As March is Women’s History Month, here are some of the previous entries we have done regarding women and their place in British history:
As March is Women’s History Month, here are some of the previous entries we have done regarding women and their place in British history:
Despite the sexy connotations attached to underwear, the V&A’s current exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is anything but. As the title of the exhibition goes, it traces the history of underwear from the earliest extant piece dating back from the 18th century to the present as well as examining the reasons and motivation for the existence of underwear. They range from reasons of hygiene to protection down to structural support of various parts of the human anatomy. Underwear also reflects and is also subject to the changes in fashion and what has been seen as the ideal body type and shape. As we’ve come to expect from the V&A, it does all this in an informative and yet visually appealing and interesting exhibition.
Cleverly, the displays are not displayed chronologically but according to themes and there is a wide variety of objects on display: not just underwear but advertisements, photographs, prints, packaging and even cartoons. One of the strongest aspects of the exhibition is examining how the emphasis on hygiene, protection and comfort has led to the development of fabrics and materials in underwear design and manufacture. Before the advent of synthetic fabrics, natural fibres such as cotton, linen and wool were used for underclothes for their ease in washing and durability. Wool particularly was singled out for its health benefits as advocated by Dr Gustav Jaeger for its ability to regulate body temperature. However from the late 19th century onwards, techniques were being develop to bolster the durability of natural fabrics such as for instance there was “Ellico” developed by William Elliot and Sons which was marketed as “unshrinkable wool”. By the 20th century, there was the invention of synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester in the middle of the last century down to today’s lycra, tactel and elastine that demonstrate the main function of underwear that is worn for both hygiene and protection.
Just as clothes and accessories have reflected changing trends in fashion and standards of beauty, underwear is the same and nowhere is this more apparent with the corset. Although its basic shape has remained unaltered, subtle changes reflect changing fashions from the “hourglass” shape of the 1850s to the “S-bend” of the 1890s and by the twentieth century, synthetic and elastic materials have replaced whalebone: beginning in the 1920s when the prevailing fashion for fluidity meant that underwear was used to minimise and flatten the body. What is interesting is the variety of corsets on display such as for horse riding and other sports such as tennis, golf and cycling, for maternity and to wear in the tropics – a very interesting point as even as Western women were becoming more emancipated and physically active they were still to some extent constrained, and up to the first world war were still swathed in their voluminous clothes and layers even in the heat of countries such as India, Egypt and the Philippines!
Of course the wearing of underwear is not only for practical or health reasons but also for comfort, aesthetics, allure and mystique so this is where “lingerie” comes in; underwear that is made of silk, lace, applique, crepe de chine and satin mostly hand stitched and embroidered to be used as a tool for seduction. The upper gallery also features underwear that while ostensibly as for comfort such as tea gowns, dressing gowns, hostess gowns and lounging pyjamas are also by their beauty and informality the means of seduction and allure: and the diaphanous fabrics hint to the male admirer of the delights in store for him and that he’s not going to have to fight his way through layers of petticoats and a corset to enjoy them.
Overall the exhibition is fascinating and carefully curated but especially for the last part of the exhibition there is too much emphasis on prestige brands and not enough of high street stalwarts such as for instance Marks and Spencer or Anne Summers. I believe that’s a glaring omission especially as M&S has arguably been the go-to shop for majority of women for underwear for the last 80-90 years. But apart from that quibble, kudos to the V&A for attempting to present the history of the underwear not only from the woman’s side but also to give equal attention to the men as well.
2016 marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme and the anniversary an added dimension as it was also exactly a hundred years ago when a film depicting the battle was premiered to picture houses up and down the country. The Battle of the Somme, featuring both actual and recreated footage was a bold and risky move by the War Office designed to rally support for the war effort and it was seen by many people. For the first time, audiences could see the battle unfolding before their eyes on screen rather than reading about it in the newspapers or through letters from family and friends at the Front.
To celebrate both landmark events the Imperial War Museum has mounted the exhibition Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies which documents the history of war movies through objects and paraphernalia such as props, scripts, notes, costumes, film clips and posters. There are also features of real people who have inspired films such as Adolf Hitler (Downfall) and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) as well as works of fiction and non-fiction that have made it from print to screen for instance Atonement, War Horse, Empire of the Sun and Full Metal Jacket.
Two of the interesting aspects of the exhibition are the enduring popularity of the Second World War for war movies, with many of the films featured such as The Dam Busters, Carve Her Name With Pride and The Bridge of the River Kwai made during the 1950s when the end of the war was barely a decade in the past; while the 1960s and 1970s saw the release of films featuring all-star casts such as The Great Escape and Das Boot. This fascination has endured to this day with films such as Saving Private Ryan and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
The other interesting aspect is the production side of making these films where attention to detail and striving for accuracy and authenticity were emphasised. Here we see story boards; annotated scripts; models and interviews with directors, writers and other production people to talk viewers through the process by which a particular scene was shot and filmed and the issues that are at the forefront of a particular film. One of the most fascinating clips was featuring the real Omaha Beach landings on D-Day followed Steven Spielberg’s version in Saving Private Ryan and it was astonishing to see how Spielberg was able to recreate the actual event almost frame by frame.
The last part of the exhibition notes how war films have been received both by the critics and the public. Films such as Oh What a Lovely War and Casablanca have entered our popular consciousness while the likes of Patton and Bridge of Spies have garnered critical praise and awards. What comes out of the exhibition is that while no film can totally be 100% accurate and portray the realities of war, for better or for worse they shape our perception of a conflict. If a film is done well, it can help broaden our understanding of the conflict and even the times we live in today. However, the film industry doesn’t always get in right – Operation Burma and U-571 are two of the most historically inaccurate war films ever made and have the potential to perpetuate falsehoods and misconceptions. As the exhibition quoted The Times “misrepresentation on the screen can do very much more harm than an article in a newspaper” because it “speaks in a language that can be understood by millions” – a very perceptive comment that sums up not only war movies but period movies and TV programmes in general.
Real to Reel is a good exhibition but understandably it won’t be able to cover all aspects of war cinema and the focus is overwhelmingly on British and American cinema (bar Downfall which is a German film). However, there are more than enough to show why war is a popular topic for film makers and how conflicts such as the two World Wars continue to provide a fresh source for storytelling and film making even long after the real guns have fallen silent.
The bloggers visited both exhibitions on 9 September 2016.
Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is at the V&A until 12 March 2017 https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/undressed-a-brief-history-of-underwear
Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies is at the Imperial War Museum London until 8 January 2017
See part 1 here
Women who worked with TNT were nicknamed “canaries” because of the effect of working with it – turning hair ginger and skin yellow. Traditional gunpowder had been replaced by materials such as cordite and sulphur which were mixed by hand despite being dangerous to human health, and despite the jocular name the colour was a warning sign of toxic jaundice.
“Our skin was perfectly yellow, right down through the body, legs and toenails even, perfectly yellow,” reported one Mrs M Hall after a ten-hour shift absorbing deadly levels of TNT; and yet even when they asked for masks they were told they could not have them because of the risks of dermatitis. In 1917 seven shell girls refused to handle TNT and were fined 15 shillings each by the London Munitions Tribunal, with the chairman telling them The work is very important though the circumstances are disagreeable. I should have thought that all would be anxious to do what they can, even at some discomfort and inconvenience to themselves, to supply this explosive which is so much wanted by our soldiers.
The women refused to pay their fines on the grounds of being volunteers and not conscripts. Despite warnings women continued to work working with it and many suffered from the effects of prolonged TNT exposure, including liver failure, anaemia and spleen enlargement. Belatedly the change in skin and hair colour was recognised as a sign that the affected workers should be moved to other tasks, although some women regarded it as a badge of honour and pride in their dangerous work, and even had their own song
Same as the lads
Across the sea
If it wasn’t for the ammunition girls
Where would the Empire be?
When in 1916 a jury found that a girl of 16, working in an explosives factory, had died from TNT poisoning, the powers that be at the factory were quick to point out that this was the only death and that ‘only a small class are susceptible to TNT poisoning. This class were those under 18 and the Ministry of Munitions was taking steps to prevent the employment of anyone under 18.’ Tacit acceptance that the change in skin colour was a barrier to recruitment into the factories: and a haste to reassure that anyone over 18 was safe and it was the silly girl’s fault for working there when she was too young.
When Zeppelin raids started munitions workers as much as ordinary civilians were on the front line, with the added danger of being surrounded by hundreds of tons of explosives. Gladys Kaye who was an overseer at Woolwich Arsenal described raids with typical British understatement
All our lights were put out when the Zeppelins used to come over…not only were the lights put out but all the doors and windows fastened from the outside so that we could not possibly get out. There was such a great outcry from the women that after a short time all the doors and windows were left open so that we could escape if a bomb did hit us. The Manchester Guardian of 8 December 1916 paid fulsome tribute
England is very proud of the pluck, endurance and determination of her munition girls….Zeppelin nights in some places have put a very hard strain on the nerves of these girls, who in some factories have spent hours waiting in black darkness, knowing that at any moment a bomb may explode the munitions piled beside them…the girls have come through the ordeal without panic or collapse.
