First World War Project

Soldier at rest iconThe Role of Women in the workplace before and during the 1st World War

"Women" are not an abstraction. As an idea it is as varied as life and circumstances permit. So, the relevance of this section of the website is to celebrate the only official woman casualty in our Cluster - Alice Post. At the risk of over-simplification, we offer a glimpse into the life and circumstances of one woman amongst millions. What it is to be a woman in WW1 is as much a political issue as a social or personal one. This page seeks to set in context some of the environmental factors that affected Alice Post and placed her in harms way. How Alice, as an individual, viewed these circumstances is lost to us. The Imperial War Museum launched a specific subsite on the topic of "Womens Work 100 Years Ago" (February 2018)

We have collected a range of documents, reports and statistics that are intended to shed light on how the role of women changed in response to the pressures of losing men from all walks of life to "The Colours". Everything from conductors on trams (where some women already worked but were a small minority), clerical work in the Army (women were excluded from military units prior to the war - a short official summary (1922) of women being drafted into the Army from August 1915 is extracted below) and clerical work across national and local government and industry. Increasingly, women were able to work in restricted industrial production and by 1915, one survey suggested women had something of a preference for working in munitions production - sending bullets and shells to the Front supporting their loved ones. The practical issue facing decision-makers is that it takes multiples of people in production to support just one soldier in the field - some calculations at that time estimated 5 people employed at home were needed to support 1 soldier. With the rapid increase in recruitment came a critical need not only to replace men in particular jobs but to realign the whole of industry to match the supply needs of the expanded British and Commonwealth Forces.

For those unfamiliar with pre-war occupations and the distribution of men and women in those occupations, we have summarised the Report on the 1911 Census that included comparative data from 1881 to 1911. Follow this link.

Women generally earned less (a persistent historical fact). War conditions provided an opportunity for women to take home better wages at a time that the cost of living was rising. In the case of Alice Post, she had a new-born child to maintain without a father evident in the record. Wives of soldiers also found the separation allowance insufficient to meet increased cost of living. These circumstances made working in war industries attractive to many women for straight economic reasons, quite apart from any notion of patriotism.

Early in the conflict, reports of wives being evicted from homes tied to men who were now serving overseas provoked moral outrage. We have added a commentary at the end of this page that addresses this threat.

We have explored this "theme" in response to the story of Alice Post (died 16th January 1916 - publication on this web-site in January 2016). Her employment in local T.N.T. production (Faversham) illustrates the connection between the urgency of releasing men to the Front by changing restrictive employment practices that had excluded women in the past. The change in local production from 'black powder' to TNT is also illustrated by Alice's story. Allowing women access to 'male' employment without the usual entry requirements was given the label "dilution of labour" - which phrase could later be used to explain taking women back out of employment when the men returned. After all, as the argument went, women who 'attempted' skilled work were not as valuable as fully qualified and experienced men who returned from fighting. This "dilution of labour" argument acted as a brake on any real change in womens' employment following the war. In 1919, Beatrice Webb, a leading British Socialist thinker in the Fabian Society, issued a minority statement in which she argued for a national minimum wage, establishment of a standard wage above the minimum wage in certain occupations (applied to men and women equally), the adjustment of wages in line with the cost of living, the introduction of efficiency qualifications. There was also post-war pressure to protect motherhood through State support and the evolution of better health-care. Some of these ambitions resonate today.

From the outset of war, there was a sometimes heated public discussion about the positive role of women (and children) in the workplace.

As it became obvious that the war was not going to be 'over before Christmas,' the shortfall in all aspects of munitions and other army supplies soon became a matter of critical importance to the British Government. The capacity of Britain to wage all-out war was also being harmed by voluntary enlistment of skilled men from a wide range of strategically important industries. Plans had to be put in place to meet any shortfall.

One response was to recall many skilled men back from the Front and the contemplation of women being recruited to free-up less skilled men to fight. Before the urgency of the case was firmly established, the argument for women industrial workers in munitions and other industries created considerable unrest and strikes. Pre-war, prejudices against womens' abilities to master complex technical processes and procedures as well as their physical strength and endurance all had to be revisited. The evidence came very quickly that these 'distinctions' served no useful purpose and had no logical foundation.

On 8 April 1915, a Cabinet committee, the Munitions of War Committee, was set up to secure the maximum employment of the resources of the country on the manufacture and supply of war materiel. It worked through a War Office committee, the Armaments Output Committee, which had been set up only a week earlier. Following the formation of the Coalition Government on 27th May 1915, the earlier Committee arrangements were superseded by the formation of a Ministry of Munitions on 9 June 1915. Progressively, this Ministry asserted control and direction of swathes of British production, including many privately owned munitions suppliers, e.g. gun-cotton ("black powder") workers, T.N.T. production, bullets, shells, guns, grenades, clothing, etc.

Throughout 1915, that discussion intensified as the war was fought along more or less fixed lines in Europe (akin to and expanded overseas. By March 1915, the principle of women munitions workers had been legislated for, agreed with workers' guilds and unions and put in hand. The Factory Acts were also temporarily suppressed. Lloyd George recognised the potential for reduced safety and excessive working hours, so he set up committees in factories to address the worst threats to health and safety; although hours remained very long and travel to and from munitions factories were often significant (as in the case of Alice Post who had to walk five-miles each way to work in T.N.T. production).

Women as Munitions Workers filling shells with explosive

Alice Post was one of thousands of women across the UK who met the challenge of war by working in previously "male" occupations, which had relied on apprenticeships and restrictive employment practices in favour of men. Women's suffrage was also a topic of political unease at the outset of war but was 'set aside' with the release of many suffragettes from prison and the appointment of womens' committees with various employment-related purposes. However, the links between the performance of women in war work, their pay rates and hours and the emancipation of women after the war continued to bubble away throughout the war. Pragmatism won out during the war but the strength of feeling remained and both for and against the employment of women across all occupations.

Alice Post died from poisoning associated with the production of T.N.T. The export of feed-stocks came under government control on 3-5 August 1914. In November 1914, power was taken to requisition all the supplies of toluol available in the United Kingdom. Only small amounts were released for use in the production of dyes. These steps were followed (December 1914) by regulation of manufacturing processes involving benzol and naphtha stipulating the recovery of toluol from their production.

Before World War 1, newspaper reporting of the role of women as a class focussed on Womens Union/Women's Temperance, Mothers' Union, Suffragettes, &c. Progressively, womens' organisations transformed from addressing their traditional roles (family/caring/supportive of the home/children/men) to a higher political, societal and economic focus. It should not be forgotten that women were already well established in physically arduous factory work in (e.g.) textile industries and agriculture. The seeds for post-war change were in place, but the 'noise' of war obscured this for a while. Every now and then, there were conflicting views in newspaper Letters Columns and Editorials about womens' roles in wider employment and whether everything should or would return to 'business as usual' after the war. As part of the 'deal' with unions and some employers, the authorities asked them to guarantee the return of men to their previous employment before they joined the Colours.

The significant changes in employment rules and the concentration of the means of production in the Ministry of Munitions flowed from March/April 2015 to create the circumstances in which Alice Post was able to work but destined to die.

What follows is a collection of newspaper reports that give glimpses into the changing opportunities facing women like Alice Post. Prejudices were not far beneath the surface.

Women's Unionist Association

South Eastern Gazette of 10th March 1914
WOMEN UNIONISTS. A meeting under the auspices of the Greenstreet Women's Unionist Association was held on Wednesday afternoon in the oast at Newgardens, where there was a very large gathering of women. Mrs. Granville Wheler, wife of the Member for the Division, presided, and the speaker was Mrs. Boyce who covered very ably the range of current politics. Mr. Granville Wheler, who had accompanied his wife, also spoke briefly on Home Rule. After the meeting tea was served."

Voluntary Aid Detachment's (VADs)

The Herne Bay Express of 14th March 1914
Voluntary Aid. The Voluntary Aid Detachments of the 4th Kent Division will have a field practice day at Faversham on Easter Monday. The detachments of the 4th Division are Faversham and Doddington, Sittingbourne and Greenstreet, Boughton, Sheerness, together with the Teynham and Sittingbourne Women's Detachments. Herne Bay now has a Voluntary Aid Detachment.

