Names can be deceptive. When I first heard Violet Dickson’s name mentioned in conversation, I envisaged someone small and slight. Nothing, however, could have been further from the truth. She was built on formidable lines and had a personality to match.
Her husband, Harold, had been the British Agent in Kuwait for many years. A fluent Arabist, it was part of his job, not only to visit the tribes of the desert but also to listen to their worries, resolve disputes over traditional grazing rights and ensure access to water wells for their flocks of sheep, goats and camels. His wife often accompanied him, taking with her gifts of Arabic coffee, which was always welcome, as well as dress lengths of brightly patterned Indian cotton for the ladies of the tribes. In 1934, the Dicksons were the first occupants of the present British Embassy, then known as the British Agency. They were only to live there for a year, however, as Colonel Dickson was due to retire from the Political Service in 1935.
The Dicksons had lived in Kuwait for so long that returning to England at their age was a somewhat alarming prospect. Events in Kuwait, however, were to relieve them of their worries. Seepages of crude oil in the southern desert had attracted the attention of British Petroleum. With his knowledge of Arabic and his contact with Sheikh Ahmed, Colonel Dickson was promptly offered a post as Liaison Officer between the newly established Kuwait Oil Company and the British Agency. Needless to say, he jumped at the chance and, once more, he and his wife, Violet, returned to the old Agency building on the sea front that held so many fond memories.
By that time, trial wells were already dug in North Kuwait in the search for oil. The results, however, were unproductive and disheartening. It was in 1937 that Colonel Dickson had a vivid dream. In it, he saw a young girl rising from a stone tomb in the desert beside a lone Sidr tree. When a crowd of men appeared, Colonel Dickson beat them off and he and his wife took her into their care.
It so happened that a lone Sidr tree grew in South Kuwait in an area called Burgan. It was a famous landmark and it was there that oil was found in vast quantities.
With the discovery of oil, Kuwait changed almost overnight. The old order slipped, almost unnoticed, into the background as wave upon wave of foreigners arrived to benefit from Kuwait’s wealth and prosperity.
Sadly, Colonel Dickson died of thrombosis in 1959. Visitors to the Dickson House will notice the sloping ramp in the back yard that was built to allow his wheelchair access to the verandah. He was buried in the Christian cemetery in Ahmadi but now lies in the grounds of the British Embassy that was once his home.
Violet Dickson, however, lived on in the old house on the sea front and, in September 1976, was awarded the D.B.E. As time passed, many of her friends left Kuwait to the extent that by the 1980s she was old and very much alone. I was one of a group of British ladies, organized by Mrs Archie Hinchcliffe, the wife of the then British Ambassador, H.E. Peter Hinchcliffe, who took it in turns to sit with Dame Violet in the morning.
In March 1990, I had a telephone call from Dame Violet’s butler. He was extremely upset. Could I come quickly as Madame was very ill. I arrived at the house in a matter of minutes and found Dame Violet slumped in her chair. She was conscious but unable to speak properly, having suffered a stroke. That afternoon, she was transferred to the Ahmadi Hospital and, sadly, was never to return to the old house on the sea front.
After consultations with her son and daughter in England, it had been decided that, when she died, her body would be buried in the grounds of the British Embassy. She was very ill and still hospitalised when Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug 2, 1990.
Dame Violet was a passenger on the last flight out of Kuwait on Sept 22, 1990. On her arrival, she was admitted to a nursing home in Goring-on-Thames where she died, with her family around her. She is buried in the cemetery of the village church at South Stoke near Reading.
Her tombstone marks a little piece of England that will forever be Kuwait.
By Anne Al Bassam – Author