South London Women

Alice Glass was counting the takings on that Friday evening when the bomb fell on Albany Road. After a day’s work as a machinist, she was helping her mother out in the fried fish shop she managed for her brother-in-law. Alice died alongside her mother Emma and her brother Stephen. She was only 21.

This was a time of great upheaval for women. Not only were their husbands, fathers and brothers away at the front, leaving domestic and bread-winning responsibilities wholly to them, but these terrifying bombing raids meant the war was impacting directly on them.

The suffrage movement, active locally, was changing perceptions of women’s roles. The war introduced a whole new level of complexity to the movement: suffragists were split on whether to suspend the fight or leverage women’s new found roles and responsibilities as powerful arguments in support of the cause. The Secretary of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, a Miss Biddle, lived in Calmington Road itself, and nearby at 92 Borough Road Evelyn Sharp ran a Club for Women.

A tale of two chairs

When the King and Queen came to visit the ruined site on Albany and Calmington Roads, one elderly woman provided a chair for the Queen. It was said that she treasured that chair for the rest of her life. A poignant painting by Priscilla Thornycroft shows a woman sitting amongst her bombed out home in Waterloo during the Second World War and recalled for Priscilla terrifying early memories of zeppelin strikes in North London when she was a child.

Evelyn Sharp

A journalist, writer, pacifist and suffragist, Evelyn Sharp was a founder member of the United Suffragist Women’s Club in Borough Road. The club offered a place for companionship, cost price nourishment and fun for the women left to juggle working for the war effort, getting hold of enough food and dodging bombs in an increasingly precarious London.

“What our members really like to do is to congregate in the ground floor room, set the gramophone going, and under cover of its cheery optimism discuss everything under the sun, from the war to the Lord Mayor’s Show, and from Mrs Hampshire’s new hat to Mrs Lloyd’s new baby.”

After the war was over, and the vote for women partially won, Sharp commented that:

“I cannot help regretting that any justification was given for the popular error which still sometimes ascribes the victory of the suffrage cause, in 1918, to women’s war service. This assumption is true only in so far as gratitude to women offered an excuse to the anti-suffragists in the Cabinet and elsewhere to climb down with some dignity from a position that had become untenable before the war. I sometimes think that the art of politics consists in the provision of ladders to enable politicians to climb down from untenable positions.”

Ref: E. Sharp, Unfinished Adventure: Selected Reminiscences from an Englishwoman’s Life

Muriel Matters (1877-1969)

Muriel attempted to leaflet the House of Parliament from the air by hiring an airship and her astonishing balloon tactic made headlines around the world. Suffragettes had been told they could not distribute leaflets on the streets. So instead, she planned to drop from the sky campaign leaflets on to the procession of King Edward VII as he made his way along The Mall to the opening of Parliament on February 16, 1909

 “But, sad to say, we were blown off our course. We missed the Houses of Parliament and we landed at Coulsdon, in Surrey, in the top branches of a tree. But the flight achieved all we wanted. It got our movement a great deal of publicity. For, in those days, the sight of an airship was enough to make people run for miles”

Muriel, an Australian, went onto study in Barcelona under Maria Montessori, the radical Italian Educationalist. Sylvia Pankhurst employed her at her nurseries in the East End of London.

Ada Salter

Ada Salter was one of the first women councillors in London, the first woman mayor in London and the first Labour woman mayor in the British Isles. She campaigned before and during the war on women’s suffrage through the Women’s Labour League,  alongside her other activities in Bermondsey on women’s working rights, trade union membership and wider welfare.  Women worked together in many campaigns and committees including internationally for peace.

Priscilla Thornycroft

As a very small child in 1918, Thornycroft witnessed a zeppelin raid in London and the feeling of the tension and anxiety it caused stayed with her all her life. Thornycroft became a painter and whilst not an official war artist, she scribbled drawings of what she saw, and later made paintings including “Oh I was so Lucky”. She was also a member of the Artists’ International Association (AIA) and produced anti-fascist posters for Spanish Civil War campaigns. She met and married a German who was fleeing Hitler. She moved to Dresden, East Germany after the war where she continued to work as an artist.

“All the drawings and paintings I did of the Second World War are of people and things I saw. The woman sitting on a chair in the rubble was near the southern end of the footbridge from Charing Cross Underground station (the Tube being closed under the Thames during air raids). I had just run across the river and saw her sitting in the road drinking tea. When I stopped for a second to ask if I could do anything, all she said was: “Oh I was very lucky”. An old lady from over the road, with a teapot, explained: “She was in the basement when the bomb fell.” So I ran on to catch the evening train out of Waterloo Station, and as I ran I could still hear the woman repeating again and again: “Oh I was very lucky.”

Ref: Priscilla Thornycroft interview, 25 July 2013, Imperial War Museum (IWM).

Working women

Working class women have always worked and round here many worked in local factories, some along the Grand Surrey Canal. But the Great War meant a demand for women to work in munitions – something resisted by many but the urgent need at the time trumped social mores. Factories were short of raw ingredients, too, so many women were freed to work for the war effort. Women were seen working in every walk of life: bus conductors, ambulance drivers, munitions workers (see The Canary Girls below), and many joined the Forces. Women worked on the Old Kent Road at the Army shoe repair facility, SMGasWorks, and the Bricklayers Arms depot.

