BBC WW1 at Home Commemorations WW1 Research Uncategorized

Representing Resistance: 1916 and the Impact of Conscription

Sabine Grimshaw is an AHRC funded doctoral student at the University of Leeds and Imperial War Museums, as part of the Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships programme. Her research on pacifism and protest during the First World War examines how the representation of male and female war resisters changed over the course of the war as well as considering how resisters have been commemorated in the war’s fiftieth anniversary and centenary.

This year marks the centenary of the introduction of a piece of wartime legislation that had significant ramifications for the war and the British public: compulsory military service.

"This little pig stayed at home": Cartoon ridiculing the Conscientious Objector.  Courtesy of Imperial War Museum Q103334
“This little pig stayed at home”: Cartoon ridiculing the Conscientious Objector. Courtesy of Imperial War Museum Q103334

The Military Service Acts of 1916 were particularly contentious not only because they brought an end to the British voluntarist tradition but because they offered the possibility for those with a conscientious objection to the war to refuse military service. These so-called ‘Conscientious Objectors’ (COs) were often the victims of public antagonism, and their relative prominence in society refocused the way that the anti-war movement was represented both by outsiders and themselves.

Before conscription, opposition to the war was framed very much as something specific to women. Indeed, anti-war publications often suggested that working for peace through opposition to the war was a task that was not only specifically suited to women but was the duty and responsibility of women. This type of argument was often underpinned by an understanding of women as naturally pacifistic, loving and nurturing which was primarily linked to their ability to become mothers. However in the aftermath of conscription the identification of peace as a feminine issue ended and instead male COs are framed as the leaders of the movement against war. The stance taken by COs was positioned as part of a specifically English struggle for liberty and freedom of conscience.

Moreover, the representation of objectors had to respond to substantial and widespread criticism and ridicule in a way that was not necessarily true for that of anti-war women. The intensity of this derision, which often specifically targeted the masculinity of COs, and the subsequent response of the anti-war movement to this, highlight the contemporary assumption that peace and opposition to war were not the preserve of men. In order to counter attacks on their masculinity, COs and their supporters frequently mirrored many of the qualities that were associated with the volunteer soldier who, during the war, was considered to be the pinnacle of masculinity. Sacrifice, duty, and patriotism all became significant themes in the representation of COs and demonstrate how particular wartime masculine qualities directly impacted upon the self-representation of the anti-war movement.

Accordingly, the introduction of conscription can be seen as having great significance not only due to its break with English tradition and impact of the waging of war itself but also because of its considerable implications for those who opposed the war. By examining the way that representations of the anti-war movement changed during the war, we can thus see how particular developments directly impact on those who opposed the war.

For more information about the AHRC’s WW1 Engagement Centres, please visit the website.




BBC WW1 at Home Commemorations WW1 Engagement Centres Research Uncategorized

World War One At Home – the final local stories from a global conflict to be broadcast on BBC local radio stations from Saturday June 25

BBC local radio stations across England and the Channel Islands will launch the final collection of stories from the landmark project World War One at Home, run in partnership with Imperial War Museums.

Over the past two years around 1400 powerful stories about people and places on the home front of Britain and Ireland during World War One have been broadcast

Broadcast Equipment, Receiver Model 556, British © IWM (COM 238)
Broadcast Equipment, Receiver Model 556, British © IWM (COM 238)

and all are linked to specific places across the country. The final stories will be broadcast from Saturday June 25th.

The project has uncovered surprising stories about familiar neighbourhoods where soldiers trained, the wounded were treated, women worked in factories, crucial front line supplies were produced, major scientific breakthroughs were made,  prisoners of war were held and where heroes and heroines are buried.

David Holdsworth, Controller of BBC English Regions, said: “World War One at Home has been an enormously ambitious project that has really engaged our audiences on BBC Local radio over the last two years. These final broadcasts will put the spotlight on people and places around the country that had a significant role to play during the conflict. And the dedicated BBC website that features all of the stories will provide a valuable digital legacy for years to come.”

Diane Lees, Director-General of IWM, said: “The World War One at Home project has inspired countless people across the UK to engage with and uncover stories about the impact of the First World War from their own communities. It has been a fantastic partnership project between the BBC and IWM and one that has shed further light on those who lived, died and survived during the First World War and the way in which we want to remember them now.”

BBC Sussex and Surrey

In Sussex, the coastal town of Peacehaven owes its creation to the events of the First World War. With many men from the local area signing up to join the War effort, a local businessman called Charles Neville devised a plan to create a garden city by the sea where people including ex-servicemen would be able to purchase plots of land upon which they could build homes and a new life.

HMS SUSSEX, 9,850 TONS LONDON CLASS CRUISER. (Courtesy of IWM) © IWM (A 17512)

Actor Brian Capron tells the intriguing story of the only town in the UK to be named after peace and how the evolution of Peacehaven was far more complicated than Mr Neville had anticipated.

BBC London

In September 1914 a secret propaganda bureau was set up at Wellington House in London. The bureau was run by writer Charles Masterman and was said to be so secret that most MPs were unaware it existed.

Courtesy of IWM © IWM (Art.IWM PST 13212)
Soldiers & Sailros Map of London 1916 Courtesy of IWM © IWM (Art.IWM PST 13212)

The bureau called upon writers and newspaper editors to put together material which showed Britain’s war effort in a good light and to counter enemy messages.  Wellington House also printed its own material including newspapers, cartoons and books which were circulated around the world to influence neutral and enemy countries.

BBC Radio Bristol

Downend in Bristol is the home to one of only two Boy Scout War Memorials on public land in the country. It was erected in 1921 in memory of members of the 1st Downend Scout Troop who lost their lives in the Great War of 1914-18.

DO YOU WANT A FERN-BASKET LIKE THIS? Join the Sixth AND COME AND GET ONE. Head-Quarters - St. Michael's Hill, Bristol. Courtesy IWM © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8129)
DO YOU WANT A FERN-BASKET LIKE THIS? Join the Sixth AND COME AND GET ONE. Head-Quarters – St. Michael’s Hill, Bristol. Courtesy IWM © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8129)

The first name on the memorial is Rev P G Alexander who founded the Downend Scout Group in 1909.  Philip Alexander was the curate of Christchurch Downend at the start of the 20th Century and was married to the niece of legendary cricketer WG Grace. When war broke out he joined up and, in 1916, was aboard HMS Hampshire when it was sunk by a German mine near the Orkney Isles. Lord Kitchener was also on board the ship at the time and both Kitchener and Alexander lost their lives.

BBC Radio Cumbria

In the 1930s, Bramwell Evans was known to millions from his role on BBC Children’s Hour where he regaled a generation with his tales of life from a travelling family.  But prior to this, Evans was a Methodist Minister in Carlisle where he reached out to a new audience of munitions workers by holding religious services with musical entertainment in a popular cinema.

