Women in World War 1

A presentation from the SYTT event - Remembering and Forgetting: Exploring local commemorations of WW1 (26th April, 2015) by Becky Beal, Craig Beaumont, Diane McNaught and Mariam Maqsood - Sheffield Hallam University Applied History students

Craig Beaumont presenting at the SYTT event
Mark Sheridan
Diane McNaught presenting at the SYTT event
Mark Sheridan
Becky Beal presenting at the SYTT event
Mark Sheridan
Mariam Maqsood presenting at the SYTT event
Mark Sheridan
Munitions workers, possibly from Firth Browns
Sheffield Archives and Local Studies


We are second year students from Sheffield Hallam University and as part of an Applied History module we’ve carried out a public history project which concentrates on the role of women in World War One in South Yorkshire. So I’m Diane, I concentrated on the Barnsley area and I specifically looked at the role of women in recruitment propaganda and also one lady’s unusual contribution as entertainer overseas.

I’m Craig I looked at the role of women in Rotherham and their contribution to the war effort and also the story of Mrs Mould which I think you’ll all find quite interesting.

I’m Becky and I’m going to be looking at the women who were seconded  to what was traditionally men’s work which was mainly in the munitions industry. All the women were met [incomp] with a lot of experiences and case studies of whether or not their contribution actually aided the changes in perception of women and their status in society.

I’m Mariam and I’m going to be talking about women as nurses in Sheffield and also will be talking about Queen Alexandra’s imperial nursing service and the territorial force nursing service too.

Diane: On the eve of World War One a great sense of optimism prevailed in Barnsley. The local newspaper The Barnsley Chronicle spoke of Barnsley’s bright vista and vigorous communal life. This community spirit was to be put to the test during the Great War and I’m just going to talk about a couple of ways in which the ladies of Barnsley contributed to and became directly involved in the war effort.

So first of all as I say I’m going to look at recruitment propaganda and then go on to talk about one lady in particular called Madame Amy Joyner. She was a talented performer who joined a famous entertainment troop and travelled overseas to entertain the soldiers on the front line. So as on a national level Barnsley women were appealed to directly in order to bolster the recruitment campaign. Women were encouraged to assert their influence to encourage husbands, brothers, sons and friends to sign up for the war effort. Women had great responsibility and were expected to persuade or even shame their men folk into enlisting, it was perceived as being their moral duty.

I’d just like to give you a couple of specific examples that I discovered in my research. So first of all at a mass recruitment event held on the twelfth of December 1914 The Barnsley Chronicle reported that two simultaneous meetings were held. One for men held at the public hall and one for women held at Regent Street Congregational School. A spokeswomen, platform speaker Miss Florence Balgarie acted as an intermediary relaying messages from the women’s meeting to the men’s and rousing speeches were given to provoke a passionate response and whip up patriotic further. Miss Balgarie stated ‘They as women must do all they could to encourage their men to join. They were far away from the front, they had no experience of the thrill of battle and none of the honour and glory. But still they, as Yorkshire women, must show the stuff they were made of. Instead of weeping and moping – and they did not like doing any such thing – they must show a brave face and encourage their brothers, sons, husbands and friends to go out and join those glorious sailors and soldiers who had already gone to the front.’ She went on to say ‘This war was far more than an ordinary war. It was not a war to pick something up here and there, but it was a war in which if she were a man – and at this moment she often regretted she was not – she would be proud to be engaged in.’.

A letter from an anonymous lady reader published in the local newspaper on the fifth of June 1915, was a particularly harsh example of women trying to shame men to enlist, it criticised shop workers within the town in a scathing attack it stated as follows: ‘Sir, I beg for a place in your paper to try and sharpen the Barnsley slackers a bit – I mean the shop assistants. I hear that the Barnsley British Cooperative Society have only missed about one hundred of their men from all their branches. I think this is most disgraceful. Why cannot the society send all men of military age and engage girls? But it appears as if the shop assistants must not soil their hands! Colliers are good enough to go in their opinion! Some of the assistants whose parents have property, why don’t they go and help instead of letting others do it for them? I think all the shop assistants of Barnsley ought to enlist as quickly as possible. If I were a man I should not need any persuading. I hope this letter will help in getting a few Barnsley shop assistants to join the colours.’