Three days after war breaks out ... nurses needed

The Daily Express of 11th August 1914 placed itself at the forefront of creating a "Nursing Corps". Already, there were reports of Belgian casualties arriving; British casualties were also inevitable.
HOW WOMEN CAN HELP. 'EXPRESS' NURSING CORPS INAUGURATED TO-DAY. WORK FOR ALL. The inaugural meeting of the "Express" Nursing Corps to-day opens a field of activity to the women of Great Britain that will satisfy their patriotic craving to assist the main actors in the terrible drama at our doors by alleviating the suffering inseparable from war.
Readers of the "Express" will recollect that it was the Marchioness Townsend who first pointed out in these columns that even the women without hospital training could do their share for the sick and wounded...
Daily Express of 2nd September 1914
NURSES OF THE EMPIRE. STIRRING ADDRESS BY SIR G. PARKER. "THE GREAT CAUSE." "I think the greatest thing the British Empire has ever known is the way in which individual effort has classified itself usefully each to its own part while co-operating for the whole nation," said Sir Gilbert Parker yesterday in a stirring address at the headquarters of the Special Overseas Committee of the Royal Colonial Institute.
The occasion was the inaugural meeting for the overseas branch of the "Daily Express" Nursing Corps.
"We have in our midst," added Sir Gilbert Parker, "representatives of our Empire from the uttermost parts of the earth, and we can show to-day what we have always wanted to show – that in the day of Armageddon there would sweep a flood of faith, loyalty, and devotion over our people which would not rest until those were brought low who had attempted to bring us low."
Mr. Harry Brittain, chairman of the Special Overseas Committee, was in the chair, and he explained that the eagerness of women visitors from the Dominions to co-operate with their sisters in London in working for the great cause had given him the idea of putting them into direct contact with "the brilliant organisation known as the "'Daily Express' Nursing Corps."

Winning Trade Unions around

At first, the Trade Unions behaved as if the War would end soon,
so the need to make concessions to women was not an immeiate priority.

Government seeks co-operation to allow women and men ("unfit" for military service) into strategic workplaces so that able men could be released to serve.

Daily Express of 9th February 1915


We want more men.

Women should be employed to serve in shops, releasing men for the front.
The trade unions should relax their rules, such as those about hours and "qualifications," and let off large numbers of fit men of military age, and allow men not fit for the front or women to take their place.
That was the gist of the appeal of Government to-night, the outstanding feature of the speech of the Under-Secretary for War, Mr. Harold Tennant, in introducing the annual debate on the Army Estimates.
There was a debate, but no estimates. There were two reasons for giving no detail as to military strength and expenditure; first, that such information would be of great help to Germany, and, second, that no figures could be given with any exactitude. "We do not know," said Mr. F.D. Acland, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, "whether we shall return to peace expenditure during the financial year" (ending March 31, 1916).

"I would appeal to the Labour Party," said the Government spokesman, turning round to the two benches of trade union leaders, "to help us to organise the forces of labour. I would ask them to help us so that when one man goes to join the colours his place may be taken by another man neither of military age nor physique, or by a woman. I believe that may be able to be done.
"I would ask them to assist the Government by allowing some form of relaxation of their rules and regulations.
"In many firms – not so much armament as clothing firms – the rules have been largely abrogated already. I would ask my friends whether they could not prevail upon the trade unionists of this country to take measures, entirely of a temporary kind, for the relaxation of some of their more stringent rules.
"Would it not be possible for Hon. Members to induce such a union as the Shop Assistants' Trade Union to say that all male workers of age and physique fit to join the Army should be replaced by women workers?
"I do not say that this is a possible thing to do; I only throw it out tentatively.
"Many men are anxious to serve in the Army, and many are restrained by the urgent representations of their employers that they cannot be spared. Many have joined the colours without the permission of their employers.......

"SIR COURTENAY WARNER urged that the services of more women nurses should be engaged for the care of the wounded, expressing the view that partly trained nurses were better than male hospital orderlies."

Trade Unions - mixed responses to the call to relax rules governing employment.

Daily Express of 10th February 1915

By our Parliamentary Representative. HOUSE OF COMMONS, Tuesday.
The question whether the trade unions will be patriotic, and relax their rules in response to the appeal made on Monday by Mr. Tennant, the Under-Secretary of State for War, was the chief point discussed to-night.

Mr. Tennant asked the Labour party to help the Government so that when a man joins the colours his place may be taken either by a woman or by a man not of military age or physique. He asked them if they could induce the Shop Assistants' Union to say that all male workers fit to join the Army should be replaced by women workers.
MR. G.H. Roberts (Lab., Norwich), speaking for the whole Labour party to-night, said he thought Mr. Tennant's appeal had been rather misapprehended.

"I am authorised to say that the trade unions of this country are fully anxious to co-operate with the War Office," he said. "Organised labour has so far willingly co-operated with every other party in the State with a view to carrying through the great purpose of the nation."


Mr. Roberts declared that in many cases the trade union rules and regulations have been entirely abrogated. But he wants it all put right after the war.

"Trade unionists," he said, "are perfectly entitled to safeguard the conditions built up through past years. If it is possible to give them an assurance that the conditions after the war will be in no way worse, then I am sure there will be unrestrained willingness to render the fullest possible assistance."

MR. TYSON WILSON (Lab., Lance, West-boughton) told of the setting aside by various trade unions of the rules relating to overtime and demarcation of work. He mentioned particularly the hardships of carpenters, who, in order to build huts for the troops, put up with conditions they would not tolerate in peace time.

"Will the Government say exactly what it is they want to the trade unions to do?" asked Mr. Tyson Wilson.

"Twenty-five per cent. of the males working in shops have enlisted already. It is suggested that women might be taken on. The Shop Assistants' Union has no objection to women being employed as women, but what is going to happen after the war?


Are the men when they come back from the front going to get their work back again? If so, what are the women going to do? Are they going to be provided with employment?
"What is going to happen if we agree to allow unskilled workmen to pretend to do skilled work? Are they going to be kept on after the war? Are our skilled men who have enlisted going to be condemned to walk the streets?
"Let the Government give a guarantee, and let the government get the employers to give a guarantee, that the men who have enlisted will be brought back to their work, and that the trade union rules shall be restored. Is the Government prepared to see that employers keep such a guarantee?"
The Government, through MR. HAROLD BAKER, shelved the labour question with a vague hint that they had better confer in private.
"There are certain steps which may be considered desirable," he said. "Trade unionists have a perfect right to safeguard their interests against the time when peace returns.
"If we leave these things to be settled by fair and proper discussion outside we shall be more likely to achieve the result desired."


Daily Express of 23rd February 1917 reported that several trade union strikes were called in opposition to proposed changes to employment rules that would prevent strikes in strategic industries and open employment to 'less qualified' women.
Trade union leaders are dissatisfied with the arbitration tribunal appointed by the Government to prevent strikes interfering with Government work. The members of the tribunal are Sir George Askwith, Sir Francis Hopwood, and Sir George Gibb.
Mr W.A. Appleton, Secretary of the General Federation of Trade Unions, said yesterday:- "It does appear unfair to appoint a committee to deal with questions involving the very existence of workmen without giving the men representation on the committee. It appears to me not merely stupid, but provocative."
The Clyde engineers remain on strike. Eight thousand Liverpool carters handed in strike notices yesterday. A strike of builders' labourers took place in Edinburgh and Leith.
In connection with the West Yorkshire minimum wage dispute, the miners' leaders at Barnsley state that the men have ceased work at Howley Park, Batley, and Cleckheaton Collieries, but that they have been advised to resume work under protest until the owners can be met."

The Need Becomes Acute

Women and increasing munitions production

Daily Express of 10th February 1915
Asquith the ConcilliatorTOO FEW ARMAMENT WORKERS.
An inquiry into the shortage of men required for the production of armaments and munitions of war was opened yesterday by Sir George Askwith, Chief Industrial Commissioner, Sir Francis Hopwood, and Sir George Gibb, on behalf of the Government.
The inquiry will probably last for several days, and the Commissioners will then report to the Government on the best steps to be taken to ensure that all the available productive power of those engaged in the engineering and shipbuilding establishments of the country shall be utilised during the war."
Daily Express of 27th February 1915

NO STRIKES IN WAR-TIME.- STRONG REPORT FROM SIR G. ASKWITH'S COMMITTEE. The Government committee, under Sir George Askwith's chairmanship, issued last night a series of important reports containing recommendations for increasing the output in factories working for the Government.
On the question of stoppages of work, the committee says:-

We are strongly of opinion that during the present crisis employers and workmen should, under no circumstances, allow their differences to result in a stoppage of work.
We submit for the consideration of his Majesty's Government the desirability of the immediate publication of the following recommendation to Government contractors and sub-contractors and to trade unions, and to request their adhesion to this recommendation.
With a view to preventing loss of production caused by disputes between employers and workpeople, no stoppage of work by strike or lock-out should take place on work for Government purposes.
In the event of differences arising which fail to be settled by the parties directly concerned, or by their representatives, or under any existing agreements, the matter shall be referred to an impartial tribunal nominated by his Majesty's Government for immediate investigation and report to the Government with a view to a settlement.

Dealing with the production of shells and fuses, the committee state:-

We think that the Government would be fully justified in calling on each man to increase his production to the fullest possible extent, irrespective of his former limits of earnings or shop customs.
It is also suggested that female labour should be more extensively employed.

Government takes control of engineering factories capable of producing munitions.

