Friday, March 20, 2015

Keep the Home Fires Burning

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

            One day in November 1915, Lena Gilbert Brown Ford received a phone call from the young composer Ivor Novello at her London home.  World War I was raging across Europe and Novello wanted to write an inspirational, patriotic tune before joining the Royal Flying Corps.  Working together, with Ford on lyrics and Novello on music, the two wrote “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” one of the most popular songs of the war, in a half-an-hour.  By 1918, the song had sold over 2 million copies and been translated into seven languages including French, Russian, Italian, Welsh and, bizarrely enough, German.    

'Keep the Home Fires Burning' sheet music
            Lena Gilbert Brown was born in Elmira in 1870, the daughter of James L. Brown, a prosperous tobacco dealer and his wife, Antoinette.  From a young age, Lena enjoyed giving poetry readings and even once swooned after an especially epic reading of the chariot scene from Ben Hur.  She graduated Elmira College with a B.A in 1887 and an M.A. in 1892.  Shortly after graduating she married local physician Harry Hale Ford and the couple had a son, Walter.  Unfortunately, it turned out that, to quote her obituary, “Mrs. Ford’s temperament was not suited for married life” and she ended up taking Walter and going to Europe.  There, she tooled around France and Italy for a while before settling in London. 

Lena Gilbert Brown Ford

            While living in London, Ford became friends with George W. James, the editor of The Anglo-American, who encouraged her to get into journalism.  For the next 22 years, she wrote columns for his paper as well as The Irish Independent.  She also was an editor for Madame, Pears Cyclopedia and The Lady of Fashion.  In addition to her work in journalism, she was also a well know poet. 

            At the outbreak of World War I, Ford was living in London with her widowed mother, Antoinette Brown, and her son Walter.  She helped to organize a series of concerts to benefit soldiers’ hospitals and even opened her house as a convalescent home.  On March 7, 1918, Ford and her son were killed when her house was leveled by a German air raid.  They were the first American civilian casualties of the war.  Her mother was seriously wounded, but pulled to safety by a brave housemaid.  The Fords were both buried in London but Elmira College built a memorial fireplace in her honor in Hamilton Hall. 


  1. Ivor Novello was a character in a recent movie set in the period, "Gosford Park." It is a tradition for Elmira College freshmen to learn to sing "Keep the Home Fires Burning" as art of Orientation; there is also a satirical parody (about Dining Services) called "Keep the Home Fries Burning.:

  2. it is very nice to read information about our past .. what a diverse background of people we had here in Chemung County NY

  3. Does anyone know please if Lena wrote and published any poetry prior to going to live in England?

    1. Before moving to England, Lena would write and recite her poetry to small groups of friends. After moving to England, she wrote for several literary magazines. She also wrote the lyrics to another popular war song "We Are Coming, Mother England."