Evans and the Methodists in the city identified a need for social support for munitions workers. They looked after young women away from home; found lodgings for over 1000 men, girls and married couples who came to work in Carlisle;

Head and shoulders portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II which was presented to Hugh, 5th Earl of Lonsdale by the Kaiser in commemoration of his visit to Lord Lonsdale's estate at Lowther Castle, Cumbria in August 1895. The portrait is signed and dated by the Kaiser.Courtesy IWM.© IWM (HU 68366)
Head and shoulders portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II which was presented to Hugh, 5th Earl of Lonsdale by the Kaiser in commemoration of his visit to Lord Lonsdale’s estate at Lowther Castle, Cumbria in August 1895. Courtesy IWM.© IWM (HU 68366)

and established Sunday evening services in Botchergate Cinema.  These services attracted good quality singers and musicians and ran regularly at various points during 1916 and 1917, welcoming people into the cinema early on cold and wet days.

BBC Newcastle look at the vital, though secret, role that Cullercoats Coastal Radio station in North Shields, played during World War One. The station intercepted radio messages sent to and from German ships and U-boats and passed them to Admiralty Headquarters in London.  Although they were encrypted, a number of German codebooks had been seized during the war, allowing many messages to be interpreted.

First World War period badge for the Newcastle-on-Tyne Volunteer Training Corps. British Home Defence associations. Courtesy IWM  © IWM (INS 7361)
First World War period badge for the Newcastle-on-Tyne Volunteer Training Corps. British Home Defence associations. Courtesy IWM © IWM (INS 7361)

The Station had been built in 1908 when it was used by the inventor Guglielmo Marconi to send test signals to a station in Denmark.  It continued to operate as a maritime radio station after the two world wars before it was closed in 1998.

All BBC Local Radio stations across England will broadcast five World War One At Home stories from June 25th to June 29th.

All the final World War One At Home stories and many more will then be available online on a dedicated website at


Notes to Editors

BBC “World War One At Home” journalists have also been working with academics from universities across Britain who have been supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The AHRC funds research in the arts and humanities and helps share the findings with the wider public.

Each World War One at Home story broadcast on radio and TV over the last two years will be available to listen to online and the audience will be able to browse stories to find out how their area’s experience contrasted with those elsewhere, and discover the nationwide experience of the Home Front.

The stories will be classified by place (a BBC local area such as BBC Leeds or BBC Kent or a nation – BBC Wales, BBC Northern Ireland and BBCScotland) and by themes such as Sport, Working for the War, War in the Air.

All of the stories will be shareable via social media – #WW1AtHome

For further information contact:

Karen Williams, Publicist, BBC English Regions or 0771 4957087







BBC WW1 at Home

Thomas Porteous Black – a Nottingham man at Gallipoli

In this guest blog post from the Centre for Hidden Histories, John Beckett recounts the story of Thomas Porteous Black, the Registrar of University College Nottingham, who fought at Gallipoli.

The commemoration on 25 April 2015 of the centenary of Gallipoli, reminds us that white British casualties were found in places other than the trenches of the Western Front. The conflict itself is often viewed as being about the Australian and New Zealand troops, who went into action in Europe for the first time. ‘The ordeal of courageous Anzac troops under the command of bungling British generals has become the stuff of legend’ according to The Times (25 April 2015). By contrast, Britain has not made a great deal of the campaign, which was seen as botched, primarily by Winston Churchill, who had seen it as a way of opening a new front in the Eastern Mediterranean. Britain sent a 75,000 strong Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, which included British, Irish, French, Australian, New Zealand and Indian troops. By August 1915 the situation was dire, with troops pinned down in a bloody stalemate, having failed to move further than three or four miles inland.

The cap badge of the Sherwood Foresters, Black’s regiment.
The cap badge of the Sherwood Foresters, Black’s regiment

Among the casualties was Thomas Porteous Black. A native of Aberdeen, but brought up in Darlington, Black was killed at Suvla Bay on 9 August 1915, as the 9th Sherwood Foresters were ordered forward against Turkish lines near Hetman Char in the Dardanelles.

Black’s death had a particular impact on Nottingham University College because he held the position of Registrar, at that time the senior administrator of the institution. He had joined the College as a lecturer in Physics, and had been appointed Registrar in 1911. As an officer in the OTC (Officer Training Corps), he quickly became involved in the war effort, and when the war started he joined up as a Sherwood Forester. As with all of the young men who died, and who had some form of association with the College, his loss was reported to both Senate and Council and, as ever, letters of condolence were sent to his family. He is also named on the university’s war memorial in the Trent Building.

The memorial to the fallen of the OTC, Nottingham
The memorial to the fallen of the OTC, Nottingham

In Black’s case the College decided to go further and to create a scholarship fund ‘to be awarded for research and to bear his name’. A circular letter dated 20 November 1915 and signed by the College vice principal Frank Granger and by E Lawrence Manning, described as honorary secretaries and treasurers for the Black memorial award, recalled how, as registrar, he had ‘carried out duties of special responsibility with an energy, foresight and tact, which was of great value to the numerous students who entered the College during his term of office.’

The letter continued: ‘It is hoped to raise a sum of £300 with a view to establishing a scholarship to be awarded for research and to bear his name.’ More than £50 had already been donated, including £10 10s from Principal Heaton, and £5 5s from his wife. A concert was held on 25 March 1916 to raise money towards the Black Memorial Fund.

By that time the ill-fated campaign in the Dardanelles was over. The Commander-in-Chief, General Ian Hamilton was recalled in October, and an evacuation began in December, which ended on 9 January 1916.

BBC WW1 at Home

Zeppelin raids and stockbroker soldiers

In this blog post, Jonathan Black, Senior Research Fellow in History of Art at Kingston University and Dan Todman, Senior Lecturer in History at Queen Mary, University of London look at the impact of the war on London and how it is being commemorated in the city.

As the World War One at Home project shows, the experience of Londoners during the conflict was distinctive, partly because of the sheer size of the city. ‘Often during the First World War,’ says Jonathan Black, who is Senior Research Fellow in History of Art at Kingston University, ‘things that were taking place elsewhere in the UK were concentrated and magnified in London. Everything was on a bigger scale, as the capital acted as a magnet for people, money and development.’

There were munitions factories all around the country, for example, and accidents took place in many of them. But the explosion at the Silvertown factory in West Ham created one of the loudest man-made noises that there have ever been. Fifty tons of TNT were detonated, the bang could be heard over 100 miles away, and the resulting fires could be seen for 30 miles: 73 people were killed.

