In this series of 12 articles, Rugby historian Nigel Stanley traces the part played by thousands of Rugby’s men, women and children in the Great War, saluting over 1,400 local men and Rugby School old boys who lost their lives in the war.
Part 4: Women at war and the Home Front
Votes for women: Rugby’s suffrage movement
The struggle for women’s right to vote continued before and during the war, producing much correspondence in the Rugby Advertiser. In 1909, Rugby Women’s Suffrage Society was set up, affiliated to the moderate NUWSS, known as the ‘Suffragists’. The Rugby WSS had an office in Regent Street by 1913, co-ordinating their campaign of meetings, letter-writing and peaceful petitions for the right to vote. The Suffragists were supported by many Liberal MPs, but some Conservatives were also keen for middle-class women to be able to vote. In Warwickshire, the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association was strong, with its Rugby branch led by Agatha West of Bilton. On the outbreak of war in 1914, all women’s suffrage organisations suspended their campaigns, aiming to help the war-effort and to win the respect of MPs. Rugby WSS set up a School for Mothers in New Bilton in October 1914, while Dr Frances Ivens, a lady doctor from Harborough Parva near Rugby, left to lead the NUWSS Women’s Field Hospital in France in December.
Women at work in war-time Rugby
Before 1914, working women in Rugby found a range of employment, including factories, shops, and domestic service. Others worked on the land. The war opened up new opportunities, especially at the BTH factory on Mill Road, Rugby’s largest employer. Before 1914, BTH already employed many women in the manufacture of electric lamps. During the war, BTH became a major munitions factory, producing a wide range of items such as artillery shells and depth charges. Hundreds of BTH men volunteered for the forces in 1914 and 1915, and more were conscripted from 1916, leaving gaps for women to fill. By 1918, 600 women were employed by BTH, in tasks such as drilling shells for high explosives. Work-shifts in munitions factories were normally long, up to 12 hours, with machines kept running by the night-shift. The work was often noisy and dangerous, with women in some factories exposed to chemicals such as phosphorous used in explosives. However, for women with husbands away at war, employment provided vital income as well as status. More women were also needed on the land. By the end of 1917, over 250,000 women nationally worked as farm labourers, helped by 20,000 land girls in the Women’s Land Army, with several on farms in Warwickshire villages.
Military or nursing service was also possible. Some Rugby women joined the armed forces, such as Lily Catch and Gladys Tremble in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, and others in the WRAF. Lady Dorothy Feilding MM, of Newnham Paddox near Monks Kirby, joined the Munro Motor Ambulance Corps, driving ambulances in France until 1917 when she married. Women could volunteer to work in VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments) run by the British Red Cross Society, and over 30 women in Rugby’s Red Cross detachment were organised by Mrs Michell, who later received an OBE for her services. Volunteers worked as assistant nurses, ambulance drivers and cooks, and VAD hospitals opened in most large towns to nurse war casualties. VAD auxiliary hospitals in Rugby were attached to the 1st Southern General Hospital at the new University of Birmingham. These included Rugby School in 1914, Ashlawn House (on Ashlawn Road) from 1915-16, and Te Hira on Moultrie Road from 1915 onwards, with others at Cawston House, Bawnmore (home of Frank and Agatha West) in Bilton, and Pailton. Rugby’s Red Cross VAD nurses also met trains at the Great Central railway station, to give refreshments to wounded troops en route to northern hospitals. The Women’s Institute was set up in 1915 to encourage women in villages to become more involved in food production, and to re-vitalise rural communities which had lost many of their men. Many WI branches were soon active in the Rugby area.
Love and loss in war-time
Life for many women was very hard in war-time, and a ‘Cheer Up Club’ was started in Rugby to uphold women’s morale. Food prices were high, and many foods in short supply. Some women struggled to bring up families alone, with a husband away, and with the fear or reality of widowhood. Young widows included Mildred Duncuff of Benn Street, whose husband Arthur was killed on the Somme in 1916 aged just 22. War-time romance sometimes blossomed, with soldiers such as the King’s Own Scottish Borderers stationed in Rugby in 1915. Richard Dugdale, an army chaplain from Rugby, hoped to marry Elinor Stokes, a young lady living at Crescent House. Their slow romance was recorded in a long series of letters, ending with Richard’s death in 1918. War could also speed up courtship, and there was concern over the war’s moral impact. In December 1914, the Rugby Advertiser published “An Appeal to the Women and Girls of Rugby”, warning that “Times of excitement and anxiety are times of temptation for all.” Women could help the men by working and praying for them, and by “helping them to keep straight and pure and sober.” In a town renowned for its hostelries, and brimming with soldiers in war-time, it was not reported whether this virtuous advice was heeded.