“They can’t come in here—I tell you they simply can’t.”
I was sitting eating my matutinal egg on a sleety January day in 1909,
when I heard this altercation at the door.
“They can’t come in here,” repeated the cook, “they simply can’t.”
Thinking I had better go and see what it was all about, I ventured
forth. On the doorstep stood two laughing postmen.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Parcels, mum, parcels; we have got a whole van full.”
“A van full!” I exclaimed, seeing a large red parcels-delivery van in
“Yes, a special van for you, mum, containing one hundred and ninety-six
I nearly collapsed.
“Where _are_ they to go?” I exclaimed.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
“They can’t come in here,” chirruped the cook, knowing the hall was
“You must leave them in the van,” I suggested helplessly, “until I have
time to think what is to be done with them.”
“Can’t do that,” replied the smiling postman. “We have brought you a
’special delivery’ as it is, and I must go back for my ordinary rounds.”
“Well, they can’t come in here,” I repeated in the cook’s words, as the
wind howled down the street and stray flakes of snow fell.
“Let us stand them in the street,” brilliantly suggested the postman.
This was an inspiration, and accordingly one hundred and ninety-six
parcels were packed up against the side of a London house. They stood
four or five feet high. Having told the cook to remain at the front
door and see that nothing happened to them, I returned to my half-cold
egg, but I had not even finished it before there were more altercations
at the door.
The noise continuing, I again left the breakfast-table (8.45 a.m.) to
see what it meant. Another van. This time a Carter Paterson.
“Have _you_ any parcels?” I asked in trepidation.
“Yes, mum, seventy-eight; nearly a van-load of sacks and crates and
other huge things.”
Into the street they also had to go, but before the men were finished
unpacking other carts were arriving, and depositing sixteen,
twenty-seven, thirty-six packages upon the pavement.
By ten o’clock the house and the neighbours’ houses were barricaded
with parcels. Never, probably, was such a sight seen in a London
street. Five vans’ loads disgorged at one time.
Messina was buried in ruins, I was buried in parcels. After eighteen
days I was being disinterred from bundles and packages in London.
It all came about in this wise. The letter I sent to six important
London papers, expecting, perhaps, that one of them might kindly
print it, appeared in all of them. The evening Press reprinted it.
It was copied into the large provincial papers the next day. That
letter started a veritable snow-ball scheme. It was a Tuesday. I had a
On my return about four in the afternoon my parlourmaid met me with an
agonised face, and exclaimed:
“We _have_ had a time since you went out, m’m!”
“Why?” I asked, surprised.
“By twelve o’clock that front door-bell began to ring,” she said, “and
it has never ceased. Ladies in motors, people in carriages, gentlemen
in hansoms, babies in perambulators—and they have all left parcels.”
“Parcels!” I exclaimed in horror.
“Yes, m’m, parcels. The cloak-room is stacked from floor to ceiling.”
[Illustration: THE WRITER BURIED IN PARCELS FOR MESSINA
_By Harry Furniss_]
This rather took my breath away, and I wondered how on earth I should
ever get that number of things to Sicily.
No chance to return to the breakfast-table. There was no time to finish
that egg as wildly I rushed to the telephone, begging one or two
intimate friends to come and help at once, while a servant went off to
neighbours to ask for immediate assistance.
Between signing papers for quickly-arriving packages and struggling to
get helpers, a policeman appeared.
“Very sorry, mum, but, you know, you are obstructing the roadway,” he
“I cannot help it,” I replied. “I am literally overpowered, and as it
is in the cause of charity, I suppose it does not matter.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” he answered; “but you must leave some
pathway, besides which you are blocking the road; you will be taken up
as a public nuisance.”
This was really too much. Telephoning for assistance to a high official
at Scotland Yard, who chanced to be a personal friend, he soon sent me
a special constable. One was not enough. He had to send for another
policeman. But as every little butcher boy told every other little
butcher boy what was going on, and as every loafer told every other
loafer to come and see, an inspector had also to be requisitioned. For
four days we were guarded by three stalwart policemen, who kept an eye
on us for a further length of time.
“Pass along, please. Pass along, please,” became a well-known cry in
the Terrace. Verily it was a blockade—especially after the papers
extolled the novelty of the scene. Then nurses and perambulators
came to have a look at us; ladies in grand motors drove round to see
the sight; Bath chairs added to the confusion; and, above all, the
unemployed at one time threatened serious trouble.
But to go back in the history of events which led to the Siege of York
It was Christmas, 1908.
