Helen Thomas

Helen Thomas

Helen Noble, the daughter of the journalist, James Ashcroft Noble, was born in Liverpool on 11th July 1877. Noble, who found work writing for The Spectator, moved the family to London in 1880. Later he contributed to The Daily Chronicle, Westminster Gazette and The Athenaeum.

After an education at Wintersdorf School in Southport, she became a nursery governess in Rotherfield. After meeting the poet, Edward Thomas, in 1896, the couple married and Helen taught at Beadles, a progressive co-educational boarding school. Helen had three children including the writer, Myfanwy Thomas.

In the summer of 1915 Edward Thomas enlisted as a private in the Artists' Rifles. The following year he was made a junior officer and transferred to the Royal Artillery. Lieutenant Thomas began writing war poetry in 1915 but only a couple of these were published before he was killed by an exploding shell at Arras on 9th April, 1917.

After the war, his wife, Helen wrote about her relationship with Edward Thomas in As it Was (1926) and World Without End (1931). Her daughter, Myfanwy Thomas, claims the books were written as a form of therapy to lift the depression which settled over her after the death of her husband. Helen Thomas died in 1967.

Primary Sources

(1) In her autobiography, Helen Thomas describes her husband's decision to join the Artists' Rifles.

One day when Edward was in London ostensibly looking for work, he sent me a telegram telling me he had enlisted in the Artists' Rifles. I had known that the struggle going on in the spirit would end like this, and I tried to prepare myself for it. But when the telegram came I felt suddenly faint and despairing. "No, no, no," was all I could say; "not that." But I knew it had to be and that it was right. He was - so the telegram said - to come in a few days a soldier.

(2) Helen Thomas taught at Bedales, a progressive co-educational boarding school. Some of the staff were hostile to Edward's decision to enlist in the army.

The war ruthlessly made clear the difference between the various people who lived in the village. All the able-bodied village men had enlisted - the young men for life and adventure, the older because they felt it their duty to do so. Only the old and infirm were left.

Bedales School as a whole stood for pacifism, and though the roll of honour in the school hall lengthened as old boys fell, the spirit of the place was anti-war. Young athletic men in sweaters and shorts carried on the great work of co-education, and at the village debating society tried to hold their own against the onslaughts of the more instinctive villagers and landed proprietors. I could hardly believe in the sincerity of the men who said they would not fight for anything and if they were sincere I thought them even more contemptible. When I told a leading member of staff that Edward had enlisted, he said disapprovingly, "That's the last thing I should have expected him to do." How I hated him for that remark, and hated more the schoolmaster smugness from which it came.

(3) In her autobiography, Helen Thomas describes the time before he left for the Western Front.

The first days had been busy with friends coming to say good-bye, all bringing presents for Edward to take out to the front - warm lined gloves, a fountain pen, a box of favourite sweets, books. They joked about his short hair, and the little moustache he had grown, and about the way he had perfected the Guards' salute.

And the days went by till only two were left. Edward had been going through drawers full of letters, tearing up dozens and keeping just one here and there, and arranging manuscripts and note-books and newspaper cuttings all neatly in his desk - his face pale and suffering while he whistled.

And I knew Edward's agony and he knew mine, and all we could do was to speak sharply to each other. "Now do, for goodness' sake, remember, Helen, that these are the important manuscripts, and that I'm putting them here, and that this key is for the box that holds all important papers like our marriage certificate and the children's birth certificates, and my life insurance policy. You may want them at some time, so don't go leaving the key about."

And I, after a while, "Can't you leave all the unnecessary tidying business, and put up that shelf you promised me? I hate this room but a few books on a shelf might make it look a bit more human." "Nothing will improve this room, so you had better resign yourself to it. Besides, the wall is too rotten for a shelf." "Oh, but you promised." "Well, it won't be the first time I've broken a promise to you, will it? Nor the last, perhaps."

(4) In her autobiography, Helen Thomas describes the last time she saw her husband.

A thick mist hung everywhere, and there was not sound except, far away in the valley, a train shunting. I stood at the gate watching him go; he turned back to wave until the mist and the hill hid him. I heard the old call coming up to me: "Coo-ee!" he called. "Coo-ee!" I answered, keeping my voice strong to call again. Again through the muffled air came his "Coo-ee." And again went my answer like an echo. "Coo-ee" came fainter next time with the hill between us, but my "Coo-ee" went out of my lungs strong to piece to him as he strode away from my.

"Coo-ee!" So faint now it might only be my own call flung back from the thick air and muffling snow. I put my hands up to my mouth to make a trumpet, but no sound came. Panic seized me, and I ran through the mist and the snow to top of the hill, and stood there a moment dumbly, with straining eyes and ears. There was nothing but the mist and the snow and the silence of death.

Then with leaden feet which stumbled in a sudden darkness that overwhelmed me I groped my way back to the empty house.

(5) In her autobiography, One of These Fine Days, Myfanwy Thomas describes how she heard about the death of her father, Edward Thomas.

On that bright April day after Easter, when mother was sewing and I was awkwardly filling in the pricked dots on postcard with coloured wool, embroidering a wild duck to send to France, I saw the telegraph boy learn his red bicycle against the fence. Mother stood reading the message with a face of stone. "No answer" came like a croak, and the boy rode away.

Mother fetched our coats and we went shivering out into the sunny April afternoon. I clutched her hand, half-running to keep up with her quick firm step, glancing continually up at the graven face that did not turn to meet my look. I waited, with dry mouth and chilled heart, outside the post office, while wires were sent off to Mother's sisters, to Granny and to Eleanor.

(6) Helen Thomas wrote to her friend, Janet Hooton, on the death of her husband, Edward Thomas (14th May, 1917)

It's only quite lately that I've felt able to write to any of the numerous friends who have written to me and helped me through these terrible days that so nearly were utter despair.

Sometimes the pain comes back, terrible, soul rending, but it is as if he took my hand in his dear one and gave me fresh courage to live again the life he would have me live, happy and carefree with the children. I try to remember how rich I am in his love and his spirit and in all those wonderful years, and to so forget that I am poor in not having his voice and touch and help.

I send you a copy of the letter his commanding officer wrote to me. It is above all letters precious to me in its simple sincerity and the characteristic picture it gives of my beloved. The very last letter I had from him was written the day before death came and it was bubbling with happiness and eagerness and love.