Women on the Home Front

World War One was a catalyst in the lives of the women of Loughborough, as it was for the country as a whole. In a time of cramped homes serviced by outside toilets, gas lighting and heating provided by coal fires filled by hand, day to day life was physically hard and the presence of a male in the family almost a necessity. Men were the main breadwinners, their jobs o en involving an element of heavy manual labour, and employment opportunities for women, still characterised as the ‘weaker sex’ – were limited. The declaration of war on the fourth of August took the country by surprise. As the weekend before had been a bank holiday, many Loughborough women were on holiday with their families in Mablethorpe or Skegness. They returned home to big recruiting rallies in the Market Place for the 5th Leicestershire Regiment. Some men volunteered, happy to accept the ‘King’s shilling’ and go off to France for an adventure they believed would be ‘over by Christmas.’ Only It wasn’t. The war dragged on and husbands, sons, brothers and fiancés remained on active service.

The introduction of general conscription in March 1916 was extended to married men in May of that year, putting more pressure on women, practically and emotionally. Many conscription adverts in local newspapers also used men’s relationship to women and the urge to protect their families to appeal to men’s sense of duty and patriotism. Womenfolk were actively encouraged to get them to enlist. Slogans such as ‘Women of Britain say – GO!” and “It’s your duty lad – Join Today!” were familiar. For many young men such encouragement meant death or maiming in the horrors of trench warfare. A picture of Loughborough mother Mrs Almsworth appeared in the Leicester Mercury holding a placard which stated “Down with the Germans. I’ve got six sons fighting them.” Women had to deal with the practical issues of not having their menfolk around, including the loss of income this could bring. The town, too, felt the impact, with Loughborough’s businesses suffering a huge reduction in workforce and women increasingly called on to make good the shortfall. For some women, this literally meant taking over their husbands’ jobs to keep them open for when they returned. Gradually, as the men of Loughborough were called up for military service, the women stepped forward to take their places and keep the town going. This included working the land, producing the food needed to feed the na on. The Loughborough Echo of 4th May 1917 reported that more women were employed on the land than ever before, many of them former factory workers with no experience or training in farm work. The paper stated they were ‘very keen about their work’ and ‘reliable’ and without them ‘the work could not have carried on’.

Most women worked for lower wages than the men they’d replaced, and on the strict understanding that once the war was over, they’d step down gracefully so the soldiers could return to work. Even so, for many women the move into the workforce provided choice, independence and opportunities which had previously been unthinkable. ‘We never saw my father for 5 years. My mother kept his job on while she could but it got too much for her. She was caretaker at Shakespeare Street School. Everybody said it was going to last a month or two, that’s all, so she tried to keep it on, but it got too much. It was a big Quorn boiler, you know – stoking was too much for her.’ – Unknown lady, East Midlands Oral Archive