Caroline Rennies lived in Camberwell, where the BMX track area is found today, and recounted working, like Alice Glass, as a machinist, making khaki shirts at the Elephant & Castle. At Slade Green and Woolwich Arsenal she packed TNT explosive (trinitrotoluene ) into 56 lb shells they used to call ‘toffee apples’, due to their shape.
IWM soundarchive

Many women who were not required to go out and earn worked as VADs (voluntary aid detachment). Similar to nurses, they were less technically qualified, and trained by the Red Cross and the Order of St John. The pacifist and writer, Vera Brittain, worked as a VAD at First London General Hospital, which was housed at St Gabriel’s College, Cormont Road, Camberwell.
see VAD poster in IWM collections:

World War I, women’s suffrage and wages

As we have seen, women here in Camberwell and all over the country undertook jobs normally carried out by men and showed they could do the work just as well. It proved to be a powerful message that women were capable of jobs beyond those in traditional female roles, such as domestic service. Between 1914 and 1918, an estimated two million women replaced men in employment, resulting in an increase in the proportion of women in total employment from 24 per cent in July 1914 to 37 per cent by November 1918.

However, it was not just that women had proved themselves equal to men in the workplace that won the argument. Despite most action on the part of the suffrage organisations being suspended, they continued to keep up the pressure and that, plus the commitment of the growing Labour Party movement to widen the franchise were also factors.

In February 1918, in the final year of the war, women over 30 were enfranchised and able to vote for the first time. Most of the women who had worked in the factories were much younger. They had to wait for 10 more years, until 1928, for their opportunity to have their political opinions heard.

During the first years of the war, women received lower wages than men for doing the same work, and after demands for equal pay, and a number of strikes, the 1917 Report of the War Cabinet Committee on Women in Industry 1917 endorsed the principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’. However, despite evidence that women performed work effectively during the war, the perception remained that they were less productive than men, and it became clear that any increase in wages was for the duration of the war only, and would be reversed after the war.

In cases where women were paid less than men, there was concern that employers would continue to employ them after the war, in preference to men, but what happened was either that they were sacked or that they worked alongside men but at lower wages. Ref: Anitha, S. and Pearson, R. (2013) Striking Women. Lincoln: University of Lincoln. [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 2 Oct 2017]

The Canary Girls

The women working in munitions factories came to be known as ‘munitionettes’, earning the nickname ‘canaries’ because the chemicals turned their hair and skin yellow. Although the colour faded after a while, some women gave birth to yellow babies. A doctor would check the workers’ eyes and mouths every two weeks, but told them many would never have children because of lugging the heavy torpedoes.

When they got sent home for not getting to work on time, having lost a train connection, they formed a deputation to send to the Houses of Parliament.

Belgian refugees in Camberwell

250, 000 Belgian refugees arrived in the UK during the war and by 1917 six thousand had arrived in the Camberwell area. Refugee hostels were set up in Camberwell by founder of the Camberwell branch of the British Red Cross, Percy Oliver, and his wife. And hundreds were sheltered at the Dulwich Baths, formerly a military hospital.

One such refugee was 13-year-old Alice Brand, who arrived with her Belgian mother and Yorkshire father. Local committees helped find homes for the refugees and the Brands were directed to a family in Forest Hill, who housed and looked after them.
1914 Print WWI Louvain Leuven Belgian Refugee Family England World War I TW4

Slowly resentment grew amongst the British population and Belgians were required to work to help the war effort. Alice’s father became a munitions worker, her elder sister a cleaner and Alice was able to go to grammar school.

The Germans had ordered all aliens and mixed families to leave Belgium when they invaded in 1914. Carrying just one suitcase of belongings, women and girls in particular were at risk of abduction by the white slave trade as they arrived at London’s stations. (image of hundreds of beds in Earl’s Court refugee reception centre

Female members of the Camberwell branch of the Red Cross were drafted in to help to protect refugees who were arriving from Belgium.

Margaret Damer Dawson was a campaigner against the white slave trade and a suffragist. She was involved in helping the women refugees and subsequently co-founded the Women’s Police Service in 1914.
(image of Margaret Damer Dawson

Women of colour in South London

It is known from ships’ records that many people of colour were living and working in the UK during WW1 and London was a centre that many passed through, even if they didn’t stay long. It is difficult, however, to find links with specific activities during the war, beyond the men who served in the armed forces. Photographs published in 1914 in the journal The Crisis (official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founded in 1910 by W. E. B. Du Bois) show at least 10 people of colour.

Du Bois wrote:

“And more and more the streets of London are showing this fact. I seldom step into the streets without meeting a half dozen East Indians, a Chinaman, a Japanese or a Malay, and here and there a Negro. There must be thousands of coloured people in the city.”

Rather grimly, he also added “there is color prejudice and aloofness undoubtedly here, but it does not parade its shame like New York or its barbarity like New Orleans”.

One woman of note was Margaret Archer,  who was married to the Mayor of Battersea, John Archer. She was Canadian born and of African descent. Her husband was a known supporter  of suffragist Charlotte Despard, but we have been unable to uncover details of Margaret’s activities. More research is needed. If you have more information, please leave details on the Bridge to Nowhere website.