Long read

A Closer Look At The Women's Work Collection

The Women’s Work Collection is a unique resource for anyone interested in the experiences and role of women during the First World War. It was accrued largely between 1917 and 1920 and originally included art, models, documents, uniforms, badges, books, photographs and memorabilia of every variety. The collection as a whole is now dispersed among IWM’s Collections, with the bulk of the written records administered by the Collections Access team.

The creation of the Women’s Work Collection is closely linked with the formation of IWM itself in 1917. Almost as soon as the fledgling museum was set up, plans were put in place to ensure that the role of women would be recognised and recorded. This may seem surprisingly forward thinking but perhaps is indicative of how the role of women in society was one of the dominant social issues of the day.

In the years preceding the First World War, the campaign for women’s suffrage had intensified. As well as campaigning for the vote, many women wanted recognition and acceptance that they could and should have a greater role to play in public life. The outbreak of war in 1914 provided women with an outlet to demonstrate their capabilities in public office or in the workplace. But for many, it simply brought to the fore a desire to serve their country. Mrs Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a leading light in the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), acknowledged this fact. In her early article on women and the war in the December 1914 issue of the Contemporary Review, she reiterated Prime Minister Herbert Asquith's plea that every man and every woman should do his or her share, but pointed out that, although women's role in the alleviation of suffering had long been acknowledged, 'what is comparatively new is the general recognition that war makes a call upon women...for service'. She claimed that by an instinctive good sense, the women of Britain recognised that their first duty was, 'to strengthen the resources of the country in the gigantic struggle in which she was engaged. It was a time for resolute effort and self-sacrifice'. Even the militant Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), was now fully supportive of the Government's war effort.

By the time the Imperial War Museum was established, women had applied themselves in many new or expanded areas of social and economic activity, and had earned the right to be represented in any institution set up to document the conflict. A plan for establishing a war museum was first proposed in 1917, by the curator of the Armouries in the Tower of London, Charles ffoulkes. The idea was enthusiastically received by Sir Alfred Mond, First Commissioner of Public Works, and his suggestion (in a memorandum of 27 February) for the creation of a National War Museum was accepted by the War Cabinet on 26 March 1917. The Times announced that a committee had been established to carry out the project. It included representatives from the Admiralty, War Office, Ministry of Munitions and House of Commons, with Mond as chairman, Sir Martin Conway in the honorary position of Director-General and ffoulkes as Secretary and Keeper.

On 4 April, Agnes Ethel Conway, the 34-year-old daughter of Sir Martin Conway was invited by Mond to join the newly set up Women's Work Subcommittee and, as its honorary secretary, by 15 April she had drafted a suitable collection policy for the section. The Women's Work Subcommittee’s first meeting took place on 26 April 1917. Of the members none were more dedicated than Agnes Conway and Lady Priscilla Norman, who had run a hospital in France during the first few months of the war. Co-helpers on the Women's Work Subcommittee were Lady Askwith, Lady Mond and Lady Haig.

The first report of the Subcommittee laid down its objectives as the collection of exhibits and the formation of a record of war activities by women by means of a collection of photographs, pamphlets and manuscript reports from all women’s organisations and outstanding private individuals. An early draft report on the composition of the museum states:

While a large proportion of this section will consist only of records, it is proposed to make small-scale models showing the costumes and equipment of women in various operations in which they have either been solely engaged, or have substituted men.

The plaster models were fragile, and though many examples remain in the museum’s collection, most have required conservation treatment since they were made and now very rarely displayed. Photographs were to be a key feature of the Women's Section whose scope, by May 1918, had expanded to include charts, badges, examples of munitions work, and original art work.

The working plan divided the collection into a number of sub-sections. Lady Violet Mond was made responsible for recording the work of hospitals, and a questionnaire was compiled for dispatch to all home hospitals. Miss Conway took special care of foreign aid, such as the Fund for Wounded Belgian Soldiers, and work by the university women's colleges. Other sub-sections included the British Red Cross and Voluntary Aid Detachments, huts and canteens, Auxiliary Army services, relief work, employment, munitions, education, national economy, agriculture, women's honours and memorials, and journalistic records.

It was perhaps inevitable that the Women's Work Section should be looked upon as the museum's poor relation. With no established site or suitable stores the Museum Committee could only promise them 5,000 square feet of space. Even the Director-General's recommendation that an historian should be appointed to provide a written account of the role of women in the war, regrettably, was not adopted.