And while Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart is now the place most closely associated with the treatment of shell shock, it was London’s Maudsley Hospital that saw by far the largest number of cases of this newly recognised condition. Craiglockhart looked after officers like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon; the Maudsley dealt primarily with the ordinary soldiers. And it was here that experimental treatments were first tried out – everything from massage and talking cures to electric shock therapy. ‘The lack of understanding of shell shock is shown in the variety of terms used to describe it,’ says Jonathan Black – many in the medical profession preferred to use the terms ‘neurasthenia’ or ‘Not Yet Diagnosed (Nervous).’

Record numbers of women were working in London factories, too. And London being what it was, women there were able to fill some unusual positions, left vacant by men in uniform – Maida Vale on the Bakerloo Line, for example, was the first Tube station to be entirely ‘manned’ by women. At the time, London was the only city in the UK with an underground network.

The civilian war
For Dan Todman, who is Senior Lecturer in History at Queen Mary, University of London, it was the German bombing campaign against the city that really made Londoners’ war experience distinctive. ‘I was struck by stories of the raids by Zeppelins and German aeroplanes, many of which were to be echoed in the Second World War. And I was struck by the language that was used about those people who had died in air raids – that theirs was a sacrifice that had to be redeemed by victory.’ With London the principal target of the raids, anti-German feeling ran high among the civilian population: many Londoners continued to refuse to buy German products long after the war had ended.

One possible victim of the Zeppelin bombing in London was the cricketer WG Grace, who suffered a heart attack after one raid. The German airships had made him agitated: when asked why he allowed them to unnerve him, when he had stood up to countless fast bowlers undaunted, Grace replied: ‘I could see those beggars: I can’t see these.’

I could see those beggars: I can’t see these

As Dan Todman points out, though, it’s surprisingly difficult to gauge the impact of the First World War on the majority of working class Londoners. ‘Life during the war was very hard for many of them, and so they didn’t have much time to write about their experiences. It was members of the middle classes who tended to keep diaries, with a sense that they were writing partly for the historical record.’

The World War One at Home project has helped, though, to shed some light on the war experiences of ordinary civilians in London. It has led, for example, to the rediscovery of archives held by the London County Council, which had sent out investigators during the conflict, clearly concerned that the war was leading to social breakdown in the metropolis. Subjects that the investigators looked into include unrest among the cabinet-makers of Hoxton, after the war had put them out of work, and whether women in Lambeth were drinking too much, now that so many of them were alone, with their husbands overseas. ‘We don’t have a baseline for any of this,’ says Dan Todman, ‘to show how much had changed since before the war. But it gives us an idea of what the authorities were concerned about. And the fact that we have such records here is a sign of how well-developed municipal government was in London, compared to other British cities.’

London’s role as the centre of Empire is epitomised, meanwhile, in the story of Joe Clough, who was one of the first people to settle in London from the Caribbean. He became the first black London bus driver, in the face of discrimination – including one false, racially-motivated claim that he had been speeding (at 28 miles an hour). He went on to drive field ambulances for four years near Ypres on the Western Front.

Another distinctive feature of London is the role of the City. Volunteer battalions were raised in the Inns of Court, and among the stockbrokers of Lombard Street. As Dan Todman points out, ‘this was a distinctive feature of the First World War – the voluntary involvement of so many members of the upper middle class professions (many of which were based in London).’

The place of memory
Finally, it is London, of course, which is home to many of the national war memorials that were constructed after the conflict had ended. And so for art historians like Jonathan Black, the war memorials of London hold a special interest: ‘of the 54,000 or so World War One memorials in the UK, only around 300 have figurative sculptures on them, largely because they were expensive. But London has a much higher concentration of sculpture on its memorials than other places in the country.’


Among the memorials that are distinctive to London are the National Submarine War Memorial on the Victoria Embankment, which includes the first attempt to depict the inside of a submarine in sculpture. And round the corner, there is one of the first representations of a camel in a British city, on the memorial of the Imperial Camel Corps, which served in the Middle East.

With the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Cenotaph, and now the field of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London, the capital remains the focus of remembrance in the UK.

For further information, please go to:


BBC WW1 at Home

The BBC World War One at Home Project: Reflections

In this piece, Dr Helen B. McCartney reflects on her involvement in the BBC World War One at Home project and the broadcasting, public engagement and learning opportunities that came from it.

The BBC World War One at Home project began with an ambitious aim – to produce over 1400 local stories that illustrated the diversity of experience on the British home front during the First World War. The BBC English Regions and Nations were tasked with each providing 100 stories that had a strong sense of locality, and explained how different individuals and places influenced and were affected by the British war effort from 1914.

The first stories were broadcast across radio, television, and online in February 2014 with further stories released in June and August. The final tranche of stories have been released this week, with a few kept in reserve to be broadcast later in 2015.

The project was a collaborative initiative between the BBC, the Imperial War Museums, and researchers funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Supporting World War One at Home is one of the key ways in which the AHRC is marking the centenary of the First World War. Through funding researchers to work with broadcasters, they aimed to facilitate the input of new historical ideas and broader national and international contexts into the project.

As one of the researchers on the project, working alongside Professor Ian Beckett and the broadcast journalists of BBC South, I want to offer a few reflections on what academics were able to contribute and what I, in particular, have taken away from the experience.

It is important to remember that this was an experimental project. Collaboration between AHRC academic researchers and broadcasters had not previously been attempted on this scale and this necessarily meant that roles had to be defined and refined as the project took shape. A key player in this was our broadcast controller, Joanne Babbage, who expertly managed the interface between the journalists researching the stories and academics providing advice.

We all had to recognize that journalism and academic cultures are different. I had to learn the hard lesson that although one of my primary functions was to add context, there was a limit to the amount of context that can be provided in a 5 -10 minute story. Inserting context concisely is, indeed, an art form. However, the broad selection of stories, presented collectively, also helped in the quest to highlight a wider view of the war experience. Charles Booth, one of the researchers in the South West, has pointed out how many of the stories illustrated the global dimensions of the conflict. Across the UK, there were stories about the interaction between local people and those of other nationalities – troops from undivided India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, as well as Yemeni sailors and men of the Chinese Labour Corps. All these stories helped to emphasize the international character of the war. Nor were the darker stories of wartime glossed over. For example, while Belgian refugees were welcomed by many British people at the start of the war, there were clearly tensions between some refugees and their communities by its end and stories detailing anti-German riots featured in a number of regions.

There is also the journalistic imperative to find the unique, out-of–the ordinary stories that engage audiences. These stories were crucial to the project, but so were the stories that looked at everyday life and experience. For example, we were able to cover not only the experience of conscientious objectors but also the experience of the many men who faced military service tribunals seeking exemption from military service for more mundane but no less fascinating reasons.

