Fragments of history: Women’s Lives in Britain during the First World War

History is messy and frustrating but it can also be tantalisingly exciting trying to piece things together and make a little more sense of the past. It doesn’t always work but we often get just a tiny bit nearer to knowing or understanding stuff. Sometimes, we want things to be true and can be guilty of using what evidence we think we have to back up what we want to believe. That’s probably ok as long as we’re honest about it and leave a trail for others to interpret afresh or provide the addition of some new facts or information.

A few years ago my mum gave me a small pack of postcards and photographs. Most were written to ‘Dolly’ (my grandmother) by her father when he was in the Army during the First World War. They are touching messages of love sent to a daughter at home in London during a soldier’s service that saw him wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme and returned to a hospital in the North East of England. On one card, he wrote that he regretted that he couldn’t send five year old Dolly any money but would do so as soon as he was out of hospital. Sure enough, another card stated that he was enclosing one shilling and six pence for her and her older half-sister, Lilian, to buy some sweets. He did not return to live in the family home until his army discharge early in 1919.

Juett 2

Juett 4

Juett 5FWW

As well as the cards that he sent home, there are those that he may have carried with him or that were sent to him while he was away. There is a torn photograph of the family, most likely taken early on in the War and with the words ‘Return to Wife’ scrawled on the back. There are two photographs of Dolly, near the start and towards the end of the War. On the back of one is a message, ‘July 9th, Lil Money Stopped’; on the other, there are two lists of food, with prices – tea, sugar, margarine, cheese, onions, bread and sausages. There is so much missing in the everyday detail of this family’s life and I will never know exactly when the lists were made or who wrote them but they fascinated me so much that I have used them in order to embark on a series of snap shots of women’s lives during the War.

Annie, Amy, Elizabeth and Ellen were my great grandmothers.  Born between 1858 and 1878, all were raising families in south west London during the First World War. Their stories have come to me from my parents in snatches, with details missing that will in all probability remain so, but I nevertheless want to try to write about what is known before that too is lost forever. The seemingly ordinariness of these women’s lives helps to reveal the very opposite, cutting through generalisations and public memories by trying to provide a sense of some women’s lives a hundred years ago, when certainly there were daily reminders of war but when getting on with life was the only option.

Annie’s story


When war was declared, Annie and William had been married for just over three years. Their daughter, Dorothy (Dolly) was nearly three and they were raising Annie’s youngest child, Lily, from her previous marriage, who was about twelve. Her eldest three children had gone their own ways. Like so many working class Londoners, the couple lived in cramped, overcrowded accommodation, renting one or possibly two rooms in a small apartment in Putney. William was a general labourer and house painter and Annie – at least until the birth of Dolly in the autumn of 1911 – worked at the Fulham Sunlight Laundry. It’s difficult to estimate the couple’s pre-war income, partly because there’s no way of knowing whether Annie was able to continue to earn once Dolly was born and partly because inclement weather, short term and casual contracts meant that labouring and decorating did not always bring in the steadiest of wages. Whilst averages can never be relied on for complete accuracy, sometimes they remain our only indicator and the average weekly pay packet for a labourer in 1914 was 22 shillings and 10 pence. Women’s pay rates in commercial laundries like the Sunlight were lower than this and even with union negotiated wage rises during the War, the basic salary for a woman aged 18 or over was just 18 shillings a week by the end of the War. If, because there was no one to look after Dolly, Annie gave up her job outside the home in 1911, their entire income was then lost when William signed up as an army recruit in early September 1914. With her many years of experience of laundry work, perhaps Annie took in washing at home but her ability to do so was always dependent on the family’s living arrangements.  Sometimes renting a room (or rooms) came with agreed access to a scullery or wash house but only the friendliest of fellow tenants (and landlords) would have tolerated a woman using up space, water, tub and drying room (if there was any) to do anything more than her own family washing.

With William away, Annie became reliant on the separation allowances that were paid to wives of servicemen from the start of the War. The weekly amount received depended on the rank of the serving husband; William joined the West Yorkshire Regiment as a private and was promoted to sergeant whilst in France in 1916, where he had been on active service since 1915. The government recognised the importance of making sure that the families of Kitchener’s recruits were looked after and did not have to resort to charity or the dreaded Poor Law. Bureaucratic hold ups and patronising attitudes, however, caused anger, frustration and hardship for many women. In the autumn of 1914, Sylvia Pankhurst’s paper, The Woman’s Dreadnought, drew attention to the humiliation caused by payment delays, by women not receiving the right amount of money and by the ‘meagreness’ of the allowances given. It was wrong, stated the Dreadnought, that as well as having to send birth and marriage certificates to the War Office, women ‘should have to submit to minute and often fussy and impertinent cross examination from officials of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ families association besides. The wives and children of the soldiers were entitled to a fair wage on behalf of the men at the front, and ought not to be placed in the position of suppliants for charity’ – the very thing that government had agreed should be avoided, in the interests of public morale and support for the War.[1]