Munitions worker Caroline Webb was equally laconic about the dangers. We had a big air raid one day and our manager came flying in: ‘Run for your lives, girls.’ Well, there was ninety tons of TNT stored there.
However, the real everyday danger came from industrial accidents. By 1917 women carried out 80% of all machine work on shells and fuses and operated heavy machinery such as overhead cranes. Explosions and accidents were common, but were hushed up with government censorship controlling what could be reported. The traditional problems with explosives were ever present and the precautions factories took must have gone some way to minimising risks, but it’s hard to gauge how much the workers in those factories thought about them from day to day. It was a world of manual labour and that was expected to exact a heavy price on both body and mind but simply had to be put up with. Even with careful handling catastrophe was always a threat and some accidents, could not be ignored – as Adie says, “Usually incidents were confined to ‘a factory in the north’ but time and again the flames in the sky and the shudder of explosions defeated the censors.” (p 140)
At Barnbow in November 1916 there was an explosion room 42, where several hundred women were filling, fusing, finishing off and packing 4½ inch shells. Room 42 was mainly used for the filling, and between 150 and 170 girls worked there. Shells were brought to the room already loaded with high explosive and all that remained was the insertion of the fuse and the screwing down of the cap. A girl inserted the fuse by hand, screwed it down and then it was taken and placed into a machine that revolved the shell and screwed the fuse down tightly.
At 10.27pm a violent explosion in the room killed 35 women outright, maiming and injuring dozens more. In some cases identification was only possible by the identity disks worn around the necks of the workers. The machine where the explosion had occurred was completely destroyed. Steam pipes had burst open and covered the floor with a cocktail of blood and water. Workers from elsewhere hurried to help with bringing out the injured to safety, and within a few hours workers had volunteered to carry on with the same work to prevent production falling off. No official notice was taken in the press of the explosions apart from the many death notices in the Yorkshire Evening Post that stated, “killed by accident”.
The Silvertown explosion in January 1917, when 69 workers were killed and 400 injured (although figures are not definitive) after fire broke out in the melt-pot room of Brunner Mond & Co factory in east London was extensively described in eyewitness accounts
I am still trembling from the shock of a terrible concussion and distant roar that occurred ten minutes ago…it was only one explosion, over in a few seconds, so it can’t be a Zeppelin blowing up munitions works….two ladies said that the whole sky was lit up like a red sunset and then came the roar. (Georgina Lee).
Last evening I was sitting alone…when without any warning there came the most ghastly crashing explosion possible to imagine!…I tore upstairs to look out of one of our upper windows which faces the direction of Woolwich and the sky was all red and lurid and vibrating, and then I felt sure that the arsenal was blown up and the whole of Woolwich in flames! (diary of Ethel Bilborough)
Years afterwards a journalist friend told me that on the evening of this disaster she was working in her room in Bayswater* when the drawn blind suddenly lifted without a sound, remained horizontal in the air for a moment or two, then slowly dropped. There was no wind and she had heard no noise. (Vera Brittain)
The explosion was heard 100 miles away in Sandringham, and all buildings within 400 yards were completely demolished, half a million windows were broken in surrounding districts, while the blast leapt the river and destroyed a gasometer at Woolwich. The cause of the blast was accidental but rumours of sabotage found many believers.
Many women were leaving munitions work by this time, having found safer jobs that were relatively well- paid, and in response the Ministry of Munitions created a Health and Welfare section to stem the flow of trained workers. Laws were passed to force factories to provide protective clothing, seats in workrooms, washing facilities, drinking water and cloakrooms.
War nudged women into uncharted territories – not just in work but in play too. New economic freedom gave working class women the means to dress up after work and enjoy themselves – an affluence much resented in some quarters, and despite the dangers of their work many munitionettes seem to have had the time of their lives. Women who had previously had very little surplus income now had money for clothes, cosmetics and leisure. Many munitions workers expressed this new-found affluence through fashionable dress leading to muttering that previous class distinctions in terms of appearance were becoming eroded and confused. Cosmetic houses such as Rimmel and Maybelline made powder, rouge and mascara – previously worn only by women of distinctly dubious virtue – affordable by working class women.
Just as women without paid jobs were finding themselves with more household chores as their maids were diverted to munitions work, so those women who had always known the aches and pains of hard physical graft and the evidence it left on the body were for the first time earning money that meant they could buy items that gave at least the illusion of being a lady of leisure – or as some commentators expressed it, meant that they were getting above their stations. One well-received product was Ess Viotto, which were violet scented hand drops. In case anyone thinks that the exploitation of personal insecurity for commercial advantage is a recent phenomenon, the advertising for Ess Viotto dispels any illusions on that score by declaring that Women who have been working since the war began…have been concerned with preserving the smoothness and fine feelings of their hands. Violet scented Ess Viotto provided what Lizzie Ostrom calls a trompe l’oeil in smell form: the illusion of leisure. The woman of the 1910s could, while out and about, drop on some Ess Viotto and instantly turn her hands into delicately scented objects of beauty rather than rough instruments of labour.
Of course there were the expected moral panics about women having their own money and what they might get up to with it when they were gallivanting around unchaperoned, and the horror of what women might get up to if left to their own devices and with money in their pockets meant that imaginations ran riot. If a woman had moved into the male sphere of work and dress (such as trousers), the arguments went, then they must be immoral and would take even greater liberties, like smoking and drinking in pubs and (whisper it) behaving sexually like men as well.
The sight of hundreds of young women heading out to enjoy themselves after work started a widespread grumbling – that these women were aping men by smoking, drinking and wearing trousers, aping their betters by buying fripperies like ribbons, hats, jewellery and even fur coats and silk stockings. They were, it was implied in a phrase loaded with condemnation, no better than they should be. The press was full of stories about young women drinking in public houses with men, buying showy clothes – ‘looking for all the world like flash barmaids,’ in the words of one enraged churchman – and going dancing and to the cinema and to many people these were sure signs of immorality. The tendency of munitionettes to buy showy clothes was particularly worrying in some quarters, as any display of finery by the working class woman was seen as upsetting class divisions and being the first step on the road to being a tart. But as Adie points out
The independence from home and opportunity to meet new colleagues from different backgrounds possible had more impact on women than the actual job. This was a liberation they had not had to fight for and had not expected. To have money to spend, to be able to go to a pub without the family or neighbours tattling, or choose to go dancing or to the cinema without having to ask anyone’s permission, was freedom indeed. Unmarried women, even in their twenties, were meant to submit to their fathers’ wishes – such as ‘Be in by ten o’clock – or else.’ It was an era in which young women were told that wearing make-up was ‘fast’ or ‘common,’ and keeping your wages instead of handing them over to your mother was unheard of. (Adie p 132) And she concludes
In one sense the country had got itself a new army, a vast cohort of women with a united purpose, wearing uniform and prepared to face danger – and if it got a bit unruly on Saturday nights, what did you expect? (Adie p 133) In her opinion, there was no mass flight to immorality, simply the move towards a greater confidence in themselves as women, workers and citizens.
With so much written about the risk to public morality of the new freedoms of working women, to maintain order and help male foremen and factory owners who had no time or inclination to deal with the problems of large numbers of women workers, the government appointed welfare inspectors— the Women’s Police Service, the forerunners of the first women police officers. Their job was to ensure safety by searching the workers and to patrol the factories to stop shirking, but also to try and control the morality of women workers by leading them away from the lure of drink and sexual relationships – particularly women who were married and whose husbands were away fighting. Understandably there was need for their work – many of the younger women had been in service before the war or had not worked at all, they were living and working away from home for the first time, had unaccustomed freedoms, money in their pocket and were generally wholly ignorant of sex and not in any sense streetwise. But the WPS faced resistance and resentment as one of them recalled
The girls here are very rough (Pembrey, in South Wales) and their language is sometimes too terrible…the previous Sub Insp had only one sergeant & three constables under her and they managed to get themselves heartily detested by all the workers, with the result that for a policeman to as much as show herself was a signal for all the girls to shriek and boo. They several times threatened to duck the Sub Insp & once did throw a basin of dirty water over her…but as she comments with unconscious patronage that must have enraged some workers but they are very influenced easily by a little oratory and go back to work like lambs if you shout at them long enough. This is class difference as an element of control.