Kent Messenger report of 16th March 1915
MUNITIONS OF WAR.- GOVERNMENT CONTROL OVER FACTORIES. - In the House of Commons on Tuesday an important extension of the powers of the Government was announced. Mr. Lloyd George introduced a Bill amending the Defence of the Realm (Consolidation) Act of last year. This Act gave the Government power to take over and exercise control in regard to any works where war material was being produced. The power is now to be extended to works capable of producing war material.
Moving the second reading of the Bill, the Chancellor or the Exchequer said that it was intended to mobilize the whole of the engineering community in order to increase the output of munitions of war. The aid of a strong business man capable of organizing and carrying through the project was being sought.

..... and strengthen that grip

South Eastern Gazette of 20th April 1915
WAR MUNITIONS. An important step has been taken by the Government to organise the national output of munitions of war. A strong committee, of which Mr. Lloyd George is Chairman, has been appointed with full powers to deal with the problem. The committee, which includes Mr. Balfour, represents the important departments - Treasury, Admiralty, War Office, Board of Trade.
It is also announced that a War Office Armaments Output Committee has been appointed "to arrange for the increase in the production of armament and munitions of war." Lord Kitchener is a member of this committee.

.... changes to employment law for the emergency

There emerged several reports on the prime importance of munitions production and the need to recall skilled soldiers. It was dawning on the authorities that the pool of workers needed urgent expansion.

South Eastern Gazette of 29th June 1915

In the House of Commons on Wednesday, Mr. Lloyd George outlined his proposals for increasing the output of war munitions. The chief of the proposals are as follows:-

There shall be no strike or lock-out; any dispute must be referred to arbitration.
As many skilled men as possible are being brought back from the ranks, of the Army.
Seven days were being given for the voluntary enrolment of skilled men in a mobile munitions corps.
Powers are taken to enforce the contract entered into by these volunteers.
There will be Government control of the workshops, and a Munitions Court, consisting of a president appointed by the Government and an employer and a trade unionist as assessors, will have power to inflict penalties.
No man can leave one yard and be taken on at another, without producing a satisfactory certificate from his old firm.
Trade union regulations restricting output are to be suspended.
Employers' profits are to be limited.
The enrolment of the mobile munition corps started on Thursday."

Recruiting women - to release men to join the Colours.

Daily Express of 23rd March 1915

About 10,000 women in London alone have already offered their services in response to the Government's appeal – published on Thursday – for workers to release men for the fighting line.
"I have a boy at the front: put me down to make cartridges for him."
That is typical of many of the applications received at labour exchanges all over the country.
"I am a lady orchestra conductor: let me release a man who is conducting orchestras, that he may drop his baton and take up the rifle," was the suggestion of another lady who applied at the Central Office of Labour Exchange, at Queen Anne's House, Broadway, Westminster.
A highly trained woman wireless operator, taught at the technical college at Glasgow, was among the 3,000 London applicants yesterday. She wants to relieve a male operator so that he may go to the war.
Bevies of young women ready and willing to work as tram conductors have registered. The Glasgow Corporation are considering the question of employing women on their tramways.
University women, women of leisure, wives of lawyers and doctors, as well as large numbers of women who have been weekly wage-earners in times past, were among the applicants yesterday.


Women in costly furs and fashionable frocks, as well as women in plain straw hats and cheap black jackets and skirts, were in the crowds that invaded the labour exchanges.
Some put themselves down on the registration forms as willing to knit, feed poultry, milk cows, tend sheep, manage bees, or sew. Others are ready to learn to work light machines for the making of leather goods, and to do day work or night work as desired. Some offer full time, others part time.
The most popular occupation of all, however, is the making of ammunition.
"Let me stuff cartridges instead of stomachs," remarked a cook at one of the labour exchanges yesterday as she reached for a form to fill up.
The chief task at the moment is to ascertain what number of women are available. Meanwhile ammunition factories and some other works are being enlarged and increased in number, and there will be room for thousands of new workers before long.
The Essex Education Committee yesterday decided to release Dr. F.S. Hawks, a school medical inspector, who wishes to take a commission in the R.A.M.C., and to appoint in his place during the war Mrs. Leitch, whose husband, a doctor, is serving at the front, and who desired herself to help the country.


Daily Express of 24 March 1915:

A widespread shortage of labour and an increasing tendency in all industrial undertakings to fill vacancies by employing women are shown in an official report, issued yesterday, on the state of employment in the United Kingdom during February.
The following figures give the percentages (%) of men of various occupations who have enlisted:-

Stock Exchange clerks 35.0
Clerks from banks and insurance offices 20 to 25.0
Tramwaymen 21.6
Other clerks 20.0
Miners 17.2
Shop assistants 16.0
Farm workers 15.6
School teachers 13.5

About 250,000 persons who were not so occupied before the war have found employment in industrial occupations. Former "casuals" are now in continuous employment, and elderly men and boys have increased the supply of labour.

The report speaks of the "great prosperity" of industry in the West Midlands and Yorkshire, and there is a marked shortage of riverside labour on the Thames.

Dealing with the position on the land, the report says:-

Returns from farmers show that the number of male persons in regular employment at the end of January was 12.4 per cent less than in January 1914. As 15.6 per cent of the persons employed a year ago have joined the naval or military forces, it is evident that farmers have been able to fill the places of one in five of those who have joined.
"At the end of January the lack of labour in agriculture could hardly be called acute. Generally speaking, therefore, farmers were managing to carry on with their reduced staff, except that where labour of special skill was required it was almost impossible to fill the places of men who had joined the forces.
"In other words, it may be estimated that unless the farms are to work short-handed, or means can be found to economise labour, some 80,000 additional permanent male labourers, and 90,000 casuals will be required in the summer.
"A certain proportion of the latter will, no doubt, be available as usual, but in view of the present state of the labour market, farmers are doubtful of their ability to find all this additional male labour. Steps are therefore being taken to meet the difficulties in various ways.
"In Gloucestershire and Herefordshire farmers are laying down land to grass, while in several counties it is reported that milch cows have bene sold owing to the shortage of qualified milkers. In Essex, corn is being grown instead of roots, as the latter require much labour, while the final operations of the former can be carried out by machinery.

"In some cases it is actually stated that land is going out of cultivation altogether for want of labour."
"As regards the professions," it is added, "music and art are among the most seriously affected. Orchestral players at theatres, and actors and actresses, are almost normally employed, but concert singers depending on irregular engagements, and music teachers have had their earnings very considerably reduced.
"The situation is regards those engaged in higher education and in the legal profession has been mitigated by the exceptionally large numbers who have joined the forces, while the medical profession has, of course, been depleted for Army service."
It is stated that the demand for domestic servants still appears to be in excess of the supply, a condition which shows that the tendency to economise in expenditure has not been carried so far as was anticipated in the early months of the war.
Inquiries in industries employing more than 4,000,000 persons show that
Eighty-eight per cent of the numbers of men who were at work before the war are at work now
Only 1.5 per cent of the women at work before the war are idle now.
The figures for women workers are the more satisfactory, in view of the fact that they are not affected by enlistment.

Daily Express of 25th March 1915

The first Government report ever drawn up solely by women was issued yesterday.
It is an interim report of the Central Committee on Women's Employment, which consists entirely of women, and is a record of valuable work accomplished in business-like and enterprising fashion.
Work has been found for numbers of women and girls, and many have had their efficiency increased by learning new trades. Girls who before the war could not sew or cook, and knew little of marketing, have been taught the arts under the instruction of the committee's workers.
Lady Crewe is chairman of the committee, and the members include Mrs. H.J. Tennant (hon. Treasurer), Lady Askwith, Mrs. Austen Chamberlain, Mrs Alfred Lyttelton, Lady Midleton, Miss Mary Macarthur (hon. Secretary), Miss Margaret Bondsfield, Mrs. Gasson, Miss Margaret Bondfield, Mrs. Gasson, Miss R.E. Lawrence, Miss Susan Lawrence, L.C.C., Miss Violet Markham, the Hon. Lily Montagu, and Dr. Marion Phillips.


Here are some of the Army contracts which the committee obtained and handled:-

10,000 shirts a week.
105,000 body belts.
2,000,000 pairs of socks.

At the first the committee received the shirts output, but the Royal Army Clothing Department was unable to continue this work, and the committee tendered for it. A shirt-cutting workroom was opened and a staff of experienced cutters engaged, the Shirt and Jacket Cutters' Union allowing their general secretary to become foreman cutter, and supplying certain of their members to work under him.
Experiments were made to increase the value of the work and the output. The success of these efforts is show by the following reference in the report to one of the workrooms:-

"At the beginning of the work fifty-nine workers were producing at the rate of fewer than 800 shirts per week. In January forty-four workers produced at the rate of 1,400 shirts a week.
"In the first period the rate of earning only slightly exceeded that paid in the relief workrooms of the committee. In the meantime it has steadily risen, and at the end of January the average wage earned in a week of forty-seven hours by forty-four workers exceeded £1."