From March 1915 the wife (and some unmarried couples with children) of a private received 12 shillings and 6 pence a week and a wife and one child 17 shillings and 6 pence, with 2 extra shillings for each additional child. An extra 3 shillings and 6 pence went to wives in the London area if they could prove that they had lived in the capital before the War. The allowance paid to the wife of a sergeant was 15 shillings, 20 shillings if she had a child and 23 shillings and 6 pence if there were two children. Allowances were, with some exceptions, only for children under 16[2]; Annie’s daughter, Lilian, reached her 16th birthday towards the end of the War and this may account for the message indicating that her money had been stopped and leading to the need to re-calculate the family’s income.

From the start of the War, the anxieties facing wives and mothers escalated. As the cost of living rose steeply, working class women struggled to get by on the separation allowance alone. At the start of the War, many businesses contracted as they waited to see what would happen and the market for fashionable and fancy goods slowed as people tightened their belts and stopped placing orders. As a consequence, unemployment amongst women increased, causing considerable extra hardship and leading to charity run relief works where women could work, for a low wage, on tasks such as garment making.[3] As the War progressed, and as more men enlisted, women were needed in the nation’s shops and offices, on its buses and trams, as postal workers and delivery drivers, to name but a few.  Married women with children who were able to do so took on work where they could and, from 1915, munitions factories began to employ large numbers of women. Here, decent money could be earned but shifts were long, the work was dangerous and unhealthy and the practicalities of travelling to work (sometimes very long daily distances), of finding suitable and affordable childcare (for nurseries were in very short supply) meant that many mothers were unable to take on War work of this nature. Those who did often found that rather than being praised for their patriotism, they faced accusations of neglecting their children and even of greed, for surely they should be content with the regularity of the separation allowance? After all, it was argued, this was more than many women had had before the War and here they were now, with a nice reliable sum of money coming into the house each week.

Those who criticised clearly had no idea of how difficult life was for so many working class women. There were price rises right from the start of the War. Before the government introduced rent controls in 1915, women like Annie – husbands rapidly mobilised and gone to war – worried with good reason that landlords might evict them as they waited for their allowances to come through or that they might try to attract new tenants who could, thanks to war work, afford to pay more. The Woman’s Dreadnought encouraged women to send in their experiences of budgeting and it is clear that less than a year into the War, fuel and foodstuffs had risen considerably. In February 1915, one woman gave her account of what she called ‘just poor every day living’ for her family of four:

Before the War (in shillings and pence, eg 1/6) Since the War
14 loaves of bread 2/11 4/8
1 ¾ cwt coal 2/4 3/6
1lb meat 6d 9d
½ quartern flour 2 1/4d 4 ½ d
½ lb tea 8d 10d
3 ½ lbs sugar 5 ¼ d 10 ½ d
I tin milk 4d 5d
Rent 6s 6s
Insurance 1s 1s


If Annie’s sole income was the separation allowance (until William’s promotion, she received 21 shillings, plus the London allowance), the above gives some indication of how money for her family of three was spent. On top of these and other foodstuffs, fuel and rent, there were clothes and shoes to buy (maybe through clothing clubs), soap and detergent and whatever else was needed in the household. Price rises became steeper; according to a 1918 government committee, the average working class household’s weekly expenditure on food had increased by 90 per cent in four years and other household costs, such as fuel and lighting, had risen by 74 per cent.[5]

Before the introduction of rationing from the start of 1918, working class women bore the brunt of food shortages that were caused by disrupted supplies from overseas as well as by inequitable distribution. Queues were long and there were no guarantees that there would be much left even when you reached the front; one woman wrote that her daughter had lost a morning’s schooling in order to queue at a dairy before coming home without the margarine she’d been sent out to get. Another stated that despite a statement in the Press announcing that meat was available, she and others ‘watched load after load of nice fresh joints being sent out on the quiet to the rich; no one else got any’. When the butchers’ shops finally opened towards the end of that day, ‘the promised meat consisted of dirty black bits and dirty animals’ heads and bad liver, which smelt disgustingly’.[6] Sausage meat was sometimes the best that could be got but only then if you were lucky enough to see it on display or were forewarned that it might be coming.

