A blue plaque has been unveiled on a house once lived in by the first Honorary Freewoman of Durham.

Helena Rosa Duncombe Shafto OBE was bestowed with the honour “in appreciation of her devoted labours on behalf of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) prisoners of war (POWs)”.

Born in 1854, her interest in the DLI came from her family association with the armed forces – two of her sons were killed in action.

Her eldest son, Lt. Charles Duncombe Shafto was with 1 DLI when he was killed during the Boer War in 1900.

Her second son, Capt. Arthur Duncombe Shafto DSO, Royal Scots, was killed during the First World War retreat from Mons in 1914.

Despite her grief, she worked unceasingly on behalf of good causes, in the main linked to the DLI.

She led a number of working groups that assembled food parcels, knitted socks and gathered other items to be sent on to POWs.

She also relayed news gathered from POW letters and escapees to anxious loved ones and was considered the “head of POW affairs” by local people and the DLI itself.

That work saw her receive the Honorary Freewoman of Durham honour in June 1919, and later, an OBE.

Following the First World War, Mrs Shafto continued to be associated with the regiment, speaking at events and sitting on a range of committees.

She also sat on hospital boards including some that looked after wounded DLI soldiers.

Following her death in 1938, her obituary in the Durham Light Infantry Journal remarked: “No one could have done more for the regiment than she did.”

Referring to the continuation of support once men had been repatriated, it added: “Many members of the regiment will remember the good work she did during the Great War by tending to the wants of those who returned home, also for the valuable work rendered when in charge of the Prisoners of War Fund by continually sending out parcels to men of the regiment in all parts of the field. Even today ex-members of the regiment and their wives will meet and talk of the friend that has passed and of the memory that will never fade.”

The blue plaque was unveiled on Mrs Shafto’s former Durham City home at 9 South Bailey, which is now owned by Durham University’s St Cuthbert’s Society.

As part of the unveiling, the society hosted a celebratory lunch for those in attendance, including His Majesty’s Lord Lieutenant of Durham, Mrs Sue Snowdon, Mrs Jane Shafto representing the Shafto family, civic dignitaries, representatives of Durham University and the blue plaque nominators, the Durham Light Infantry Friends.

Mrs Jane Shafto said: “The Shafto family are delighted that Helena’s charity work, which was of such significance to prisoners of war abroad and the local community in Durham, is being recognised with a blue plaque and we hope her endeavours serve to inspire future generations.”

Peter Nelson, Chair of the DLI Friends, added: “Eighty six years ago a funeral wreath from the officers and other ranks of the DLI was carried ahead of Mrs Shafto’s coffin. It offered their thanks and a promise that ‘Her work on behalf of the Prisoners of War will for ever be remembered’.

“As Chairman of the DLI Friends I am proud that promise has been honoured. Hopefully, her story will now be used, particularly by local schools, to inspire and encourage the young.

“I’m sure that is something Mrs Shafto would have been delighted to have as a lasting legacy.”

Chair of Durham County Council, Cllr Joan Nicholson, said: “Blue plaques are a world-renowned feature and commemorate notable people and their accomplishments by marking the places where they lived and worked.

“Mrs Shafto was a trailblazer of her time. Celebrating her contributions and those of the many others who have left their mark on our history is a key part of our aspirations to make County Durham the culture county.”

Pic 1 caption: The blue plaque installed on 9 South Bailey in Durham City, where Helena Rosa Duncombe Shafto once lived.

Pic 2 caption: Photograph of Helena Rosa Duncombe Shafto from the archives. Dated 1919.

Pic 3 caption: Guests gather at the unveiling of the blue plaque at 9 South Bailey. Left to right: Jane Shafto, representing the Shafto family, Robert Nicholson, the Chair of Durham County Council’s consort, Cllr Joan Nicholson, Chair of Durham County Council, Mrs Sue Snowdon, His Majesty’s Lord Lieutenant of Durham, Peter Nelson, Chair of the DLI Friends, Trish Sutcliffe, the Mayor of Durham’s consort, Cllr Lesley Mavin, the Mayor of Durham, and Professor Tammi Walker, Principal of the St Cuthbert’s Society at Durham University.