The aftermath of the First World War for women

A Culture volunteer working on the Poole History Centre First World War project explores some of the post-war experiences of women using reports in the local newspaper and other sources.

Peace brought about the return of several million men into a society that expected a man to be in a job and a woman to be supported by her husband. However, the workplace had changed during the conflict with around 3 million women in work at the end. Many were in jobs which, prior to the war, they would either have been barred from or, as one newspaper article put it, only accepted ‘grudgingly’. The end of the conflict gave rise to a simple question – what was the future for women in work? Given all that changed during the war it is remarkable that there were more women in paid work in 1911 than there were in 1921.

Demobilisation meant that by early December 1919 nearly 100,000 had left the main women’s services – many found themselves wondering what to do with the skills they had learnt. The Women’s Royal Naval Service closed in 1919, the Women’s Royal Air Force in 1920 and the Queen Mary Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (formerly WAAC) in 1921.

The impact of the loss of civilian jobs fell primarily on women. They had worked in factories, offices, transport, service industries and the medical profession. Bus and tram conductresses were highly visible during the war but not after it – opportunities that had gradually opened up rapidly vanished. There were two main reasons. Those who worked in factories, such as in munitions, found the need collapsed and with it their jobs. For example, by early March 1919, three-quarters of the estimated 300,000 men and women who worked in munitions had lost their jobs. The other reason was the belief that women should give up their jobs for the men.

Prior to the First World War, many single women would work as domestic servants in large houses but the demand collapsed during the war and never recovered. Around a third of the workforce at the huge Gretna munitions factory, which was primarily staffed by women, were originally in domestic service. Many people believed that they should now return to domestic service but often the jobs were no longer there. Even as late as 1920 an unemployment demonstration in Poole called for women still at RNCF Holton Heath to leave and become domestic servants so that men could have the work.

However, not only had the need for servants decreased but, as the Poole newspaper commented, the ‘the glamour of munitions’ made the prospect of living-in as a servant not very appealing. ‘Glamour’ seems an odd word to choose given the conditions under which many were working. While RNCF Holton Heath was praised for its facilities when local councillors visited the site many factories were reluctant to introduce separate washing and toilet facilities. Health and safety was minimal with, for example, no eye protection when using lathes for metal work. In one factory, the workers were expected to stand from 6am to 5.30pm with a 10minute toilet break and had to eat their lunch while working. Despite this, many had welcomed the independence and opportunities that these jobs had made possible.

Great concern had been expressed over the moral welfare of the munition workers and women welfare officers were often appointed to address this concern. The local newspaper of 1919 reported that the officers were now looking after the well-being of the workers who were being demobilised. The officers would meet trains that were carrying groups of women who were often travelling some distance to get home. Council and voluntary groups worked together to provide 24hr waiting-rooms for women at large stations and the YWCA opened its doors. Special rest-rooms were sometimes set-up in Labour Exchanges if the numbers deserved it.

In early 1919 it was estimated that 500,000 women were receiving the ‘unemployment donation’. To put this figure into context the population in 1911 was 36.5 million. Anybody accepting the dole faced the criticism that they were preferring it to work and through providing this money the ‘Government was keeping a lot of shirkers and loafers’. However, an April 1919 meeting of the Worker’s Union heard that some were refusing jobs because they did not want to return to the old work practices. A June 1919 newspaper article was quite blunt. ‘There is now a growing disposition to regard [women] as interlopers and job-snatchers’, but ‘during the time of national peril there was no praise too high for the millions of women who helped win the war’. The article believed that women had a right to argue against poor working conditions.

In an attempt to alleviate the situation nearly 100 training schemes were run throughout the country by the Women’s Branch of the Ministry of Labour’s Training Department and provided training for over 5,000 women. However, all the courses were in what society at the time regarded as acceptable work for women ie as domestic servants, or in the textile, clothing and laundry industries. Under the headline ‘Housewives in the Making’ it was noted that training was now available in restaurant work at a technical institute in London. Women who were previously tram conductors or in the Women’s War Services could earn £3 per week working in a top-class restaurant.

A national Professional Women’s Registry was opened up for ‘highly-educated’ women who were seeking work but it was left open as to what work that might be.

The Nurse’s Demobilisation and Resettlement Committee was established to help those who had ‘suffered privations such as only soldiers from active service can realise’ and now found themselves unemployed. A particular grievance was that many found their old jobs had been filled by those who had stayed at home and these people were being preferred for new vacancies. 3000 nurses had initially registered with the Ministry of Labour and around 1000 were still unemployed in August 1919.

The experience of one Scottish woman highlights what some faced during and after the war ended. Dr Isabel Emslie Hutton volunteered as a doctor during and shortly after the war. She was a highly skilled surgeon who worked in very stressful conditions in Salonika before organising and running a hospital in Serbia during a major typhus epidemic. On her return to Britain she was not able to practice surgery because she was a woman. When she did get a hospital post she had to resign when she married in 1921 because her husband was expected to support her. Possible opportunities in medical research also vanished when she revealed she was married.

Dr Isabel Emslie Hutton wrote a book about her experiences but those of the majority of women are left unrecorded. The following, very briefly, describe what happened next for three Poole women.

Winfred Newman was in her early twenties when she was a net mine worker in the WRNS at Hamworthy in 1918. Shortly after the war she married and in the 1939 Register she is described as an ‘unpaid domestic’.

Winifred Newman, 1917

Winifred Newman, 1917

Janet M. Lindsay from Parkstone was a private nurse before joining the Voluntary Aid Detachment. She went to the Volunteer Hospital for French Soldiers, St Malo Hospital in France in September 1914 and returned to Poole in November 1914. She worked in the military section of Cornelia Hospital until the section closed in 1919. The 1939 Register records her occupation as ‘private means’.

