Wiltshire at War: Community Stories is a five year Heritage Lottery Funded project, aiming to discover, explore and share stories about Wiltshire’s response to the First World War. Since 2014 we’ve travelled the county collecting stories of the amazing men and women who were affected in some way by the war a hundred years ago, such as ‘Fiesty Aunty Olive and the Women’s RAF’, ‘Young Freddy Butler – from the farm to the Royal Flying Corps’ and the ‘Soldiers and Sailors Free and Easy Club’.
While we’ve written about the project before, it’s worth taking another look as we’ve just launched the fascinating fourth exhibition – ‘Keeping the Home Fires Burning’. This explores how the war affected everyday life in Wiltshire, including the new roles taken on by women, rationing, daylight saving and the refugees who fled to England from Belgium.
The new exhibition was launched on Friday 3rd March at Athelstan Museum in Malmesbury. A large crowd gathered for the event and following the official opening of the exhibition, musician and singer Louise Jordan took to the stage. Louise spent a year researching and writing songs about the remarkable women involved in World War One, who are often overlooked in conventional histories.
The title of Louise’s show ‘No Petticoats Here’ is inspired by Sir Arthur Sloggett’s words to Dr Elsie Inglis. Elsie graduated from the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women in 1892 and started working with the poor in Edinburgh. Through this work she became aware of the needs of greater rights for women and was an active suffragette. When war broke out, Elsie offered her medical knowledge and expertise, coming up with the idea of treating wounded soldiers from mobile hospital units, run entirely by women. When she presented the idea she was told by Sir Arthur:
‘My good lady, go home and sit still. We don’t want any petticoats here’.
Not to be discouraged, she set about raising the funds to set up hospitals and field units across Europe, staffed by over 1000 women, often in dangerous situations. A truly inspirational woman whose contribution deserves to be remembered.
Louise weaved beautiful melodies through the fascinating tales of these women, with plenty of audience participation along the way! We learnt about many incredible women including engineer Hertha Ayrton who amongst other achievements invented a fan to clear poison gas from the trenches, Louise de Bettignes a French spy employed by the British army and Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, keen motorcyclists who joined Dr Munro’s Flying Ambulance Corps on the front line.
Also celebrated was one brave woman who is already familiar to Wiltshire at War – Dorothy Lawrence. In 1915 Dorothy was a teenager living in the Cathedral Close in Salisbury, with ambitions of becoming a war correspondent for the newspapers. Determined to report on the fighting in Europe she set out from England by bicycle, heading for the Somme. With a uniform borrowed from soldiers she met along the way she posed as Sapper Denis Smith, spending 10 nights on the frontline before giving herself up.
Did you watch this year’s series of the Great British Sewing Bee? Sewing has become a popular hobby again, thanks to a renaissance in crafts and resurgence in interest in the handmade.
The famous proverb ‘a stitch in time...’ was first recorded in Thomas Fuller's Gnomologia, Adagies and Proverbs, Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British, 1732 but is likely to be much older. The virtues of hard work, prudence and associated with this adage have long been affiliated with sewing and been seen as desirable attributes, particularly for women.
A traditionally female pursuit, sewing has been a source of enjoyment, income and protest for women over the centuries. As one of the few respectable trades women, particularly poor women, could engage in, it could provide an albeit low level of income. Most of this work was piece work completed at home by women and children. The below show receipted bills for sewing services:
The pay was not only low, but a deposit had to the paid to the overseer for the materials, which was repayable on completion of the work. The ‘Song of the Shirt’, published in Punch in 1843, took this as its subject and helped draw attention to the working conditions of the poor.
'Stitch! Stitch! Stitch! In poverty, hunger, and dirt, And still with a voice of dolorous pitch She sang ‘The Song of the Shirt!’
Aside from the principal cloth and woollen industries, both gloving and lace making have been important industries for Wiltshire. A prohibition on imported lace created a strong lace industry in Salisbury in the 18th century which continued after the prohibition was withdrawn. Nearby Downton was a lace-making centre with many of its cottagers engaged in it with some manufacturing continuing into the early 20th century. It also established in Malmesbury and was one of the principal occupations there in the late 18th century.
Inevitably the industry was by the competition of machine-made lace and the census records show the decline in lace-making occupations with 391 in 1850, 35 in 1871 and only 6 in 1900.
Gloving employed a large proportion of female outworkers and based on the number of references to it, it seemingly expanded in the 16th and 17th centuries. It has continued into the 20th century with both continuing and new firms. The oldest firm with surviving records is J. & T. Beavan Ltd. at Holt. Many of the cutters worked in the Great House (formerly the Spa Hotel) but outworkers living at Holt, Atworth, Melksham, Somerset and the Cotswolds completed the sewing work.
