The Canary Girls of WW1

cardboard ww1
A cardboard collecting box used by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Imperial War Museum. © IWM (EPH 4196)

Despite the years of research that went into creating The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we still have many unanswered questions. The brick walls rise up especially around women’s stories, for women all too often disappear behind their men. This seems particularly true of the working class. In our family, in London, England, many of the women were factory workers or cleaners or laundresses; or they did piece work like book folding or sewing at home, where they could earn a living and look after little ones at the same time. It struck us that during WW1, these were the types of women who contributed anonymously to the war effort, with little remaining now to show the part they played.

Chapter 11 - Ethel Deverill circa 1920
Ethel Deverill worked at a cardboard box factory during the war. What were the boxes used for?

If they’d sewn clothes before the war, perhaps now they sewed any of the many parts that made up uniforms. If they’d made boots, perhaps now they made army boots. If they’d worked at a box factory, as did our grandmother’s sister, Ethel, perhaps now the boxes they made would hold ammunition, or gifts for men at the frontlines, or medical supplies. Other jobs opened up for women too — women became postal workers and bus drivers and farmers; they assisted the police and wore uniforms and blew whistles; they tended the wounded as doctors, nurses, and VADs; and they stepped up in droves to work in munitions factories.

One of our relatives married a male munitions worker in 1916. Her own occupation is not listed on the certificate, but as the 23-year-old daughter of a widowed cleaner, it’s likely she had to contribute to the household income. Did she work at the same factory as her beau? Is that how they met? No one can say now. Often the female munitions workers known about are the ones who died tragically, in an explosion or of TNT poisoning — the ones who survived are lost to history.

1916, wedding party Clara and Bert
The December 1916 wedding of munitions worker Bert Morel and Clara Donnelly. Clara’s cousin, our grandmother Doris, is seated far left. Just a few weeks after the wedding, the Silvertown Explosion took place at a TNT factory in east London. With 73 deaths and more than 400 injuries, the event must have been especially frightening for those connected to such a dangerous industry.
Margaret Silcock
From the Women’s War Work portrait collection at the Imperial War Museum, WWC M5

Even during the war, there was an attempt to recognize women’s contributions. Beginning in 1917, a group of women working for what would become the Imperial War Museum began gathering documentation — photographs, ephemera, written accounts — that showed the varied roles women were playing in the war. In preparation for a women’s work exhibit at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in October 1918, they wrote to the families of women who had died in service, and asked for photographs of them so that the exhibit could honour both the living and the dead. These wonderful photos remain in the IWM collection to this day, and some of the letters still exist too, and hint at the massive loss people suffered on a personal level. When 22-year-old Margaret Silcock died of trinitrotoluene (TNT) poisoning from her work at a munitions factory, her mother willingly sent a photograph, apologizing for its smallness. “It is the only one I have,” she explained, “and I can’t afford to get a bigger one as I only get 7/6 a week.”

alice post
Alice’s mother sent this photograph in response to a request from the Women’s Work committee. Her letter reads: “I should be pleased to hear further if there is anything more I can do, also will you kindly let me know if the museum is open to the public as either my daughter or myself should like to come….” IWM, WWC M11

Women like Margaret were known as Canary Girls because the explosive chemical they worked with often turned their skin yellow. Usually the effects wore off, but many died from exposure to TNT, which could cause anaemia and toxic jaundice. One of the early casualties was a young woman named Alice Post, who died in January of 1916. A newspaper reporting on the inquest into her death stated that she had begun working at a factory about five weeks before Christmas 1915, and walked a distance of 10 miles each day to get to the works and then home again. She ate well at first, but soon lost her appetite, and often complained of headaches and tiredness. The skin on her hands and forearms turned blotchy. She saw the factory’s doctor, but when she failed to get better, she was reluctant to seek medical help again — and by the time she did, it was too late. The post-mortem confirmed Alice had died from TNT poisoning, but the doctors interviewed also felt “the state of absolute tiredness” was a contributing factor, since she had such a long walk to and from work, and very little nourishment to energize her. “People in such a condition, below par, would absorb the poison very readily. The jury returned a verdict that death was due to poisoning by TNT, and added a rider that attention should be given to the washing of the overalls, and that sugar and milk should be provided with the cocoa given to the girls on their arrival at the works in the morning.”