The Barnsley Chronicle also published photographs of women and families from which substantial members of men had enlisted holding them up as role models. Elisa Moxon had ten family members serving in March 1915 including six sons and a son in law and the Barnsley Chronicle stated ‘here is a fine record of patriotism, Mrs Elisa Moxon has no fewer than six sons, a son in law, two nephews and a grandson serving in the army to Mrs Moxon we offer sincere congratulations and trust that when the terrible war is over she may be spared to welcome to her home this gallant band of patriots.’ And Mrs Phillipson of Worsborough Bridge had seven family members serving in July 1950.

Finally I’d just like to talk about one gifted Barnsley lady who made an unusual contribution by joining a concert party and entertaining soldiers overseas. Madame Amy Joyner of Cudworth joined one of Lena Ashwell’s famous entertainment troupes which use the power of music to boost morale. Concerts were tremendously popular attracting enormous audiences of up to four thousand men. The concerts had a positive impact on the mental and physical health of men on the front line and they were held in camps, hospitals and behind the trenches often in dangerous conditions and the shell fire. Madame Joyner was a soprano singer and highly qualified having studied for six years at the Royal Academy of Music. Her particular troupe consisted of seven members, a contralto, a tenner, a pianist, a cellist, a banjoist and an entertainer and Madame Joyner herself.

During five weeks in France on the ninth of July to the twelfth of August 1917 Madame Joyner performed at no fewer than eighty five concerts and sang over two hundred songs. She was quoted in the Barnsley Chronicle upon her return from France as saying ‘The war would be won by the spirit and nerves of our armies, and it was the experience of the military and medical authorities, both in the camps, trenches and hospitals, that beautiful music, happiness and laughter in the midst of so much pain and desolation, nerve wracking noise and ugliness, had a physical and physiological value out of all proportion to the simplicity of the expedient, and almost beyond the imagination of those who had not actually experienced the conditions of life at the front.’ On May the third as well she was also quoted as saying about the men ‘they could be moved to the depths one minute, eyes blinded with tears and song which reminded them of love and hope and the next minute a funny story would bring great roars of laughter and sometimes their laughter to me was the saddest of all for we knew that not many hours before these men had faced the horrors of war and death unflinchingly, and they would do so again before many hours had passed. ‘

After the war Madame Joyner formed a ladies choir and a male voice choir in Barnsley and she founded Cudworth Hall Society which she was conductor of for twenty three years. She died in February 1940 after being disabled for some time but she was quoted as saying that if she had been able she would have returned to France in World War Two.

Craig: So I am Craig and as I said earlier my research focused mainly on Rotherham and the women of Rotherham and how their roles changed during the war albeit temporarily. I’m going to discuss some of the prominent companies in Rotherham and show how as the war progressed more women were employed in the roles that men held previously and also there’s a couple of interesting individual stories and achievements of women from and in Rotherham as well.

Rotherham Council met in March of 1915, decided that women could replace male employees but in limited roles, quote [laughter] so that they didn’t lose their femininity in roles such as tram conductors. By June of 1915 the building of a large munitions factory in the town was authorised with mostly women in employment here that was the plan for the factory, nationally just to put a bit perspective in, in July 1915 thirty thousand women marched on London demanding the right to work with the possibility of this investigated by the government that summer however it seems that Rotherham realised the importance of allowing women to take men’s jobs fairly early in the war.

Guest and Chrimes – just a bit of background information, I don’t know if you have ever heard of them as a company. They are a company that invented the screw down tap as we know it. They were basically plumbers and brass founders but they also made contributions to the national war effort. In-between 1871 and 1916 just one women was in employment here, by February 1916 however there were 56 women employed here. In 1917 there was a further 74 women employed here with a further 73 in 1918 and I have stated here some of the roles that they did included working in the iron turning shop, the water motor department, the tool shop and the warehouse. The women also worked as buffers too.