We were only a party of twelve, but amongst my guests was His
Excellency the Italian Ambassador, the Marquis di San Giuliano. We ate
turkey and plum-pudding, cracked crackers, and made merry in the usual
The Ambassador and I talked much of Sicily, of its sunshine, its people
and the happy months I had spent there, and then of his family who
lived in or near Catania, not far from Messina.
Jovial, contented, and pleased we parted at midnight on that Friday.
Before daylight on the Monday following two hundred thousand people had
been killed, wounded, or rendered homeless in a few seconds in Messina.
Terrible indeed was the disaster. The earth opened and practically
swallowed Reggio on the opposite shore, while a huge wave overswept the
Sicilian coast. Houses fell like packs of cards, and the beautiful city
of Messina cracked to pieces like the smashing of glass.
For hours—yes, for many hours—the Italian Ambassador in London did not
even know whether his entire family had been swept away or not. All
his relations felt the shock, though happily none succumbed. His son,
the late Marquis di Capizzi, wrote to me a couple of days after the
catastrophe, and said:
“We are still suffering from the terrible impressions of the earthquake
that completely destroyed Messina, killing nearly 200,000 persons. It
lasted so long and so much that we were sure we should all be killed
here (Catania) and yet we escaped.”
Then followed details of death, horror, and misery, of starvation and
naked humanity running about in torrential rain. Thus flashed across my
mind an idea which matured in the above-mentioned letter to the Press:
“CLOTHING FOR SICILY
“30, YORK TERRACE, LONDON, N.W.
“SIR,—Nothing in the world’s history can compare with this disaster
which swept away 200,000 persons in a few seconds.
“In view of the appalling want of clothing among the survivors
owing to this terrific earthquake, it seems to me that there may
be many who cannot afford to contribute to the Mansion House Fund,
but who would willingly give something to the sufferers in ‘kind.’
The Italian Ambassador has promised that anything I collect shall
be rightly distributed by competent officials. I hope I may manage
to persuade some good folks to send the boxes out free, or to send
a small contribution in money to pay for their speedy transit. The
sooner we can land contributions the greater their value. The first
box of clothing, old and new, will, I hope, start on Friday.
“The winter in Sicily is often exceedingly cold; moreover, the
rains have lately been very severe, so that added to all the
horrors of shock, loss of homes and destitution, thousands of
people are insufficiently clad.
“All parcels (please prepay these, dear friends) sent to me shall
be properly and promptly attended to.—I am, etc.,
“(Mrs.) E. ALEC TWEEDIE.”
An innocent enough little letter! Yet how far-reaching in its results.
There stood the parcels, but what they were to go into was the next
problem. Each girl friend as she arrived was bundled into a cab,
and told to go to shops in the neighbourhood and collect all the
packing-cases she could and bring them back. They were brought,
but more and more were wanted. Each shop could only produce two or
three, and those they gave cheerfully, but as the stacks of packages
increased more rapidly than they decreased, it ended at last in our
requisitioning huge furniture cases, the sort of thing that holds a
cottage piano, a settee, or two or three arm-chairs.
The first fifteen hundred articles were counted. They filled ten
crates. After that it was impossible to enumerate, or even to do more
than cursorily sort the things, but on the estimate of the first ten
cases, I appear to have sent away twenty-seven thousand garments in one
hundred and ninety-eight packing-cases. Some of them were so heavy they
took four men to lift.
The first twenty thousand left in three days to catch the earliest mail
steamers to the stricken centres.
How terrific was the pace may be judged by one incident.
I telephoned on Wednesday morning to my friend Sir Thomas Sutherland,
asking that the weekly P. and O. boat might take out twenty cases for
delivery in Sicily. By lunch-time that number had swollen to forty,
so I telephoned again, and begged he would find room for forty in the
Still the pile did not decrease. Still we sent for packing-cases to the
large furniture emporiums. By tea-time the number was much augmented,
and I wired desperately to Sir Thomas, begging him to come and see me
on his way home. He did so. His motor could not get up the street, for
the newspapers had begun to mention the circumstance, and a crowd of
sightseers and idlers had come to look on.
“I never saw such a sight,” he exclaimed; “the place is like a railway
“I have a confession to make,” I said. “I asked you at luncheon-time
to take forty cases. Dare I tell you I now have altogether eighty-five
packages standing on the pavement, waiting to go somewhere?”
“Eighty-five!” he exclaimed. “But the _Simla_ is full already.”
“They can’t stop here,” I said, almost in tears, for really the thing
was becoming too serious. “The cases won’t even come inside the door. I
have nowhere to put them, and they can’t remain in the street in case
it rains, even if the police do guard them all night.”
