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A first act of remembrance: The Red Cross Pearls


The Red Cross Pearl Appeal came to completion at the same time as the Armistice in 1918. The auction of the 41 necklaces made of donated pearls at Christie’s was one of the first post-war acts of remembrance.

Although there was great relief that the fighting was over there were mixed emotions as the armistice was signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. For many of the women who had donated pearls it was more a day for remembering the loved ones who would never return than rejoicing at the victory. Having lost two sons in the war, Mary Wemyss wrote in her diary:

“It is their Victory – it is also the saddest peace and except for a few Babies in their teens, no one can be light of heart and to most of us almost the hardest part is now beginning. We miss our shining victors in the hour of victory.” 

As they had done throughout the war, Mary and her closest friend Ettie Desborough, who had also seen two of her sons killed, supported each other through this emotional time. While the jubilant crowds partied in London, they stayed at their homes, where they felt closest to their lost sons.  Without saying a word they both knew what the other was going through.  Ettie told Mary that the thought of her had “burnt in her innermost heart” all day. She echoed her friend’s sentiments, writing: “Victory and we look in vain for our Victors.”

However, typically selfless, both Mary and Ettie immediately thought of others rather than themselves. When the armistice was declared, Mary wrote to her daughter-in-law, Letty Elcho, knowing how difficult it would be for her that her husband Ego would not be returning. Ettie also tried to console the young widow by drawing on her faith in an afterlife. She wrote:

Oh darling how the thought of you has ached at my heart all through these days (…) Only my Letty, I just cannot bear to think of you although I know how nobly you are bearing these days, as you have borne all – Ego must feel so triumphant over you, that look in his eyes that was only there for you – and you know that he is waiting for you, beautiful and young for evermore.”

Lacking Ettie’s Christian certainty, members of the younger generation struggled to come to terms with the slaughter of so many of their contemporaries. On the brink of a brief nervous breakdown, Mary Wemyss’ daughter Cynthia Asquith wrote:

“I think it (peace) will require more courage than anything that has gone before. It isn’t until one leaves off spinning round that one realises how giddy one is. One will have to look at long vistas again, instead of short ones, and one will at last fully recognise that the dead are not only dead for the duration of the war.”

The armistice changed the situation for the Red Cross Pearl appeal as well as the women who had given to it.  In the changed circumstances it was important to keep the public interested in the fate of the pearls if they were to make as much money as possible for wounded soldiers returning from the war.  On 25 November 1918, Princess Victoria and Lady Northcliffe sent out a letter to local and national papers explaining that the Red Cross’ need for funds was as great as ever.

The pearls now became part of one of the first post-war acts of remembrance when they were on display for three days at Christie’s King Street salerooms. There was a private viewing on 16 December where many of the visitors were women wearing their own magnificent pearls. But even they looked wistfully at some of the Red Cross Necklaces.

Admission to see the jewels was free on 17 and 18 December to make sure that the pearls could be seen by as many people as possible. By 10am on the opening day crowds were eagerly waiting outside the doors of Christie’s. The Queen newspaper wrote: “The thoroughfare was literally besieged: people who had never been in a crowd before waited and jostled with more or less good humour.”  Within the first hour, 300 people inspected the pearls and throughout the rest of the day the crowd was never less than three deep around the showcases. The pearls were simply displayed in sombre, oblong black boxes. Prospective buyers asked saleroom officials to take out the necklaces so that they could examine them. Schoolgirls back for the Christmas holidays admired the “young” necklaces made of smaller pearls. However, nearly everyone was speculating about how much money Lot No. 101 the finest pearl necklace, with the Norbury diamond clasp, would make.  One lady said:

“Whatever it fetches will not matter to the buyer (…) It will be historic as the jewels of Marie Antoinette; it will be an heirloom more famed than the Hope diamond. Other pearls come for the sea. These pearls came from human hearts and human tenderness and gratitude will run up their purchase price.”

The first day was busy, the second day was even more crowded. Soon after 10 in the morning the queue became so long that it wound around the outer room and stretched down the stairs across Christie’s reception hall and out into the street. The crowds continued all day long. On the final day the numbers were greater than ever and included people of every rank in life. Serviceman, home on leave, and their wives regarded the collection as one of the sights of the town.