But when the war was finally won the government and much of the trade union leadership wanted to put the clocks back – at the 1918 TUC congress the Birmingham Brass Workers Union said that women should be prevented from doing heavy jobs to stop their “physical degeneration”. The retort from a delegate from the National Women’s Federation was, “Why, bless my soul, a woman who carries a child carries a heavy weight.” Miss Symons at the same congress said, “We want women on the same footing as men. When a man is taken on he is not asked to show if he can do the job as much as another man, but a woman has to go through the test, and wherever possible her wages are reduced.” After the war ended hundreds of thousands of women quickly lost their jobs and by the autumn of 1919, 750,000 fewer women were employed in industry. Accommodation for single women, canteens and day nurseries were shut down. In deals that had been agreed with trade unions women’s employment had been only “for the duration” and for many women domestic service was once again the only option. Stung by guilt and pity at the sight of war-shattered men returning from the front, women of all classes were encouraged to give up their jobs to former servicemen and concentrate on returning to their rightful domestic sphere to create nurturing homes for their husbands (if they still had them) and children. The wartime women worker was seen as an aberration as single and widowed women joined in the pressure for married women in particular to leave jobs: but the clock could not be turned back entirely. Women had found new independence. They had shown themselves and the rest of society that they could do jobs that before the war would have been unthinkable. They had seen that the government could organise state provision for them and their children when it needed to. But most of all they had experienced in greater numbers than ever before being part of the collective force of the working class.
In 1920 Barbara Drake wrote a major study of women and trade unions and recognised this was one of the most important consequences of the war. She wrote that most of all what women workers learned, “which they did not intend to forget” was “the value of their labour and the power of organisation”. Whereas in 1914 there were 212,000 women working in the munitions industry, by the end of the war it had increased to 950,000. Christopher Addison, who succeeded Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions, estimated in June, 1917, that about 80 per cent of all weapons and shells were being produced by women.
The Great War freed women from centuries of taboos, restrictions and beliefs, overturning ideas about what women could do, what they were capable of and what could be demanded of them: and the women and girls of the munitions factories and arsenals were at the forefront of that liberation. A revolution was going on while the war was being fought – with their men at the front women took their places in factories, farms, shops and offices and slowly but surely changed for ever not only their lives but the lives of generations after them. The genie of votes for women and the right to work and be paid as men did and be as professionally respected was out of the bottle and wasn’t going to be forced back, however long it took to achieve those aims. As Dr Elsie Inglis said, when she heard that thanks to women’s work during the war the House of Commons was to discuss granting the vote to women over thirty – “Where do they think the world would have been without women’s work all these ages?”
Blogs.some.ox.ac.uk Somerville and the Great War
Gavin Roynon (ed) Home Fires Burning: The Great War Diaries of Georgina Lee (Stroud, 2006)
Joyce Marlow (ed) The Virago Book of Women and the Great War (London, 1998)
Jerry White. Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War (London, 2014)
Terry Charman. The First World War on the Home Front (London, 2014)
Kate Adie. Fighting on the Home Front (London, 2013)
The Illustrated First World War: from the Illustrated London News Archive (2014)
Neil R Storey & Molly Housego. Women in the First World War (London, 2010)
John Masters. Fourteen Eighteen (London, 1965)
Lucy Lethbridge. Servants (London, 2013)
Shell Turning for Munitions Workers – facsimile published by Army and Navy Press
Carol Harris. Women at War 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)
Lizzie Ostrom. Perfume: A Century of Scents (London, 2015)
Trevor Royle. The Flowers of the Forest: Scotland and the First World War (Edinburgh, 2007)
Vera Brittain. Testament of Youth (London, 1978)
Nina Edwards. Dressed for War: Uniform, Civilian Clothing and Trappings 1914-1918 (London, 2015)
Graham Hill and Howard Bloch. The Silvertown Explosion: London 1917 (Stroud, 2004)
*Pre-decimal coinage. There were 20 shillings to £ 1 sterling. In 1914 a shilling bought 5 pounds of meat, 4 pounds of sugar or 4 quarts of milk. Average wage varied from 26 shillings to 24 shillings for men, 10 shillings to 15 shillings for women.
*Bayswater was and is a suburb of west London about 12 miles from the site of the explosion.
World War I cannot be said to have many silver linings, but it gave British women a newfound political and social confidence and the experience of those four years transformed the lives of millions of women in Britain. There is a myth that the war brought women into industrial work for the first time. In fact many women had always worked in industry—in coalmines, cotton mills and potteries.
But the war did change things. In the years leading up to the war, British capitalism had faced a crisis of rule on several fronts. There was a powerful revolt against imperialist rule in Ireland, waves of workers’ struggles and a militant movement demanding votes for women. The role that women played during the war as workers meant that their lives and expectations would never be quite the same again. Up to two million women moved into previously male-only industrial jobs and assumptions about what women were capable of were shattered. Suddenly it suited politicians to break from the ideology of women being incapable and weak, at least temporarily. Now they pushed women to the limits of endurance in the name of the war and patriotism, and the same ruling class that had stubbornly refused women the right to vote now pumped out propaganda demanding women serve the war effort.
Mobilisation and recruitment of men at the start of World War I was on a scale never seen before. On 7th August 1914 the Prime Minister asked Parliament for permission to sanction an increase in the army to 500,000 men. By the 5th September the PM announced that 250,000 to 300,000 men had enlisted and two days later that figure was amended to 439,000 men. Patriotic fires burned high, and by the end of 1914 1,186,337 men had enlisted; in the words of HG Wells, “No-one wants to be a non-combatant.” However, the numbers of men joining the army left a huge gap in the numbers of those available to do vital work.
There was however a potential army of women who wanted to do war work and were not being used. A group of doctors, offering their services to the War Office in 1914 only to be told “all that was required of women was to go home and keep quiet.” (Undeterred, Dr. Elsie Inglis and her fellow Scottish suffragettes went on to establish the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in Serbia and France). The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies had called a truce with the government to allow concentration on the war effort, so it was only a matter of time before these women decided that they were not being used effectively and would voice their demands. In March 1915 the Board of Trade issued an appeal to women to register for paid employment of any kind – clerical, industrial or agricultural. In the first week after the appeal 20,000 registrations were made but take up was slow and many women felt that their hopes had been raised and their time wasted.
The change came with the “Shells Scandal” of 1915. Sir John French, British Commander in Chief, confided to the editor of the London Times that a shortage of suitable munitions was directly responsible for the failure of the British offensive at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. That the British Army were experiencing a shell shortage was not in doubt. British munitions production was not operating at full efficiency nor anything close to it. David Lloyd George the Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, believed that a radical improvement in the munitions industry was not only possible but necessary if Britain was to compete with Germany in a long war. The “Shells Scandal” was a factor in the fall of the Liberal government in 1915 and the creation of a Ministry of Munitions with Lloyd George at its head.
In July 1915 50,000 women marched through London petitioning to be allowed to work in munitions as a recognised labour force. Georgina Lee described it in her war diary as” a very inspiriting sight”.
Lloyd George replied to the Women’s Deputation. He said that nobody who had witnessed this most impressive procession could fail to appreciate the organising capacity of women….he promised that the women would be employed in unlimited numbers as they were wanted…but he explained that it would not be fair to pay them at the same rate for time work. Being untrained and unskilled, they could not get in as much work, of as good quality, in the same time as men. Lee remarked shrewdly I believe this Women’s Demonstration and Lloyd George’s acknowledgement marks a new departure for the Women’s Movement. It is, apart from patriotic motives, a clever stroke by the leaders of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. They have seized a glorious opportunity for women to show what they can do, if properly organised and if allowed to compete with men in spheres hitherto closed to them by law and prejudice.
Between 1916 and 1918 unprecedented numbers of women were working in occupations that would have been unthinkable for them in pre-war Edwardian society – gamekeepers, coal-heavers, road sweepers, railway porters and shipyard rivetters. The shells scandal brought about an unprecedented and revolutionary evaluation of women’s labour and its value, and The enormous transformation of British industry that followed depended…on women, not only to take the place of men but to do jobs that men had never even be asked to do in such numbers before. (Zeppelin Nights p101). The greatest impact of all the many extensions of women’s labour in the war years was most famously, of course, as munitions workers.
The terms “munitions did not just refer to the manufacture of shells but if a job involved “feeding the guns” of the war effort then it could be termed munitions work – but the largest number of women were employed in the manufacture of explosives, shells and ammunition. Existing factories were enlarged and “superfactories” were built, the largest being at Gretna where manufacture started in April 1916. Gretna was so big it stretched for 12 miles and included two towns for the workers, four massive productions sites, its own telephone exchange, power station and railway system to carry the workers to and from the factories. By 1917 it employed over eleven thousand women.
As munitions factories began to fill up with female workers, 400,000 women left domestic service to become “munitionettes”, attracted by the comparatively high wages. As with the men who joined the army, women went into munitions for a variety of reasons, not always patriotic. Despite the high flown rhetoric and sentiments of The Home Service Review (Women! Remember who you are. Remember that they eyes of a nation are upon you….remember that you are helping to write the greatest page in the history of Womanhood!) money was as powerful an incentive as patriotism for some, while for others anything was better than the myriad petty indignities of being in service. Before the war some 1.7 million women were domestic servants, more than worked in any other occupation. For these women war work was a revelation. Even the low wages were higher than they had ever earned before and they had more independence than live-in servants ever experienced. Ethel Dean left her job in domestic service to work in a munitions factory at Woolwich Arsenal in London and relished the freedom the job gave her. “When you were in service you couldn’t go out when you liked. When you work in the factories you’ve got your own time, haven’t you? You just go home of a night, wherever you live, and you can go out when you like.”
