Women – ‘Your country needs You’

Considerable numbers of men were absorbed into the conflict that was the First World War. This led to a desperate need for someone to fill the jobs they left behind and also to take on the many new roles that the conflict created. Women found that they were suddenly in demand in the workplace. A Culture volunteer working on the Poole History Centre First World War project uses the local newspaper and other sources to describe the role that they played during the war.

The onset of the conflict inspired a dramatic increase in charities run by women. They ranged from the rather unusual to substantial organisations. ‘Miss Storey’s Fund for the Men in the Trenches’ was a national charity set up by a Miss Gladys Storey and supplied Bovril and magazines to soldiers on the Western Front. According to testimonies, the Bovril was very welcome.

In contrast, the ‘Dorset Guild of Workers’ formed by Cornelia, Lady Wimborne and Feodorowna Alington, was a large organisation based mainly in Poole with some branches throughout Dorset. Groups of women knitted, sewed, and made items for hospitals and soldiers; food and clothing parcels were sent to Dorset Regiment POWs; and some groups collected a special type of moss from the Canford Cliffs area for medical use. For further information about this amazing organisation see the blog ‘Dorset Guild of Workers’.

Other organisations were created to provide emergency care at home and abroad. There is a brief outline of many of them in the Information section of the PooleWW1 website under ‘Medical and Emergency Women’s Organisations of the First World War’.

Typical of these groups was the Women’s Emergency Corps which held a meeting in Bournemouth in September 1914. The audience heard about its aim to bring women voluntary workers together with the idea that they could take on roles such as bus drivers, special constables, gardeners, and motorcycle despatch riders. Another group was the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) which was a large medical organisation that supported temporary hospitals, including some in Poole, during the war. The VAD was formed in 1909 and provided basic medical training to enable thousands of women to work in hospitals. The Information part of the PooleWW1 website has a section titled ‘The VADS in Poole First World War Hospitals’ with a link to a list of names of those who worked in the local hospitals.

Several local nurses went to work in hospitals in France. In October 1914, the local newspaper reported that Nurses Janet Lindsay, Celia Congreve, Evelyn Broad and N. Rogers had gone from Poole to look after the wounded. Evelyn Broad was initially part of the Brussels Unit of the British Red Cross but following the collapse of Belgium worked in France.

It rapidly became clear that the war would not be over in a few months and that it would be a war of attrition. As more and more men left to fight, someone was required to take their place and women found they were needed in jobs from which they were usually excluded.

The local newspaper began to report on the new areas where women could be seen working in Poole, such as a railway porter or an errand girl delivering bread. One article noted that Miss Alice Matthews, 13, was helping her father on his trawler. In 1915, three women were with the Poole post service; by 1917 there were seven postwomen. The Poole newspaper even reported, such was the interest, on the appointment in Leeds of a Miss Virtue of London as the first ‘professional’ woman motor van driver in the country. The company said that ‘far less time [was] wasted on errands’ and she was ‘capable of doing her own repairs’.

While the voluntary organisations were welcomed, and rarely contentious, it was the appearance of women in the workplace, outside of their ‘traditional’ jobs, that caused problems. A newspaper article in early 1915 described how women were taking on many new roles and trade unions believed this was a ‘menace to the future of their members’ because women were likely to accept less pay which would make it difficult for men after the war. There was also the problem of what would happen when the war was over. The Secretary of the Federation of Trade Unions put it succinctly – ‘if women are turned out what is to become of them and if they are allowed to remain what is to become of the men? An MP said there was no problem with women being employed but they must be paid the same as the men they were replacing to protect the interests of those who were away fighting. In Newcastle, the tram company was prepared to accept women as long as the men they replaced were guaranteed their old jobs back at the end of the war.

Clothes and appearance were an important part of the debate over women workers. There was great concern that they should not wear anything that could be deemed masculine – legislation at the time made it illegal to wear clothes of the opposite sex. The wearing of anything resembling trousers or the length of a skirt caused great concern in some quarters. A Poole newspaper article of 1915 described how Southampton police were wanting to employ two policewomen but some people ‘regard[ed] the appointment of women with doubt and fear’. One concern was that their uniform would attract unwanted looks. The debate even extended to those working in situations where clothing had to be practical, such as in the Land Army where breeches and a short coat were necessary. After the war, they wanted to continue wearing this style while working in the garden or when walking in the countryside. The newspaper noted that this would be against the law but that it was probably alright in the confines of their own garden.

The Poole newspaper often had a general column on women’s fashions with the articles reflecting the need for simplicity and restraint during the war.  In early 1917, it reported that there had been a significant increase in ready-to-wear clothes, which were more accessible and cheaper than made-to-measure. Some clothing adverts were directed at the working woman. For example, in 1917, J.A. Hawkes & Son Ltd of Poole advertised the K brand of footwear for women in hospitals, factories and on the land. Prices ranged from 25/- (£1.25) to 32/6 (£1.60½) – around a week’s wage for a woman at RNCF Holton Heath.