Finally, I was impressed with the way in which the journalists with whom I worked were prepared to discuss and amend parts of their programming to accommodate alternative views or tighten up terminology. The fact that there was room for ongoing discussion before the final production of the stories was a very positive part of the relationship and added greater depth and complexity to some of the stories presented.

The overall result has been, I hope, a rich variety of stories that reflect the experience of different regions and nations with different characteristics, different economic outlooks and different populations with different skills. The United Kingdom in 1914 was decentralized, both administratively and culturally. Most people lived their entire lives at the local level with their expectations and connections tied to their local communities and the project admirably reflects these realities. It does more than this, however. One of its real strengths is the way in which the stories have been archived both by locality and by theme. The thematic approach is significant because it also allows for people to engage with the stories more broadly, permitting comparison of how the war was experienced across the UK.

The other key strength of the project was that it was not simply about the production of stories but also about engaging with the public through a series of roadshows held around the country. These roadshows provided academics with an opportunity to highlight some of their own recent research to more diverse audiences than traditionally encountered. Talking to audiences in a BBC roadshow tent at Weymouth carnival was a new experience for me. It made me think carefully about what was essential to my argument as well as what might hold the attention of an audience with a wide demographic against the backdrop of potentially more interesting attractions. This was an audience that could vote with its feet.

BBC World War One at Home ‘Battle Bus’ at the Weymouth roadshow, 20 August 2014. © Robert T. Foley
BBC World War One at Home ‘Battle Bus’ at the Weymouth roadshow, 20 August 2014. © Robert T. Foley

The whole experience of working on the World War One at Home project has been incredibly valuable to my own research project that looks at the British soldier in the First World War and how different public narratives have become prominent in the UK over the last century. It has provided insight into how to engage a wide range of people from disparate backgrounds, allowed me to study the construction of narratives within a media organization, and afforded me the opportunity to influence those narratives by suggesting alternative perspectives from which to view the First World War. I hope that the collective experience of this collaborative project will be viewed as positively and will help to shape engagement between academics and the BBC in the future.

This piece was originally posted at

BBC WW1 at Home Research

Riots, music halls and Spiritualists: World War One in the North West

In this blog article, Matt Shinn investigates various aspects of life during World War One in the North West of England.​

‘Location is everything in the First World War,’ says Mike Benbough-Jackson, Senior Lecturer in History at Liverpool John Moore’s University. ‘Your experience of the war could be completely different from someone else’s, depending on your locality. And nowhere bears this out better than the North West’.

If you’d spent the war in Liverpool, for example, you would have been in a maritime trading city, with a major Imperial role. And you might well have known some of the many Liverpudlians who were on board Cunard’s liner Lusitania, which was making for Liverpool when she was sunk by German U-boats in May 1915. Though the sinking itself is well-known, being one of the triggers for the United States entering the war, what is less well-known is that this event sparked a series of anti-German riots in Liverpool and Tranmere, with attacks on shops – and not just German-owned shops, but Chinese-owned ones too. A dark chapter in the city’s history, which few now are aware of.

As a major centre for the importation of animals, millions of which were used in the war effort – including the real-life War Horses – Birkenhead was also the centre of efforts by the animal charity the Blue Cross to bring the concept of animal rights to the fore.

Moths to a flame

The role of the music hall was also particularly important in the North West, with its large working-class urban populations. As Mike Benbough-Jackson points out, ‘music hall can be seen as just another of the channels for exercising pressure on men to enlist, drawing them like moths to a flame’. The World War One at Home project has featured the story of one such recruit, Percy Morter, who went to a show at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, where the renowned female drag artiste Vesta Tilley was recruiting for the army. The star placed her hand on Percy’s shoulder and encouraged him to take the King’s shilling: he joined the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, and died on the Somme the following year. And yet at the same time, the music halls could be much more than just propaganda tools – ‘they also included dramas featuring soldiers leaving, the loss of loved ones, and weeping widows’.

Liverpool Scottish at Bellwearde, June 1915 (IWM)
Liverpool Scottish at Bellwearde, June 1915 (IWM)

Mediums and hoaxers

The North West was also a particular focus for another phenomenon that was seen throughout the UK during the First World War: the growth of Spiritualism, as recently bereaved wives and parents tried to contact the spirits of dead servicemen.

‘The North West featured a very wide range of people who claimed that they could communicate with lost loved-ones,’ says Mike Benbough-Jackson, ‘from sombre Spiritualist churches for the august and scientifically-minded, Arthur Conan-Doyle types, through to crystal ball-gazers on the Blackpool seafront. I was struck by the extent, though, to which magistrates and the local police throughout the North West mounted sting operations, to try to clamp down on hoaxers.’ Women police officers, in disguise, were generally used to gather evidence: there were real concerns that so-called mediums, claiming to be in touch with the spirits of the dead, would cause distress.

While it might seem like a harmless quirk, ‘this kind of state surveillance is just one example of how the First World War was a massive set-back for liberal thinking in Britain. And it shows how big a question it became for many of the people who stayed at home during the war, of how you should behave during it. Many sporting events were cancelled, for example, and many people were unsure whether to take holidays. It’s surprising how personally people in Britain were affected by the war, and how different things became from the workaday world. You really need to look at the war with an estranging eye.’

The First World War and the fourth estate

Frank McDonough, Professor of International History at Liverpool John Moore’s University, has written on the origins of the First World War. As part of the roadshows associated with the World War One at Home project, he’s also presented research on the press reaction to the events leading up to the outbreak of war in August 1914, and in particular on how it was reported in the North West, in papers such as the Manchester Guardian and Blackpool Gazette.

‘The Manchester Guardian was one of the first papers in the country to realise that things in the Balkans could escalate into a world war – but that was right at the end of July 1914 (less than a week before Britain declared war on Germany). The press didn’t understand the Anglo-French Entente, and nobody thought that the Anglo-Russian Convention would lead to anything. Until then, the big story in the British press had been the prospect of Home Rule in Ireland.’ With their large Irish populations, readers in Liverpool and Manchester in particular had had their attention fixed across the Irish Sea.

War and reconciliation

Another perspective that Frank McDonough has comes from his spending a large amount of time doing research in Germany. ‘Germans take the position that the First World War was a disaster, leading to Versailles, the Weimar Republic and ultimately the Nazis. They fear that the centenary will be used in Britain just as another opportunity to rub German noses in it, with no reconciliation involved. They don’t recognise themselves in the depiction of the Germans as Huns in the First World War.’

Frank McDonough says, by contrast, that he would like to see the commemoration here as being about reconciliation. ‘People in the UK sometimes think that the war was all about the War Poets, but the War Poets hardly sold at all. Wilfred Owen’s poetry sold just 2,000 copies during the war – it was hardly Sergeant Pepper. The best-selling book about the First World War, after the conflict had ended, was Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front – which is about a German soldier.’

