Ruby Grierson

Ruby Grierson was born in 1903 in Cambusbarron near Stirling. 

Her father Robert was a schoolmaster whilst her formidable mother, Jane Anthony, was a suffragette and Labour Party activist who brought up seven children, all of whom as adults would be socially liberal and politically engaged. Ruby went to Glasgow University before training as a teacher. 

Baby Ruby with her Mother Jane

She joined the English Department at George Watson’s Ladies’ College in 1928 and taught there for eight years. She was one of the early appointments of the new Headmistress, Miss Robertson, who perhaps saw Miss Grierson, as a breath of fresh air in changing times at George Square. 

Writing about her later in The George Square Chronicle, she was described as 'gifted with a penetrating intelligence, a keen sense of humour and untiring energy, her success in the classroom was assured. Her youth and vivacity made a special appeal to all of us. There was a dynamic quality in all she did, whether shepherding her Juniors down the Royal Mile or playing Badminton in the court'. 

Ruby with her class

Ruby Grierson’s commitment to political and social causes continued, and during the school holidays in 1935 she worked as an assistant producing a documentary film, Housing Problems which exposed the terrible conditions in slum housing. 

People were filmed in their own homes for the documentary and spoke straight to camera. One woman, standing in front of a damp wall with peeling wallpaper, recounted being woken at night by rats in her bed, while a quietly dignified father described the death of two of his children because of the damp conditions in the squalid family home.

Still from Housing Problems

Ruby Grierson worked uncredited on the film, but first hand accounts suggest that it was her idea to allow people to speak straight to camera, something that had rarely, if ever, been done before, but which today is one of the main techniques of documentary making.

Ruby’s older brother, John, had already established himself as the maker of “documentaries”, a term that did not exist until he invented it. 

However, as Ruby switched careers from English teacher to film-maker, she was very much her own woman. Ruby wanted viewers of her films to become involved and to empathise with people and situations that they might know little about. She began to build a reputation as a passionate film-maker, driven by a conviction that film could bring about a better world.

As early as 1936, she hit the headlines for co-directing People of Britain, a film demanding peace that was seen as so extreme in inter-war Britain that it was briefly censored until public outcry caused the ban to be overturned. Ruby’s influence can be felt again in the use of interviews in the film. 

‘When there’s a quarrel between two people the police are sent to settle it,’ observed one woman, looking up briefly from her washing to address the camera. ‘Why can’t a dispute between two nations be settled by the League of Nations?’ 

Ruby behind the camera

 

When war did break out in 1939 Ruby, like many other film-makers, turned her efforts to making propaganda films to help the war effort. Her first four productions were made for the Ministry of Food. The titles Choose Cheese, Green Food for Health, Six Foods for Fitness and What's for Dinner? suggest that perhaps these films had a bit less of the gritty realism of her previous work.

Still from They Also Serve

However, in her 1940 film, They Also Serve viewers saw and heard a working-class housewife’s thoughts and concerns as she went about her day, preparing meals, comforting neighbours and worrying about her family. Whilst confirming a government approved message, Ruby’s low-key style meant that anyone who watched the film felt very much part of the family depicted. 

With the start of intensive bombing raids on British cities in 1940, the government set up the Children's Overseas Reception Board to arrange for children to be sent to safety in America, Canada and Australia. Ruby was offered an assignment from the Canadian government, directing a film about child evacuees. Her unobtrusive style, talent with people and teaching background made her a natural choice for the role. 

On Friday, 13 September 1940, the SS City of Benares, a fast and elegant ship built on the Clyde, set sail from Liverpool. Amongst the 406 people on board were 90 children aged between 4 and 15 and Ruby Grierson. As Bess Cummings, one of the children on The Benares remembered:

'We saw Canada as a bit like Hollywood and here was this lady [Ruby] who seemed to be the epitome of the glamour of Hollywood, with her long cigarette holder and flapping trousers. And she was making a film about us!

The Benares was the largest ship in a convoy of twenty ships escorted by Royal Navy destroyers which began making its way across the Atlantic on a zig-zag course in an attempt to avoid the attention of German U-Boats.

However, just before midnight on Tuesday, 17 September and about 600 nautical miles from the nearest land, The Benares came under attack by U-Boat 48. 

An initial salvo of two torpedoes missed their target but a second attack hit the ship just after midnight. The order to abandon ship was given and within little more than 30 minutes of the torpedo strike, The Benares had sunk.

Sadly, the fact that the children aboard were already in bed below deck and that most were travelling alone without their parents meant that a far higher proportion of children than adults drowned. 

Magazine cover showing the sinking of The Benares

Derek Bech, a survivor then aged nine, recalled:

'Some of the children were killed in the explosion, some were trapped in their cabins, and the rest died when the lifeboats were launched incorrectly and children were just tipped into the sea. All I can remember were the screams and cries for help.'

Ruby Grierson tried to get into Lifeboat 8, but it fell with a violent jerk and was hit by a towering wave. Thirty people, mostly children, fell into the swirling sea and were never seen again. 

Only 13 of the 90 children who set sail from Liverpool survived the sinking of The Benares. It is said that when the crew of U-boat 48 returned to their base in France and discovered that so many of the passengers on The Benares had been children, they wept.

Marion, Ruby’s younger sister remembered getting news that Ruby was missing, presumed dead.

We hoped that it was a mistake, and that she had been picked up by a German boat.  We hoped that she’d just turn up again.

However, it was not to be. Ruby was 36 when she died. 

Ruby’s brother John was to go on to become a famous documentary filmmaker. Ruby and her work have until recently been forgotten. Ruby Grierson Re-Shooting History made for BBC Scotland in 1994 went a long way to redress this. Ruby’s influence is now acknowledged in many university film courses too. 

Ruby smiling

Ruby was an inspirational woman who chose to change careers and always stayed true to her principles. As one of her fellow documentary makers remembered,

She would screw up her face and say fiercely, ‘You can’t do it! You can’t do it! It’s not pure!

'And seeing her pluck and determination you were heartened that what you were doing in documentary was worthwhile after all.'

In her obituary in the December 1940 edition of The George Square Chronicle. She was remembered as:

'A supremely fine teacher, who never lost the human touch in the midst of routine. Her quick, infectious merriment, her delight in action, her constant desire to tackle social injustices, made her a unique personality who will not soon be forgotten among us. Her memory will always be an inspiration to those who knew and loved her, and she is part of George Square for all time.'

We are proud to remember and to be inspired by her, as her name appears on our War Memorial.