For some it was a reaction to grief. In the time of dogs and novels, tennis rackets and golf, and sometimes even a spare hour spent with our babies, we talked of munitions as we had talked before of the North Pole. The papers spoke of shells and tool-setters, of enormous wages and cheery canteens, happy hostels and gay girl-workers, but how one found the key to this useful wonderland we knew not….when the dreaded telegram came at last, and everything was grey and bitter, we…made our way to the lowest level – the gates of the nearest ammunition factory…a scrubby little man with a grimy collar smote a grimier fist on the grimiest of palms….”Fifteen shillin’s a week and a war bonus: hours 6 to2, 2 to 10 or 10 to 6. Them’s the facts. It’s for you to choose.”
Like new recruits to Kitchener’s army, new munitions workers were required to give their ages as this affected their eligibility for dangerous work and extra pay, but years were added on without too much fear of detection. Basic education – all most women had anyway thanks to deep-rooted prejudice that education was damaging to the female brain – and physical fitness was enough. The majority of women were working class and lower middle class – nice middle and upper class girls tended to go into nursing or women’s services – but there were exceptions. At the Vickers factory in Erith a number of titled ladies took to the production line and one diarist working in a factory remarked that the few really shabby ones are popularly supposed to be peeresses. Whether that is so or not it is certain that persons with glittering handles to their names have occasionally entered our ranks. However, mostly the upper and middle classes stayed away from industry, preferring to do their war work as nurses, ambulance drivers, clerks, running hospitals and doing a myriad volunteering roles.
It didn’t always go easily for the new workers. Some men did all they could to discourage them – giving wrong or incomplete orders or refusing to help to mend broken machinery; and for many women the new world of machinery was frightening. Women knew that they were suspected of driving down wages and taking male jobs. On the other hand there was genuine help to negotiate this new unfamiliar world – I have a copy of a booklet entitled “Shell Turning for Munitions Workers” that says in the preface The great majority of these workers have not even an elementary knowledge of engineering…the authors have therefore provided them with some elementary instruction to assist them when they get to work in increasing the output of munitions.
General reactions to women taking over the work of men was varied, from official encouragement to outrage, but tempered by the acknowledgement that it was only for the duration of the war. Many comforted themselves that once the war was over then women would be slotting back into their accustomed pre-war roles and status, while ignoring that women had been a sizeable part of the workforce before the war, that they had always worked in the home and on the land – and that a good deal of that work had been hard, physically demanding and often unpaid.
The process of putting women into jobs previously filled by men was known as substitution, and unions had accepted the necessity for women in factories to deal with the manpower shortages as long as they were not paid at the same rate as men. Munitions was the biggest single employer of British women in substituted roles and was controlled by the Munitions of War Act of July 1915. The act gave the government wide ranging powers to manage the way the munitions industry was run and to impose strict rules for the employment of the workforce, such as setting a limit on profits and outlawing strikes: and making it a penal offence for a worker to leave his or her job at a controlled establishment such as a munitions factory without the consent of the employer. In the negotiations leading up to the 1915‘Treasury Agreement’ with trade unions and manufacturers that allowed women into men’s jobs, it was set out that to protect post-war male wages a woman doing the same job as a man should be paid at the same rate. The famous circular ‘L.2’, which set out the levels of pay and working conditions for female dilutees in munitions works with its promise of ‘equal pay for equal work’ was issued in October 1915.
Although the circular and the Munitions of War Act gave the government the ability to enforce equal wages in controlled trades, and set a minimum weekly rate of 20 shillings* for women doing skilled ‘male’ work, employers often circumnavigated the edict. ‘Male’ jobs were often ‘diluted’ (broken down into multiple processes) to avoid being labelled ‘equal work’ and to prevent women taking them over and hence undermining pay rates once the war was over – and while 20 shillings was a minimum, it came to be interpreted as a standard. Even if they were paid less than men the wages women could expect for working in munitions were far greater than anything they had earned before the war- from £6 (120s.) to as much as £10 (200s.) or £20 (400s.) per week.
For that money, however, it was usual to submit to stringent safety checks before going on shift, then work an eight to twelve hour shift, with one and a half hours for meal breaks and Sunday the only day off, while lateness and missed days resulted in hefty fines. (Although it’s not as if women, particularly working class women, had been leading easy, work free lives prior to August 1914. Most people worked long hours before the war – a girl in domestic service would get one half day off a week and one full day a month and might work eighteen hours a day and there were no labour saving devices. Women, whether in the home or at work, were no strangers to ceaseless, thankless grindingly hard work). The work was physically demanding – to and fro…carrying each time two shells…two for the machine and two finished from the machine. My head ached, my shoulders swelled, and the muscles in my calves felt lacerated. On and on till, unable to bear it any longer, I leant, utterly exhausted, against a pile of boxes…..’Gawd! Said Louie. ‘You ain’t half soft!’
The uniform consisted of a pair of wooden soled clogs, with slippers or gumboots for those working in the most critical areas, and a “National Shell Overall”, which was a drawstring cap and a flame retardant canvas or twill overall with a belted waist. No metal could be worn in the munitions factories so this meant no corsets, and long hair could get caught in machines so women started wearing it short. To allow women to work more easily – floor length skirts and petticoats were not conducive to rolling heavy shells around a filthy, greasy-floored munitions factory – the outfit was soon supplemented with trousers, something no woman would have dreamed of wearing before the war. Trousers became a badge of honour to be worn proudly and mark out the wearer as a munitionette. Women working in male domains were a challenge to notions of conventional feminine behaviour, but the need for female labour and the wide representation in the press of trouser wearing ‘munitionettes’ became a recognisable mark of their industry and contribution to the war effort, even though it aroused unease to see women in such distinctively masculine attire. Some French women munition workers visiting munitions factories were so impressed with what they called ‘neat and commonsense trouser’ worn by the workers that they took samples back to France.
As Adie says ‘If any single image caught the eye of the public, it was…trousers, modestly part-concealed below a tunic. ‘Disgusting’ was a much used description.‘ But as she also goes on to say, trousers for munition workers signified something more serious than the frivolity of mere fashion and women aping males. Trousers were smart and comfortable and they were deeply practical for women doing men’s work and as such were influential in marking an increased emancipation for those who wore them. As Adie concludes -‘their monarch might be horrified, their mother might be upset and the maids’ former employers might fear for their morals, but trousers had arrived.’
And not just trousers. Munition workers were now a vital economic resource for as long as the war lasted, and some interest was taken in keeping them fit and healthy enough to work under intense physical and mental pressure. The concern was much more geared to production than any innate sense of responsibility for the welfare of the workers as individuals, but canteens were provided, supplying plain but nourishing food. Some of the lady supervisors in factories noted that women were completely unused to being served plenty of food and having time to eat it – this was a society that took for granted that if money was tight, the greater share of food on the table went to the man of the house and then the children, and as a result some women were seriously undernourished. Then they began to realise that sitting down together, this could be a pleasurable time…the canteen was a revelation. Being together. Food and gossip. New friends and fun. All reinforced by a shared sense of doing a job that was valued, however dirty and tedious it might be. (Adie, p147).
While clothing had to be unadorned and jewellery – even hairpins – was strictly forbidden under pain of a 28 day prison sentence and summary dismissal, a variety of small nuances in dress created little islands of individualism and asserted femininity. A posy of flowers in a shell casing at a bench, brightly coloured ribbons instead of shoelaces, or a lace edging to an overall. Elizabeth Gore’s mother worked at Woolwich Arsenal:
My father…when there was a scramble for the seats on upper decks of the trams…said they were the toughest bunch of girls he had ever come across. But mother…admired their gaiety and fortitude and their bright conversation. Everything about the Arsenal tended towards drabness and monotony – the work, the clothes, the long hours, but the girls strove to introduce a touch of variety and even frivolity…the first fashion touch was a posy pinned to the gown, every shop having its own emblem. As these were confiscated during working hours, someone got the idea of substituting bright coloured ribbons for the government shoe laces. First the ‘cap shop’ girls…with emerald green ribbons in their shoes, the ‘new fuse’ girls followed with yellow and soon the whole Arsenal was in the fashion.
Given the nature of the work death was never far away in a munitions factory, where the atmosphere was noxious with toxic fumes. During the war 61 women died of poisoning, 400 from over-exposure to TNT and 71 were killed as a result of explosions. There were stringent precautions against anything that could cause a spark – things like matches, tobacco, hairgrips and corset clasps were banned and workers would be searched for them, yet safety measures were primitive, with little protective clothing. Photographs of munitions factories show women handling shells, working machinery and packing cartridges while dressed in their National Shell Overall and little else – no ear defenders, no goggles, no hard hats, but this was a time when heavy industry was accepted as dangerous or risky. ‘Health and safety’ and caring for the well being of employees only gradually became accepted as a way to get the best out of workers who were being called on to make superhuman efforts.