The depiction of the war in films and musicals has also spread the idea that it was ‘a complete waste, with generals using recruits as cannon-fodder, or even deliberately planning to kill off working-class recruits. It’s hard to shift that perception. The historical debate that’s attempted to turn it around hasn’t resonated with the public. But perhaps, through World War One at Home, it will.’

BBC WW1 at Home

Pulpits, mutinies and ‘khaki fever’: The unsettling stories of WW1

Matt Shinn has unearthed some unsettling stories as part of the World War One at Home project, which might not otherwise have got an airing.

Lester Mason, Lecturer in History at University of Wales Trinity Saint David, singles out the treatment of German immigrants in some communities in Wales, as a particularly dark aspect of the Great War in the Principality. ‘We might think of ourselves as liberal-minded,’ he says, ‘but look at how ordinary, law-abiding people of German descent were dealt with in the First World War – arguably, much worse than British immigrants in Germany were treated.’

Examples include the case of a liberal-minded, anti-Kaiser German Professor at the University College of Wales Aberystwyth, a Dr Ethe, who was forced to leave his post after there were disorderly street protests against him (several papers at the time sided with the protestors). ‘It’s a rather ugly story of anti-German sentiment, which was repeated throughout Britain,’ says Lester Mason – often mobs would go looking for German workers in barbers and hotels, where they had traditionally been employed. But the trouble wasn’t confined to so-called ‘enemy aliens’: there were also problems between locals and American naval personnel in Pembroke dock, and disturbances involving Belgian refugees in Milford Haven. ‘These are some of the less savoury aspects of the war, which have been forgotten or sidelined.’

These are some of the less savoury aspects of the war which have been forgotten or sidelined

British prisoner, 1918 (IWM)
British prisoner, 1918 (IWM)

A hotbed of immorality

Also unsettling is the way that the authorities treated young women in many parts of Wales, fearing an outbreak of what was called ‘khaki fever’ (the supposedly overwhelming attraction felt by young women towards a man in uniform). Women in Wales were policed under the Defence of the Realm Act, with arrests being made among those who were caught committing ‘indecent acts.’ Women in Cardiff faced a curfew. And at the same time, concerned citizens took things into their own hands: in Swansea, one councillor called the town a ‘hotbed of immorality,’ because of evidence of sexual activity between young women and visiting Scandinavian seamen – the Swansea Women’s Citizens Union subsequently launched a ‘Purity Crusade’ to ‘stem the tide of immorality sweeping over the town’.

Feeding the guns
Elsewhere in Wales, and throughout Britain, women were finding work in the many munitions factories that supplied the Front with bullets and shells. One of the largest munitions factories and weapons stores in Wales was at Pembrey, where dynamite and TNT were produced: from 1916 women were employed on the shop floor, alongside the men.

In July 1917 an enormous explosion left four men and two women dead. But it was the funeral of the two female victims – Mildred Owen aged 18, and Mary Watson, 19 – that drew the most mourners, including from among their fellow workers, some of whom wore their overalls to the service.

The war and Welshness

According to Lester Mason, ‘there has been a perception that the Welsh were less keen to go to war than people elsewhere in Britain. Recruitment figures for Wales are on a par with those for England and Scotland. But there is some anecdotal evidence of farming communities being reluctant to give up their labour. And then there’s the Welsh tradition of Non-conformism: the perception has been one of a more distinct pacifism in Wales.’ This remains a controversial subject, and there is a need for further research into ordinary people’s enthusiasm for war in Wales, based upon changing attitudes during the conflict, as well as gender, town and country, and even class distinctions.

Did the war change the way that people in Wales saw themselves in relation to England? ‘There’s a strange mix. There was nothing wrong in saying that you were fighting for England’s glory, or fighting in England’s war – some Welsh war memorials even said that, including the Cenotaph at Pembroke, which carries the inscription, ‘Forget us not o land for which we fell. May it go well for England, still go well’.

But at the same time, ideas of nationhood were also emerging throughout Britain during the First World War, and throughout the Empire. Though Plaid Cymru didn’t emerge till the Twenties, there was a growing sensitivity to being Welsh. People’s attitudes were flexible, and could accommodate the paradox: that you were both Welsh, and fighting England’s fight. And oddly enough it was the sense of belonging in the British Empire – even as the war brought about the beginning of the end of that Empire – that enabled them to do that.’

Rioting in Rhyl
Gerry Oram, Lecturer in History at the University of Swansea, singles out another dark story that the World War One at Home project has uncovered.

The Canadian army mutiny at Kinmel Park in Rhyl, North Wales, was one of a series that crept across Britain, in the latter years of the war and immediately afterwards. It was also one of the most serious. In March 1919 rioting broke out among 20,000 exhausted and disease-ridden Canadian troops, who found themselves stuck for months in a dilapidated training camp, waiting to be taken back to Canada. By the time that order was restored, five of them, having come through some of the great battles of the war, had been killed by their own countrymen. The tombstone that was provided by locals for one of the soldiers that was killed, Corporal Joseph Young, reads: ‘someday, sometime we’ll understand.’

By the time that order was restored, five of them, having come through some of the great battles of the war, had been killed by their own countrymen

Welsh women after the war
According to Gerry Oram, in Wales especially there is more to the traditional narrative concerning women in the First World War – of opportunities becoming available as the men went off to fight – than meets the eye. ‘We can see clearly that women in Wales were far worse off than in the rest of the UK,’ he says. ‘Their rates of employment were lower before the war, then there was some munitions work, but then after the war the percentage of women who were employed dropped to below the 1911 census figure. In 1931 it dropped further still.’

But then, according to Gerry Oram, the effects of World War One on the Welsh economy were catastrophic. ‘The war made Welsh industry very disjointed. The coalfields took on an importance that they didn’t warrant. Many industries that were given over to war work subsequently declined. And in agriculture too, which had traditionally employed many women, employment rates dwindled. This all led to a huge migration of young women, especially, away from Wales. It fits with one of our key narratives of the First World War: that Wales suffered disproportionately, compared to the rest of Britain.’

Two versions of history

Of course, one of the things that sets Wales apart from much of the rest of Britain is the fact that the country is bi-lingual. Gethin Matthews, who is a Lecturer in History at the University of Swansea, is in a good position to understand the implications of this, as he speaks both Welsh and English. ‘Some narratives come across differently in Welsh and English language sources,’ he says. ‘Take a figure like John Williams, the best-known preacher in North Wales during the First World War: he preached in uniform in the pulpit, encouraging men to enlist. He was seen as quite mainstream during the war itself, but in the Welsh language sources he really comes across as a hypocrite, as someone who had turned his back on the traditions of the Welsh chapel, in preaching for a just war. He’s seen as betraying the old traditions of pacifism and anti-militarism – of betraying the idea of Welshness itself.’

