This week marks the 125th anniversary of the queen of crime fiction: Dame Agatha Christie. But did you know her career and her encyclopaedic knowledge of poisons are both rooted in her time as a British Red Cross volunteer?
Born in Torquay, Devon, Agatha had a privileged Victorian upbringing. So joining the Red Cross as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) at the outbreak of the First World War was something of a shock to the system.
As men were fighting on the western Front, it fell to women to earn money for their families. They performed many jobs that had been previously considered “unladylike” and unsuitable for women, such as poultry farming and stock breeding. Agatha joined many others in the most common wartime occupation for women during the war: a VAD.
At first she volunteered as a nurse in Torquay. Many of the boats carrying the wounded from the battlefields arrived here. Biographer Janet Morgan says:
“It was hard, messy, evil-smelling, tiring work, which she later described in the novel Giant’s Bread.”
Despite the hardships, the work helped distract her from anxiety about her fiancée Archibald Christie, who was fighting in France.
And her later work, as a hospital dispenser, is said to have inspired much of her fiction.
World-renowned Agatha Christie expert Dr John Curran, author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks and Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making, says:
“She started off as a nurse but because it was World War One a lot of the injuries were very gruesome. So when she was given the opportunity to work in the dispensary she jumped at it.
“I think on a personal level this was a young woman with a Victorian upbringing, very cossetted, and suddenly she’s seeing men with missing limbs and missing eyes. It was difficult for her to cope with that.”
Her Red Cross personnel card shows she performed 3,400 hours of unpaid work between October 1914 and December 1916.
In 1917 she passed her exam of the Society of Apothecaries and began dispensing medicines for the hospital, which was based in the Torquay town hall building. She earned £17 per annum (the equivalent of around £730 in today’s money).
Her service eventually finished with the end of the war in September 1918. She described the role as “one of the most rewarding professions that anyone can follow”.
Liberation and inspiration
The war saw women entering the workforce in all sorts of different roles, ranging from medics and famers to teachers and bus conductors. As more men left to join the fighting, women were called upon to contribute to the war effort.
The board of trade labour exchanges developed the register of women for war service, which allowed any woman to work. The circumstances provided liberation for many and inspiration for Dame Agatha Christie.
“That was the start of her knowledge of poisons,” says Dr Curran. “She uses poisons more than the vast majority of crime writers. Her very first story, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, depends on a very clever use of poison. She was much happier with that than firearms and stabbings. In her notebooks she writes lists of poisons. [The Red Cross work was] hugely influential.”
And she was obviously a good scholar. It’s claimed her work was regularly read by pathologists as reference material in real poisoning cases.
Boredom and a bet
Although grateful to be away from the front-line nursing work that so turned her stomach, working in the dispensary had its own problems.
It’s said her first novel was written both as a result of a bet from her sister and to break the hours of stifling monotony in her wartime job.
The following passage from The Mysterious Affair at Styles hints at this when Agatha Christie alter-ego Cynthia Murdoch – also a VAD – entertains the book’s narrator in the “sanctum” of the dispensary office.
“What a lot of bottles!” I exclaimed, as my eye travelled round the small room. “Do you really know what’s in them all?”
“Say something original,” groaned Cynthia. “Every single person who comes up here says that. We are really thinking of bestowing a prize on the first individual who does not say: “What a lot of bottles!’ And I know the next thing you’re going to say is: ‘How many people have you poisoned?”
I pleaded guilty with a laugh.
The first novel is also the place where we are first introduced to a certain Belgian detective – Hercule Poirot.
Dr Curran explains: “The book is very much concerned with the First World War. It’s very much of its time. It’s quite nostalgic to look back on it now. And Poirot was undoubtedly inspired by the real Belgian refugees Agatha Christie would have encountered in Torquay at the time. That’s what gave her the idea.”
Whether he was based on a specific individual, however, is a bit of a mystery. Dr Curran says her notebooks reveal an interesting technique she had for coming up with her characters. She preferred to be inspired from a distance.
“If she sees someone in a restaurant or on the tube and she thinks they’ve got an interesting appearance, provided no one tells her who they are she goes home and starts writing about them with that image in her mind,” says Dr Curran.
So just how much credit can the Red Cross take for the incredible career of Dame Agatha Christie? Although boredom and a bet provided something of a spark for her writing, it was “genius” that propelled her to prolific heights, says Dr Curran.
“I argue those things aren’t enough to send someone off to hammer out a novel on an old fashioned typewriter,” he says. “There was obviously a large creative spark but she went way beyond that. That was the first of 80 books she wrote. That was just the start.”
- Fan of Agatha Christie? Browse her Red Cross records and check out the International Agatha Christie Festival happening in Devon this week.
- Did your relatives volunteer for the British Red Cross during the First World War? Search for your family’s records.
- Why not become a Red Cross volunteer and see where the creative spark might take you?
- Support refugees fleeing conflict today: donate to our Europe Refugee Crisis Appeal
This blog was written by Rebecca McIlhone, media relations officer for the British Red Cross.