An interesting example of cases in which the Queen's order for body belts was made the medium of the provision of employment was that of a London dressmaker – a woman – whose business, employing upwards of 100 women, was brought to a standstill by the war.
On learning of the action of the Queen," it is stated, "the dressmaker in question asked leave to tender to supply a number of the belts, and on the acceptance of her tender proceeded to purchase the required wool and machinery and to train her staff to a new occupation.
"The contract entrusted to her, amounting to £1,500, was carried out to the satisfaction of the committee, while the experience gained by the dressmaker has since enabled her to tender successfully for Army contracts for hosiery, on which all her workers are now fully employed."
Plans for employing women in numbers of new trades are under consideration by the committee, an two experiments have already been started – a fruit-preserving and pulping factory at Studley College and a fruit-growing colony for working girls at Radlett.
Relief workrooms are managed on the principles that the goods produced must not compete with ordinary industry and that the work must be educational.
Making cradles out of banana crates taught many women and girls to handle a hammer and saw and to sew. "We have had a couple who had literally never handled a needle," says a superintendent, reporting on one of the cradle workrooms.


The progress made by some of the women was very remarkable, and they were delighted at being allowed to use pretty coloured cottons for decorative purposes. Original designs were sometimes produces.
At the relief workrooms women and girls are supplied with threepenny dinners. The following are specimen menus:-

  • Roast mutton, greens, potatoes. Stewed apples and custard.
  • Boiled silverside, carrots, and potatoes. Sago pudding.
  • Stewed rabbit and pork, potatoes. Apple Charlotte.

These meals are prepared in training kitchens, where girls who were once dress-makers are taught how to cook and estimate nutritive values. Some of the girls undertake the marketing under the supervision of a cook-supervisor.
The wholesome and substantial meals have caused a notable improvement in the condition of the workers.

Daily Express – 14th April 1915

33,000 women war workers.- 6,000 FOR SERVICE IN THE ARMS FACTORIES.- BATTALIONS?
The women's reply to the Government's appeal for war workers was made known by Mr. Runciman, President of the Board of Trade, yesterday.
He presided at a conference of women held at the Board of Trade to discuss various questions raised by the appeal, and said that the response up to April 1 was as follows:-

Women registered Over 33,000
Want to work in armament factories 6,000
In clothing factories 4,000
Clerical workers 5,000
Dairy workers 1,700
Gardeners 500
Other agricultural work 2,000
Shop assistants 1,100
Leather stitchers 500

"Most of those registered are working women of precious experience, though not necessarily in the occupation for which they express a preference," said Mr. Runciman.
"There are some experienced women available for nearly all classes of occupations. Thus, 1,500 of the applicants stated that they have had previous experience in agriculture. Nearly 4,000 applicants have been previously employed as clerks, and over 1,000 in shops.
"These applications have all been sifted, and applications for women should be made to the local labour exchanges."

Mr. Runciman said the supply of women would certainly be insufficient for the prospective demand which he hoped would be created by increasing recruiting. Steps were being taken in consultation with the Home Office to increase recruiting and the temporary substitution of women for the men leaving in a number of trades.
He explained that it was not intended that the women on the special register should be placed in employment at the expense of the women registered at the exchanges in the ordinary way. The women on the special register would be called on only if there were not sufficient women available on the ordinary labour exchange register of the locality.
"In regard to Government contractors," he said, "it has been laid down that the piece rates for women shall be the same as for men, and further special instructions have been given to the exchanges to inform inexperienced applicants of the current wages in each case, so that they shall be fully apprised as to the wage which it is reasonable for them to ask.
"A general safeguard against permanent lowering of wages by the admission of women to replace men on service will be made by asking employers, so far as possible, to keep the men's places open for them on their return."

Mr. Runciman said the most serious difficulty was the housing question, which was bound to arise when a large number of women were transferred to any particular district. In this connection women's organisations could be of the greatest value to the Government.
He announced that the Government had arranged for a fortnight's training to be given at agricultural colleges to women going in for dairy work. The women receive from Government sources £3 for the fortnight - £1 for fee and £1 a week living allowance Some have already completed their training and obtained posts.

One of the women delegates, Miss Rathbone, suggested that middle-class workers who registered should be organised into companies, battalions, and regiments.
"The Government have no imagination," she exclaimed.
Mr. Runciman seemed impressed by the suggestion.
Complaint was made that women had to work twelve hours a day in armament factories. It was also stated that able-bodied young men, especially in police offices, were employed in such duties as typewriting, which could be done as well by women.
In reply to Lady Aberconway, Mr. Runciman said that in the Board of Trade, 600 extra women had been engaged since the war began.
Miss Nina Boyle stated that 600 male typists engaged by the War Office might have been release for the war if women typists had been employed instead.

"I am not sure that the Government have done everything they might do," said Lord Robert Cecil yesterday at a meeting of the new Constitutional Society for Women Suffrage, held at the Knightsbridge Hotel.
"I was told the other day – it may be inaccurate – that there are a thousand soldiers now engaged in the duties of the Army Post Office. I cannot imagine why women should not do that work, or a great part of it. I believe there is quite a lot of work directly and intimately connected with the Army which is being done by soldiers, and which might be done just as well by women.
"I have been through a number of hospitals, and have seen soldiers acting as clerks. It seems incredible that soldiers should be employed in making out hospital lists when that work could be done just as well by women as by men."
Mrs. Cecil Chapman, who presided, said that the old Victorian song, "For men must work and women must week," should not be changed to "For men must fight an women must work."
Mrs. Runciman, wife of the President of the Board of Trade, speaking at Newcastle last night, appealed for a large number of women to register, as they would be needed very quickly for the extensions of armament factories.
An agreement which has just been accepted by the members of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers provides for the employment of women and semi-skilled men in the production of shells and fuses for military and naval uses. They will receive the wages usually paid for the work.
The question of women's employment during the war has caused trouble in the pottery trade. More than half the employees at present are women and girls, and the men are alarmed at the prospect of an extension of women's employment. Up to the present it has been found impossible to reach an agreement between the masters and men on the subject.
The employees of Co-operative Wholesale Society's hosiery factory at Huthwaite, Notts, unanimously passed a resolution on Monday thanking the directors for war bonuses of 15 and 10 per cent on incomes up to £200 a year.

September 1915 saw the creation of the Women's Institute (W.I.).

This is expanded upon in the text for the "Home Front" in September 1915 - follow this link.

Women began to be recruited into Army support roles from August 1915

According to the official wartime statistical report of March 1922: "Women were first officially employed with the Army under special authority, dated 3rd August, 1915, given to the Cookery Section of the Women's Legion, and subsequently by Army Council Instruction 441 of 26th February, 1916, when members of the Women's Legion were engaged in various household duties in convalescent hospitals and as instructresses at military schools of cookery. By further instruction, authority was extended to officers' messes, &c, and ultimately to army formations generally, and by Army Council Instruction 221 of 7th February, 1917, to women drivers, &c, under the Motor Transport Section of the Women's Legion.
Towards the end of 1916 the attention of the Adjutant-General was drawn to the work which women were doing with the Army, and initial steps for considering the employment of women with the Army Overseas were taken by Lieutenant-General H. M. Lawson, who was instructed to examine into the question of releasing men on Lines of Communication, &c, for the front, and he urged, amongst other recommendations, the replacement of men by women.

In the meantime, conferences to consider the question of a Central Organization were held under the presidency, first of the Adjutant-General on 5th January, 1917, and later of the Secretary of State. These resulted in the decision to inaugurate the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, and on 13th March, 1917, the first batch of women (mostly original members of the Women's Legion) was enrolled and provided with Identification Certificates prior to departure for France, on 4th April, under Army Council Instruction 537 of 28th March, 1917, authorizing the employment of women with the Army Overseas.
Several hundred women were sent Overseas before authority was given by Army Council Instruction 1069 of 7th July, 1917, to effect substitution of women for men at Home.
The Corps is administered by the Adjutant-General's Department, and its objectives to effect substitution of women for soldiers in certain employments throughout units, formations and offices administered by the Army Council (other than the War Office, hospitals and those administered by the Finance Member) at Home and Overseas.
All women who join the Corps are required to enrol for service for the duration of the war, but should the war be over in less than a year from the date of enrolment, they will be liable to serve for at least a year. They may enrol:-

(a.) For Home or Overseas service as required, the location resting with the Army Council.
(b.) For Home Service only-

(i.) Mobile Members who may be employed where required.
(ii.) Immobile Members who live at, and may be employed anywhere in the vicinity of, their homes.

A woman who desires to enrol must apply by letter or in person direct to the nearest Employment Exchange. Subsequently she is interviewed by a Selection Board, and at the same time medically examined. If accepted by the Selection Board and passed as physically fit, she is enrolled. Then follows a short period of elementary drill and disciplinary training while resident in a Hostel at Home, and, it for Service Overseas, she is inoculated and vaccinated. The Member is then drafted either Overseas or to the Command at Home which requires her services, the category of employment being that for which she has been passed as qualified."