‘I never liked the factory where I worked. My eyesight wasn’t very good and weaving is a very particular job. I left the factory in September 1917. They were training land army girls at Beaumanor Farm. I had to go up to Hanging Stone Farm to live. We had to get up fairly early. I’d been taught how to milk. We had to go into the fields spudding the thistles and [at] harvest we had to put the shots of wheat up and all that. When you’d been there 6 weeks they contacted them at Leicester and you had to leave. Most of them went on a farm but they picked me for this gardening job. I’d no idea where Nuneaton was, it was like going to America now!’ – Vena Grain, Quorn ‘My friend came and she said “the station master at Rothley has lost two of his porters and he said that he wouldn’t mind if he could get a strong girl to take over.” Mother wrote for an interview and took me over on a Wednesday and he looked at me and he said “you’re not very big but I think you look tough enough.” We had to carry everything up and down 36 stairs. I had to get used to it.’ – Unknown lady, East Midlands Oral Archive Women were called on to help at Loughborough Hospital as injured men began returning home from the Front. Volunteers – many from the middle classes – were trained in cookery, sanitation, bandaging and applying dressings, as well as the proper procedures to follow before, during and a er surgery. They cleaned the wards, scrubbing and dusting, set out the trays, lit fires and changed and washed the bedlinen. They also helped wash and dress the men – quite a big deal for young women who previously hadn’t been allowed alone with a man if he was from outside their own family. For many it was their first taste of the working world, but from volunteering in quite basic tasks at Loughborough Hospital, some would go on to nursing training and earning payment at the military rate. Josephine Taylor, of the bell foundry family, left a comfortable middle-class home with servants to volunteer on Loughborough’s Military Wards from October to December 1914. She then trained as a nurse at University College Hospital, London, before going to the battle fields of France. She was later sent home with blood poisoning (see her picture on page 73). The wives of prominent local businessmen and dignitaries also volunteered, amongst them Lady Kathleen Herrick, the wife of William Herrick of Beaumanor, and Natalie Wright, daughter of Thomas Wright, the elastic web manufacturer of Quorn. Like Josephine Taylor, Natalie also lost a brother during WW1. Mrs Hilda Corah, daughter of coal merchant George Mounteney, put in over a thousand hours of voluntary work at the hospital before resigning in 1918 when her husband was killed. One extraordinary woman, Mabel Barker, volunteered at the hospital whilst working as a teacher at Church Gate School, cycling round there a er the day’s lessons had ended. Queen Mary, the wife of King George V, asked the women of the na on to support the war effort by making garments for the men at the Front. Women made scarves, socks, gloves and sweaters, both to send to the troops and to raise funds for the various war charities that had sprung up. Ladies’ Sewing Circles at All Saints’, Holy Trinity and Emmanuel Churches and the Old Girls’ Committee of Loughborough High School all knitted and sewed. By the end of the war, over a million women nationally had produced five and a half million items, including dressing gowns, bandages, pillows, and blankets.

Five hundred and sixty-five men from Loughborough in military service lost their lives in the Great War. With the decision taken not to repatriate their bodies, their widows, sisters and mothers didn’t even have the comfort of a burial or a grave they could visit to mourn their loss. There was a huge hole in people’s lives, and particularly women’s. Hilda Onions reported that her mother, Henrietta Godber, never recovered from the loss of her eldest son, Billie, who was killed on 17th April 1917 shortly a er Henrietta had given birth to her youngest son, Morton. The combination of post-natal depression, the loss of her son and the struggles of raising her family under rationing must certainly have been a lot to bear. Across the country thousands of women lost fiancés, and therefore their futures as wives and mothers, many remaining spinsters for the rest of their lives. Some would busy themselves with heavy involvement in the church and traditional female occupations. Others pursued more active lives through embracing new educational and work opportunities, for many had learnt new skills and taken on new responsibilities. Frances Harridge Cayless of Ratcliffe Road, a private governess and a Sunday school teacher at Emmanuel Church, was the eldest of four sisters and never married. She and her sisters became well known in the town for their charitable works. For one local woman, Lizzie, the scar on her knee and the calliper and spring she had to wear were a firm reminder of the Zeppelin raid, that ‘awful night’ when her friend Ethel was killed as they walked home arm in arm. Other women didn’t achieve the luxury of looking back on the war with even a sense of sadness. ‘My mother said that when the war was over she would stand on her head in the back yard,’ wrote one local man. ‘Unfortunately, she died in the great flu epidemic of 1918. She never lived to see the end of the war.’ Many women must have regretted the encouragement that they’d given their menfolk to join the fight but in the end all of a fit age and status were liable to be drafted. Despite opposition to women keeping the jobs they’d been urged to take in the war years, so many men had been killed that some women remaining in the workplace was inevitable. They were trained and had learned to hold their own in a man’s world. They’d had the chance to do things that only men had done before. The war had taught them they could do things just as well as the men and it had changed the lives of the women of Loughborough forever.

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