Part 2 continues here
On 30 June and 1 July, the Queen and members of the royal family took part in events to observe the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. It was telling that the Queen and Duchess of Cambridge were both in grey and white while the Duchesses of Cornwall and Gloucester were in navy blue. The clothes worn by the royal women were respectful but not sombre, the colours being a dignified choice for the solemnity of the occasion. The choice of colours was redolent of half-mourning, a custom that disappeared with the end of the First World War: with only women of a certain generation and the Royal Family observing a variation of this mourning etiquette.
When we think of women in mourning, the first person that comes to mind is Queen Victoria after 1861 when on the death of her husband Prince Albert; she went into prolonged mourning and wore black in his memory until her own death in 1901. By the time of the Prince’s death in 1861, the standards and etiquette of mourning which originated from the observation of court mourning in previous centuries had already been established, but Queen Victoria’s own mourning for her husband was echoed by the widespread observation of mourning etiquette by almost all classes high and low.
Fashion, clothing and etiquette
As Jessica Regan observed in her 2014 lecture, Women in Black: Fashioning Mourning in the 19th century, mourning rituals reached its peak in the 19th century as fashion became aligned with mourning and the resulting elaborate mourning codes became widespread in society. A number of factors contributed to this; first, high mortality rates were still prevalent during this period, the expansion of the middle class and finally the development of the retail sector and advances in technology meant that the use and production of black fabric became much more widespread than in the past.
The use of black is one of the most highly visible of the ritual of mourning with regards to clothing. In the past, black was not the exclusive colour for mourning; other colours such as brown, grey and dark blue and even white were also used while black was mostly used by religious orders to depict sobriety and their renunciation of the world. However by the 19th century, black became the norm for mourning, the colour speaking of the “desolation within” as well as a sign of the deprivation of a life. Additionally, black as the opposite of light represented the analogy of death as darkness extinguishing the light of life.
As photographs, illustrations and accounts of the period show, mourning was also a social ritual. It was seen as a sign of respect, suffering a loss that should be honoured and those feelings being matched by the sobriety of the garment being worn. It was also seen as a burden as several surviving letters and diary entries of the period showed, many women found having to don mourning as an inconvenience especially as for a set amount of time they could not wear any coloured clothes or take part in society.
Mourning rituals were precisely and minutely calibrated and defined: and breaches or perceived breaches of the code were looked at very much askance. For the first few weeks after a bereavement the family remained secluded, while letters telling of the death were written by a family member on black-edged paper and sent in a black-edged envelope, the thickness of the borders being indicative of the social position of the deceased, his or her relationship to the letter writer and the time that had elapsed since the death. Thick black borders indicated a recent death, narrow ones a sign that time had passed and the family was ready to resume their ordinary way of life.
However mourning was also a useful mean of articulating that sense of loss and for some it became a central part of their image. This is especially the case with Queen Victoria through the dissemination of the image of the “widow of Windsor” in photographs, paintings, drawings and engravings. Mourning became that key aspect of her identity and the clothes worn were both seen as a manifestation of middle class respectability.
It was women who bore the brunt of mourning especially if they were widowed. Widowers, because of work and duties outside the house were expected to go back into society quickly, with their only sign of bereavement being a black tie, black arm- or hatband, but it was very different for women. As Lou Taylor in her book Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History wrote:
Women were bound by the labyrinth of mourning dress etiquette for a much longer period than their menfolk. They were burdened with the duty of wearing depressing, and often in their eyes, ugly clothes for many years of their lives, whereas the men, once the funeral was over, needed only to wear an armband. The difference is symbolic of the whole social position of women in the second half of the nineteenth century. Women were used, albeit willingly and even eagerly by most, as a show piece, to display their family’s total respectability, sense of conformity and wealth. Amongst the ‘respectable’ classes, the whole way of life of women was built on these foundations and with these goals in mind. Mourning dress was perhaps still the most perfect vehicle for this purpose as it had been in the past.” (pp. 135-6).
Women in mourning in fact were as much the outward manifestation of a family’s status and conformity to social norms and demands as a carriage and horses, servants and household decoration. It was harder for female courtiers, those who attended to members of the royal family as ladies-in-waiting because not only did they have to observe mourning for a family member who died but also to observe court mourning. After Prince Albert’s death, Queen Victoria decreed that everyone in the household had to appear in full mourning while on duty for two years and although official mourning for the Prince ended in 1863, women at court still had their wardrobes dictated by the Queen. Many of the ladies in waiting were older women or widows who had experienced multiple bereavements and were well versed to cope with the Queen’s demands however it was harder for the maids of honour – young, unmarried women not yet accustomed to the rigid customs of mourning. As a concession, she permitted them to wear half mourning colours such as white, grey, purple, mauve except during official court mourning for a member of the royal family whether here or abroad, when they had to wear all back with jet jewellery.
Mourning rituals, etiquette and dress became more elaborate by the middle of the 19th century. The period of mourning lengthened and even the most distant relatives were also mourned and magazines and journals were on hand to offer advice as the more elaborate the etiquette had become the more likely a faux pas would be committed. Mourning warehouses and factories that specialised in mourning fabrics also flourished. Courtaulds for instance published a leaflet entitled Notes on Fashionable Mourning which was a summary of advice given by leading women’s magazines of the period such as Queen, Gentlewoman, The Lady, Lady’s Pictorial and Ladies Year Book. The magazines could not agree on the precise length of mourning but the overall agreement was that at least there should be a respectable length and in the end it was up to the individual depending on their circumstances and personal taste as well as to navigate the balance between fashion and respect.
A general consensus however emerged and this was with regards to the stages of mourning that the family especially the women observed. Mourning was a universally understood signal with accepted gradations (‘first mourning’ ‘second mourning’ ‘ordinary mourning’ ‘half mourning’) that meant outsiders could observe the bereaved and see from the depths of the mourning being worn how recent the bereavement was, the relation of the deceased to the mourners and that they needed to be treated with gentleness and consideration. During the first stage of mourning which lasted for a year and a day (‘deepest’ or ‘first mourning’), a woman must wear a paramatta or bombazine dress and mantle with crape applied to the skirt. Cuffs and collars were made out of lawn and the rest of the dress (the bodice) was made out of crape. The bonnet should be made entirely out of crape; inside should be a widow’s cap with a crape veil. By the second stage which lasted nine months, duller black silk fabrics were permitted and widows were allowed to divest their dress of some of their crape, although not all, in order not to appear to have recovered too quickly. Crape could be restricted to trimming into dresses, capes and bonnets; then after six months widows could lessen the crape still further and the cloth could be recycled through other means particularly as trimmings for hats or dresses.
During the third stage which lasted for three months, crape was finally abandoned and silk or satin trimmed with ribbons, lace, jet and embroidery were permitted. Finally after two years of mourning, half mourning was permitted and could last from 6 months to a lifetime. They consisted of the latest fashions but in colours such as white, grey, soft mauves, violets, pansies, purple and lilacs.
Mourning also extended into underwear and accessories such as parasols, shawls, gloves and handbags. Underwear and handkerchiefs were trimmed with black ribbon or black border. Hats were also in black with a veil and a widow’s cap underneath trimmed with black crape. By the 1890s the custom of wearing a veil over the face for the full year of deepest mourning was dying out. “Mary Stuart” widows caps as helped popularised by the Empress Victoria of Germany also became ubiquitous in the 1890s.
The strict prescription and the style of dress also reinforced the widow’s social ostracism, she could not go out into society for a year and it was considered poor form to accept invitations or appear in public, and calls were paid only by relations and very close friends. It was only in the second year could the widow resume any semblance of social life and even then, the widow could be seen both as an object of pity and a threat – the former because of the sense of loss and loneliness as a result and the latter because she was legally free to remarry or not as well as seen as much more sexually experienced. Hence the “woman in black” was seen both as a tragic figure and a temptress.
A widow emerging from her first mourning also had to reassess her position in the world – she might well have lost both her income and her social status with her husband, and women who remarried were regarded with faint distaste as being unfaithful to the memory of their husbands, which was regarded as almost as bad as physical infidelity and was not immune from severe censure. The fiance of Lord Tennyson’s sister Emily died before they could be married and eight years later she became engaged again, to the considerable shock of her first fiance’s cousin.
Only conceive, Emily Tennyson is actually going to be married…can you conceive of anyone who he (Arthur Hallam, the dead fiance) had loved, putting up with another? I feel so distressed about this, really it quite hurts me. I had such a romantic admiration for her, looked at her with such pity, and now my feeling about her is bouleverséd.