4th January 1916 - report of the Health of Munition Workers Committee was tabled in the House of Commons

From the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics: Women in Industry Series: No.11. April 1917

In its study of Employment of women in munition factories (Memorandum No.4), the committee considered five matters which, apart from questions of wages, concern the health and industrial output of the workers: (1) The period of employment (including night work, length of hours, overtime, etc.); (2) rest pauses and provisions of meals; (3) sanitary conditions of the factory; (4) physical condition of women workers; and (5) questions of management and supervision. Recognizing that the night work of women in factories, after almost a century of disuse, has of necessity been revived by the war, the committee directed its efforts to the consideration of those safe-guards which would reduce its risks to the minimum. Evidence of the merits of continuous work as against weekly, fortnightly, or monthly change of shifts being somewhat conflicting, the committee concluded that the matter is one which must be largely dealt with locally on social considerations. It was stated by some managers and foremen that the last few hours of a 12-hour night shift yield little output, and inspection by the committee indicated the relative failure of these hours. The employment of women at night calls for particular care and supervision and adequate pauses for rest and meals are indispensable.

Conditions of housing and of transit to and from work are mentioned as contributing to the fatigue of the workers, for "where home conditions are bad, as they frequently are, where a long working day is aggravated by long hours of travelling, and where, in addition, housing accommodation is inadequate, family life is defaced beyond recognition." There should be in the matter of hours of labour for women little conflict between the interests of the home and the interests of munitions, for the hours which conduce most to a satisfactory home life and to health conduce most to output. Long hours, particularly when they are worked during the night, are perhaps the chief factors in fatigue, and it is held that in the interest of output and health alike they should be restricted within proper limits, that there should be suitable pauses for rest during the working period, and that there should be restricted within proper limits, that there should be suitable pauses for rest during the working period, and that there should be adequate cessation from work at each week end in addition to periodic holidays.

The three systems of employment most commonly adopted for women in munition factories were found to be one shift of 13 to 14 hours (the overtime system), two shifts of 12 hours, and three shifts of 8 hours. The last system appears to yield the best results in the long run, for "the strain of night work, indeed strain generally, is sensibly diminished, greater vigour and work is maintained throughout the shift, less time is lost by unpunctuality or illness, and there is less liability to accident." The flagging output which appears to characterise the last hours of a 12-hour night shift seems similarly characteristic of the last hours of overtime during the day, and it is stated that the disadvantages of the overtime system are being increasingly recognised by employers. This seems to have been forced upon some by the resultant fatigue, illness, and bad time keeping (failure to work full time) of workers, and upon others by some accidental shortening of the day which has shown that the loss of hours has carried with it no diminution in output. The adoption of the three-shift system, without overtime, is recommended wherever a sufficient supply of labour is available.

Declaring that pauses, well distributed and adapted in length to the needs of women workers, are of the highest value in averting breakdown and in giving an impetus to output, the committee is of the opinion that a portion of Saturday and the whole of Sunday should be available for rest, and that the periodic factory holiday should not, on any account, be omitted. The advantages of well-managed industrial canteens in convenient proximity to workshops are emphasized, and facilities, especially during the night, for rest in cases of fainting and other temporary illness are urged. Considerable importance is attached to the necessity of maintaining the sanitary condition of the factory, including adequate wash rooms and toilet facilities, for "the effect upon the health and energy of women and girls which results from clean, bright, and airy workrooms, well warmed in winter, can hardly be exaggerated. Cleanliness and good order contribute to increased output as well as to the discipline and morale of the factory." On the ground that the nature of a woman's work should b determined with due regard to its effect on her immediate and future health, it is suggested that inattention in this regard may cause, or at least accentuate, certain ailments and forms of physical disability to which women are liable, among which are noted

(1) disturbances of digestion,
(2) anaemia,
(3) headaches,
(4) nervous exhaustion,
(5) muscular pain and weakness, flat-foot, etc.,
(6) derangement of special physiological functions. To detect minor ailments and incipient or actual disease, provision for the examination by a medical woman of all applicants for employment is recommended.

In view of abundant evidence of the necessity of wise and suitable arrangements for the management and supervision of women's labour, the committee concluded that there is hardly a condition of greater importance than this in respect both of smooth working and of maximum output, and therefore recommended that in all cases where women are employed consideration be given by the management to the appointment of forewomen, nurses, and welfare supervisors whose position and status should be properly assured and whose duties should be prescribed.

Memorandum No. 13 relates to Juvenile employment. This one of the war problems confronting the British Ministry of Munitions, not so much in textile trades, where under the Factory and Workshops Act the employment of children has been regulated for many years, but more particularly in certain non-textile processes, including the manufacture of percussion caps and cartridges and in other occupations incident to the manufacture of war supplies. According to this memorandum, the committee regards it as extremely important that the nation, at a time when war is destroying so much of its manhood, should guard the rising generation not only against immediate breakdown but also against the imposition of strains which may stunt future growth and development. Although signs of immediate breakdown are not generally apparent, the committee quotes from the annual report for 1915 of the chief inspector of factories to indicate the evil effects of long hours of work by day or night.
Conditions outside the factories, it is admitted, contribute to the fatigue of juvenile workers, and it has to be remembered that boys and girls need sufficient reserve energy not only for the maintenance of health but for growth. "Even under normal conditions there is some danger of juvenile employment adversely affecting physique, and this danger is materially increased by the present conditions of employment."

Opportunity for recreation is regarded as highly important and that portion of the report of the chief inspector of factories which states that requests for Saturday afternoon work have become less common and that there seems to be a more general recognition of the advantage of the week-end rest is commended. "Recreation is necessary not only for the physical well-being of the boys and girls but also as a healthy relief from the monotony of work."
The prevalence of night work prompted the committee to give some attention to the question of sleep, and it was found that many of the children workers were suffering curtailment of this important means of recuperation.
The exigencies of war have led the secretary of state to relax the restrictions governing the employment of boys and girls under 18 years of age, as provided in the Factory and Workshops Act, 1901. Under that act such children may be employed 60 hours a week, and, subject to some exceptions in the case of boys, all night work and Sunday work is prohibited, as also is overtime. The memorandum notes, however, that the weekly hours have frequently been increased to 67; night work has been common; Sunday work has also been allowed.

An extension of weekly hours beyond 60 can be obtained only by increasing the length of the working day or by reducing the weekend rest; and since the committee believes that the strain thus imposed would not be justified except in rare instances, it strongly recommends that every effort should be made to restrict the employment of all boys under 16 within the limits of 60 hours, even at the cost of some inconvenience to male labour. As to the employment of girls, it is stated that at a number of factories the three-shift system has been introduced, and in works where this has not been found practicable the weekly ours have frequently been kept below 60.

The committee does not recommend a prohibition of the extension of daily hours of labour beyond the 12 (8 on Saturdays) provided in the Factory and Workshops Act, but suggests that such extension, if the weekly hours are limited to 60, must be made by a corresponding reduction of the hours of work on Saturday or on other days of the week, thus providing an opportunity for exercise in the open air which might not otherwise be available. Sudden emergencies in factory operation may demand an extension of the hours beyond 12, and such an extension, it is believed, will not do harm, provided (a) that maximum weekly hours already recommended are not exceeded and that (b) overtime employment is concentrated on not more than three evenings in any week and, so far as possible, not on consecutive evenings.

Comparatively little work is performed by children on Sunday, according to the memorandum, and the argument in favour of the elimination of Sunday work, as set forth in its Memorandum No.1 on "Sunday labour," is emphasised. As to night work, attention is called to serious objects to it as outlined in the memoranda on "Employment of women" and "Hours of work," and it is stated that "girls under 18 and boys under 16 should only be employed at night if other labour cannot be obtained. Wherever possible it should be stopped." Working for a continuous period of as much as five hours (the maximum legal period) without a break, even though brief, to afford opportunity for rest and recovery from fatigue and the monotony of work and for refreshment is deprecated. In addition to the ordinary holidays, boys and girls are likely to benefit greatly by occasional opportunities for a holiday of longer duration.

Welfare supervision of girls seems to have received more attention than such work among boys, but a tendency of employers to regard the health of boys with greater consideration is noted. If fatigue, sickness, or home troubles cause boys to leave work after a few days of employment, it becomes necessary to ascertain the reasons under-lying discontent, and for this purpose the welfare department of the Ministry of Munitions has recommended the deputising of a welfare supervisor to study the problem and outlines his duties as fallows:

  1. To become acquainted with all boys when first employed, to be present at the medical examination by the factory surgeon, to note any matters needing attention, to arrange for the re-examination of special cases.
  2. To visit cases of sickness and to investigate other causes of irregular attendance and of complaints in regard to work.
  3. To receive complaints made by boys and their parents and dispose of misunderstandings.
  4. To be consulted before any goy is dismissed.
  5. To watch the conditions of housing and transit and the facilities for obtaining food.
  6. To supervise and promote arrangements for saving.
  7. To seek facilities for recreation and to organise their use. In one case, quoted by a witness, an excellent recreation ground was provided by a firm, but was at present unused, largely owing to the lack of anyone to organise its use.

