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 open 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 4th 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. For many young men such encouragement simply meant death or maiming in the horrors of trench warfare.
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. 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.
565 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.
Despite opposition to women keeping the jobs they’d been urged to take in the war years, so many men had been killed and injured 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.