gladys pritchard
IWM, WWC M27

As the war went on, safety regulations increased; but there were still fatalities, and the losses were often not the first a family had suffered. When a Welsh munitions worker named Gladys Irene Pritchard died in November 1916, the letter from the IWM’s women’s work committee must have been addressed to “Miss Pritchard,” for the response from Gladys’s sister reads:

“Please excuse me writing to say it is Mrs Pritchard and she was a widow before she died, her husband being killed on the 10th July 1916 leaving two children.”

A bit more searching reveals that Gladys Pritchard’s husband David, a private with the Welsh Regiment, was killed in action during the early days of the Battle of the Somme, and that the children, Joseph Henry and Victoria Lillian, were just five and two years old when their mother and father became two of the war’s mounting casualties.

lottie meade
Lottie’s husband wrote “Please return her photos has I have not got anymore … thanking you very much for what you are doing.” IWM, WWC M15

Likewise munitions worker Lottie Meade was the mother of three young ones when she died of TNT poisoning in Kensington Infirmary in October 1916. Her husband wrote to the women’s work committee that the death occurred “whilst myself was serving in France and [I] got home to late to see her alive.” The photograph he sent along for the Whitechapel exhibit shows Lottie posing proudly in her munitions coveralls; one can imagine it was a photo taken for him, and sent to the frontlines, and then brought home again, memento of a wife no longer alive. Did it surprise him to see her turned out this way, in pants and cap, making the ammunition that fed the weapons he used? How would the war have changed her future had Lottie Meade survived the poisoning? What was it like to live through a time that produced so much tragedy but also so many profound changes in women’s lives?

Lottie Meade’s death certificate lists the cause of death as: “coma due to disease of the liver, heart and kidneys consequent upon poisoning by tri nitro toluene,” and the verdict at the inquest was “death by misadventure.” An awful waste. But the picture suggests there was adventure in Lottie’s life too. The hand on the hip, the raised chin, the subtle yet confident smile — the stance of a woman making her own way in the world.

The women’s work exhibit at the Whitechapel Art Gallery opened on October 7, 1918, and by the time it ended six weeks later, 82,000 people has passed through. The most popular part of the show was the “war shrine,” dedicated to the memory of more than 500 women who’d died in some form of service.

Sources:

Charlotte Meade, Lives of the First World War

Alice Post, Lives of the First World War

Gladys Irene Pritchard, Lives of the First World War

Margaret Silcock, Lives of First World War

The Silvertown Explosion, Lives of the First World War

A Closer Look at the Women’s Work Collection, Imperial War Museum

Lives of the First World War also contains 23 alphabetized “Wives and Daughters” communities as an attempt to document female deaths related to WW1.

Shell Shock, Unrequited Love, and Murder

The Last Message by William Hatherell, 1918. (Art.IWM ART 5234), Imperial War Museum.

While writing The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we spent quite a bit of time researching mental illness, since in 1917, our great grandmother was admitted to a Surrey asylum called Cane Hill. The asylum had been in place since the 1880s, but by the time our Mary Anne Deverill arrived, some of its patients were soldiers suffering from what was termed “shell shock.” As so often happens during the twisty-turny path of research, we went down plenty of rabbit holes reading about such men. One of the many tragic stories we’ve come across took us to Liverpool in 1919, and involved a soldier serving with the Canadian forces, and a nurse with whom he fell in love.

Roy Joseph Hutty enlisted in 1916, and by fall of 1917 found himself in the mud-soaked fields of Passchendaele on the Western Front. His record tells us that on November 6, he was buried following a shell explosion, and invalided to England. He was unconscious for a month, and “on coming to had profound disturbance of speech and gait, loss of sleep, severe headaches and tremors.” He stuttered badly whenever he tried to say anything, and so spoke rarely. “Keeps himself buried under the bed clothes,” the staff noted. His hands, head, eyelids and arms twitched continually while he was awake. The movements intensified when people spoke to him, but he was “quite still” when he slept.