It is believed important to provide means for instructing the children in the best methods of performing their work, and also in its aim and purpose, in order to stimulate interest and relieve monotony as well as to make them proficient.

The necessity for adequate canteen facilities, whereby good food ay be obtained and eaten under restful conditions, is emphasised.

In order that the high wages commonly earned by boys and girls under present conditions may not encourage under indulgence, extravagance, and thriftlessness, the committee urges that means be adopted to induce the children to save a portion of their earnings, the collection of deposits being placed in the hands of the welfare supervisor or some other person who through his acquaintance with the boy and his home can advise him as to the amount which may properly be put by from one week to another. This memorandum by the Health of Munition Workers Committee does not indicate the extent of juvenile labour either in normal times or as a result of the unusual demands for employment of children created by the war. Such information, so far as available, is included in the annual report of the chief medical officer of the board of education for 1915, who states that under normal conditions about 450,000 children pass out of the elementary schools annually at or about that age of 14, and that this figure appears to have been far exceeded during 1915 and since. This report suggests that approximately 45,000 children, ranging in age from 1 to 15 years, in excess of the normal number permanently left school for employment during the year 1915, and that the extent of juvenile employment existing today is probably much greater than during the year reviewed. Moreover, this figure, it is explained, refers almost exclusively to those legally entitled to leave school and does not include the large number of children normally liable to attend school but excused for longer or shorter periods by local education authorities for agricultural and other employment, nor does it include half-timers.

More definite information as to agricultural employment appear to have been gathered, indicating that on May 31, 1916, not less than 15,000 children were excused for the purpose of whole-time employment alone. A tendency to excuse for employment children under 12 is noted, and the report states that it is very doubtful whether children under 12 thus excused will ever return to school. That children have withdrawn from school since the outbreak of the war at an earlier age than that contemplated by the attendance laws appears evident, in the opinion of the chief medical officer. In this situation the children would seem to be exposed to conditions of strain detrimental to physical welfare, and as a means to conserve their health the following recommendations are presented as essential:

  1. Careful examination of children leaving school.
  2. Similar examination of those applying for labour certificates.
  3. Medical supervision of children employed out of school hours.
  4. Coordination of school medical work with juvenile employment committees.

This latter recommendation is believed to be important because if carried out children may be directed to occupations suitable to their mental and physical capacities. This point has been emphasised in the excerpt above quoted from the memorandum of the Health of Munition Workers Committee.

Local reporting of further demands for women in the workplace

The Times of 14th March 1916
POLITICAL NOTES. WOMEN AND THE LABOUR SUPPLY. A movement is on foot for co-ordinating the various movements directed to increasing the labour supply by the further employment of women. A committee under the chairmanship of Mr. Cecil Harmsworth is already investigating the matter, and there are various independent departmental organizations, notably that for supplying women labour on the land which is associated with the name of Miss Talbot. It is strongly felt that the steps taken by the Board of Agriculture should be extended to the whole sphere of women's war work in other words, that the the problem should be solved on broad lines and not piecemeal.

Attack on women doing war-work who argue this should lead to suffrage

The Times Letter Pages of 22nd May 1916

Sir.- In a letter addressed by way of answer to Mrs. Henry Fawcett, published in The Times of Wednesday last, Mr. Asquith referred to women's work during the war in connexion with their demand for the suffrage. This is not the first time that suffragists have advertised their claims by reference to women's service during the war. Against this view and these tactics we anti-suffragist have always protested. It is the duty of every citizen in a time of national peril to place his or her services freely at the disposal of the State. That is practical patriotism. But it is a spurious patriotism that has any ulterior motive that takes advantage of the country's need to bargain for reward. The greatest personal and pecuniary sacrifices are being made by nearly every class of the people and by all parts of the Empire, without thought of reward; and party politicians recognize that only by the subjection of their own distinctive views during the war can be brought about that unanimity of purpose which alone will make possible a triumphant victory over our ruthless foes.

But there is one section of the people whose conduct unfortunately does not exhibit this singleness of aim. Since the time when Mrs. Fawcett stated at Liverpool (November 12, 1914) that the suffragist nurses at the front "always managed to get in a word on the suffrage question," innumerable speeches have been made, and articles written, claiming that women's war work entitled them to the Parliamentary franchise. No organized political body in the country, other than the suffragists, thus takes advantage of the nation's needs to further its own ends. Incidentally they arrogate to themselves the right to speak for all women, ignoring the fact that many thousands of women, themselves engaged in most important national and charitable work, repudiate the claim of the suffragists to voice their opinions. The Parliamentary vote is not something to be bartered away for any "services rendered"; it is not a right, but a duty and a responsibility; it is not a sort of D.S.O. decoration, but is a trust imposed by the State. If the vote were merely an order of merit it would have been due to and conferred upon women before now; women have not served the State for the first time during this war. It is no new discovery that national life is made up of the activities of both men and women. In the matter of the franchise the State already discriminated between its male citizens themselves, many of whom have no vote and do not clamour for one, though they are performing the noblest and most heroic service in this great struggle. Nothing can be more illogical than to claim that because women can serve the State nobly and effectively in their own way, therefore they have the right to govern it. There is no question of abandoning constitutional government in favour of a military despotism on account of the heroic deeds of our Army. Why, then, should there be any talk of feminine government because women have shown themselves ready to serve the country in its need?

The fact is, however, that the claim for notes for women as a reward for war work is altogether unsound. War work is carried out by women, and by men, from motives of self-protection as well as abstract patriotism. Our gallant soldiers are fighting in the trenches to prevent our adversaries, amongst other things, laying waste our homes, and women's work is a necessary complement of that trench warfare. Without the combined effort of the whole nation, irrespective of sex, our women and children would run a great risk of suffering the outrages and privations so terribly familiar in some other countries. There should be no talk of reward for defending ourselves; successful defence alone ought to be sufficient compensation for every effort put forth.

When the war is over many well nigh forgotten controversies will doubtless be revived, but at this time our nation and our Allies have every right to demand that such domestic questions as the franchise shall be kept in abeyance, that all self-seeking and private ends shall be abandoned, that we close up our ranks and get on with the war.

Yours faithfully, Edward A. Mitchell Innes, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage. Caxton House, Tothill-street, S.W., May 20 1916.

Women threatened with eviction from 'tied' homes


House of Commons Debate of 17 February 1915 vol 69 c1126 1126

§ 59. Mr. ANDERSON
asked the Prime Minister whether his attention has been drawn to ejectment proceedings at Newport Pagnell petty sessions against Frederick Tysoe, an agricultural labourer, now fighting in the trenches in France; whether he is aware that the man's wife, about to be confined, is to be turned out with three young children; whether he is aware that the number of such cases is increasing; whether he has read the proceedings of the Shrewsbury branch of the Farmers' Union where the president encouraged farmers to eject the wives of enlisted men if cottages were needed for other workmen; and whether steps will be taken to put a stop to these evictions of soldiers' wives?
I have no information regarding the particular case to which the Hon. Member refers. But the general question is not free from difficulty, especially in view of the importance of maintaining the supplies of agricultural produce, and will receive careful consideration.


House of Commons Debate on 23 February 1915 vol 70 cc165-6 165

§ 23. Mr. ANDERSON asked the Prime Minister whether his attention has been drawn to the legal case in which a jury at Dorchester, under the New Courts (Emergency Powers) Act, awarded £15 damages for trespass and wrongful eviction to William West, a farm labourer, now serving with the Colours; whether he is aware that much uncertainty exists among farmers and the wives of men who have enlisted as to the legal position in regard to ejectment; and whether, in view of the seriousness and complexity of the problem, the scarcity of rural cottages, the natural desire of the farmers to obtain and house labourers in place of those who have left, and the consequent danger of eviction of the wives and children of soldiers, he will grant time for discussion of the matter?
The Government will welcome suggestions for preventing hardship arising in cases of the kind quoted by the Hon. Member. Perhaps it will be convenient if, in the first instance, the question were debated on the Motion for the Adjournment.