In 1918 however women left their jobs so the returning men could gain re-employment. Two hundred and fourteen people left in 1918, 80 of which were definitely women however as I looked at the information, finding a lot of them were probably women but they only put their first initials instead of a women’s name if that makes sense but from the research I did it looks like the majority of people left in 1918 were actually women. Beatson Clark, the glass manufacturers, they employed just two women in 1910 however during the war, glass bottles were needed for anaesthetics, these glass bottles which are these here pictured were actually imported from Germany before the war and obviously with the war starting they could no longer import these so they had to manufacture them in Rotherham and they found it necessary to introduce girl labour. Women were still not allowed however on production of bottles but in 1917 four women were sent to the University of Sheffield to learn how to lamp blow which is like the long [laughs] yer.

It was said that women rocked established attitudes towards them by working in dangerous masculine workplaces and environments. All of this changed perceptions that were held towards women. Munitions however were perhaps what the women of South Yorkshire were more famous for manufacturing during the First World War. At Denaby Main Works women worked from the age of fourteen, working twelve hours a day, seven days a week with an average pay of thirty two shillings. Men however were still paid more for the same roles. On average men in Rotherham earned twenty four shillings a week where as women only earned on average sixteen shillings a week which to me seems really unfair.

In 1916 however the government was forced to announce pay for women would be equal to that of men after they needed more female workers in the factory and in a single year after this there were two million more women in employment. I’ve just got some images that I’d like to share with you as well. This is an image of a munitions worker in Rotherham during World War One but unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any more information out about her. This next one you may find interesting as well. This is actually a women’s football team, possibly from a munitions factory, that I found in Rotherham Archives. This next image this is of female munitions workers based at Templeborough where millions of shells were made during the war effort and from my research as well I found that during the shell crisis of 1915 this particular factory mad a fantastic effort in the response to this crisis.

There were other ways that women helped however…Miss Isabelle Edgar who lived in Australia but she was from Rotherham originally distributed gifts of clothing and comfort to soldiers and civilians of France, Belgium and the British poor. Lady Maude Frederica Elizabeth Fitzwilliam of Wentworth, Woodhouse also held several garden parties to support patients and to help try and raise funds for the families of those soldiers who were fighting away. Countess Fitzwilliam also opened the newly built YMCA munitions canteen in 1915 in Rotherham on Sheffield Road, to cater for workers in munitions and was to be staffed by women. She visited this site again in 1916 and praised the efforts of the women who worked there. Some women volunteered in other areas too, Gena Boyton of Rotherham she volunteered to work for the Australian Red Cross; however she was wounded several times, after this she was awarded the Egyptian medal for bravery and also the military medal which I think is quite an achievement.

Mrs Mould- this was quite an intriguing find for me as well. She volunteered to work for the Women’s Legion during World War One, after this in 1915 she volunteered to become an ambulance driver in Serbia aged just seventeen, later that year her ambulance was destroyed, however she carried on her work with the aid of a wagon drawn by oxen, after this she was captured by the Germans where she survived without food and sleep for two weeks. The Germans forced her to work as a sanitary inspector under Doctor Elsie Inglis who started the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, however after escaping from the Germans she later did work in a Serbian hospital and just to show her dedication as well once she returned to Britain she volunteered to join the women’s legion.

Once the war ended in 1918 it seems like things were starting to go back to the old ways however from what I’ve found women didn’t really want this and a lot of women wanted a vote, and once the men returned women were expected to return home. There was also a shortage of domestic help which obviously women were expected to fill once the men had returned into their jobs which they gave up at the beginning of the war and found that women had experienced a freedom that they were largely unwilling to give up.

Becky: Hi, I’m Becky. I’m going to do about the women that were working in traditional men’s roles, chiefly the munitions factories. I want to focus mostly on their experiences, how they felt stepping into jobs that required a lot of responsibility – masculine responsibility and whether or not it did change the way that they were treated later on.

So women stepping up – before the war, Victorian women they were domestic goddesses they were meant to stay at home be mothers or wives, if they did have any employment it was in the gentleman service. I have a quote from a book here about mothers if an age who are not supposed to be ambitious or to want anything other than a comfortable home, complete with husband and children to look after. So there for the war when they were presented with the opportunity to go into munitions it was a big step for them because their instincts as domestic servants would have been surprised.

