World Horse Welfare Founder, Ada Cole, sitting at a desk reading from a paper

Our Founder

Our founder, Ada Cole, continues to be a source of inspiration for everyone at World Horse Welfare.

Our founder, Ada Cole, continues to be a source of inspiration for everyone at World Horse Welfare.

She heard their cry, and with far-seeing eyes
Undimmed by useless tears, with love aflame,
Challenged the world to end such cruelties.

From a sonnet on Ada Cole by Sir George Cockerill

An incredible life

The story of Ada Cole’s incredible life has very rarely been told. Small and often frail, yet unfailing in her dedication to speak up for the thousands of horses transported on horrific, exhausting journeys to slaughter on the continent, Ada is a truly incredible woman. Here’s part one of her amazing story.

Ada Merrett Frances Cole was born on 1st January 1860 as one of ten children. She grew up at her family home of Croxton Hall Farm in Norfolk surrounded by countryside and animals, including a pet donkey which her and her sister Louisa (known as Effie) used to ride around the neighbouring farmland.

Ada and Effie were educated at home by their mother, as was very common, and whilst Ada loved to read she hated any form of needlework – largely considered the only appropriate activity for young ladies of the time.

Starting work in the hospitals

She very quickly found a job as a probationer at the London Fever Hospital, impressing the Matron with her intelligence, neat appearance and ability to speak well of her education, character and family upbringing. Country girls were typically favoured in city hospitals as they were considered to be sturdier and more capable of dealing with the demanding tasks they would face on the wards.

Probationer Nurse Cole awoke each day at 6am, breakfasted at 6.30am and was on duty by 7am. She would then remain on the wards, finishing at 9pm with only short breaks for lunch and supper. She would have two evenings and one afternoon off duty each week, one free day each month (if practically possible) and two weeks holiday each year. Effie also got a job working in a children’s hospital.

Effie worked nearby at a children’s hospital so the sisters maintained their close bond, spending most of their free time together.  The pair were shocked and angered with the widespread ill-treatment of animals in the city at this time. Whether it was the overworked, underfed cab horses that were known to regularly collapse between the shafts from exhaustion and ill-health or the starving stray cats and dogs which roamed the streets – they found it all quite distressing and unlike anything they had experienced before. 

Supporter of the early ant-vivosectionists

Vivisection was rife at this time, with a strong demand for animals to be operated on for science and research, mostly without the use of anaesthetic. This was a burning issue of the day and one which would have played a large part in discussions between medical students and nurses like Ada and Effie.  Ada became a firm supporter of the early anti-vivisectionists and a confirmed vegetarian due to her hatred of the means by which animals were killed in the slaughterhouses of Europe.

In 1891, Effie decided to become a nun and went to live in a convent. Ada joined her for a short time, but severely disliked the total submission of will required and the attitude towards animals which were considered to have no souls.

In the 1890’s, Ada moved on in her nursing work to a large Northern mining town, also undertaking private nursing jobs in the UK, Dublin, Paris and Belgium. Ada had a natural aptitude to nursing and greatly enjoyed the work, however she couldn’t ignore the fact that her own health was deteriorating and so in 1900, she moved back to Norwich – taking up a job as a district nurse in the St Georges area of the city.

During this time, Ada began her foray into the world of amateur dramatics, producing plays to raise money for her Catholic Girl’s Club. It is said that during this time she became adept at handling the press when working hard to orchestrate positive reviews and write ups of her plays and productions.

Dedication to animals

Whilst in Norwich, Ada continued her dedication to animal welfare, working with the RSPCA and regularly visiting the weekly Cattle Market, where she would admonish the cattle handlers for the violent techniques they used in handling the frightened animals.

In 1906, Ada had her first lectures on home nursing published in ‘Lectures on Home Nursing for the Poor’, this was a significant achievement and one which showed that she had gained an impressive seal of approval from the medical profession.

Unfortunately, Ada’s health had continued to deteriorate and in 1910 she was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis. As a result, she gave up nursing and moved to a fishermen’s cottage in the North Norfolk Coastal village of Cley-next-the-sea. 

The sea air restored Ada’s health and in the spring of 1911, she was finally well enough to visit Effie who was now working at a convent in Antwerp. Whilst there, the pair attended some private nursing jobs and it was on one of these errands that they were to encounter a sight which was to change Ada’s life.

For there, upon the quayside, stood line upon line of worn-out English horses,  feeble, lame and pitifully old, some of them partially or wholly blind as, roped three abreast they staggered to a dreadful end in the local abattoirs over four miles ahead. Behind them, creaked a string of conveyances, waiting to pick up those too infirm, or too injured, to continue walking. Those that had not survived the brutal conditions of their voyage lay crumpled in horrifying stillness on the ground.

(She heard their cry by Joyce Rushen)

Ada’s call

From that moment on, Ada vowed to do whatever she could for these forlorn and forgotten animals. Effie had to forcibly drag her away from the terrible scenes and as Ada laid in bed that night unable to sleep from the horror of what she had witnessed, she recognised that this was the call she had been waiting for. At the age of fifty one years old, Ada took up the campaign.

Support the campaign that Ada Cole started: end the long distance transportation of horses across Europe to slaughter.

Read our stories!

Get our latest news and rescue stories straight to your inbox

Get our latest news and rescue stories
Follow our story on social networks