They went to the docks that night. Then I went to bed feeling that it
But not a bit of it. The very same thing began again next day, and
another friend—Sir Frederick Green, chairman of the Orient—had to be
appealed to, to convey the next consignment to Naples, which he most
To give some idea of the enormous magnitude of this undertaking—twelve
dozen-dozen yards of rope were used to tie the cases, and twice I
sent out for four shillings and sixpence worth of nails for fastening
the lids. Two whole quart bottles of ink were used for painting on
the addresses; and three dust-carts—special dust-carts—were required
at the end of the first day to take away the refuse of string,
cardboard-boxes, and brown paper. Never can I thank my twenty-seven
willing helpers sufficiently. There were seldom less than fifteen at a
time unpacking, sorting, and repacking in the street in all that bitter
cold. They forgot personal suffering and backaches, working right
cheerily and generously all those anxious days.
Buried in parcels did I call it? Swamped in parcels, drowned in
parcels! Probably about three thousand of them.
Twenty thousand garments were got off by Friday night, when I had
already implored the public through the Press to stop sending any more.
Twenty thousand garments in reply to my appeal for a few things to send
in “a box”!
On Saturday I had the following letter inserted in the Press, thinking
this would stop the flow:
“SIR,—I had no idea when my appeal for clothing for the sufferers
in Sicily appeared last Tuesday that the response would be so
magnificent and so overwhelming. In three days about 20,000
articles were landed at my door. After the house was full they
stood in stacks in the street, as many as 196 parcels arriving
by one delivery. Thanks to the help of friends, all these were
repacked in three days. Carter Paterson generously conveyed the
crates and packing-cases to the docks. Forty cases went by the
Orient Line to Naples, addressed to the British Consul, ten cases
went by the Wilson Line from Hull, similarly addressed, whilst
the P. and O. kindly took no fewer than eighty-five packing-cases
of enormous size to Malta. They were addressed to Messina, to the
Duke of Bronte at Catania and the Marquis di Capizzi. Another
forty cases are being transported to-night by the Wilson Line for
distribution to the sufferers at Reggio. All these companies are
generously conveying these enormous consignments free of cost.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to reply personally to about 700
letters or about 2000 parcels, so I hope all kind donors will
accept my gratitude by this public acknowledgment. Where money
was sent, work from the Ladies’ Needlework Guild was purchased
(thereby doing a double charity), or men’s suits. The work has been
colossal, and only accomplished by the kind co-operation of many
friends. I would beg that no more clothes be sent, as physical
strength cannot combat further strain.—Yours, etc.,
“(Mrs.) E. ALEC TWEEDIE.”
But no, still they came.
A week later the Italian Ambassador’s kindly thanks appeared in the
“DEAR MRS. ALEC TWEEDIE,—I saw in the Press your acknowledgment of
nearly 25,000 articles of clothing which the public so generously
sent you for the sufferers from the earthquake. I wish to endorse
my thanks to that generous public, and I also wish to express my
gratitude to the Wilson Line, the P. and O., the Orient Line, and
Carter Paterson for conveying nearly 200 of those enormous crates
free of charge to the nearest ports to their destination.
“As the writer of _Sunny Sicily_ my country owed you much. It now
owes you still more for the thought, speed, organisation, and
despatch which accomplished such a gigantic task in three days to
catch the steamers. I myself saw the bales of clothing being packed
in the street by your fifteen friends, guarded by the police and
helped by several stalwart men, four of whom were required to lift
some of the cases. I can only repeat the task was herculean for a
private individual, and its successful completion amazing. Please
make this letter public.—Sincerely yours,
“The Italian Embassy, 20 Grosvenor Square,
Did that end it? Not at all. For another week packages dribbled in
from Ireland, from the North of Scotland, from Germany, and even from
The curious thing about these parcels was that more than half the
clothes were absolutely new. People had gone to shops and bought five
or ten pounds’ worth of goods in reply to my appeal “in kind.” A large
number came from gentlemen’s clubs or chambers. These usually arrived
anonymously, with a touching little bit of paper inside, “God bless
you,” or “An unknown admirer of your books,” or “My interest in Sicily
was first awakened by your book on that country.”
A pair of baby’s socks came from a poor woman who wrote she was sorry
she could not send more, but still she wanted to send something.
Another workman’s wife offered a week’s time, as she had formerly been
a shirt-maker and could get through a lot in the time, and that right
willingly “for them poor things.”
