Alberta had immersed herself in Greek Mythology at school and was also influenced by the work of Shelley and Shakespeare.
To Alberta, the Greek legends were not quaint stories, but fables that represented eternal earthly struggles between good and evil, virtue and deceit. Her life-long interest in romantic poetry represented her strong interest and belief in the way the past calls to us, awakens a spiritual dimension, and links our values, deeds and ideals to our present and future lives.
At school, Alberta shone at English, History, and Biology and displayed some talent in art and amateur dramatics – she played the lead in ‘Peer Gynt’ in the 6th Form leaver’s party in 1909.
Before Alberta left grammar school she gained ‘Letters’ in English, History and Biology and Honours in Art exams, broadly the equivalent of British ‘A’ (Advanced) levels today.
After leaving school she studied art for a period at Bradford Art School, but it was her writing that gradually dominated her life.
Alberta began to write poetry and articles for both national and regional magazines and newspapers. She also began to review books for The Yorkshire Observer and had poems published in a range of literary , including Poetry Review, Microcosm, Saturday Westminster Gazette, and The Bookman. Her articles and poems were also published in more general magazines, including Country Life, The Lady’s Companion’ and ‘The Woman at Home’. In the latter, she wrote an article presenting her admiration for the poetry of William Shakespeare.
However, when the Great War started in 1914, there was a significant shift in her career. By this time Alberta was in her mid 20s. She had been a regular contributor to The Wayfarer, a well-regarded literary magazine, and was on good terms with its editor. When he was called up in 1916, Alberta, working from home, took over as editor - a post she kept until 1927. This broadened her acquaintance with the literary establishment and gave her more presence and influence within it.
Because of the mother’s delicate health, the family tended to spend the winter months in Torquay, a place Alberta was very fond of (see her poem Devon Blue in ‘Example of Work’ section of this site ). Whilst in Torquay, Alberta decided she needed to contribute something to the war effort, and it was here she volunteered to join the VAD in late 1917.
The Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) Scheme was established in 1910 to provide volunteers to support the professional military nursing service during times of emergency. The VAD organisation expanded quickly after the outbreak of war in August 1914 and numbered 80,000 volunteers by 1916.
Alberta worked as a nurse at the Red Cross Town Hall Hospital in Torquay. The young Agatha Christie also lived and worked here as a nurse and edited a literary magazine that Alberta contributed to. We know from Agatha Christie’s letter to Alberta (in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds) that Christie admired Alberta’s work and that the two women had struck up a friendship at this time.
Badly wounded British soldiers from the campaigns in France, Flanders and Gallipoli began to arrive at the hospital, followed by wounded soldiers from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. In September 1918, there was also a serious outbreak of influenza nationwide and over 100 US servicemen died of influenza at another Torquay Hospital in just a fortnight.
Alberta would have been at the centre of this activity and wrote two of her most anthologized poems about her nursing experiences: ‘In a V.A.D. Pantry’ and ‘Out of Conflict’ (see ‘Examples of Work’ section on this site). Alberta submitted ‘Out of Conflict‘ to a competition in the Poetry Review and in January 1918 she learned that she had gained the first prize, beating Wilfred Owen, who had submitted his ‘Song of Songs’ , into second place! Owen was killed in action later that year.
Alberta in her V.A.D. uniform, 1917
When the war ended, Alberta stayed on in Torquay for a while and, encouraged by her success in the Poetry Review competition, worked on a book of poetry containing war poems and a selection of others, characterised by their nature or romantic themes. She submitted the collection to MacDonald’s, the publisher, who accepted it, and The Sea Gazer was published in 1919.
Her name was becoming recognised nationally in literary circles through her competition success and for editorship of The Wayfarer and The Sea Gazer was well-received by critics.
She also began work on an extended poem: The Forsaken Princess, based on a Grimm Brother fairy story, which she submitted in 1924 to the Southern Counties Eisteddfod, at Torquay.