Advertisements also appeared in the local newspaper promoting health products for women munition workers. One medication was supposed to help them maintain a strong nervous system while working in difficult conditions. Another advert claimed its product would cure their sore throats and various skin creams claimed to prevent a ‘munition complexion’. There was a serious side to these adverts. In addition to the obvious risks of fire and explosion, exposure to solvents could led to repeated fits, corrosive chemicals affected breathing and eyesight, and one chemical turned the skin yellow.

A series of adverts promoted the idea that a cup of cocoa could help a working woman by turning a biscuit into a meal. This remarkable claim reflects the attitudes of the time when some expressed the view that men needed to be paid more because they ate beef and drank beer while a woman could get by on toast and tea.

One of the most high-profile jobs for women during the war was in munitions factories, such as at the Royal Naval Cordite Factory at Holton Heath which manufactured the cordite for shells. To give an idea of the scale of munitions being produced throughout the country it is estimated that British artillery fired 4 million shells over just 15 days before the Battle of Passchendaele. At the height of production at Holton Heath around half the workforce of 4,000 were women. While there was a canteen and medical facilities there was not a hostel. The huge Gretna factory, the largest in the world at the time, had, by necessity, accommodation but the women had to share a bed which was used by the nightshift while the dayshift was at work and vice versa.

While there is information about the technical side of Holton Heath during the First World War sadly there is very little on the social history aspects. Elsie Stokes from Poole is one of the few women known to have worked at Holton Heath. A previous blog (‘Poole girls are best’: – the munitionettes of Holton Heath) has described their role and the ambivalent attitude they received.  

Although Holton Heath was the most high profile local factory on war work there were many others, such as Messrs A. Knight & Co, of Hill Street, Poole. The company employed women to produce metal shell parts using lathes and their work was reported as ‘second to none’ in the West Country. Women also worked on aeroplane wings in local factories.  A triangular brass badge, known as the ‘On War Service’, was issued from 1916 for women who were involved in munition work for more than two months.

Women workers at Messrs A. Knight, Poole 1917

Women workers at Messrs A. Knight, Poole 1917

Initially, it was considered unacceptable that women could be anywhere near a war zone but that changed as casualties mounted. There many small organisations, such as the Women of Pervyse, who worked near the frontline but they were unofficial and reliant on donations. Official voluntary medical aid was provided through the British Red Cross, St John Ambulance and the Voluntary Aid Detachment. Several other organisations that offered help were refused permission to be on the Western Front but were welcomed by the authorities in the Balkans and Salonika. One of these groups was the Serbian Relief Fund which had to cope with a war and a major typhus epidemic. According to one source, Cornelia, Lady Wimborne ‘led’ one Serbian Relief Fund medical unit to Skopje in March 1915 but nothing has been found to confirm this.

The first organisation linked to the military was the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) which was formed in 1917. It tended to recruit those who had experience in the roles they were to carry out and were not enlisted, but enrolled, so were still civilians. The first WAACs went to France in early 1917 to be cooks and maids in an officer’s club but their roles quickly expanded as can be seen from the advert.

WAAC advert October 1917

WAAC advert October 1917

The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) was also formed in 1917 followed by the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) in 1918 when the RAF was created. To give an idea of the scale of these organisations there were around 4,000 WRNS, 24,000 WRAFs, and 43,000 WAACs at the end of the war. They joined up for many reasons such as wanting to escape the constraints of society and a desire to do something adventurous. In so doing, they were exposed to concerns about morals with critics assuming they were solely seeking the company of men and that wearing a military-style uniform would lead to the women becoming ‘masculine’ and ‘unlovable’.

Two local women who were part of the WRNS were Violet-May Saunders and Winifred Newman. Both enlisted on 22 August 1918 and were based at the White Oak establishment in Poole. They were employed as net mine workers which involved wiring glass floats together for mine nets – presumably for the Royal Navy minesweepers which operated out of Poole during the war. 

When the war ended the theoretical debate over the future of women workers became a reality. Prior to the conflict many in society believed that a job was something women did between school and marriage. The war altered this view but, in many cases, only temporarily. For example, in 1917 the Ministry of Munitions wanted more women to train for engineering work – the courses ran for several weeks in London and a maintenance grant was available. When fully trained it was said that a woman working on aero-engines or similar could earn at least £2 per week. Only two years later, with the war over, legislation was passed that made it against the law to employ a woman as an engineer.

Women who had found doors opening to opportunities that had been previously denied them now found those doors being closed – another blog will cover the post-war situation.

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