A poor old governess wrote from a seaside town:
“DEAR MADAM,—When I read about your starting a Relief Fund for the
poor darlings—the sufferers in Messina—I prayed for God’s choicest
blessing to rest on you. Next came a wish to do something myself,
and a mournful inability presented itself unless _this_ attempt
may be of some use. I am an invalid—almost a martyr to bronchial
asthma, and I am oftener in bed than out of it.
“I am 70 years of age and am being maintained by a sister or the
workhouse would be my portion. I am a Board School teacher, and at
different times I tried my hand at composition. In the year 1902—I
think it was—I tried for the £100 prize for a story. If you can
make any use of the MSS., please apply the money to your fund.
“In conclusion, I pray again God will prosper you in all your way.
We want more of such _real_ Christians as you have proved yourself
to be. I wept when I first read of your grand work.
“With kind regards, yours very sincerely,
“(Mrs.) M. A. C.”
The address was rather touching:
“The Lady Authoress,
“Sending garments, etc.,
Another was poor; but had a pair of old ear-rings valued about £2,
which she offered to send me for sale if I would apply the money
in buying clothes. Some of the parcels contained several hundred
things—often newly bought and beautiful—many were accompanied by
complete lists of the contents.
Another letter came from a Home, and was signed by a row of Nurses on
the Staff, each sending a contribution. A charming lady sent an odd
shoe, and explained that the fellow shoe was in the parcel she had sent
off the day before! A man sent a coat, and the next day followed the
waistcoat which he had just found!
One more practical gentleman sent twenty-four pairs of beautiful new
white blankets, done up in sacking; another thoughtful person sent six
dozen new hair-brushes.
Numbers of people came to talk to me, shake hands with me, interview
me, until I had to beg my friends to say I was engaged and invisible.
A lady brought a parcel and almost refused to leave it without seeing
me personally and handing me her half-crown. As she was one of a
number, the servant refused, whereupon she insisted on writing a
letter, and sat down to slowly compile four sheets for my benefit,
while the parlourmaid, who had been dragged from the packing, stood
beside her. Luckily, she left the parcel and the two-and-sixpence.
Letters came from the grandest homes, from castles and courts, from
vicarages and schools, and from some of the very poorest dwellings,
carpenters’ wives and mill hands. They came from remote villages and
towns I had never heard of, and many consignments arrived from abroad,
the senders having written to large London emporiums and ordered
blankets or shirts to be sent for the refugees.
Probably one-third came anonymously, a third more asked for
acknowledgment, while others sent money to buy clothes, or for me to
use at my discretion.
“Please prepay the carriage, dear friends.” Innocent enough words—but
oh, the result of them almost swamped me—nearly nine hundred postal
orders, mostly for sixpence, was the result. They came in letters, they
came pinned to garments, they turned up anywhere and everywhere, and
also stamps; just three, or six, or nine, or a dozen odd stamps, to
help to pay carriage or buy clothes.
Roughly, I received about twelve hundred epistles, followed, after it
was all over, by several hundred more begging letters from England and
Italy. Many of these specified exactly what the writer would like to
have: “A green dress, and my waist is 28 inches,” or “A pair of grey
flannel trousers, and my height is 5ft. 10in.”
Among the strange addresses were:
“Alla Nobile Dama,
“Mrs. Alec Tweedie,
“Cultrice di belle Lettere,
“To the Right Honourable Lady
They flattered and praised me, spoke “of my great merits and noble
heart,” and then proceeded to ask me “to pay for the education of a
young musician,” “adopt a baby,” “get the plays of a young dramatist
performed in London,” “send money to a Viscount who was too proud to
beg, so would I address it to his servant?” England and Italy honoured
me with some hundred of these begging letters. Old clothes men offered
to buy up what was left over. “Mrs. Harts” and “Mr. Abrahams” rang up
to know if I wished to _sell_ any of the surplus things. (What did they
take me for?) Men and women pulled the front-door bell and asked for
coats and skirts; in fact, my house was not my own for a month or more.
As one hundred and twenty-six pounds eighteen shillings and eleven
pence came to me in money with the request that I would buy clothing
(which I did from poor guilds), as the donors lived in the country, or
do exactly as I liked with it, we tried to be businesslike, in spite
of the rush, and made most elaborate tables showing cases despatched,
dates, money received, expended, and so on.
Nothing was omitted. Every conceivable article of clothing for men,
women, and children was there. Numberless blankets, sheets, needles,
cottons, pins, tapes, new stockings with the proper-coloured mending
pinned on, and boots and shoes galore. The things in themselves
depicted the thought and care with which they had been selected,
showing the sympathy of the people of Great Britain, from the poorest
to the richest, with the unfortunate sufferers. Amongst other things
were razors and pipes. There were even braces, slippers, fur coats,
hairpins, sleeping-socks, and amongst it all came a parcel of most
useful things, amongst which were hidden a dozen copies of the
_Christian World_. Did the dear old body who sent them imagine that the
Sicilian peasants could read an English tract?