House of Commons Adjournment Debate - 23 February 1915 vol 70 cc232-44 232

§ Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of 3rd February, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."
I wish to bring forward a matter which I think of very considerable importance and one that is likely to achieve even greater importance in the future. I refer to the danger of eviction of soldiers' wives owing to the scarcity of rural cottages. I do not want to make this an opportunity for developing any attack against farmers or landowners. I dare say they think they have a responsibility in regard to conditions of rural housing, but we are face to face with an immediate problem, and it would be much more practical, in my opinion, and more advantageous, that we should confine ourselves to the more immediate question. I cannot believe that farmers can take any joy in evicting from their homes the wives and children of men who have now joined the Colours and who are now in some cases fighting in the trenches in France. But there is this economic factor: Undoubtedly in rural districts there is a great lack of cottage accommodation, and the farmer desires a new labourer to take the place of the labourer who has joined the Colours, and so the wife and children remain, perhaps, in the one available cottage, and the farmer's difficulty is this: He may find it almost impossible to get the farm work done unless the new labourer is found housing accommodation, and, in order to do that, he may have to act at the expense of the woman and children of the man who has gone to the front. I wish to bring the general question before the House by reading an extract from the "Daily Chronicle" of Monday, 15th February. Giving a report of the meeting of the Shrewsbury and District Branch of the Farmers' Union, it is stated that The Farmers' Union on Saturday discussed recruiting and other matters affecting the labour supply. Several farmers asked what they were to do with the wives in cottages on the farms when the husband had joined the Army. The President: If the farmer wants the cottage for another workman the wife of the man who has gone to the War must find another house. A Member: But can we force these wives to turn out? The President: Oh, yes! And in the end it was agreed that legal opinion should be taken as to the powers of the farmers in this matter of ejectment. Perhaps I might bring the matter before the House by citing one or two individual cases that have occurred. I have the case of a wagoner on a farm at Godmersham who joined the Army. The farmer applied for an ejectment order. The woman, with seven young children, told the magistrate she could find no other house, and was given twenty-one days in which to clear out. The farmer offered to remove her furniture free of charge, but as the woman had no place to go to, that offer was not of much account. There is the case mentioned in the newspapers of Mrs. Atwood, whose husband is fighting in France. She opened and shut the gates at Goddington Park, the residence of Mr. G. Ashley Dodd, a J.P. and landowner. What was stated in the newspapers was that the lady was not quite satisfied with the way in which the gates were opened and shut. The woman was evicted, her furniture stored in a neighbour's house, and she and the children had to tramp into Ashford.
A case occurred at Castle Bromwich, in Warwickshire. The wife was of a former-Guardsman who, when the War broke out, re-enlisted in the Dorsets. He was getting 17s. a week as an agricultural labourer. An eviction order was obtained. Ejectment proceedings were also taken against Frederick Tysoe, a labourer, now fighting in France, in respect of a cottage at Haversham. I will read the following report from the "Bucks Standard" of 13th February:— Mrs. Tysoe, a young woman, who wept bitterly, said she had three little children, and her family would be shortly increased. She could not get any Voltage. Where am I to go?' she asked the magistrates pitifully. My husband is now in the trenches.' An order was issued against her and she was ordered to clear out within twenty-eight days. Among the magistrates on the bench were three colonels, and this woman has actually six brothers serving with His Majesty's Forces. I take last of all, the case of a labourer, William West, who took proceedings at Dorchester for wrongful eviction under the Courts (Emergency Powers) Act. He had enlisted, and also with him a son nineteen years' old. The mother remained in the house with a daughter of seventeen, a boy of fourteen, a boy of eight, a girl of three, and a baby of fourteen months' old. She was evicted from her home. The husband took proceedings and appeared in court in khaki dress. Counsel for the defendant said, "I quite know that it is a most admirable thing that you are going to fight for us, and of course we appreciate it." The man was not quite satisfied with the appreciation, and he brought the case and was awarded £15 damages, for wrongful eviction, by the County Court.
Since the War began, special legislation on this matter has been passed by the House of Commons. The Courts (Emergency Powers) Act, 1914, appears to vest very wide powers of discretion in the hands of local magistrates, and is intended to serve that end. The trouble is that a good deal of doubt and uncertainty appears to exist among the farmers as to their powers, and much more among the wives of the soldiers who, in many eases, are entirely ignorant of what their legal rights are. Therefore, I think something must be done in that direction; but even if they are able to stand on their legal rights, that does not meet the case. The other economic difficulty remains. It is estimated that in the rural districts there is a shortage of cottages of something like 120,000—if you include those not fit for habitation. At any rate, there ought to be an additional 10 per cent. of cottages built. The problem is becoming all the more acute, because farmers want men to take the place of those who have gone to the front. A remedy would be for the Government to take in hand this question of rural houses. I believe, presently, there will be — and even now there is — available a considerable amount of labour from the building industry, and I think it is for the Government, in conjunction with the local authorities, to see that the problem is tackled and mitigated. That is going to meet the case in the future and not at this minute, and I believe the difficulty is going to become greater as work increases on the farms in the course of the next few months.
I think the Government should investigate the matter, and that before any woman is evicted from her home, there ought to be the very closest investigation, and that no farmer ought to be allowed to turn out a woman and children merely to suit his own convenience, or because he is not ready to put himself out in some other way. Our responsibility does not rest there if for reasons of getting the farm-work done the woman has to leave the house. The woman is the wife, and the children are the children, of a man fighting with the Colours, and therefore, I submit that another cottage ought to be found for her, that the rent should not be more, and the accommodation not less, than she had, and that there should be free removal from one to the other. That is the very least we can do. We are very proud of the fact that we have held out hospitality to Belgian refugees, and surely we are not going to do less for British women than what we have done for Belgian refugees. These are the main points, and I will say this: That I am quite sure the point will appeal to every Member of this House irrespective of party. It is that, as we have asked men to go and fight for our homes, the least we can do is to see that their dependants are not rendered homeless.
I think the House will be grateful to the Hon. Member in that he has brought before them this very important question. He was good enough to give me notice of the question of one particular case of Mrs. Tysoe. It happens to be in my Constituency, and I have had an opportunity of investigating the case rather carefully. I will first put before the House the particulars of the case which I think is a good one, and then one or two other considerations. The Hon. Member has told us that this was the case of a woman with three little girls, one only six. Her husband enlists, goes to France and fights, and while he is away his wife is turned out of a cottage, has nowhere to go, and is left stranded. I think the first impression everyone in this House will feel is that there is something horrible in that state of affairs, and one thinks that it ought not to be possible. Now I will put the other side. You have a patriotic farmer. I venture to suggest to this House that farmers are as patriotic as any other class of the community.
I will put it in this way, and this is taken from a definite farm which I have investigated. You have a man who is perhaps a milk farmer. He loses his milker at the beginning of the War. I am not at all sure that from his point of view it would not be better to give up milking and take to fattening stock, and perhaps make a large profit. But I believe it is the attitude of the farmer to go on and help to provide the milk supply of this country. It is a very difficult thing to give up milking and afterwards to take it up again, and I venture to think that the fanner who goes on milking in spite of difficulties does a very patriotic duty to his country. With this farmer, a farm of 200 acres, the increase in cost has been nearly 1½d. per gallon. In spite of that, up to within a fortnight ago, the price of milk in London had not been raised, in spite of the increased cost of producing it. The farmer goes on milking and thinks it is his duty to go on. Cows have to be milked and he has no one to do it. I would point out the extreme difficulty of getting labour to-day. He may find a married man at a distance who says he will milk on condition that he gets a house for his wife and family. The farmer's only option is to turn out the wife of the man who has gone to fight and to put in the milker in order that the cows may be milked. That is a particular definite case, but I venture to say that there are one or two general considerations, of which the first and most important would be this: The farmer ought to be very slow to do anything of this kind. It ought to be the very last resort. He ought to try very possible means to get labour and to carry on the work before resorting to the horrible expedient of turning out the wife and children because the husband and father is away at the front; and I suggest it is the duty of the farmer, before he resorts to this last expedient, to consult the local Labour Exchange. I know that there is a feeling of distrust among farmers as to Labour Exchanges. I do not altogether wonder. The Labour Exchanges have not attempted to take up agricultural labour because the agricultural labourer never registers at the Labour Exchange, and farmers therefore have never found any use for it in ordinary circumstances and, I dare say, never will But these are not ordinary circumstances; these are circumstances in which the fanner must have his cows milked and must find labour. He is not able to find labour himself, and I think that the least we can ask him to do is that he should at any rate appeal to the Labour Exchange to find out if it cannot meet his demand in this emergency. I would suggest, for instance, that instead of having turned out the woman with a view to getting a married man into the cottage, the Labour Exchange might have been able to find a single man, who could have lodged somewhere in the village and thus have avoided the necessity of turning out the woman and her children. I would suggest again with regard to milking, why would it not be possible in an emergency of this kind to find a woman who would be willing to milk the cow and lodge in the cottage, without having the wife and family turned out before this last expedient is resorted to?
