Read by Amanda Roberts
At 2pm on an April day in 1914, and after an eight-hour climb, Agnes Conway reached the remote village of Lada at the top of Greece’s Langada Pass, 2000 ft above sea level. She and her companion Evelyn Radford had started at 6am and had not stopped to eat. As they entered the village they saw a man throwing a discus. He was a Greek athlete who had represented Greece at the Olympics and had won the fencing championship. He spoke fluent English, offered them food, fenced and boxed with Evelyn and found he had friends in common with Agnes.
This is one of the more surreal anecdotes recorded in A Ride Through the Balkans: On Classic Ground with a Camera, published in 1917. In the same year, Agnes became Curator of the Women’s Work section at the newly established Museum of War, and Honorary Secretary of its Women’s Work Sub Committee.
This blog explores these two events in the context of her remarkable life.
The daughter of Martin Conway, who bequeathed his photographic collection to the Courtauld, Agnes was an archaeologist and historian. At the end of this blog, there is a short summary of the key dates in her life; this does not do justice to the energy and commitment she gave to her work, and the love and support she gave her family and friends.
The Women’s Work Sub Committee (WWSC)
The Museum of War (later the Imperial War Museum) was founded in 1917. Agnes became Honorary Secretary of the Women’s Work Sub Committee (WWSC).
Working for Lady Nelson as Chair, Agnes ran the WWSC from 1917, through its most active period in the years immediately following the war, and remained involved until the Museum moved to its current site in the old Bethlem Hospital in 1929.
The WWSC’s objective was to preserve the contribution of women to the war effort. The Committee wrote to every female organisation they could find, seeking information about their work. The list was extensive. It included Government, Army and Air Force departments, as well as civilian locations where women worked, such as factories, relief centres and canteens.
Hundreds of letters were written. The committee asked for descriptions of women’s activities and statistics on their employment. It also requested objects and artefacts that could be displayed, in particular uniforms and photographs of people wearing them. It also commissioned works of art and photographs to cover particular aspects of the war. Over 3,400 illustrations were collected. These resources remain an important source of information for historians. The Imperial War Museum today holds extensive content on the WWSC and its legacy.
Agnes was central to the continuous struggle to find artefacts, funding, resources and space for the growing collection. In 1918, she organised exhibitions of the artefacts at Burlington House and Whitechapel Art Gallery, the latter attracting Royalty and 82,000 visitors. The following year she visited France to photograph the many women still working after the war.
The WWSC also recorded the names of all 700 women who died during the war. It supported the creation of a National Memorial at York Minster which includes a screen listing these names.
A Ride Through the Balkans
In early 1914, Agnes and Evelyn travelled to Greece, where they had been accepted to study at the British School in Athens. Almost immediately they started on a tour of the Balkans. Their purpose was to document classical ruins in the landscape, but the book is a breezy travelogue full of incident and adventure. Agnes and Evelyn Radford travelled from Athens to Constantinople, and back through Turkey, Albania, Corfu, then to Montenegro, ending in a war zone.
The narrative is full of colour as they encounter friendly locals, stubborn officials, incompetent guides, monks, soldiers, refugees and displaced peoples. They travel by foot, car, cart, mule, steamer, sailboat and trains, always 3rd class. They climb mountains and gorges, cross fertile plains and barren moorland, and marvel at the colours of the sea off Corinth.
Agnes was a close observer of the condition of women. In Greece, she was shocked by the marriage dowry system, how it impoverished families and prevented so many women from marrying. In Turkey, she travelled in train compartments reserved for women, and was surprised they smoked in public.
She commented on local dress. In Albania, rich catholic women wore trousers made from 16 to 40 yards of material for each leg, with two pairs more inside. Wearing high heeled kid boots, they did not so much walk as waddle.
Hardships are mentioned but briefly. After getting lost in an arid landscape of prickly shrub, where “tortoises were the only living creatures”, they eventually found a road where they could get a lift. Relieved and exhausted, “We sank upon the ground and ate the one remaining orange… in an ecstasy of delight”.
After having her pocket picked on the Acropolis they climbed Mt Hymettus in “four hours only”, and looked down on dozens of soaring eagles, delighted to see the gold of their feathers shining in the sun.
They did not trust the water, so made tea with a spirit lamp, much to the fascination of fellow lady travellers in the 3rd class section of a Greek train.
Sleeping conditions were often basic and not always clean. At a monastery, they were reassured the room had no bugs. But it did have “60,000 fleas”, and nowhere to wash. A monk solemnly gave Agnes a towel, leaving her to wonder what she was expected to do with it.
Towards the end of the journey, in May 1914 they came across refugee camps around the Turkey Albania border. In Scutari, they encountered Red Cross teams and an international peace force of English, French, German, Italian and Austrian soldiers.
The tone of the writing becomes a little more serious, although the contextual political events are barely mentioned. They were witnessing the fallout of the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. The Ottoman Empire was crumbling and had given independence to Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro. However, large numbers of ethnic populations remained under Ottoman rule, so these countries formed the Balkan League and declared war on the Ottoman empire. The League suffered internal disputes, borders were shifting, and many nationalities were trying to get back to their homelands. Serbian nationalism was particularly strong and triggered the First World War only a few weeks later in June.