But then, in Welsh language sources ‘disillusion with the war starts earlier, and goes deeper, than it does in the English ones. And indeed, in economic terms the consequences of the war were awful for Wales: it’s impossible to say that the war was worth it. It’s no coincidence that the first conscientious objector to be elected to parliament, after the war, was elected in Wales.’
What the World War One at Home project has shown, though, is that Welsh chapels responded to the war in very different ways. Two Baptist chapels in Briton Ferry (near Neath) illustrate the point. One, Rehoboth, preached the message of a just war, and has 99 names on its roll of honour. Another, Jerusalem, just down the road, was known by its detractors as the ‘Kaiser’s Temple’, being strongly anti-war: it hosted anti-conscription meetings. There was a plurality of attitudes to the war, in other words. But while many historians have focused on the stories of Welsh conscientious objectors, for Gethin Matthews this is ‘more than their numbers warrant.’

 It’s quite clear that remembrance is more a matter of community in Wales than it is elsewhere in Britain

Finally, the long-standing narrative of Wales suffering more than the rest of Britain during the war, or being worse treated, has also led to there being a slightly different culture of remembrance in the country, according to Gethin Matthews. ‘The official commemoration is a devolved issue. But it’s quite clear that remembrance is more a matter of community in Wales than it is elsewhere in Britain. In England, money is given to schools to take children to visit the World War One battlefields. In Wales, there are initiatives to encourage children to find out about the men who joined up, and how their communities were affected by their going. That’s quite a different emphasis.’

With thanks from Lesley Hulonce, history lecturer at Swansea University, who undertook research for the ‘hotbed of immorality’ section.

Find out more about what research reveals about WW1 and its legacy in the AHRC’s Beyond the Trenches publication. Read it online or order a free copy here.

BBC WW1 at Home

Poetry, protest and ‘pukka’: World War One at Home in Scotland

The Scottish experience of the First World War and its aftermath was different, in many ways, from that of the rest of Britain. Among other things, it was in Scotland that Britain probably came closest to having its own version of the Russian Revolution.

Red Clydeside

Billy Kenefick is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Dundee. As he points out, ‘Scotland in many ways was highly patriotic in the First World War: some 63% of eligible men in Dundee were in uniform, for example – that’s a very high proportion. And the “tank campaign” to raise money for the war effort in 1917/18, which involved battle-scarred tanks touring towns and cities to drum up sales of War Bonds and Savings Certificates, saw several Scottish cities vying to outdo each other. Dundee raised £4.5 million in one week.’

Yet several Scottish cities were also leading centres of the anti-war movement, with many of them having anti-conscription fellowships. Scottish cities also saw significant industrial and civil unrest, during and immediately after the war. The Independent Labour Party in Scotland grew from 3,000 members to 10,000 by war’s end – a rate of growth that wasn’t replicated elsewhere in Britain. And ironically perhaps it was Glasgow, seen by many as the second city of the British Empire, which became the focus of political radicalism, and effectively found itself under martial law during what became known as the Red Clydeside era.

Glasgow and the surrounding area was home to a significant amount of heavy industry, but many factory and shipyard workers lived in conditions of extreme poverty. During the war, the government introduced a number of laws that were met with hostility by the trade unions, while at the same time, living and working conditions became worse. This led to a campaign for a 40-hour week, and other improvements in working conditions.

Then on 31 January 1919, a huge rally was held in George Square in the centre of Glasgow, organised by the trade unions. The gathering turned into a riot, and the Red Flag was raised by the crowd. Barely a year after the Russian Revolution, the government in Westminster panicked: fearing a Bolshevik-style insurrection on the streets of Britain, they sent troops and tanks into the city to quell the unrest, making sure that the troops weren’t Glaswegian (the local regiment was locked inside its barracks), and that few of them were veterans of the war, lest they prove too sympathetic to the aims of the protestors.

Poetry and rare finds

Another Scottish location that is famously associated with the First World War is the Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Edinburgh, where officers suffering from shell shock were treated with ‘talking cures’ and other newly developed therapies (enlisted men were subjected to altogether less enlightened regimes, in other locations), and where the poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon first met, inspiring each other to write some of the poetry that continues to shape the view of the war that so many of us have.

Staff and patients at Craiglockhart War Hospital (courtesy of Edinburgh Napier University)
Staff and patients at Craiglockhart War Hospital (courtesy of Edinburgh Napier University)

Alistair McCleery is Professor of Literature and Culture at Edinburgh Napier University, which now includes the old Craiglockhart buildings, as well as housing the specialist archive of materials relating to Owen, Sassoon and others – the War Poets’ Collection. The Craiglockhart site is still home to a rare form of moss, found in Northern France, which presumably arrived on soldiers’ boots.

‘With the War Poets being an important part of the school curriculum,’ says Alistair McCleery, ‘we get a lot of school groups making visits to the campus. World War One at Home has led to the creation of learning resource packs that we can give to them: it’s a lasting legacy of the project.’

And according to Alistair McCleery, the summer roadshows that have been organised as part of the World War One at Home project, including one in Dundee, have been ‘like the TV programmes Cash in the Attic, or the Antiques Roadshow.’ Among the original material that has come to light, as members of the public have brought it in, has been a concert programme from Craiglockhart during the war: the evening’s festivities described in the programme, and put on by the patients, began with the national anthems of the Allies, including Russia’s old Tsarist anthem. Another person at the roadshow came forward with rare copies of The Hydra, the magazine produced by patients at Craiglockhart, which Wilfred Owen edited, and which features the first appearance of his poetry in print.

The real Miss Jean Brodies

According to Alistair McCleery, the World War One at Home project has helped draw attention to some Scottish writers who should be better-known, including the Dundee poet Joseph Lee, and Christine Orr, whose novel, The Glorious Thing, describes ‘ordinary lives during an extraordinary time.’ But then, ‘this was an experience that engulfed everyone. The First World War wasn’t a remote conflict, like the Boer War – no-one could escape its effects.’

The Morningside area of Edinburgh, for example, used to be famous for its spinsters – real-life Miss Jean Brodies. ‘But behind the type is a sad reality – so many women were forced to turn to the teaching profession after their fiancés were killed. You need an empathetic imagination, to picture what life must have been like for them, in the Twenties. The life that was mapped out for them, all gone.’

A diaspora in reverse

Other distinctive elements of the Scottish experience of the First World War include the sense of martial tradition. ‘The kilted soldier really was the poster boy of Empire,’ says Derek Patrick, Lecturer in History at the University of Dundee. The exploits of Scottish regiments in conflicts like the Peninsular, Crimea and Boer Wars, had cemented the place of the Scottish soldier in Britain’s consciousness. ‘National, religious and military traditions all came together. It says something about Scotland as a nation. Military achievements helped Scots identify with the imperial project – the Scots saw themselves as Empire-builders, and as defenders of the Empire in adversity.

