Book Review: Pearls Before Poppies

Pearls Before Poppies: The Story of the Red Cross Pearls, by Rachel Trethewey, delves into the stories of the wealthy women who orchestrated a First World War fundraiser that, thanks to supportive reporting in national newspapers, captured the wider public imagination. The Pearl Necklace Campaign was instigated by Lady Northcliffe, wife of an influential press baron who owned the widely read Times and Daily Mail. She asked that her fellow society ladies give one pearl from their jewellery collections to enable a necklace to be created that would be auctioned, with proceeds going to The Red Cross to help fund support for soldiers. Pearls were in vogue and many of these patrician women possessed numerous strands, inherited or gifted to them as status symbols from husbands or lovers. It was pointed out to them that one pearl would not be missed, and the gift would be regarded as an act of generosity. How one was seen by one’s peers mattered.

Many women subsequently contributed, often citing their reasons in notes accompanying the donation – a lost child or partner in whose memory the pearl was sent. These included pearls from women of less affluent social backgrounds, some of whom clubbed together to purchase a jewel they could not individually afford to give.

The aristocracy expected their children to marry their social equals or those regarded as superior, which led to a great deal of overlap between particular families. Within the various chapters of this book the reader learns of the women’s personal losses as a result of the conflict as well as the voluntary roles they played at home and abroad. Their menfolk, many having been brought up at the likes of Eton, had had instilled in them the sacredness of patriotism alongside the glory of battle and sacrifice. Prior to the war these young people had been indolent, decadent, searching for anything that would give their life meaning. The women were decorative and their families expected them to behave with superficial decorum. Prior to marriage they were strictly chaperoned while their parents philandered.

The war offered opportunities for freedom and adventure to both sexes. Unlike most factual histories of the time, these accounts focus on the women. The Pearl Necklace Campaign was seen as a fashionable cause and enjoyed royal patronage. Wives and their husband’s mistresses worked together. The tenets of the Christian faith were cited as a comfort in times of bereavement. Infidelities were, it appears, regarded as acceptable.

Many of the women lost brothers, husbands and sons. Concern was voiced that the best of a generation – the heirs to the landed gentry’s estates – were being sacrificed. Eugenics casts a shadow over several of the comments made. The children had been raised by nannies, governesses and schools. Parents did not just lose favourites but also the perpetuation of the family name. Young widows were encouraged to remarry and produce more babies – ‘splendid boys’ to replace lost scions.

Given what we now know about the degrees of difficulty experienced during war between the upper and lower echelons of society, and indeed the role played by powerful men in sending troops to their deaths, it is hard to feel as much sympathy for these privileged ladies as for their working class counterparts. Nevertheless, where all strata of society are levelled is in the emotional impact of bereavement. The loss of a husband may not have led to destitution but it was still challenging to bear with the stoicism expected.

The energy and sense of purpose demonstrated in the fundraiser was also evident in other wartime roles the women played. So many offered to open their opulent homes as hospitals, to be seen to be helping the war effort, that not all could be accepted. Many constrained young society women relished the opportunity to serve as nurses.

“There was some scepticism about whether untrained aristocrats were the right people to run hospitals.”

The Pearl Necklace Campaign was just one of many fundraisers. Other items of value were collected for sale in bazaars across the country or at auction. With the war machine generating wealth for a few and the inevitable currency fluctuations in times of conflict, luxury items such as pearls became an investment. Family assets were to be protected.

Lady Northcliffe believed most money could be raised from the pearl necklaces created if they were raffled. By offering the possibility of attaining such a prize to even the lower orders of women for a relatively small outlay, it was anticipated that vast sums could be collected. This idea caused some consternation amongst her peers. Concern was voiced that such status symbols – pearls symbolised the wealth of the wearer – should not be owned by poor people. A lottery was regarded as gambling and condemned.

Attitudes to the poor were an interesting aspect to read. With able bodied men off fighting the women were doing their work. Although paid less this granted them previously unattainable freedom.

“there was a widespread fear that working-class women were using their […] allowances to buy alcohol and get drunk in public.”

Presumably the champagne parties society women attended were regarded as acceptable to the aristocracy. Any attempts at temperance merely sent consumption underground. Parliament retained its bars.

The auction of the pearl necklaces raised funds as intended. A century later what has become of them is not known. Although the inspiration for this book, the pearls are just one detail in what is an eclectic history of privileged women on the cusp of societal change. Despite the sometimes obsequious manner in which their stories are shared there is much of interest.

The various anecdotes jump around a great deal in time but conclude with a few details on the introduction of cultured pearls into society after the war years. This offers a chance to ponder the intrinsic worth of any material item. However valuable a treasure may be considered by self-regarding elites, worth is either sentimental or what a buyer is willing to pay. The author writes of what the pearl came to symbolise over centuries. The value to the soldiers that this fundraiser aimed to help was measured in the eventual Red Cross donation.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, The History Press.


Rachel Trethewey will be giving a talk on the 1918 Red Cross Pearls appeal at Bowood House on Thursday 27th September – the Lansdownes of Bowood are one of the aristocratic families featured in her book. For details of this event and to purchase tickets, click here.


3 comments on “Book Review: Pearls Before Poppies

  1. Fascinating. I hadn’t heard about this.

  2. This sounds so interesting! Great review.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.