It was here in Liverpool that he met Alice Kate Jones, known as Kitty, a tall, attractive nurse who had worked at the David Lewis Northern Hospital since the war began. They developed a friendship, and slowly Joe began to improve. Right around the end of the war, in November 1918, Kitty went home to visit her family for a few weeks, and mentioned Joe to her father; she seemed very interested in his case, and said he had no friends in England. Her father agreed she should invite him to their home for a visit, and within a few days he arrived and spent a week with Kitty’s family. While there, Hutty brought up the subject of he and Kitty marrying. The articles don’t say how Kitty felt about this idea, but her father apparently suggested it would be best if Hutty returned home and “establish[ed] himself in some business or work,” and if Kitty completed her nursing training before any such plans were discussed.

A page from Hutty’s service record shows his shaky signature, and notes his nervousness and stammering, caused by a “shell concussion” at Passchendaele. Library & Archives Canada.

Soon after, Hutty returned to Canada. Staff at a military hospital in Toronto made note of “neurasthenia (hysteria)” in his record, and said that his tremors had improved but his right leg still shook and he was “easily startled.” He was discharged “on account of medical (emotional) unfitness” in February 1919, and from then, it seems, he was on his own. He wrote to Kitty about returning to England and resuming their relationship, but Kitty refused. “About the end of February … she had written to Hutty and told him that nothing could go on between them, and they could not be anything more than friends in the future.”

And then in July, Kitty’s sister Elsie received a letter from Joe, which showed a Liverpool address. “As you can see by this, I am once again in Liverpool to see if I cannot make it up with Kitty. So far I have not seen her. I have tried to get her on the ’phone but nothing doing, so I wrote to her. I am wondering if Kitty is on her holidays. Of course, this coming over here might not be of any use, but then, I am trying to do my best to come to an understanding. As I have not heard from you for two months, I am wondering why. . . . I hope to hear from you soon. If not, I shall take a run to London.”

Elsie called Kitty, and shortly afterwards, on July 17th, received a letter saying: “Dear Elsie, I was not a bit surprised when I heard your voice on the telephone this morning. Somehow I thought he would write you and say he was in Liverpool. To think that he should come back over here on a wild goose chase. What he thinks he’s going to do I can’t imagine. Surely my decision is quite sufficient. There is nothing in the wide world would make me change it.”

On July 23rd, Kitty came home from Liverpool on short leave, and seemed well and happy. She had written to Hutty and been clear and firm about her feelings: “To be as we were before can never be. I do not love you, and it is far better we should not see each other again. If you really love me — well, I am sorry, Joe. It will be hard for you, but time is a wonderful healer, and I give you credit for making good and not going to the dogs.” He seemed to accept this, for he responded to say he was returning home by the next boat.

She likely didn’t know that Joe had been hanging around the hospital for several days. Wearing civilian clothes, he’d called in and asked for her, but his behaviour was not strange enough to cause alarm. The landlady at the rooming house where he was staying later said he behaved oddly during those days; but she’d felt sorry for him, guessing he was afflicted by shell shock. When Kitty returned to Liverpool on the 24th, she went to the hospital at about 11 pm to begin her shift, and was standing on the steps of the building with another man who’d also been a patient there, when Joe approached her and shot her seven times. He ran off, then, and threw the revolver in a side street — but later he turned himself in and told police, “I have shot a nurse. I want you to arrest me.”

The letters were read aloud in court. Joe was sentenced to death for his crime, but the jury recommended mercy given his condition. The British Journal of Nursing, reporting Kitty’s death to her fellow nurses, expressed dismay over the tragedy, and sympathy for Kitty’s family, but added, too, that “The writer well remembers, when visiting the hospital last year, seeing the shellshock patients, one of the saddest sights of the war. It would seem difficult to fix responsibility for any action on one of these poor men shattered in mind, and perhaps in body, by the ruthless machine of war.”

