern-day fashion, would row across from the mainland and come to her for help to clean and dress their cuts and bruises.

The Brodie family history has been reconstructed over a period of years by May’s granddaughter, Jennifer de Verteuil. She has unearthed connections dating back more than 170 years that tell of a part of Trinidad’s amazing history unknown to so many. De Verteuil has shared her research, during this, the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI, when her grandmother, May, defied social norms expected of a woman then and, along with hundreds of Trinidad and Tobago residents, served in the Great War, where 16 million would die.

1883-1914 : The Brodie/Copland/Thomson connections

Alice May Brodie was the eldest of four daughters, all born in San Fernando, to Charles and Elizabeth Brodie. Charles was the youngest child of Rev George Brodie and Mrs Charlotte Brodie, who both came to Trinidad from Scotland in 1840. Rev Brodie’s six children were all born in Trinidad. His third child, George Brodie, became a prominent merchant in San Fernando in the 1870s, trading as GL Brodie & Company at 38 High Street. He was the agent for

Grenada rum and business contacts with Grenada led to connections with a Scottish planter there, John Copland, whose second daughter, Mary, married George in 1871. Charles followed his older brother George to San Fernando and eventually married Mary’s younger sister, Elizabeth—two brothers married two sisters.

May Brodie was only 12 years old when her father died in 1895 and things became very difficult, financially, for the young widow, Elizabeth, and her four daughters. Tragically, her youngest child, Magadelene, born in 1891, died of diphtheria at the San Fernando hospital when she was only six years old. Stories are told of Elizabeth Brodie having to take in washing and mending to make ends meet, but the Scottish community in San Fernando was a close-knit one and became a source of support, financially and otherwise, for the young widow and her daughters.

A prominent Scotsman, Thomas Thomson, and his wife, Margaret, were among those who looked out for the Brodie family. Their eldest son, Robert “Bertie” Thomson (born in San Fernando in 1880), would later marry May in February of 1919 at Greyfriars Church in Port of Spain. Thomas Thomson, a partner in the firm Cunningham and Thomson of 32 High Street, San Fernando, was a native of Ayr, on the west coast of Scotland. He arrived in San Fernando in 1871 to work as a writing clerk with the merchant firm of J and G Lambie and Company. The Lambie family was also from Ayr.

Thomas Thomson and his friend Richard Cunningham, a fellow passenger on the ship, the SS Tamana, which brought both of them from Scotland, bought out the Lambies in 1879 and the firm then became known as Cunningham & Thomson. Like his brother Charles, George Brodie also died young (October 1, 1881). He was only 36. His funeral was given a great deal of prominence as he achieved much recognition during his time in San Fernando as a member of the San Fernando Borough Council.

His wife, Mary, stayed on in San Fernando for some time but she lost everything in the fire of September 1883, which devastated the centre of San Fernando, and returned to Grenada with her young son, also called George, where she managed one of the Copland family estates, Mount Edgecombe, near Gouave.

Charlotte Copland, the eldest of John Copland’s ten children, had married Charles Smith, who managed Bon Aventure Estate in South Trinidad. She also found herself widowed early on so, together with her sister Elizabeth, they moved their young families to Port of Spain, where they ran a boarding house on London Street. One of Charlotte’s sons, Sydney Smith, who attended Queen’s Royal College, was the only cricketer to play for three national teams: first the West Indies, then the MCC when he moved to England and, finally, he ended up as captain of New Zealand, where he settled after World War I.

Sydney’s cricketing history has been documented in a book published earlier this year in New Zealand called Cricket’s Mystery Man. Thirteen years after Charles Brodie’s death, his wife Elizabeth died in 1903 aged 48. Her three daughters were still relatively young. May, who was only 19, found herself in charge of her two younger sisters, Charlotte, 17, and Dora, 13. A Copland aunt in England agreed to have Dora live with her so she could finish her education there and Charlotte married one of the residents at her mother’s boarding house, Ralph Cambridge, then a young master at Queen’s Royal College. Ralph Cambridge became headmaster of the college later on.

With May’s two younger sisters “accounted for” she was able to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. At that time it was “simply unheard of for a young lady to consider any sort of profession”. This is a quote from one of May’s (future) sisters-in-law, who disapproved of the fact that her brother would marry a working girl. May found a job at the Port of Spain public library, spending a number of years there while doing numerous correspondence courses with The Chautauqua School of Nursing, Jamestown, New York. Her nursing study papers are in possession of one of her granddaughters.

Finally, in 1909, a full six years after her mother’s death at the “ripe old age” of 25, she was able to leave Trinidad for New York to continue her studies and, in 1912, she qualified as a “Registered Nurse--State of New York” at New York Hospital, 8 West 16th Street, New York City.
A letter written on board the SS Saramacca, begun on Friday August 29, 1909, two days before she arrived in New York, gives a detailed account of her trip and continues for a short while after her arrival. This letter has survived along with a number of other letters written by May over the course of her ten years away from Trinidad.

The journey to New York was a brave venture for an island girl who had been brought up in difficult circumstances and who, despite the courageous exterior, confesses to her sisters, Charlotte and Dora, (the latter now back home from England): “So far I have done nothing but wish myself back, and wonder how on earth I ever made up my mind to leave, yet, I know if I had stayed I should always have felt I should have gone and tried.

When I land, I daresay, I shall feel better.”
At 11 a.m. on the morning of her arrival in New York (August 31, 1909), she had already found her way to New York Hospital and an hour and a half later she had settled into the “probationers’ quarters, soon finding her feet and settling in well into life as a student nurse”.
After she graduated in 1912, May did a few months of private nursing and then worked as the night supervisor at Hudson Street Hospital (Emergency Branch) New York. Then came the war that changed the course of May’s life. Next week: The horror of war and the love affair that brought May back home.
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