It seems to me that it is the duty of the farmer to consult his Labour Exchange to see whether something of the kind cannot be done. Having consulted his Labour Exchange and having failed, and having come to this case, which I think will be rare, which should be rare, and which I believe public opinion will make rare, and having found perhaps one or two cases in which there seems no way of getting any worker on the farm without turning out the women and children from the cottages, I would just mention this consideration, that of course the woman with the three children—take the case which my Hon. Friend put before the House—is getting a separation allowance. In this particular case the wages of the man were 16s. and the cottage, and this woman is now getting 20s.; so that she is actually better off by 4s. and does not have the man to feed. In addition there is this consideration with regard to my Hon. Friend's suggestion that some help ought to be given in moving. I think that the course which he put before the House of the farmer offering to move the furniture is one which I hope farmers generally will adopt. It is not a great deal to ask a farmer to lend his cart and a man to cart the furniture of the woman from one house to another. The question remains where is the woman to go to? The true remedy is to build houses. But, as my Hon. Friend has reminded us, it is not possible to build houses for this immediate emergency. It is the solution for the future. I am hoping this evening to get suggestions. A suggestion of my own was to consult the secretary of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Association. It is an extremely well-organised association, and I think I am right in saying since the War began it has a representative in practically every single parish throughout England and Wales. The secretary of the Association assures me that these cases, which he agreed would be extremely rare, are cases which the committee would be likely to view with extreme sympathy and which they would even perhaps be willing to see through in order that the hardship might be lessened as far as possible. But I submit that this is not a case for criticism. This is a case in which advice is wanted. Certainly the Board of Agriculture are anxious for any hints that may help to solve what is going to become, I think, a burning question, and may help us to deal with cases which every Member of the House must regret.
I am quite sure that every Member of the House sympathises fully with all the people who have been treated in the way described by the Hon. Member (Mr. Anderson). Nobody can complain of the very moderate way in which he stated his case and the fairness with which he looked at the case for the farmers and others. Every one of us would condemn anyone who took this action without having had resort to every conceivable method of dealing with the situation other than by eviction. I rather deprecate quoting speeches out of newspapers which may not give very accurate accounts. In reference to the Farmers' Union which was mentioned by the Hon. Gentleman, I think it a pity to quote from speeches which are described in the newspapers in rather a vague way. I rather thought that the Hon. Gentleman accused the president of this particular union of having advised farmers to evict their men. As far as I can see the president was answering what I conceive to be was a legal point, and I hope that no accusation will be made against him of having deliberately advised farmers to take this course.
I did not say that he advised, but that by the tone of his remarks he rather lent encouragement to the idea. He did not urge it, but he rather gave it his sanction.
The gentleman in question, I think, probably did not. I thought that the question which the Hon. Gentleman asked a few days ago actually said that he advised them to turn these people out. The difficulty this moment is very considerably increased in country districts because nearly every cottage has been taken for Belgian refugees or various other people. In a case I know of, where eviction has been threatened, but I hope is not being carried out, the farmer certainly took a great deal of trouble to try to find another cottage, and he did succeed in getting a landowner to let him have another cottage for the woman whom he intended to turn out. Unfortunately the woman happens to be suffering from physical disability and the cottage was one with a large number of steps, which was quite unsuitable for her, but that appears to be the only cottage available in the district. The real root of the whole question is the great want of additional cottages in rural districts. I do not want to be controversial, but that is a question which we have tried to bring before the House for a great many years, and in which we were supported by Hon. Gentlemen on the other side below the Gangway. I was sorry to hear the Hon. Gentleman opposite relegate that solution of the question to some remote future.
Not altogether.
I should be very glad if there was some chance of an attempt being made to begin solving the question now. He was perfectly correct in saying that we could not deal with the immediate distress at this moment, but this distress is likely to become greater as time goes on, and if we are to grow a great deal more wheat in this country and employ more labour the question becomes more urgent and the sooner we begin to solve it the better. The other suggestion I consider to be an excellent one: that is that the Soldiers' and Sailors' Association should take up the matter. I hope that the Hon. Member will press that in the proper quarter. His friends the Government are able to exercise a certain amount of influence with the Soldiers' and Sailors' Association, and I would suggest that not only should they take every step to try to find suitable-places for these women to go to if they have to leave, but that they should also-pay for the cost of the removal. I do not see why that should not come under the charges which they can defray. It would not amount to very much. As the right Hon. Gentleman said, these people have got the allowance, and they can pay the rent, and practically there is very little but the cost of removal to bear. So I do hope that he will turn his attention, first of all to using his influence with the Soldiers' and Sailors' Association, and next to considering whether it is not possible to make a beginning, even if it is only in a small way, in dealing with the real root of the evil, and that is the need of more cottages in rural districts.
Nobody can take exception to the speeches to which we have listened dealing with this very important and very difficult matter. I went down to speak at a recruiting meeting last Friday. In the neighbourhood in which this meeting was held one of these cases had cropped up. A man came to me before the meeting to ask me to mention this case at the meeting. Obviously to mention a case like this at a recruiting meeting would have a very disastrous effect upon recruiting, and from that point of view I think that every effort should be made to case the situation. Whether it is by the Government undertaking the expense of the removal of these people or asking the Soldiers' and Sailors' Association to get it done, the expense being refunded afterwards, something ought to be done in that direction. With; regard to the use of Labour Exchanges, it should be pretty obvious to those of us who are familiar with industrial wages and conditions that it is going to be a very difficult thing for farmers to obtain labour through the Labour Exchanges at anything like the wages which farmers have been accustomed to give. It is obvious that in circumstances such as exist to-day it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for farmers to fill the positions of these men who have left by getting men to work at the wages of those who have left the service of the farmer to serve in the Army. Therefore, it seems to me that if the farmer can be persuaded to see the thing from a new aspect, and to show some little consideration along that line, there might be less difficulty than there is in the matter.
I quite agree that there is a considerable amount of difficulty in finding accommodation for whoever the farmer might be able to obtain to perform the labour of men who have joined the Army. But it should be remembered that this House has put a very large number of people in this country to a great deal of trouble by billeting people upon them, and it does seem to me that quite a simple way out of the difficulty might be found if the farmer were to consider that after all the Government have taken power into their hands to billet officers and men upon people who may have a fairly good house, some of whom probably would not care to have persons billeted upon them, yet, and that as thousands of our people are taking officers and men into their homes and giving them every accommodation, surely the fanner might look at the case from that point of view and see whether he could not billet in his own house the labour which he might be able to obtain! Many farmers have pretty large houses, and I do not think it would be a matter of very great difficulty to find some little accommodation in exceptional circumstances like these for any extra labour which he might have to employ, and in this way get over the difficulty and avoid the eviction of these people. The particular union with which I am connected has already had to fight some of these cases in Court. It is distasteful to the union, and I am sure also to the farmers, to do these things, but what can one do in the circumstances? Where a woman is left with a considerable family when her husband has joined the Army, and it is almost impossible to find accommodation for the woman and the family who have been left behind, it seems to me that there might be a little bit more consideration on the part of the farmer in the matter of billeting upon himself the labour which he may be able to obtain. I am sure that that would solve many of the difficulties to which reference has been made.
I would suggest one way of getting over the difficulty which everybody agrees ought to be got over, if it is possible to do so. The difficulty is that there are no labourers' cottages attached to the farm in which to accommodate the new labourers, because the cottages which are at present attached to the farm are already full of labourers. The difficulty, therefore, is to find new cottages. The suggestion is that in proper cases, such as mentioned by the Hon. Member for the Attercliffe Division, facilities should be given for putting up huts. I would ask is there a real case made out that where there is no possibility of finding labour or any accommodation for a woman with five or six children, such as mentioned by the Hon. Gentleman, the Board of Agriculture should communicate with the landowner, or whoever he may be, in charge of the land, with the object of putting up such huts.
We thought of this expedient, but the difficulty is where are we to get the labour to put up the houses?
There will probably be a certain amount of labour in a considerable country side; carpenters and brick-layers are not employed, and there is very little building.
There are no unemployed, practically, for this work.
In my part of the country there are a great many who are not employed, and as there is very little building going on they would be glad to have the chance of such work. Another point to which I desire to call attention is, that a great many of the building by-laws at the present time make it extremely difficult and expensive to put up cottages. Speaking as a small landowner myself, I should be rejoiced to be able to put up new cottages if only the financial part of it could be managed on reasonable, terms. Other landlords are in the same position, and we do not want any profit. Speaking for myself, I want no profit. I think very little would be required for putting proper houses on the land, and I am sure that every facility would be given by landowners for doing that. The by-laws are very stringent in many places, and they add largely to the cost of erecting suitable cottages in rural districts. I would suggest that during the emergency with which we are now face to face, those by-laws might be relaxed, so that we might be able to import from Norway or elsewhere ready-made cottages for a comparatively small sum, £50 or £60, and for that price you would get a wooden house, better made than any that could be put up for £150 or £155. With the relaxation of these stringent by-laws fairer accommodation could be provided in the rural districts. It is a business which will have to be tackled, and ought to be tackled, even if there were no war at all. As to billeting, I do not think there is any possibility of it. The difficulty has always been - certainly in my part of the country - that they have not got the cottages, and that the cottages which do exist are too small to afford accommodation for billeting; in fact, I do not understand how you could possibly have billeting in most of the rural districts. One way to deal with this question is to make it easy to put up fresh accommodation, and most landlords will be only too glad to give facilities.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Five minutes after Seven o'clock.

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