It won the competition, and Alberta is the only woman writer from Yorkshire to have gained a Bardic Chair and Crown. (The first person from Yorkshire to be awarded a Bardic Chair for poetry is believed to be Frank Noble Wood, from Hull, in 1921.)
The Bardic Chair won by Alberta can still be seen today in the Librarian’s Office at the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds.
The Bardic Chair awarded to Alberta in 1924 for her extended poem, ‘The Forsaken Princess’
(With thanks to John Smurthwaite, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, for the photographs and permission to use them on this site).
Wilfred Gibson, one of the group of ‘Dymock Poets’, was the adjudicator at the Eisteddfod and in his speech declared that Alberta’s poem: “…was charmingly conceived and delightfully carried out. The author had a real sense of poetic form, an easy and exquisite mastery of rhythm, and a sensitive feeling for words.”
Alberta recorded later that: ‘I didn’t feel really bad after seeing Mr Gibson, because when he came on the platform he was looking even more wretched than the Bard herself! He is a very shy little man, totally unlike his work. The wreath was a very pretty band of laurel, with long white ribbon streams tethered in gold. You fastened it with a safety pin. I’m still wondering what Mr Mayor would have done if the Bard had been masculine and bald.”
Her reputation as a poet, both in Yorkshire and nationally, was established and she began work on her third book, The Mountain of Glass, which was eventually accepted and published by Allen & Unwin in 1926.
She made friends with a wide circle of other Yorkshire writers, including Sydney Matthewman,(founder and editor of Yorkshire Poetry from 1922-24), Dorothy Una Ratcliffe, Wilfred Rowland Childe, and J.B. Priestley.
Priestley was an occasional visitor to Alberta’s home, Beamsley House, and encouraged her writing. They were of similar temperament and both had a great love and knowledge of literature. He wrote to Alberta: I am looking forward to things from you as good as, if not better than ‘The Sea Gazer’… My advice is to join what seems to you the most hopeful movement and go for it all its worth. I believe that things go badly in Bradford because people like you – and me – keep out of organisations with the result that they are left with those with no real artistic sense or gifts – and get nothing done (Letter to Alberta from Priestley in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds).
Alberta also invited local writers to Beamsley House to regular literary discussions and poetry readings. At these she was described as an ‘easy, attentive and intelligent hostess’, and the family would often celebrate Christmas in the company of selected friends.
However, not all the visitors to these gatherings were complimentary. Geoffrey Woledge – who later married Alberta’s sister, Hilda – attended a session with his friend, Sydney Matthewman, the printer. Geoffrey’s son, Henry Woledge, later wrote of his father’s impressions of his first visit to one of Alberta’s literary gatherings:
“Geoffrey had written a small amount of poetry [but] for a long time… declined to attend, as they did not seem to be his kind of thing – too stuffy and pretentious - and the poetry was not forward-enough for his taste. Eventually he agreed to go to one, and it was just as he feared, except that he met Berta’s youngest sister, Dill, who seemed to be a very different kind of person, much livlier and less hidebound – and he fell in love with her at once.’ ( from ‘Alberta Vickridge – Some Recollections’ : unpublished article in the possession of the site editor, Colin Neville).
Alberta in the conservatory of Beamsley House, Frizinghall, Bradford ( mid 1920s)
Cover of ‘The Forsaken Princess’, printed after she won the Bardic Chair
Alberta, may have been an easy and hospitable host in her own home, but away from a familiar environment, particularly in later life, she could be uneasy and diffident. A friend, Mabel Crawshaw, had to persuade Alberta to come and visit her for lunch in Dewsbury, only a few miles from Bradford. She wrote to Alberta: “…If you let me know the train I will meet you. There wouldn’t be anyone else here and [you] need not feel in the least bit shy” (letter to Alberta from Mabel Crawshaw in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds).
Sydney Mathewman too, in a letter to the Yorkshire Post, printed after Alberta’s death, also refers to the ‘personal diffidence’ of his lifelong friend.