Etiquette for the rest of the family was less strict. For children and parents, a year was all that was required. Crape was required for the first six months then gradually plain black could be worn and finally half mourning. The family was obliged to retire from society for two months. Mourning for grandparents lasted six to nine months; two months in silk with crape, two in black without crape and two in half mourning.
Siblings were mourned for six months (three in crape, two in black & one in half mourning); uncles and aunts for six weeks to two months. For great uncles and aunts six weeks (three in black, three in half mourning) sufficed while the mourning period for first and second cousins were four and three weeks respectively. Crape was not necessary for relatives and relations by marriage were mourned in the same degree as blood relations. John Morley observed that the mourning etiquette and the degrees by which family members are mourned “points a curious feature of the highly formalised mourning of Victorian society – it founded its rules firmly on the institution of the family, that sacred focus of Victorian life.” Mourning codes – what to wear and for how long – were prescribed for each and every family and social relationship, even distant relatives and ‘connections,’ such as mourning by parents for the parents of a child’s spouse or the second wife for the parents of a first wife.
The widespread observation of mourning and its formalised etiquette was aided and abetted by advances in technology such as the production of textiles, dyeing techniques and the discovery and introduction of aniline dyes in the 1850s that made shades such as mauve, lilac and violet prevalent and popular. The fabric most associated with mourning was crape, a mix of matt silk and cotton whose crimped appearance resembled crepe paper. Other fabrics used for mourning attire included bombazine, a mix of silk and cotton is a type of fabric made in Norwich, while paramatta, which was a cotton wool blend, was a cheaper alternative to crape and bombazine.
Because crape was the fabric prescribed especially for the first stage of mourning, there was huge demand for the fabric and Courtaulds a textile firm specialising in silk ended up monopolising production. Apart from pure crape, Courtaulds began to introduce cheaper alternatives such as “Albert” crape, a mix of cotton and crape which was first produced in the 1870s and seen as an inferior and coarser fabric than pure crape.
Because of the etiquette surrounding mourning, apart from the reams of advice in magazines and the fashions adapted to mourning featured’ it became an industry. There was the growth of “mourning warehouses”, the most famous being Jay’s Mourning Warehouse at 247-249 Regent Street. It was the biggest in London and catered to a diverse clientele – high and low, rich and poor and even held a royal warrant as providers to Her Majesty the Queen and the royal household. Other warehouses included Pugh’s Mourning Warehouse, Peter Robinson’s “Court and General Mourning Warehouse”, Nicholson’s “Argyle General Mourning and Mantle Warehouse” – all in Regent Street. Mourning Warehouses provided convenience and shopping for mourning wear, accessories and other assorted paraphernalia under one roof. They could also provide home delivery services when required and the warehouses were staffed by assistants knowledgeable in the rituals surrounding mourning. For those who lived outside huge cities, warehouses also published catalogues allowing a wider reach than simply confining their business in places such as London or Manchester.
Mourning warehouses also specialised in clothing that while conforming to mourning etiquette also displayed the latest fashions. For instance Jay’s would present clothes in the latest styles with elaborate descriptions and illustrations. As contemporary illustrations and descriptions would show, a death need not interrupt following the latest style and fashion as well as develop the ability to strike a balance between fashion and respect.
For the women who could afford it the permutations were endless. Those lower down the scale had to attempt to obey the rules laid down by the more prosperous – either a mourning dress was bought or made or if that was not possible, dyeing a dress already in wear was a less expensive solution. Most of the working class could only make a token gesture towards mourning.
Observation of mourning etiquette also extended to jewellery. Coloured stones and jewels were frowned upon during the mourning period and just as the colour of the clothes denoted at what stage the person was during the mourning period, the jewellery worn also provided the same function.
During the first two years of mourning, jet – a type of hard coal, lignite and probably formed from driftwood was the only acceptable material for jewellery to be worn especially during the period of deepest mourning. The hardest and best quality natural jet came from Whitby in Yorkshire where they could be carved and moulded into elaborate jewels. Spanish jet was too soft for fine work and hence considered to be inferior to that from Whitby.
Jet was first used for mourning jewellery for court mourning for William IV then reached its peak in the mid-19th century. It was fashioned into earrings, necklaces, brooches, hair clips and hair combs, bracelets and lockets; and demand for the material reached its peak in the 1870s but by the 1880s demand slowed due to shortages of the best quality hard jet and competition from cheaper jet and man-made ones such as French jet which was made from dark glass and jet waste combined with rubber to make a mouldable compound. There was also vulcanite, (an early form of plastic which was much more affordable but prolonged exposure to sun caused any jewellery made of vulcanite to turn brown) as well as bois durci – a combination of hardwood, sawdust, blood and albumen mixed with binding and colourised agents which could be moulded by machine. Other alternatives included stained horn and Irish bog-oak which were mostly used by the lower middle and working classes.
By the second year black and white stones and material were permitted such as black onyx, black enamel, pearls, diamonds, cut steel and ivory. For half mourning, amethysts were a popular gemstone as were pearls and diamonds. Pearls were an interesting choice especially because of its redolent symbolism. As Beatriz Chadour-Sampson noted: “The cycle of life was marked by jewellery, and pearls were significant in the symbolism of childhood, marriage and death……black pearls featured on many of the mourning jewels that Victoria commissioned after Albert’s death in 1861 to give to her extensive family, confidantes and members of her household.” An example of this is a memorial pendant locket with a photograph of Prince Albert surmounted by a gold crown studded with small pearls and a black pearl at the base made by Garrard & Co in 1862 and now in the collection of the British Museum. Queen Victoria herself until the end of her life always wore diamonds and pearls with the latter sending out a clear message – pearls could be seen as “tears” and spoke of her continuing grief and anguish at the loss of her beloved Albert.
From the 18th century onwards, memorial jewellery in the form of brooches, pins, pendants and lockets became popular. They would be emblazoned with a portrait of the deceased or their name and year of birth and death or a lock of their hair. They use of symbolisms was also popular such as the cross; holly and thorns for the passion of Jesus; oak for strength and enduring love; the empty acorn cup which denoted the inevitable end of love and forget-me-nots.
Lockets described as the “most enduring and charming of mementoes” where a photograph or a lock of hair could be placed were one of the most widespread jewels and common amongst all classes. Their commemorative nature made them ideal jewels to mark important occasions such a birth, coming of age, engagement, marriage and death. For mourning they were made out of black enamel or carved from dark onyx or jet and could be studded with diamonds or pearls. Outside they could be plain or decorated with the person’s initials or the words “In Memory” or symbols such as the cross. These could be worn as pendants suspended from a chain around the neck or attached to bracelets.
The end of Victorian mourning etiquette and rituals
Even as early as the mid-19th century, there was already criticism about the excesses of mourning rituals and etiquette with the likes of Charles Dickens satirising these customs in his novels and William Morris refusing to bow to the conventions of the day by insisting on a simpler funeral and a shorter mourning period to be observed by his family. Critics felt that these mourning customs was too much, over the top and smacked of one upmanship. There was also condemnation about the lack of sincerity demonstrated by some women whose mourning clothes were too fashionable while others noted that since women bore the greatest burden of mourning, the strict codes and etiquette reinforced their subordinate status in society.
In addition there was the prohibitive cost of observing mourning rituals where families could go into debt over the cost of the funeral, having memorial objects made and the wardrobe that women especially needed during this period.
By the 1890s there was the beginning of a gradual retreat from the mourning customs of decades past. Women began to wear the mourning veil over the face only during the funeral while the Princess of Wales refused to wear crape to observe the mourning for her oldest son the Duke of Clarence when he died in 1892: and Princess Louise Duchess of Argyll did not wear crape either on the death of her mother Queen Victoria in 1901. The new king, Edward VII also decreed that court mourning would only be observed for three months and that “decent” rather than “deepest” mourning was to be worn.
When King Edward VII died in 1910, official court mourning was only for a month. It coincided with the London Season hence it became known as the “Black Season” and the famous 1910 Ascot races where instead of the showy dresses and hats of previous years, race goers were dressed in black from head to toe was dubbed “Black Ascot”.
However, what would hasten and cause the major breakdown in funeral and mourning etiquette was the First World War. Despite the huge number of deaths, not many women resorted to the customs of the past which had been in retreat even after 1901. As Lou Taylor again observed:
It was partly a question of morale, both for the troops on leave from the trenches and the public at large remaining at home. The sight of millions of women of all ages shrouded in crape would have been too much to bear. As made clear by Lady Duff Gordon, a great many women of every class were involved in war work and were far too busy to retire into periods of seclusion demanded by the old etiquette of mourning. As well as running charity and nursing organisations, women were taking on every kind of job left unmanned by the departing troops….the fashion magazines continued to give their sartorial advice but they commented frequently on the changes so evident in society. (pp.267-8)
During the early years of the war, there were some who continued to follow the mourning customs of the past but as the conflict dragged on and the losses mounted, the public began to see omnipresent black mourning as lowering morale for both the troops and civilians. Fabric shortages also meant that it became more expensive to order a full wardrobe of mourning attire and even dyeing proved to be costly. Crucially as well from 1910, there was a fashion for black clothing that had nothing to do with mourning, pre-war designers such as Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon) offered dresses and gowns in black then during the war, black dresses were worn for elegance, for office work or for the uniforms worn by women taking on male work such as being bus conductors and police constables. In the 1920s, this would be taken on further by Coco Chanel with her “little black dress” and even to this day, black is seen as both a practical and elegant choice for everyday wear.