Agnes was interested in the relationships between the military and the refugees. The Peace Force was led by an English officer, Colonel Phillips. Agnes admired his ability to use persuasion and humour to maintain stability, and in particular to calm the Albanians and their blood feuds.
It is curious that they must have known about the wars before they started planning the journey, and that they could find themselves in danger in border areas. Clearly, they had the confidence and determination to go ahead, knowing they were in the midst of a period of volatile international politics. Dr Amara Thornton (see note below) has pointed out that the British School in Athens would have provided a network of contacts, and that the sense of danger may well have appealed to Agnes.
She started writing the book immediately on her return but did not succeed in finding a publisher until 1916. Then there was a rush to publish, as the Allied Gallipoli Campaign was developing in areas where she had travelled, which made the book topical and marketable.
In her opening to the chapter on Scutari, Agnes wrote, “The outbreak of European War put an end to the international occupation of Scutari early in August 1914. The state of things I am describing is, therefore, a chapter in the past”. She might have added “already”, but she offers a fascinating glimpse of the repercussions of events whose consequences are still being played out today.
A note on Evelyn Radford:
Referred to solely as E throughout the book, never named specifically. She was a classical scholar and lecturer after leaving Newnham until 1915. Thereafter, she wrote about music.
A note on Dr Amara Thornton:
In researching this blog, I came across several articles about Agnes’ life and work by Dr Thornton, who cites Agnes as the inspiration behind her interest in the history of archaeology. Dr Thornton has generously responded to my enquiries, for which I thank her enormously.
Agnes Conway – Key dates:
1885 ~ Born 2nd May, Daughter of Katrina and Martin Conway.
1899 ~ On her 14th birthday, fell through a skylight and fractured the base of her skull, leaving the right side of her face paralysed. Despite several operations, immediately after the fall and in later years, she remained disfigured throughout her life.
1903 ~ Read History at Newnham College Cambridge. Also studied Greek and acquired her life long passion for Archaeology.
1907 ~ Left Cambridge after passing her History Tripos.
1907 ~ Awarded a degree from University College Dublin. Oxford and Cambridge did not award degrees to women at this time, but University College was willing to do so. Oxbridge women who took this up were known as “Steamboat Ladies’’.
1908 ~ Agnes starts helping Martin to catalogue his collection of photographs.
1909 ~ Co-published The Children’s Book of Art with her father, offering accessible descriptions of famous paintings from 13th to the 19th century. Her father only wrote the preface. Agnes selected the pictures and wrote the descriptions.
1912 ~ Studied at the British School in Rome, where she added to and catalogued her father’s collection of photographs.
1914 ~ Admitted to the British School in Athens and travelled through the Balkans in the spring of 1914 with Evelyn Radford, a friend she met at Newnham.
1917 ~ Published her travelogue, A Ride Through the Balkans: On Classic Ground with a Camera.
1917–1929 ~ Helped found and became Honorary Secretary of the Women’s’ Work Sub Committee (WWSC) which aimed to preserve women’s’ contribution to the First World War.
1918 ~ Awarded MBE.
1920s ~ Continued to catalogue Martin’s photographs.
1927 ~ First visit to Petra.
1929 ~ Member of the team led by George Horsfield which undertook the first scientific excavation of Petra. 
1930 ~ Published the results, Historical and Topographical Notes on Edom, with an Account of the First Excavations at Petra.
1931 ~ Martin Conway donated his collection to the Courtauld. He gave Agnes the public recognition that her help was central to its preparation.
1932 ~ Married Horsfield in Jerusalem. They lived in Jerash in what was then Transjordan (Horsfield was Chief Inspector of Antiquities for the Transjordan government).
1932 ~ Excavated in Kilwa (a medieval trading settlement in modern-day Tanzania).
1936 ~ Left Transjordan and travelled the Mediterranean before settling in England during Second World War.
1950 ~ Died in England.
Conway A (1917) A Ride Through the Balkans: On Classic Ground with a Camera. London: R. Scott. Available at: https://archive.org/details/ridethroughbalka00conwrich/page/n8/mode/2up (accessed: 20 Mar 2020).
Evans J (1966) The Conways: A History of Three Generations. London: Museum Press.
Imperial War Museum, The Women’s Work Collection. Available at: www.IWM.com (accessed: 20 Mar 2020).
Thornton A (2018) Archaeologists in Print: Publishing for the People. London: UCL Press. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv3hvc9k (accessed: 20 Mar 2020).
Thornton A, Research Blog. Available at: www.readingroomnotes.com (accessed: 20 Mar 2020).
Trowel Blazers, Women in Archaeology, Geology, and Paleontology. Available at: www.Trowelblazers.com (accessed: 20 Mar 2020).
 Fascinating research and analysis of the excavation’s diary by Dr Amara Thornton at www.petra1929.co.uk. UCL Institute of Archaeology keeps an archive of personal photographs, letters, postcards, and excavation notes.
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