One lady wrote she “is sending a case weighing four hundredweight, and
as it contains seven hundred garments, she thinks it might go as it
stands.” It did; God bless her.
Really it was a study in parcels. Some were so beautifully done up that
one marvelled at the dexterity of amateur hands which tied the string;
others were disgracefully bundled together; and in one or two cases
labels arrived saying they had been found without any parcels attached.
Many people had carefully sorted the things into bundles and written
outside, “Complete outfit for a man,” “Complete outfit for a woman,”
“For a peasant child,” or “For a well-born little girl.”
Several people in different parts of England offered to get up
working-parties, and asked for suggestions for making suitable garments.
A Manchester manufacturer of flannel said he was willing to give all
that was required, and his workpeople would give the time if I let them
know what to make, but as his letter did not arrive until twenty-five
thousand things had gone, I did not feel able to begin over again.
Dressmakers and shops sent contributions. Several sent parcels in great
haste. Poor dears, they imagined there would be one crate—my “one box
on Friday” became a veritable joke. A lady sent a sack containing
clothes, and kindly requested that I would let her have the sack back.
I did return several portmanteaux, suit-cases, washing-baskets, and
even hold-alls, but when it came to a sack——
The crowd which collected in the street was both pathetic and humorous.
I remember two shabby little urchins of eight and ten looking with
longing eyes at the warm clothing, and the younger one remarked: “I
say, Bob, what a pity we wasn’t blowd up in that earthquake!”
A friend noticed a couple of unusual parcels being handed in at the
door and quietly put into one of the cases. On rushing to investigate,
she found that one contained my best drawing-room curtains returned
from the cleaners, and the other a cake for afternoon tea.
Warned not to leave her wraps about, one of my helpers put her muff and
stole on the staircase. An hour later she only rescued them in the nick
of time from a crate where a kindly man was packing them up, thinking
they “would be so comfortable for the poor people in Sicily.”
Many of these crates stood four feet from the ground. It was therefore
impossible, even with the aid of friendly walking-sticks, to pack
the bottom, consequently a kitchen chair was fetched, and by its
aid various girls got inside and gradually packed the clothing and
My rooms on the ground floor were full of parcels, letters, cheques,
postal orders, keys waiting to be returned with portmanteaux, labels
likewise to be affixed to returned empties, bills of lading, telegrams,
cards, accounts for clothing, etc. Personally, I never sat down for one
minute that somebody did not come to ask for a shilling, or sixpence,
or half-crown, to pay for some package delivered unpaid at the door.
To complicate matters, reporters and photographers seemed to arrive
from everywhere. They snapshotted us as we worked, they gleaned bits
of information from any and every one, and one of them insisted on
penetrating my private den, where he found me busily writing. A friend,
hearing a crash and seeing a mysterious light, thought there was a
sudden earthquake in York Terrace. She rushed to the hall to ask what
had happened. “Oh, it is nothing, only Mrs. Tweedie being snapshotted.”
And oh—what a photograph it was! But it was reproduced in France,
Germany, Italy, and Sicily.
Some weeks afterwards I received the following letter from the Italian
Government through Sir Rennell Rodd, our Ambassador in Rome:
“MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS,
“_27th January, 1909_.
“By your note of 14th inst. your Excellency informed me that the
well-known authoress, Mrs. Alec Tweedie, had in the short time of
three days collected twenty thousand pieces of clothing, which in
167 packages had been sent to Naples, Messina, and Catania, to
succour the sufferers in the recent disaster.
“I shall be grateful if your Excellency will, in the name of the
Royal Government and myself, express to Mrs. Alec Tweedie the sense
of profound gratitude for the zeal and alacrity which she showed in
coming to the help of so many sufferers.
“I have, etc.,
“H.E. Sir R. Rodd,
“British Ambassador, Rome.”
Most of the packages were distributed by my personal friends to the
real sufferers in Sicily fourteen days after the earthquake.
Yes, it _was_ an experience. An extraordinary experience even in a life
not unknown to strange sights and circumstances, but it was not what
one would willingly undertake again. The strain of organising such a
performance in a few hours’ time was terrific.
It cost me some weeks of my life, made a hole in my pocket, and did my
walls and house much damage, but I gained a vast amount of experience,
and _hundreds of half-sheets of note-paper_!