White also became an increasingly becoming an alternative to black for mourning. This echoed the custom of medieval and Renaissance royal women wearing white clothing as well as countries in Asia such as China, Japan and Korea where white was traditionally the colour of mourning instead of black.
Increasingly, a number of women attempted to find alternative to traditional mourning attire such as wearing purple armbands or a sort of memorial pins or badges. It was, as Lou Taylor noted, to find “another way of showing that they mourned their menfolk who had not died in the normal way but had died for their country. It was perhaps an attempt to rationalise and cope with the deaths – a way of making the sacrifice and loss more bearable, and demonstrating that the deaths had not been in vain nor the lives of loved ones wasted.” (p. 269)
After the war, despite the determination to return women to their pre-war world of children, church and kitchen many women remained in employment and there was certainly more opportunity for them not only for gainful employment but to pursue sports and hobbies that had been denied to them and enter university and male dominated professions. There was certainly no way back for the mourning customs of the Victorian era and even the wearing of mourning jewellery died out by the end of WW1 where less and less memorial jewellery was being made.
However, some women during and after the First World War clung on to the mourning etiquette of the past with regards to clothes. While there were some who wore black for the rest of their lives others never emerged from half-mourning – seeing it as less aggressive than full on black but nonetheless seen as a tribute to a life lost and a mark of continuing affection for the deceased. For instance in Downton Abbey, from series 4 onwards, Cora is always almost seen in half mourning for her youngest daughter Sybil who died in childbirth. As mentioned earlier, mourning was a universally understood signal by which people showed what stage of the mourning process they had reached and that they needed to be treated with gentleness and consideration. Cora in this way sends a strong signal by way of mourning protocol to her husband Robert (and of course anyone else who knows the rules) as there are more than enough indications that she has neither wholly forgiven him nor forgotten what she thought was the role he played in their daughter’s death.
Further reading and viewing:
Helen Rappaport. Magnificent Obsession (London, 2012)
Nina Edwards. Dressed for War (London, 2015)
Beatriz Chadour-Sampson. Pearls (London, 2013)
Clare Phillips. Jewels and Jewellery (London, 2008)
John Morley. Death, Heaven and the Victorians (London, 1971)
Kay Staniland. In Royal Fashion (London, 1997)
Charlotte Gere & Judy Rudoe. Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria (London, 2010)
Lou Taylor. Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History (London, 1983)
Judith Flanders. The Victorian House (London 2003)
Kate Hubbard. Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household (London, 2013)
Cassie Davis-Strodder, Jenny Lister & Lou Taylor. London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank (London, 2015)
David Cannadine. ‘War and Death, Grief and Mourning in Modern Britain’ in Joachim Whaley (ed.) Mirrors of Mortality: Studies in the Social History of Death (London, 1981) pp. 187-242
Jessica Regan. Women in Black: Fashioning Mourning in the 19th century (Metropolitan Museum of Art New York lecture) – http://www.metmuseum.org/metmedia/video/lectures/women-in-black
As March was Women’s History month, we have decided to observe it by shining the spotlight on Margaret Bondfield, who is virtually unheard of today but made history in 1929 by becoming the first woman cabinet minister and privy counsellor. In an era where social mobility is seen to be grinding to a halt and sectors such as media, publishing, acting, modelling and politics are becoming nepotistic and resemble Third World banana republic cliques, it’s easy to forget that once upon a time the barriers were even higher and the odds were greater against someone with disadvantages succeeding in life.
And yet, Margaret Bondfield in her indomitable and determined way battled through both gender and class barriers, rising beyond her working class roots and the limitations imposed on women by society. She was born on 17 March 1873 in Chard, Somerset to a lace maker father and the daughter of a Congregational minister. Her father had progressive views and a strong social conscience, something that he passed on to his children especially to young Margaret and after leaving school and spending a year as a pupil-teacher, she moved to Brighton for better employment opportunities.
Bondfield found work in a succession of drapery stores in Brighton and her impressions of these shops were mixed. Overall she noted the poor working conditions, the long hours (sometimes 80 hours in a week), indifferent employers and the lack of privacy due to the system of “living in” where shop assistants, like those in service were given board and lodging by their employers. Later she moved to London to join her brother who had found employment in the capital, and while there was more work for an experienced shop assistant like her, she found that the conditions were no better than in Brighton.
Her own political views were shaped by various factors: among them her experience in working in the retail sector, her strong Christian faith and her association with people who held progressive views. The first of these was Louisa Martindale, the daughter of a local businessman who met Bondfield while being served at the shop where the latter worked. Martindale lent Bondfield several books on the labour question and years later a grateful Bondfield credited Martindale as a great influence in her life.
As a shop assistant in London, she joined and became an active member of the National Amalgamated Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen, and Clerks (NUSAWC) which led her to meeting the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb Through their influence, Bondfield both joined the Trades Unions Congress (TUC) and the Independent Labour Party (ILP).
When Bondfield joined the NUSAWC, shop assistants comprised a small portion of the union and it was part of her work to inform fellow shop workers of the benefits of union membership. However, her attempts over all were not really successful as it was an uphill battle trying to convince workers to join a union. Many shop owners decreed union membership to be a sackable offence and the long hours left little time for anything but work, much less social activism – and somewhat to her disgust, young women workers were more interested in their social and love lives. Furthermore, unions were male dominated and the majority of them didn’t want women as members so more women preferred to join co-operatives instead.
She also began writing a series of expose articles for the union journal under the pseudonym of “Grace Dare”. This investigative work continued when she joined the Women’s Industrial Council (WIC) and her reports became the basis of their study exposing unscrupulous employers, which was published in 1898, as well as the basis for her part in campaigning for better pay and conditions in the retail sector. Reformers had long been documenting abuses against those in the retail sector and campaigning for reforms but Bondfield’s exposés demonstrated how conditions and pay were still appalling despite some progress made in the field of employment legislation. It became clear that the war was far from over, but her time at the WIC and the report she helped produce led to pressure on Parliament to regulate shop work: leading to the 1899 Seats for Shop Workers Act and the 1904 Shop Hours Act to regulate trading hours.
Several of her exposes dwelt on what we would call today “health and safety” issues faced by shop workers as well as the practice of “living in”. In a report to the Royal Sanitary Institute Congress held in Glasgow in 1904 entitled The Effects on Health of Women’s Employment in Shops, Bondfield raised concerns about breaks only giving employees enough time for their meals and not much else such as getting fresh air. In addition, she also pointed out that dust was a constant problem and in shops that closed late, fumes from gas jets caused respiratory issues in the long term.
Finally there was clothing. Female shop assistants were hampered by their uniforms, which conformed to the fashions of their day with ankle length skirts and corsets, and presented problems due the nature of working in shops – not only serving customers and standing on their feet for long periods of time but also lifting and carrying of boxes and stock. As Bondfield wrote:
“In the matters of clothing there is great need for reform. The regulation dress of the shop assistant must be black (a most unserviceable colour) it must also be stylish. The skirt usually sweeps the floor, the undergarments afford no proper covering for the chest, the ‘fitting’ corset does its deadly work in preventing the proper expansion of the lungs, and the thin, cheap shoes afford no protection to the feet but rather aggravate the soreness and inflammation caused by dust, standing and lack of opportunity to properly bathe them.”
The other main target was the “living in” system where employees were provided with board and lodging by their employers. While this ostensibly meant that shop assistants could save money, the reality was different as the quality of homes depended on who was managing it. If the food served was of at least decent quality then a shop assistant was able to save money by only spending 6d to 1s 6d (between £1.08-3.28 in today’s money) for their breakfast and supper top ups. In houses that didn’t provide well-cooked or good food, a woman had to spend 3s to 5s (£6.46-10.77) per week on top ups which could eat into her salary which based on Bondfield’s estimates was only between 2 1/2d to 3 1/2d (between £86-129) per month.
Another alleged advantage to living in was the belief that it protected young people from moral danger but as they frequently lived far away from home and immediate dismissal meant they lost their accommodation as well and had very little cash on hand to find new lodgings. The lodgings themselves as Bondfield observed were deficient from a hygienic standpoint – air space varied from 500 to 700 cubic feet per person, fireplaces were blocked and windows at night were closed or only open half an inch so there was little to no ventilation. Washing accommodation was also limited and only in the best houses were bath rooms provided. So health and safety was not only an issue in the work place but even in the living quarters.
