DOROTHY BINTLEY is a member of Manchester and Lancashire Society’s Oldham Branch.  In this fourth blog post in series written by members of the Society, Dorothy tells us about Nurse Sarah Hallam. Sarah’s story may resonate with other family historians who have discovered that they have military women in their family. Dorothy begins Sara’s story with her initial research sources:

Over the period of the First World War there are occasional reports in the Oldham Chronicle and Oldham Standard about “Nurse Hallam” who served in France and Belgium and received British, French and Belgian awards.  But who was she?  What was her forename?  Was Hallam her maiden or married name?  Because of the lack of full names in old records, women on their own can be difficult to research.  Eventually a report turned up naming her as Mrs John Hallam, still no forename of her own but with the help of census returns and birth and death indexes it was possible to discover her background.

Sarah O’Brien

She was born at 3 Griffiths Street, Oldham on February 25th 1872 daughter of Patrick O’Brien and Mary Ann O’Toole, the second of their nine children. When Sarah left school she became a cotton spinner. On April 8th 1902 she married widower John Hallam, a well-known estate agent in Oldham.  Sadly, Sarah and John’s marriage did not last long, John died on November 18th 1906.  After being widowed, Sarah took up nursing, enrolling on a training course at the Guest Hospital, Dudley and qualifying on August 28th 1910.  Training consisted of one year theoretical, one year practical followed by exams.  Those successful were expected to stay for a probationary year.  Some time after that she was appointed matron at the Deptford Fund Hospital for Sick Babies in London.

 Belgium 1914

During 1914 King Albert I of Belgium, knowing that his country would be completely over-run, appealed to British nurses and doctors for help.  Sarah belonged to the Catholic Women’s Nurses Guild and she was one of a party of 100 nurses and surgeons assembled by them and the British Red Cross to answer the call.  Twenty-five of them, including Sarah, arrived in Brussels just ahead of the German army and their immediate concern was to evacuate Belgian casualties who would certainly be taken prisoners. The hospitals quickly filled up with exhausted and wounded German soldiers who were tended by the Britons.  At first the doctors and nurses did not feel threatened, but they were subject to curfew and not allowed to leave Brussels. However, when the German commander feared they might be spies, the American Ambassador intervened and persuaded him to allow them to return home.

Return to England

What followed was a remarkable flight to safety.  Accompanied by armed German soldiers the group were taken on trains eastwards to Cologne then north, via Munster to Hamburg. The journey took several days and they were required to sleep on hard wooden seats or on the carriage floors.  Blinds were drawn and food was scarce.  From Hamburg they travelled further north to the Danish border where the Germans departed.  They were met by friendly Danes and escorted to Copenhagen, where they enjoyed a few days’ rest in an hotel before continuing north to Gothenburg in Sweden.  From there they travelled to Oslo and continued their journey across Norway to Bergen where they boarded a ship to Newcastle.  Quite a journey to get from Brussels to England.

Back to the front 

Sarah returned to Oldham but not for long.  By late 1914 she was stationed at the Hospital Militaire Temporaire No 4, Lisieux in France and by March 1915 she was serving on the French Hospital Ship Tchad off the coast at Dunkirk.   When it sailed to the Dardanelles in April 1915 she moved to Steenvoorde Military Hospital where she was based, sometimes in field hospitals, for the rest of the war, just 17 miles from Ypres and 23 miles from Passchendaele.

Sarah kept in touch with relatives at home.  Whilst on the Tchad she sent a photograph of herself in the grounds of the hospital at Lisieux.

Apr Blog 1

Photograph Courtesy of Bernard Madden and Gerald Hayes

And another photograph next to an ambulance outside the hospital in Steenvoorde. Apr blog 2

Photograph Courtesy of Bernard Madden and Gerald Hayes

There also is a photograph of Sarah with a group of her colleagues at Steenvoorde. Sarah is centre of the front row.

Apr blog 3

Photograph Courtesy of Bernard Madden and Gerald Hayes


Sarah received the Croix de Guerre with star, the bronze, silver and gold versions of the Medal of French Gratitude, the Mons Star and the British War and Victory medals.

Life afterwards

After the war Sarah took up work as a ladies’ nurse in Nice in the south of France.   She lived with a wealthy family each year from September to May, returning to Oldham to stay with her own family members during summer while temperatures on the Riviera were high.  This continued until 1939 when, at the age of 67 and with the second world war looming, she retired and went to live with her sister Emily in Cumbria.

Sarah died in 30 November 1961 aged 89 years.  She is buried in Moston Cemetery.


GRO Birth, Marriage and Death indexes

Census returns

Oldham Chronicle and Oldham Standard on microfilm at Oldham Local Studies and Archives:

Oldham Chronicle 24 November 1906 – Report of death of John Hallam

Oldham Chronicle 22 August 1914 – An Oldham nurse at the front

Oldham Standard 22 October 1914 – Sarah’s account of her time in Brussels and the long journey home

Oldham Standard 6 January 1915 – Nurse Hallam again at the front – postcard sent to United Irish Club, Oldham

Oldham Standard 1 February 1918 – An Oldham nurse – Medals from the French Government

Oldham Chronicle 2 February 1918 – Fourth honour for Oldham nurse

The British Journal of Nursing archives 1888 to 1956 – online at

20 March 1915 – Sarah Hallam on the French Hospital Ship Tchad

25 November 1916 – Sarah included in list of nurses who have completed 2 years’ service in France

9 March 1918 – Sarah included in list of nurses in their fourth year of service awarded the Mons Star

8 November 1919 – Forty nurses, including Sarah, awarded gold wrist watches

26 February 1921 – Sarah awarded the Croix de Guerre with bronze star

The Oldham Chronicle and the Oldham Standard are not online and can only be viewed on microfilm at Oldham Local Studies and Archives 84 Union Street, Oldham OL1 1DN   0161 770 4654

It is advisable to book a film reader, there is no charge.

Oldham Chronicle available from May 1854 – July 2016

Oldham Standard available from August 1859 – December 1946

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