Elsie Ellen Stokes was in her early twenties when she was a munitions worker at Holton Heath. In the 1911 census she had been working as a servant to a local butcher, George Blackmore. In the 1939 Register her occupation was the Hotel and Restaurant Manager at the Longfleet Commercial Hotel.

While those working in industry or in the medical profession draw the most attention there were other important, but less high-profile, areas. One consequence of peace was that there was no need for the vast numbers of clerical staff most of whom were female. One problem was that many found they had become highly specialised and did not have the general skills employers wanted. It was reported in 1920 that women clerks who had been in Government offices were having difficulty finding work as there were over 20 applicants for each vacancy.

The Munitions Court in Bournemouth investigated various claims arising out working in munitions factories and the following provide a snapshot of cases involving local women.

The case of Ellen Holden of Parkstone came before the court in February 1919. Hers was a test case over bonus payments on which rested the hopes of forty other women and was supported by the Workers Union. The women worked at No 7 Saw Mills Factory, Hamworthy as ‘feeders’ and did the same work as men. Statutory rules said they should get a minimum of 24s (£1.20) per week plus a 11s (55p) a week bonus. With the war ending, the company had reduced their hours from 52 to 44 as well as reducing the bonus so instead of 35s (£1.75) a week they were receiving 28s 4d. The women claimed their bonus should not have been reduced. The company argued that they were following Ministry of Munition’s guidance but the Court agreed with the plaintiffs stating that the rules were clear that the bonus was unalterable. The claimants were awarded £3 6s 4d (£3.33) covering the period from 28 November 1918 to the date of the hearing.

In the same sitting, eight women workers who had been employed as cement moulders for Messrs Mannell & Co of Bournemouth wanted a week’s wages in lieu of notice. The case rested on the company’s claim that it was not a ‘controlled’ company under the Munitions Act. Any munitions work they did carry out had ceased at Christmas so the workers were allowed one hour’s notice as they were hourly paid – if they had been doing munitions work it was one week’s notice. The Court sided with the women because a notice stating they were entitled to a week’s notice was still hanging up in the canteen.

A female clerk at a shipping firm in Hamworthy claimed non-payment of the 12 ½ % war bonus. The company admitted it stopped the payment because they understood from the Ministry of Shipping that female clerks were not entitled to it. The Court disagreed and ordered the payment of £6 17s 11d (£6.86). Once again it was a test case for several other claimants against the company.

Not only were many in society wanting women to go back to their pre-war place but legislation was being enacted to enforce it. In 1919, the Poole newspaper reported on the introduction of the ‘Restoration of Pre-War Practices Bill’ into Parliament.  Prior to the war, Trade Unions excluded women from engineering although a company could employ them if it wanted. The new legislation made the latter illegal and was designed to give men returning from the war their old jobs back. Employers had up to two months to comply and were expected to keep the rules in place for a year. The newspaper article said that women were entitled to feel angry that conditions were now going to be worse than before the war – ‘it is hardly possible that it is seriously intended to pass legislation of this character’. The Bill was passed on 2 June 1919. In response, the Women’s Engineering Society was formed on 23 June 1919 to protect women who were in engineering roles. Strangely, the ‘Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act’ of 1919 allowed women, among other things, to join professional bodies – including engineering.

There were an estimated 1 million more women than men in Britain in the years leading up to the war. The horrendous casualties of the war created a difficult situation in an era when a woman was expected to marry and be supported by her husband. Adverts and articles appeared in the Poole newspaper during and after the war encouraging women to emigrate to countries such as New Zealand or Canada. In particular, in June 1920, the Ministry of Labour and the Overseas Settlement Committee of the Colonial Office announced they were going to work together to help single women settle in other countries of the British Empire.

Interest in women’s football had grown during the war and especially through munition factory teams. The games drew large crowds until women were banned from playing at Football League grounds in 1921. The local newspaper had team photographs and a report on the match played between Poole Ladies and Southampton Ladies in April 1921. The report said the event, which was held at Breakheart Lane, had never before been seen in Poole. Southampton was a highly experienced side and Poole only lost 2-0 due to the efforts of their goalkeeper. The Poole Ladies were Brown, Oakaway, Cook, Harris, Reed, Alner, Attwell, Bridle, Dick, Edwards and Ford.

One aspect that did significantly change after the war was the right to a vote. The argument put forward by some against universal suffrage was that women had no practical experience in matters such as industry and the military. This argument collapsed when women were employed in all different capacities at home and abroad during the First World War.

Following the ‘Representation of the People Act, 1918’ a woman was allowed to  vote in a General Election if she was over 30 and was entitled, through property qualifications, to vote in local government elections. Two women stood in the October 1919 Poole Council elections – Mrs E. Cloutman (Labour, Branksome West) and Miss A.E. Briggs (Independent, Parkstone West). Mrs Cloutman polled 303 votes with the winner getting 321. Miss A.E. Briggs won the Parkstone West Ward and became the first female Councillor in Poole. While it was a step forward, it was only in 1928, with the passing of the ‘Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act’, that women over the age of 21 could vote and the residence qualification became the same for men and women. It was thought that 14.5 million women and 12.25 million men would be eligible to vote at the next national election.

The aims of the Poole History Centre First World War project are to recognise the sacrifice that many local men and women made and to explore the impact of the war on all aspects of life in the town and its legacy. The personal experiences of Poole women either in factories during the war or facing unemployment when the hostilities ended were rarely recorded and Poole History Centre would welcome any that may have been passed down through the generations.

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