So the first slide it shows the increased demand of women’s labour and more women were being employed in men’s jobs so there was an increase in membership of the Sheffield branch of the National Union of Women Workers from 350 in 1914 to the sum of 5000 by June 1918. There were also jobs available for them not just in munitions but in nursing, in clerical, agricultural and administrative positions such as in banks, even Sheffield University female students offered their services to farmers and the agricultural field. In March 1915 it saw one thousand Sheffield women ready to replace men in the industrial agricultural and clerical occupations.

This is a picture – it’s pre-war as you can see of employers leaving Vickers as a prominent munitions factory. It’s not very clear but I wanted to show the vast number of men that you can only see in this picture leaving the factory and then a photo taken was in 1915 of the munition workers and as you can see there is women working there and there are some men in the background but that was because usually men were overseeing the work and the women were providing the labour of the what be considered unskilled.

So in Templebrough and East Sheffield there was large shelling factories. there were also large arm manufacturers like John Browns and Vickers, also seven million soldier metal helmets were produced in Sheffield and made from steel maker Hadfield’s which is where Meadowhall stands. In December 1915 the Lord Mayor appealed to the Sheffield householders to provide temporary accommodation for them whilst they erected huts in Tinsley, Petre street and Tyler Street. That just shows you the mass migration of women coming into this city to work. Arthur Lees Steel Company had one hundred and eighty girls producing wires for airplanes. The Sheffield University Department for Metallurgy trained women as assistants and analysts for Sheffield steel works in order to raise junior chemists for the army so you can see they were trying to train up the women to spare more men for the front.

I’ve just got some images to share with you, munitionettes and what they were doing in the factories. So somebody asked about the health dangers of women in the factories and what you know is they were called the canaries and that was due to the sulphur exposure in chemical factories it would turn their skin yellow, turn their hair orange, turn their eyes yellow so they could often be identified as workers yet there had been approximately four hundred deaths of women in munitions factories by the end of the war. They were long arduous hours, they were quite – had to be really concentrated on their work although it was quite repetitive and monotonous however they were producing more than eighty percent of the UK shell and bullet supply but the conditions were poor, inadequate safety equipment, explosions and exposure to dangerous chemicals.

This is a lady who was working in a – It’s Minnie Seddon who was employed at Thomas Firth International Projectile factory at Templeborough in Sheffield and she worked as a checker in the factory at the same factory where over fifteen thousand women were employed by 1915. This is her poem she wrote called The Munitions Girls and it was published in the factory magazine called The Bomb Shell in 1918. The Bomb Shell it was a factory magazine that the women had all produced together as a community and it talked about bake sales, drama clubs and it was a kind of entertainment trying to enforce some kind of enjoyment out of their work and this is what she wrote:

‘In a factory I am working amid thousands of other girls, projectiles roll around my feet, overhead machinery whirls, oh no we must not grumble for each is on her own to do her very level best for king and country both, so you will see that after all we are very glad to go to do our precious little bit and our patriotism show.’

So it just highlights the sense of duty that the women had their own country and that they wanted to help anyway they could even though they were stepping into shoes that had never been filled by a women before.

I do have a little bit of oral history for you which is a recording of three women and they worked in a factory in Mexborough and they were around fourteen at the time each of them when they went into the munitions. This painting is a painting of the women, they said they remembered it being taken. I’m not sure that the audio will allow me to play it but I will just pull out some of the main things that they did say.

One of them she was primary bread winner for her family. When she went into the munitions her father was away and any men that were in her household were unemployed or injured and what kind of struck me about this oral piece that I found was that they really enjoyed going to work in the factories. They talked about the health dangers and the hours and even some of the resistance that they faced from all the men but I think it was Lydia [ph] she called it a harmony of women and she enjoyed that kind of input to work and in the gentlemen’s service it was very lonely, it was very pressurised and you were overseen all the time.