Queueing was time consuming and exhausting and, with four hour queues for meat common, almost impossible for mothers of small children. Working women despaired that they could not shop until the end of their shift by which time shops were often all but emptied of food. Rationing eased the queues; in order to get goods such as sugar and fat, it was necessary to register with a local shop which would provide these rationed items. As well as national, compulsory rationing, local food committees were set up to manage the distribution and prices of goods such as tea, cheese and jam but money remained extremely tight.[7] The lists on the back of Annie’s postcard indicate very careful planning and the buying of the most basic of foodstuffs – with no meat mentioned except sausage – one loaf, perhaps 4 ounces of cheese, onion (always handy for soups, stews and pies), tea, sugar and margarine. The stopping of the government allowance for Lilian ( ‘Lil money stopped’) was a blow; the chances are that Lilian had been working since leaving school, most likely at 14, so although there was already some extra money coming in (plus the increased allowance for the wife and children of a sergeant), the overall household income went down as a result of the stoppage.



These, then, were just some of the practical concerns facing women during the War. In addition, there was loneliness to contend with and deep anxieties about loved ones away at the War. William was with his regiment in France for a year before he was wounded by a bullet that entered his leg at the right knee and travelled up to the thigh. He was transferred to a military hospital near Newcastle. Unless travel permits were granted to the wives of wounded servicemen, the cost of visiting her husband in hospital would have been prohibitive for Annie and even if there was money available, there were unlikely to have been many – if any – opportunities to travel the length of the country with her two daughters. William remained in the North East in the Training Reserve, for the rest of the War. He received the Military Medal from King George V at an investiture at St James’ Park in June 1917, awarded as a result of his bravery on July 1st 1916. I wonder if Annie was even able to attend this event.

There were other people to be anxious about too; although I have not yet been able to find any details, Annie’s eldest two sons from her first marriage both either joined up or were conscripted in 1916. Family memories and a photograph of Tom, the eldest, suggest that he lost all, or part, of an arm during the War.

In February 1919, William returned home to Putney and to the ‘normal’ life that the government hoped would follow the tragedies and upheavals of war. But what did that look like and how easy was it for couples to live together again after years of experiences that had not been shared and now could not easily be understood? There were no promises of employment for returning soldiers like William and finding work as soon as possible was the most important part of homecoming.  Without it, the family’s only income was a disability pension of 6 shillings and 6 pence per week, with an additional allowance for children, although his army record indicates that this was not be relied upon and was up for review in less than a year.

William, however, was one of the lucky returning soldiers; his war injury did not prevent him from resuming a normal working life and he went back to painting and decorating, as well as being very competent in woodwork. Despite this, it was years before the family’s housing came anywhere close to a standard ‘fit for heroes’ and they appear to have seldom, if ever, lived on their own, sharing or taking in lodgers before finally moving into a small mid nineteenth century cottage in Putney in about 1930. There were no mod cons here, just one cold water tap in the scullery (which had a dirt floor when they moved in), an outside toilet and no electricity. From 1933 William and Annie shared the cottage with their daughter, Dorothy, her husband and their children. My mother was born here and Dorothy – my grandmother – remained here until her death in 1987.

Men had no choice but to readjust to life at home. Apparently William, like so many men who had been at the Front, never spoke of what he had seen, apart from just once telling my mother of having witnessed the slaughter of so many comrades in his regiment as they were ordered over the top on that fateful summer’s day in 1916. Families had to learn how to deal with men’s silences, bad dreams, and behaviours that today we are beginning to recognise as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Women had many other things to cope with too, including the loss of independence that had come with being the recognised head of the household. No doubt many women were enormously relieved and thankful at the return of their husbands but at the same time, they had grown used to doing things their own way, having full control over the family budget (as opposed to being allocated money from the man’s wage packet, as happened in so many households), shopping and cooking with what food items were available, without the pressure of making meals for the working man, sometimes relying on the communal kitchens that were set up late in the War. There was a government hope that women would act as a calming influence on those men who came back from war troubled, restless or (worst of all) seeking radical political change. There was renewed emphasis on women’s place in the home and on the sanctity of wifehood and motherhood and a widespread assumption that married women would have no further wish for paid work now that War was over.

Over the next few weeks, more blog posts will, through the experiences of Ellen, Amy and Elizabeth, add some more detail on bringing up children during the War, making ends meet and carrying on a family business when the main breadwinner went off to war.




[1] The Woman’s Dreadnought, September 26th 1914

[2] See Imperial War Museum accessed April 9th 2018

[3] Gail Braybon & Penny Summerfield, Out of the Cage: Women’s Experiences in Two World Wars, 1987, Pandora, pp31-4

[4] The Woman’s Dreadnought, February 27th 1915

[5] Working Classes Cost of Living Committee, cited in Angela Woolacott, On Her Their Lives Depend, Munitions Workers in the Great War, 1994, University of California Press, p 117-18

[6] The Woman’s Dreadnought, January 19th 1918

[7] For a very good description of local rationing, see Rachel Field, Ipswich in the Great War, Pen & Sword Military, 2016, pp 37-9

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