The forgotten lives of women

I have written blogs about my three great grandmothers during the First World War. This final one focuses on Elizabeth and has been the most difficult of the series to write, largely because I found it so hard to find any details of her life. In the end, it was the reasons why this was so that proved the most fascinating, and it’s what I have chosen to write about here, reflecting on what this absence of biography reveals about the ways that women’s lives are not only recorded but remembered – and, too often, forgotten.

Elizabeth’s story

Elizabeth with one of her daughters


Elizabeth was born in Chelsea in 1858. Her father was a plasterer and her mother, before her marriage in 1841, had been a servant. The couple had at least eight children. Elizabeth followed her mother into one of the commonest occupations for girls and young women in Chelsea and became a domestic servant in Chelsea’s Paulton Square, an elegant Georgian and gardened space, just around the corner from where she had grown up in far less opulent and much more crowded housing. In 1885 Elizabeth married Alfred, a bricklayer, and the couple had ten children, six of whom survived into adulthood.

By the time the First World War began, the family had moved from their three or four roomed flat in a subdivided house in Chelsea to an eight roomed house in Fulham which they do not appear to have shared with any other households or lodgers. From this, I can only guess that times had got easier for the family as the oldest children began to contribute to the household income. The youngest child was 13 and still at school but, in all likelihood, all of her older sisters, aged from 14 to 25, were by then at work. Three years before, the 1911 census recorded that Louisa the eldest was a dressmaker and Edith, the second eldest, a servant. The only son, William, was a gas fitter and family memory is that he was not fit for army service when war came. His father, Alfred was, at 56, too old to sign up.

The house in Fulham where the family lived from 1911

And that, unlike the accounts that I have managed to piece together of my other great grandmothers’ lives in wartime, seemed to be all that I could find out.  One of the reasons for the lack of information about Elizabeth could be the fact that family narratives are often told or recorded through male experiences or official records that reveal male occupations. In the case of Annie and Amy (the first two blogs) this was at least in part via information found in their husbands’ army records, allowing details of, for example, family separation and dependent children to be further explored. It is also because families tend to retain evidence of men’s army service, in the form of medals, photographs and patriotic pride in sacrifices made. By contrast, their wives are broadly defined by history as women-whose-husbands-went-to-war, holding the fort until the menfolk came home. If they didn’t themselves take on an exciting or dramatic wartime adventure as, for example, a munitions or transport worker – which just might be remembered within a family – the women’s experiences are assumed to be domestic and, apart from the imagined added wartime induced stoicism, indistinguishable from those of other generations of wives and mothers.

In the case of Elizabeth, neither her husband nor her son went to war and so there is no clear male wartime trail to uncover an understanding of how she dealt with war. Elizabeth, at 55, was quite possibly too old to take on war work but she had five daughters who were all of employment age by 1918. Despite asking lots of questions (my oldest surviving relative was born in 1921), I have been unable to find out what these young women did during the war. Did they take advantage of the availability of better paid work than they were used to? Did they go into industrial work? Nursing? Did they take on work traditionally associated with men? No one knows. Of the youngest three sisters I have been told only that in the post war years they worked in London department stores; my great aunt Lilian worked in Harrods until her retirement in the 1950s. Family folklore is that her fiancé was killed during the First World War and I know that she remained single for the rest of her life. Whatever she did during the war is hidden beneath the tragedy of a young man losing his life and the implied tragedy of his sweetheart being left on the shelf.

Two of Elizabeth’s daughters in the years before the war. The girl standing is almost certainly my grandmother but even the identification of the women from the few remaining photos has been difficult

That this is all that is known about Lilian’s life in wartime seems to me tragic in its own way, especially as I remember her as having a quirky sense of humour, a love of adventure and, along with her sisters (one of whom was my grandmother), dressmaking skills that kept my dolls and I in wonderfully bright summer dresses when I was a little girl. I have over the years asked and asked again where the sisters learned how to design and create clothes but no one seems to know. Worse, it seems to be accepted that they knew how to sew because they were women. If garment making was how they, like the eldest sister, earned their living at various points, then no one took much interest in their traditionally female employment. It was women’s work, as was (in the eyes of the family) the shop work they took on after the war. This is, as in so many families, in stark contrast to family memories of male employment, in both war and peace time. Men go through history defined by their work (biographies of women very often start with ‘her father was a carpenter/clergyman/teacher’ with details of mothers left out or limited to lineage, marriage and motherhood). Women are remembered if they are pioneers, buck trends, set trends, have their talents publicly or professionally acknowledged or behave badly or oddly. Even then, as Elizabeth Crawford recently pointed out in an article about sisters Ella and Geraldine Stevenson, WSPU supporters and militant campaigners, family memories of maiden aunts, however extraordinary the lives they led, are too often hazy, their stories unknown.

The fact that Elizabeth’s family was predominately female has contributed to the difficulties of my research and particularly as just one of her five daughters (my grandmother) went on to have children. Even so, her children have passed on far more details of their male relations than they have of the women. And it was whilst trying to find out what happened to one of Elizabeth’s daughters, Edith, that I managed to get a little closer to an understanding of what this family had gone through during the First World War. When I asked about her, there was just the vaguest memory within the family that one of the sisters had died. And so I trawled for a death certificate and found that, like great grandmother Ellen and Amy, Elizabeth too suffered a commonplace tragedy unrelated to war – the death of one of her children. In this case, her child was Edith, a 25 year old single woman who died of pulmonary tuberculosis and tuberculosis of the spine in July 1917. She had contracted the disease in 1915. Her younger sister, Lilian, was present at her death at the family home. According to her death certificate, Edith was a domestic nurse but there is no one to ask when she had to give up her work, whether she contracted the illness whilst nursing or how she was cared for within her family. As well as the anxieties associated with having a TB sufferer in the home, there was the added expense of doctors’ visits, medicines, restorative tonics and nutritious food. The latter was even more expensive in wartime and it was increasingly necessary to queue for long periods for many of the staples that might have helped to build the patient’s strength. The family’s better fortune in moving to the larger house in 1911 may well have protected the rest of the family from disease by ensuring that there was a separate sick room for Edith.

Here, then, once again, we witness a family experiencing a different type of war to the one that remains uppermost in the nation’s collective memory. When we think of death and the First World War, the slaughter of men on the Western Front is of course at the forefront of our minds. Yet in three of my four blogs, families lost children to illness during the War and the lives of their parents would never be the same again. It makes me so sad that Edith, no matter how much she was loved in her lifetime, has left no mark on the world other than ‘oh yes, I think there was a sister who died’. It was not my intention to present these blogs as family history but as case studies showing how four women experienced the First World War and what has emerged for me is the importance of digging as deep as possible to discover that there was no such thing as ‘ordinary’ and that all lives are as important. One of my great grandfathers was awarded the Military Medal and that makes me proud but so sad that he had to live with the horrors witnessed at the Somme for the rest of his life. I am equally proud of all the women, like my great grandmothers who looked after their families, kept the family fed and housed by running the business, taking in lodgers and making money where and when possible. It saddens me that Annie, Amy and Elizabeth had to bury children, all victims of diseases that are now curable and controllable and which, in some countries at least, no longer cast shadows over parenting.

Women did great things during the First World War. They worked in industry, in public services, as doctors, nurses and in the armed services. Let’s not forget the importance of their domestic lives and how they cared for their children amidst the difficulties of war. Let’s remember also those who did not marry and/or did not have children, so many of whom are now absent from our histories –and we need wherever possible to record the precious and extraordinary details of their lives.

My favourite photo of Annie, William and their children in the First World War


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