On the day of the Pearl Necklace Auction itself, another important event was taking place in London. At 1pm on Thursday 19 December 1918, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig and his generals arrived in London for a victory parade. Escorted by a fleet of aeroplanes, they had travelled from Dover by special train to Charing Cross Station where they were greeted by the past and present prime ministers, Asquith and Lloyd George. They then travelled through the capital to lunch with the king and queen at Buckingham Palace. Thousands of people lined the route and, as the carriages passed, those standing on balconies showered flowers on the victors.

The clamour had hardly died down before some member of the patriotic crowd rushed off to Christie’s for the Red Cross Auction.  It was only a short walk from Haig’s parade to Christie’s in King Street. As supporter of the Red Cross gathered in the auction house’s impressive red-walled saleroom beneath historic portraits and paintings, there were many more women present than at most sales.  Many members of the Red Cross committee were there, hoping that all their hard work would now pay off.

When the auction began at 1.30pm the atmosphere at Christie’s was highly charged as the auctioneer, William Burn Anderson, entered the Chippendale rostrum. Antique ivory-headed hammer in his hand, he addressed the crowded room explaining that previous Red Cross sales had been held under the clouds of a terrible war, while the present sale was taking place after the great and glorious victory of the Allies. The cessation of hostilities did not mean that the Red Cross “work was finished – far from it.” They still needed money to tend to the wounded, and he appealed to his audience to keep that thought in their minds as they bid for the pearls. He added that those who bought the jewels would receive “something which is not only of intrinsic value, but also of considerable historic interest for the Red Cross Pearls have become historic.”

When the first lot, a brilliant pave ring, was put up, Mr Anderson read a letter which he had received that morning from the entrepreneur and philanthropist, Sir Francis Trippel. Offering £1,000 for the first four lots, he wrote that if they fell to him they should be put up for auction again, as he only wished to give, not to buy. His letter gave advice to other bidders: “Give till your sides ache, so that the financial success of the sale may be worthy of the Red Cross, the most deserving and the most humane of war charities.”

Before the forty-one pearl necklaces were auctioned there was the sale of other pearl jewellery, including earrings, pearl pins, brooches and rings. But the real excitement at the December 1918 sale began when the pearl necklaces were auctioned. At 3.30pm there was a flutter of anticipation as Lot 95, the first of the strings was brought out and shown to the audience. It sold for £2,200. The tension increased and there was a sense of drama as the lights went up and Mr Anderson introduced “the necklace of necklaces”, Lot 101, the most perfect pearls with the Norbury diamond clasp. The first bid was £20,000 then, with his encouraging smile, the auctioneer looked for nods around the room. Bids rose in steps of £500 until the necklace sold to the jeweller, Mr Carrington Smith for £22,000.

Reflecting the wide variety and quality of pearls on offer, prices paid during the afternoon ranged from £22,000 for the Norbury necklace to £30 for the children’s necklaces. Bidding in the auction lasted for three and a half hours. As the hammer fell on one lot after another, Mr Anderson’s smile never wavered as he sought, found and inspired members of his audience to compete with one another and bid higher.

The whole event was carried out with the understated professionalism expected of Christie’s. As one newspaper explained: “A Christie’s auctioneer is not like other members of his profession. He is not garrulous, he never jokes, he never describes his lots in unnecessary detail.” The journalist added that if the imperial crown should come up for sale at the auction house, “the dignified gentleman with the hammer would describe it dispassionately as “lot so and so,” and leave it at that. The Red Cross Pearl Necklaces needed no hyperbole, their beauty spoke for itself.

At the end of the afternoon, the final sum raised was £85,290 12 shillings and 4 d. The money was much needed, as The Times wrote:

“It may be more than a fancy that the money given for these sacred things will do more than other money could do for those on whom it will be spent. The guns are silent, the trenches are empty, but the victims of the guns and of the trenches are still with us in their thousands, still needing care and sympathy. It will be long indeed before we whom they have saved will have paid our debt to them; and then only will the tears be dried, the memories purged of all bitterness.”

By Rachel Trethewey

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