There was also what amounted to a ‘diaspora in reverse’ during the First World War, with first or second-generation Scots returning from Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, to fight in Europe, either with Scottish divisions, or in kilted South African or Canadian regiments.

And this story of the movement of Scottish soldiers around the world led to some interesting cases of cultural cross-over. The famous Scottish regiment the Black Watch, for example, had a long association with the Indian subcontinent, and its second and fourth battalions served with Indian divisions during the War. Several Indian regiments incorporated pipe bands and tartans, while long periods stationed in India rubbed off on Scottish soldiers, affecting their language (military slang of the period is full of words of Indian origin, including ‘pukka,’ ‘cushy’ and ‘doolally’, which blended with the Franglais slang popularised by men of the New Army) and their taste in food – curry was offered by army cooks from influence of the Indian army, and introduced more widely as a result of the War. The newspapers in Dundee, a city whose jute trade was closely linked with India, used to delight in showing photos of Scottish soldiers rubbing shoulders with troops of many different nationalities, knowing that their readers would find them interesting.

Initial Grave of the dead sonCommemoration in Scotland

The Great War Dundee Commemorative Project aims to co-ordinate a city-wide approach to the centenary commemoration of the First World War, bringing the local community together with Dundee’s museums, archives, libraries, universities, schools and businesses, through a programme of activities that encourage the broadest possible public participation and collective reminiscence. These activities include the opening of a hundred-year-old time capsule, located in Royal Mail’s Dundee East Delivery Office, which is thought to contain a large number of letters from soldiers on various First World War battle fronts, and photographs of Dundee men and women, as well as stamps and coins from the time. The aim is for events in Dundee to serve as a focus for a specifically Scottish commemoration of the war.

Scotland has a particular culture of remembrance, too. According to Billy Kenefick, that can be seen in the cathedral-like Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh: ‘there was a sense that the Cenotaph in Whitehall wasn’t good enough – there was a national desire to commemorate Scottish soldiers in their own way, to see them as fighting the war for Scotland as well as for Britain. But then, Robert the Bruce had been used on recruiting posters, while others used to say “we cannot allow the sons of the rose, the leek and the shamrock to get ahead of the sons of the thistle”.’

Find out more about what research reveals about WW1 and its legacy in the AHRC’s Beyond the Trenches publication. Read it online or order a free copy here.

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The Other War Dead: Asylum Patients during the First World War

In this guest blog, Caroline Nielsen describes how vulnerable patients were displaced from hospitals to make way for the casualties of war.

In a recent post for this blog, Dr Jessica Meyer discussed how wounded and sick soldiers were evacuated from the frontlines to large specialized hospitals in Britain. Images of these war hospitals and their military patients have appeared in publications as part of the centenary commemorations. These institutions have even been the subject of popular TV dramas, such as Downton Abbey, The Wipers Times, and The Crimson Fields. But the creation of these life-saving institutions had a hidden cost: the forced displacement of around 12,000 of the most vulnerable people in British society. This was because twenty-four of Britain’s largest war hospitals were requisitioned asylums for the mentally ill and those with learning disabilities.

Asylums and the War
The British military authorities were under considerable pressure in late 1914. There were simply not enough hospital beds in Britain to accommodate the ever-growing number of allied war casualties. Numerous patriotic individuals and organisations voluntarily opened their doors to soldier-patients, donating their time, money, and property to the war effort. But it was simply not enough. A drastic and ambitious scheme was developed to ensure that the nation remained fighting fit. Recovering soldiers needed beds but they also needed spacious grounds, recreational areas and sports fields to aid their recovery. Only a small number of institutions had all of these facilities already in place: residential schools, workhouses and the largest of them all, lunatic asylums. There were only two problems: the pre-existing large population of vulnerable patients and the stigma attached to them.

Every county in England and Wales had a lunatic asylum. Run by local committees overseen by the Government’s centralized Board of Control, these institutions offered residential care to a large population of men, women and children. There were over 102 psychiatric asylums in England and Wales in 1914. Over 108,000 men, women and children lived permanently in these institutions. This meant that each county and borough asylum cared an average of 1000 patients at any one time (Sarah Rutherford, The Victorian Asylum, 2011).

Asylum patients had a wide range of conditions, many of which would not fit with modern understandings of mental illness. As well as caring for those with depression, anxiety and delusions, asylums nursed those with long-term or degenerative conditions like epilepsy, tuberculosis, liver disease, alcoholism, and syphilis. A significant proportion of patients were elderly and frail, moved from out of their homes when they started to experience the disorientating symptoms of dementia. It was not uncommon to find those with learning disabilities living permanently in asylums (for example those with Down’s syndrome or who would now be placed on the autistic spectrum). It is important to stress that the majority of those with learning disabilities in the early twentieth century continued to live with their extended families. While some patients were sent by their families to these institutions, others were referred there by social welfare authorities: by doctors, charity workers, the Board of Education, or by the Guardians of the Poor who oversaw workhouses. Going into a workhouse or insane asylum carried a huge social stigma. But for the most impoverished, sick and desperate, they offered the only chance of free medical care.

The Asylum War Hospital Scheme, 1915-1919
Faced with mounting casualties, the British War Authorities approached the Board of Control for permission to empty a small number of asylums. Patients were either to return to their families or be transferred into different institutions. 9 asylums were initially selected, with others gradually added into the scheme whenever more beds were needed. All selected asylums were swiftly renamed as “war hospitals” so that soldier casualties would not be tainted with the stigma of receiving treatment in a lunatic asylum.

The most incredible aspect of the scheme was the speed with which it was carried out. Within 5 weeks of the scheme being confirmed, the selected asylums had been emptied of all but a few of their patients. The official estimate was about 12,000. Only the “gravely ill” [dying] and a few “quiet useful insane” men were allowed to stay on. The “useful” patients were to work as gardeners. (Board of Control, Official History of the War Asylum Hospitals, 1920). The insane were not even given the reassurance of familiar staff. Asylum nursing staff were requisitioned for the war effort along with the furniture.

Unsurprisingly, the immediate effect on the patients was severe. The official report of the Medical Officer of Norfolk County Asylum (later Norfolk War Hospital) is so shocking that it is worth quoting at length;

The scenes on departure aroused varying emotions in myself, my medical colleagues and the nurses. It was all interesting, some of it most amusing and much sadly pathetic. To not a few the asylum had been their home for many years, some for over fifty years, some since childhood; many even had never been in a railway train … so it will be readily believed that the whole gamut of emotion was exhibited by the patients on leaving, ranging from acute distress and misery, through gay indifference, to maniacal fury and indignation.