Hutty’s sentence was commuted to life in prison, but the life thereafter was short: in January 1922, he hanged himself in his cell. The war’s casualties continued to grow long after it was over.

lone man passchendaele
A lone Canadian soldier navigates the mud-soaked battlefield at Passchendaele, Belgium, in November 1917. William Rider-Rider / Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-002165

Sources

Many articles at the British Newspaper Archive report on Alice Kate Jones’s murder and Roy Joseph Hutty’s trial. These and other sources have been listed on their individual pages at the Imperial War Museum’s wonderful online archive, Lives of the First World War.

Roy Joseph Hutty’s service record has been digitized by Library and Archives Canada.

The Fighting Parson

One of the many colourful stripes that made up the fabric of the Borough in Southwark in the late 1890s was the curate at St. Saviour’s Church known as “the fighting parson.” Charles Pierrepont Edwards was a clergyman who confronted problems head on, and made the papers now and again for his scuffles with local hooligans. He relished the chance to show his “muscular Christianity,” and it was no surprise to see him rush from his house on Newcomen Street, and “place his thews and sinews at the service of the temporal powers.”

Mersea Museum IA004390
Charles Pierrepont Edwards, curate at St. Saviour’s, Southwark and then vicar of West Mersea. Photo credit to the Mersea Museum http://www.merseamuseum.org.uk

Lloyd’s Weekly recounted the court appearance of a fellow who’d apparently stolen a bottle of whiskey and a glass from the White Horse pub on Union Street. The prisoner was a big man, and powerfully built, but he stood in the dock with his head bandaged, and the worse for wear. Testimony in court revealed that Pierrepont Edwards had been holding a confirmation class when he heard the shrill of a whistle, and he ran into the street to rescue a potman being accosted by the accused. The parson tackled the would-be whiskey thief and held him down until the police could take over. The magistrate eyed the bandaged prisoner and decided he’d been sufficiently punished by the parson, and let the man go. On another occasion, kids were playing in Newcomen Street when an old woman stepped into the road to avoid them and was trampled by a horse-drawn van. Hearing her screams, Pierrepont Edwards burst from his house, and carried the woman to the hospital. It was too late to save her, but he was no less lauded as a hero.

He’d been born in 1864 in Erith, Kent, the son of a gentleman. His family had fallen on hard times when he was just a boy, and he’d left school to make his way as a clerk at the West India Docks, so perhaps he’d learned his fighting skills from the dockworkers. Eventually, he’d won a scholarship to a theological college, and taken holy orders, but he’d always felt “the most intense sympathy for the poor. ‘They know it,’ he claimed, ‘and they come to me for advice and assistance in all circumstances. I have been called out in the night to murders and fires, to bail out husbands arrested for wife beating, to accidents and disasters of all kinds. So far as I can,’ he vowed, ‘I live their life.'” And though the roughs of the Borough were the ones he tussled with, even they developed a grudging respect for the curate’s “pugilistic ability.”

Yet despite his fame throughout the Borough, or even because of it, Pierrepont Edwards left for a provincial vicarage, taking a substantial salary cut to move to the village of West Mersea, Essex. Before he left Southwark, the police presented him with a silver tea service, saying they were “sincerely sorry that so able a recruit to the forces of law and order [was] leaving the vicinity.” Later, he served as a chaplain in the Great War, was awarded the Military Cross, and worked for a while with the War Graves Commission, but returned to Mersea to live out his days. He was never far from controversy, though, and when he died the notices cited his “interesting career,” recalling that he “invariably wore a top hat, … was exceedingly quick at repartee, … and proved more than a match for many hecklers.”

Pierrepont Edwards in Gallipoli
Pierrepont Edwards, right, in Gallipoli, 1919. Image © IWM (Q14313)

Sources

  •  Mersea Museum, Mersea Island, Essex
  • “The Fighting Parson.” Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 3 April, 1898
  • “London Week by Week.” Leeds Times, 17 September, 1898
  • “The Fighting Parson.” South Wales Echo, 6 September, 1898
  • Imperial War Museum, Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection
  • “The Fighting Parson.” Royal Cornwall Gazette, 7 April, 1898