"We leave the theoretical Utopias to others and concentrate on the down-to-earth ways in which ordinary lives can be improved" Pat Jacob, National Chairman in ‘Jam and Jerusalem’ by Simon Goodenough, 1977.
The Women’s Institute is probably the largest and most widely known women’s organisation. Over the years it has not only survived, but thrived.
The first WI was formed in 1897 at Stoney Creek, Ontario, Canada by Mrs Adelaide Hoodless. A suggestion that women could form their own group was put forward at a Young Farmer’s Institute and the following week over 100 women attended. Adelaide Hoodless had suffered the loss of a baby from contaminated milk, and, recognising this, she was determined to prevent others suffering similar losses through a lack of education. She went on to be involved with founding Domestic Science courses for girls, as well as holding positions of president of the national YWCA and treasurer of the National Council of Women of Canada.
It wasn’t until 1915 that the WI came to Britain when the first group was formed at Llanfair in Wales by Mrs Watt. Mrs Watt had been a member of the Canadian WI, one of only four women on a committee to advise the Department of Agriculture in British Columbia and promoted the Women’s Institute movement following its official recognition in 1911. Upon the death of her husband in 1913 she moved to Britain and set about encouraging the movement here.
The Wiltshire federation came into being in 1919 following the establishment of six WI’s. Founded in September 1916, Redlynch and District WI is the oldest in Wiltshire and probably the second oldest in the country. There are currently over 4000 members in 125 WIs across the county and here at the History Centre we hold an array of archive material from many of them.
One of the most interesting aspects of many of the WI collections are the scrap books, which showcase local life, are often a work of art in their own right. Bradenstoke WI scrapbook highlights some of their achievements as well as hiding unexpected gems such as the beautiful examples of a 19th century lace collar and lace neck tie below.
WI scrapbook of the history of Bradenstoke with Clack, ref 2626/1
The phrase ‘Women in Country Life’ conjures up ladies of the manor showing off their stately homes in Country Life, the magazine which published photographs of their marriageable daughters. It also reflects the back-breaking toil of most rural women down the centuries.
In Medieval and Early Modern life women were prized as heiresses because family lands passed through them to the next generation. The custom of primogeniture, the inheritance of family manors and estates by the eldest male heir became established in the century after the Norman Conquest. Women were the glue in the feudal system, giving birth to the next generation of male heirs for their husbands’ families. When their own families died out in the male line, women as co-heiresses – the sisters or daughters of a deceased lord – carried their estates to new families when they married. This was also true for the peasants. By the 16th century farms were generally leased out for three lives. In the absence of male relatives, women’s names were added to the lease to transfer the property down the generations. A new life could be added at any time – for a fee – as births, marriages and deaths changed the family structure.
The manor and its courts organised agricultural labour. Manor court rolls and books record the names of the lord or lady of the manor who received the profits from the land, and the tenants who rented farms and grazing rights on the common fields and pastures. The lord of the manor had the right to prove tenants’ wills and a surprising number are found in court records – a treasure trove for the family historian!
Wiltshire has a history of an association with the military and during the First World War the county was home to one of the few female run remount depots at Russley Park, near Swindon.
Remount depots were established by the army in order to provide fresh, healthy and well trained horses, donkeys and mules for army use in peace time and during times of conflict. In 1887 the remount section was established within the army replacing the earlier responsibility that each individual regiment had for providing its own animals. The South African War (1899-1902) had established a ‘best practice’ in order to get the most out of these animals and a horse registration scheme was introduced. This identified suitable animals for possible purchase and army use and depots to deal with them were established at Woolwich, Arborfield near Reading and Melton Mowbray, employing three inspectors to oversee the potential purchase and care of the animals.
In the event of war it was estimated that 110,000 animals would be needed and in 1912 and 1913 a horse census was undertaken, dividing the country into 24 sections each with a Remount Officer responsible for the identification of potential horses. This groundwork proved invaluable and when the First World War began 140,000 horses were purchased efficiently and quickly.
1913 was a significant year in the campaign for women’s suffrage and is widely remembered for the increasingly militant acts of the suffragettes and in particular the death of Emily Wilding Davison at the Epsom Derby. However, a less well known protest also marks its centenary, the nationwide march of suffrage pilgrims from all parts of the country converging in London in July 1913. Thousands of women marched through towns across England spreading their message of women’s right to vote in a peaceful and law abiding way. In some towns they met a warm response with parades, teas and flowers in others their voices were drowned out and they were threatened with violence and had to be protected by the police. As the march which began at Land’s End on 19th June arrived in Wiltshire this mixed response to the pilgrims was evident. The march took six weeks.