They said they really enjoyed it and one of the ladies – I think it was Betty who said that on her last day before the end of the war they had a massive party and she got drunk and smoked and everything but you know was happy about being a workforce and being together doing something to produce a good effort for the boys on the front line however one of them did say that she did want to go back into working in World War Two, back into the factories but she didn’t want to work in munitions factories, she didn’t like the thought that she was killing other people.

So it kind of highlights that yer there was that patriotism but some of the women had reservations about the fact that they were producing weapons of mass destruction, so overall I ‘d like to just to question was it a revolution for women? Were they given the incentive to go out in men’s fields and take part in those areas which were dominated by masculine roles? Stewart Dalton said that without the First World War women might still be looking for the vote. Is that true? Did it have so much of an impact on them that they were now aware of their own power and the way that all the capabilities they had?

However Braybon and Summerfield pointed out that there were still large pay gaps for women, and they weren’t always accepted, there was a lot of reluctance especially in Vickers and they were forced back into the gentleman service many of them after the war. In 1919 four hundred and ninety four thousand were registered as unemployed so was it just a temporary strategy you know to help for the war and then did it all go back to how it was and I think that’s just a point up to debate on how much you think the war did impact on the roles of women in society because there is evidence to prove that they were given the chance to step up but there is also the evidence that they were made to step back down.

Mariam: Hi, I’m Mariam. I’m going to be talking about women from Sheffield as nurses, specifically at the third Northern General Hospital. Women in Britain who did the same call to arms as men I think it would be fair to say although few actually engaged in combat on the front and many served on the frontlines as nurses as well as filling other roles such as ambulance drivers, gas mask instructors and mechanics. Thousand more worked behind frontlines as munition workers, fund raisers, seamstresses and some even as spies.

I’m going to be specifically talking about a woman in one of these pictures actually, I’m not sure which one it is but they were both I assume taken at either the nurses school in Southbourne Road or whilst they were working at the third Northern General Hospital. The Queen Alexandra is at the Imperial Military Nursing Service which replaced the Army Nursing Service on the 27th March 1902 and the Territorial Force Nursing Service sort of branched of that.

It was mostly made up from women volunteers of whom had qualified and served as nurses in civilian life beforehand. It quickly gained membership of around thirty thousand and its original role was to staff twenty three war office controlled territorial hospitals that were to be established across the country in pre identified locations before the actual start of the war.

This is Kathleen Francis Station [ph] she was a staff nurse and she was employed by the Territorial Force Nursing Service during the war. She became a sister on the eleventh of March 1922 and also after the war she served during the war at the third Northern General Hospital and throughout the course of the war and then afterwards she also served abroad. She served in France.

At the beginning before the war the army didn’t see a need to recruit and maintain a large number of military nurses so when war was actually declared the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service couldn’t have as much membership as the Territorial Force Nursing Service which was dependant on volunteers and it only had two hundred and ninety seven members because probably more – because of the criteria each woman had to fit to become a member. Candidates had to be over twenty five, single and of a high social status. If you think about in most girls of a high social status by the time they were twenty five would probably be married so anyone who was joining must to have been dedicated to making a lifelong career out of nursing.

This is a letter that she received after the war just to tell her that she was still a member of the Territorial Force Nursing Service and she was actually made a member after the war. I think she may have served as a nurse during the Second World War too. I think one of the main issues for women even not just in nursing but in other sectors was the amount of freedom that they were allowed during the war, for her in particular she went abroad and I’m sure if she hadn’t – if the war hadn’t happened and she hadn’t been a member of the Territorial Force Nursing Service, the idea of working abroad would have been just an idea – wouldn’t have ever happened for her so I think the war brought a lot with her – a lot for women.

Becky: So this is really our conclusion because when Sam asked us to present to you, he said to keep in mind how do we commemorate the First World War and I think the reason we chose our specific subject and the way we presented it – it was to be an exploration, appreciation of the involvement of women in World War One, giving them the gratitude that they perhaps didn’t receive at the time because they were women and now we are able to appreciate them and thank them and honour them hopefully. Thank you.

Transcript ends

This page was added on 21 August 2015.

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