Casualties of War
That the Asylum War Hospitals Scheme saved lives is beyond dispute. By 1920, the hospitals had offered specialist care, pioneering treatment and friendship to over 440,000 men from all over the world. Approximately over 38,000 (9%) of these men were psychiatric cases; those suffering from shell-shock, nervous breakdowns, delusions, and sheer terror.

But the War Hospitals came at a terrible cost to the mentally ill and their families. Within 1 year of the first transfers, the Board of Control noticed that patients were dying at a higher rate than usual. Overcrowding had resulted in some of the remaining asylums, facilitating the spread of influenza, pneumonia and tuberculosis. The asylum patients were also subject to rationing and food shortages, weakening an already sickly population. A series of cold wartime winters and a shortage of psychiatric medical professionals only exacerbated the problem.

In its official 1920 inquiry on the War Hospital’s Scheme, the Government reported that the transferred insane should be viewed as quasi casualties of war. Their suffering during the war was immediately and irrefutably comparable to that of “normal” military casualties. The insane deserved respect and sympathy irrespective of the stigma attached to their condition.

This was never to be. In spite of the report-writer’s best efforts, the wartime experiences of the civilian insane were almost immediately forgotten by their communities. The stigma surrounding mental illness and disability meant that discussing their experiences became taboo. No war memorials were raised in the name of these men, women and children. But as the centenary passes, they too should be remembered.


The AHRC and BBC “World War One at Home” project will explore the asylum transfers further in the autumn. Detailed descriptions of the individual asylums can be found in the Board of Control’s official report, entitled “History of the Asylum War Hospitals in England and Wales”, 1920. Regional asylum death statistics can be in Lewis Krammer’s article “The Extraordinary Deaths of Asylum Patients, 1914-18” in the journal Medical History (1992).

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The Shock of the New: Women in Trousers?!

In this guest blog, Caroline Nielsen explores how war changed the lives of women on the home front not just in terms of their daily work, but in the clothes they wore to do it.

One day in early 1915 in the pit village of Horden, County Durham, 22 year-old Elizabeth “Lizzie” Holmes set off to post a letter for her father-in-law. She was on her way home from work, and the Post Office was on the way. This seemingly innocuous errand ended with her being mobbed by children.

Two female bag fillers use two short poles to assist a female coke heaver as she hoists a large sack of coke onto her back. © IWM (Q 30859)
Two female bag fillers use two short poles to assist a female coke heaver as she hoists a large sack of coke onto her back. © IWM (Q 30859)

Why did Lizzie inadvertently become the centre of attention that day? Lizzie was wearing men’s work clothes. Her heavy shirt, leather trousers and boots was the standard gear of all above-ground pit workers. Along with a number of her friends and neighbours, Lizzie had taken a labouring job at the local pit operating the coke ovens. For the first time, the children were confronted with a woman wearing an outfit that they had previously only associated with their fathers, grandfathers and older brothers. For one brief moment, Lizzie reminded all who saw her that the war had changed fundamentally changed British industry as they knew it. Women were taking men’s jobs in all industries, including in the male-dominated coal industry.

That the simple act of wearing men’s work clothes was evidently so shocking seems odd to modern audiences. But in 1915, trousers were an exclusively male garment. That doesn’t mean that women did not periodically wear trousers albeit in very limited contexts. Women’s fashion had toyed with the idea of trousers for at least three decades before Lizzie set off on her errand. A small number of Victorian and Edwardian ladies adopted baggy trousers and “bifurcated skirts” (long culottes) as part of their campaign against the restrictive fashions of the time. In spite of their efforts, trouser-wearing was not widely adopted until the late 1920s and 1930s when masculine tailoring became a staple of haute couture. Even the sportiest Edwardian lady pilots and racing-car drivers preferred to tie their long skirts modestly around their ankles.

This caricature of the 'new woman' as a mechanical toy shows a version of 'rational dress', which evolved in protest against the tyranny of traditional physically-restricting fashions for women. National Archives: COPY 1/174 no.312 (16 Jan 1901)
A caricature of the ‘new woman’ which shows a version of ‘rational dress’, which evolved in protest against physically-restricting fashions for women. National Archives: COPY 1/174 no.312 (16 Jan 1901)

Male impersonators were also a regular feature on British music hall circuits where performers like Vesta Tilley drew large audiences. These women performed risqué songs while dressed as young men. Part of the thrill was that audience could see their legs! Lower-class women had, of course, been wearing work trousers for centuries. During the Victorian era, leather trousers were associated with the “pit brow lasses” of Lancashire. Women who chose to wear “men’s clothes” outside of these contexts risked a more negative response from their communities. Cross-dressing was a moral issue. By the early twentieth century, dressing in masculine clothes was gradually being associated with lesbianism. Trousers were associated with clear contexts: politicised fashion and distinct regional trades. They were not associated with respectable miner’s wives, at least not in the Durham area. The fact that it was Lizzie, a woman who may have already attracted negative comments from her community, probably added to the children’s response.  She was an extrovert and in her own words, “a bit rough and ready”. She had tattoos, liked a drink, and on at least one occasion ended up in a fight, an event which she enjoyed describing when she was interviewed in her mid-80s.

Lizzie revelled in the notoriety of being proclaimed “the first woman in Horden to wear trousers!”. We will never know if this title was truly deserved. However, her story demonstrates how the First World War expanded the employment opportunities available to women. Lizzie was offered the opportunity to work in a trade that had previously been barred to her as a married woman in a County Durham village. The Northern Coalfield was almost exclusively male.  The 1911 census shows how shocking the arrival of female coke oven workers would have been in Horden: officially there were only 13 female coke workers recorded in the entire Durham area. While this figure was definitely an under-estimate, it explains why the children were so surprised!

Lizzie’s time in the coal industry was short-lived. Like most women who joined heavy industry during the First World War, Lizzie saw her wartime job as a temporary expedient. She expected to leave the job once her miner husband came home from the front. The majority of married women never entered the labour market during the war, believing that their place was at home with their families. The Government, trade unions and employers similarly saw women’s employment only as temporary. The end of the war saw the mass withdrawal of women from the labour market. Some went voluntarily like Lizzie. Many others were summarily dismissed. Some trade unions began lobbying for a ban on the employment of married women, concerned that the war had all too readily demonstrated that women were able to compete with their male counterparts. Women were encouraged to return to more “gender appropriate” trades like domestic service. Lizzie spent the rest of her working life as a charwoman, raising her family and caring for her wounded husband Jimmy.

Click here to view an image of Lizzie (front row, far right).

Lizzie was interviewed in 1976 as part of the Peterlee Development Project, a collaboration between the artist Stuart Brisley, Peterlee Council and the Artists Placement Group. Some of the materials from this are now available on through Durham County Records Office and their People Past and Present Archive.