Bondfield’s main objection to the living in system crucially was that it infantilised the employee and prevented them from taking responsibility for their own lives and destinies. As she wrote in her autobiography A Life’s Work:
“The system robs the assistant, whether man or woman, of the sense of personal responsibility which is developed by ordering and controlling one’s own life. When out of employment the worker is at the same time homeless, with little or no cash, and without knowledge of the cost of living.
The herding together of large numbers of either sex, restricted as to the most ordinary intercourse with the opposite sex, creates an unnatural and vicious atmosphere which is morally dangerous to both men and women.
The surveillance of adults is humiliating and degrading to manhood and womanhood alike; they are hedged in with petty house rules after business hours, being compelled to go to bed to order, to extinguish the light to order and so forth.” (pp. 69-70)
Bondfield’s attack on the “living in” system was tied to her views on female suffrage. The suffrage movement of both suffragists and suffragettes attempted to appeal to the retail sector but as majority of retail employees were young and would not meet the property threshold, they would certainly be excluded if the vote was extended to women under the terms of the 1886 Reform Act. Bonfield’s view differed from that of the suffragists and suffragettes – it was her belief that the right to vote should be universal and be extended to all men and women regardless of wealth and property.
While Bondfield penned her exposes and also campaigned for universal suffrage, the movement against “living in” reached its turning point in 1907 when 24 workers staged a walk out at Daniels and Co, a drapers in Kentish Town, north London. The walk out became headline news and after 16 weeks, the management gave in, anxious not to lose staff to stores with better working conditions and practices. “Living-in” was gradually abolished for male workers but employers insisted on retaining it for female workers on the grounds that it protected their moral welfare. Bondfield retorted that if women were to become “useful, healthy women” and in time “healthy wives and mothers”, they needed, as a matter of urgency to “begin to live rational lives”. “Shopgirls didn’t need cosseting; they needed independence, shorter hours and better pay.”
The sometimes appalling conditions faced by female shop employees also made its way to the West End stage. Bondfield was asked to be a consultant to a play by Cicely Hamilton – Diana of Dobson’s. As Pamela Cox and Annabel Hobley noted, “In the first scene of Diana of Dobson’s, five shopgirls undress for bed above a Clapham drapery store. The curtain rises on a dormitory ‘in darkness except for the glimmer of a single gas jet turned very low’. As the jet is turned up, it reveals ‘a bare room [with] very little furniture except five small beds ranged against the walls – everything plain and comfortless to the last degree.’ According to Bondfield, ‘it was the real thing, with boxes under the bed, clothes hanging up on hooks, the general dinginess.’ Less real was stage heroine Diana’s temporary escape from her life as low paid shopgirl, courtesy of a surprise inheritance and a Swiss holiday adventure.” Nevertheless the play was a hit and did present to audiences of the trials and tribulations faced by the women who served them behind the counter of a shop.
Gradually “living in” for women was also abolished and there was some improvement to the pay and conditions for shop employees following the examples of enlightened employers and shops such as Harry Selfridge and John Lewis. Women finally won the right to vote in 1920 but it was only extended to women above the age of thirty and it would be another nine years before women were to be able to vote on the same terms as men.
In 1923, Bondfield was elected to Parliament but lost her seat when the Labour government collapsed the following year. Two years later, she returned to Parliament as MP for Wallsend via a by-election and in 1929 retained her seat. When Labour won a majority in the House of Commons in 1931, she made history by becoming the first female cabinet minister. Her appointment was headline news around the world and was also subject of lengthy profiles and newsreels. Coming off the heels of the Great Depression, Bondfield had no illusions about her position as she acknowledged that “[it] was no sinecure. The urgency, the difficulty, the complexity of the work puts this ministry high among those that require not only intelligence but courage; and this was particularly true at the juncture at which I took up office in 1929.” (p. 279)
She also saw that her appointment to the cabinet demonstrated how far women had come in her own lifetime. No longer were their only options to be wives and mothers but increasingly they could seek employment, go to university, enter professions that were once only the preserve of men and even become an MP and cabinet minister:
“When I accepted the Ministry of Labour, I did so knowing well it touched much more than merely my own self – it was part of the great revolution in the position of women which had taken place in my lifetime and which I had done something to help forward. Some woman was bound to be the first. That I should be was the accident of dates and events.” (p. 276-7)
Her appointment to the cabinet also meant that she was the first woman to be elevated to the Privy Council which allowed her to be styled “The Right Honourable”. Travelling to Windsor to be sworn in, Bondfield recalled that it was a highly significant day for her:
“The special train left Paddington at 10:30am. For the first time I began to enjoy the event. All the porters and travellers were so jolly and friendly – cheering, blowing whistles from the engines at the station as our train came through. At Windsor station I was at once taken charge of by a footman and put in a carriage to wait in solitary state while he hunter for my less easily identified companions. This gave the photographers and the crowd a chance to be nicely personal. The drive in the State carriages through cheering crowds to the Castle was delightful: such a lovely setting.
On arrival we immediately rehearsed under the direction of Hankey, who looked the most worried person; but with very little delay the Lord President and the PM were given audience, and the rest of us formed a horseshoe line, with myself at the end of the line. The Lord President then called the names of the five new members, who advanced together to about two yards of the King, knelt on right knee and took the oath of allegiance by holding the brand-new red Testament (presented for permanent retention to each one) while Hankey read the declaration. Then, in turn, each went forward to kneel on King George V’s footstool holding out the right arm. The King placed his hand upon it to be kissed. Why my turn came, he broke the customary silence to say:
“I am pleased to be the one to whom has come the opportunity to receive the first woman Privy Councillor.”
He smile as he spoke was cordial and sincere. My colleagues as I were very pleased that HM noted the precedent so amiably. We then had the ceremonial handshake, which begins at the top and goes around the line, and retired to the room where the Lord President received the oath of office from the new Cabinet Ministers. Light refreshments were served to a buffet, and then we went back to 10 Downing Street for an informal Cabinet Meeting. Sir Maurice Hankey said that everything had gone perfectly.” (pp. 277-8)
As mentioned earlier, Bondfield did not have any illusions about her position. She soon found herself confronted with the problem of unemployment and was forced to make unpopular decisions which she based on fact rather than sectional interests in order to confront the issue: especially with regards to moves to distinguish between those who were genuinely unemployed and a seeking work while those who were unwilling to do so. In 1931, the Labour government collapsed and was replaced by a National government. Bondfield lost her seat and from 1932 until her death in 1953 was not re-elected to Parliament but remained active in the trade union movement with emphasis on the plight of women workers.
Bondfield was part of the generation of trade unionists and Liberal-Labour MPs whose beliefs were rooted in a strong Christian faith, politically liberal and pragmatic when it came to policy. She was also strongly conservative (with a small c) in her beliefs which is a hallmark of working class identity. She was of the view that women should be able to take on a more active role in society in order to become fully-fledged citizens. Although she did not marry and have children herself she believed that motherhood wasn’t simply staying at home to raise children and keep the household in order but that it played an important role in the development of the nation and society. As a trade unionist and MP, Bondfield herself met and spoke to mothers of all classes high and low about which she later wrote:
“This experience deepened my reverence for motherhood, and strengthened the conviction which I have always had, that, whatever else a woman may do (and I would not bar her from any form of service), her highest contribution to civilisation will be in the quality of motherhood and of the influence with which she surrounds the young life.
All of us who are called to do public work must strive to give the home-maker the help she needs from the community and in the equipment of her workshop – the home, so that she, too, will have her quota of leisure, and exercise her share of civic responsibility as a well-informed citizen.” (p. 24)
When Bondfield wrote her autobiography in 1948, her aim was not to celebrate her own achievements but she hoped that her experiences “may be of some service to the younger generation who would grow up in a new order of society which they can help to build.” Despite her years of service to the Labour party, Bondfield has not been highly regarded within it – her willingness to contemplate cuts to unemployment benefit while serving in the National Government of 1931 alienated her from many in the party, although her funeral was attended by Clement Attlee, the then leader of the Labour party.
Photo of Margaret Bondfield:
Margaret Bondfield. A Life’s Work (London, 1948)
Margaret Bondfield. What Life Has Taught Me (London, 1948)
Margaret Bondfield. The Effects on Health of Women’s Employment in Shops (Royal Sanitary Institute Congress, Glasgow 1904)
Margaret G. Bondfeld and Kathlyn Oliver. Shop Workers and the Vote and Domestic Servants and Citizenship (London, 1911)
Pamela Cox and Annabel Hobley. Shopgirls: The True Story of Life Behind the Counter (London, 2014)
Eugenio F. Biagini and Alastair J. Reid. “Currents of Radicalism, 1850-1914” in Eugenio F. Biagini and Alastair J. Reid (eds) Currents of Radicalism: Popular radicalism, organised labour and party politics in Britain, 1850-1914 (Cambridge, 1991) pp. 1-19
Matthew Worley (ed). The Foundations of the British Labour Party: Identities, Cultures and Perspectives (Surrey, 2009)