In November 1917, arrangements were finalised for an interim exhibition of the Imperial War Museum's collections at Burlington House, pending the museum acquiring its own public premises. Organized by the British Red Cross Society (BRCS), which bore all the costs incurred, the profits were to go to the BRCS's joint war effort with the Order of St John. The women had a hurried two months to complete arrangements for the exhibition. Matters were not helped when an untimely bomb damaged the gallery and resulted in a re-allocation of display space, ffoulkes declaring that he was at his 'wits end to know how to fit everyone in as it is'. More pressure was exerted on the accommodation given to the Women's Section when the Australian High Commission wrote proposing to use some of their allotted wall space for a display of official Australian war art, and a further difficulty arose when the organisers quashed the Section's plans to include in its area a special munitions recruitment stand for the Ministry of Labour and forbade them to use temporary exhibits. Miss Conway wrote to the Ministry of Labour expressing her regret at this decision which 'from our point of view is a fiasco'.

The Section's first big solo moment came in April 1918 when Campbell Ross, Secretary of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, agreed to host an exhibition of women's work. The lower gallery was occupied by material provided by the Women's Work Subcommittee itself and included exhibits relating to significant individuals such as Edith Cavell, the women of Pervyse and Sergeant-Major Flora Sandes among displays devoted to munitions, hospitals, substitution in industry, canteens, honours and memorials.

The Ministry of Labour agreed to fill the top gallery with material relating to the various women’s services - the Women's Forage Corps, the Women's Land Army, Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC), the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) and Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) with the proviso that all items exhibited should thereafter become the property of the museum.

The exhibition opened on 7 October. Admission was free and by the time it closed six weeks later 82,000 people had visited it, including the Queen and Princess Mary. The press published many photographs of the exhibits including that of a bust of Edith Cavell and of the two royal visitors examining the Women's War Shrine, over which Lady Norman had laboured long, adorning it with flowers. Particular interest was shown in the artwork on display, which included Lucy Kemp-Welch's remount scene, Anna Airy's painting of women working in a gas retort and Clare Atwood's depiction of Green Cross workers at Victoria Station.

The museum's new premises at the Crystal Palace opened to the public in June 1920. Lack of space and an unappealing site led the Women's Work Subcommittee to seek professional advice with regard to the memorial section which was to be 'in a very unattractive corner ... with every disadvantage.' They were also required to be 'economical' and the familiar round of letters with regard to stands, cases, mountings and plinths was soon resuscitated. Damage to exhibits and mountings was commonplace - £5 had to be paid out to Messrs Farmer and Brindley for damage to two marble pedestals loaned for the grand opening on 7 July 1920.

Illustrations of all aspects of women's work were acquired - over 3,400 had been collected by the time of the museum’s second annual report. A vast proportion of the documentary records gathered were acquired by the diligent efforts of Agnes Conway. Hundreds of letters were dispatched to organisations asking for a written account of their wartime activities and statistics relating to the employment of women. The correspondence with the Scottish Women's Hospitals is a good example of the pleading but forthright tone which Miss Conway adopted in pursuit of archival material.

We should very much like other exhibits to show ...in addition to Mestrovic's bust... 1 am wondering whether Dr, Hutcheson would part with the Union Jack which she carried under her skirt while she was an Austrian prisoner.

One gem which emerged is an account by a Miss Joan Williams entitled A munition worker's career at Messrs Gwynnes, Ltd., Chiswick, 1915-I919. In a letter enclosed with the typescript, the author warns: 'l feel it is dreadfully unworthy but I did my best as I said l would and wish I could have recounted some more thrilling things'. She was one of the first women to be taken on as unskilled or semi-skilled labour, but as the war continued the numbers swelled:

There was an indescribable scrimmage before 7.00 with the night shift going off and the day shift arriving and it was no uncommon thing to see your hat knocked off its peg and go footballing about without anyone bothering to pick it up, and be unable to move yourself in a crowd of people, all hopping on one leg, taking off or putting on their boots.

Plainly written, it conveys a real sense of factory life; the rigour of the hours, the pleasures of learning new skills, the relationship between girls and bosses, girls and the rival men, the jealousies and the helping hands, the pride and exhaustion of working, the description of a royal visit, and the travel to and from work in the blackout and during air-raids.

The appeal for descriptive accounts of organised activities drew a good response. Several extraordinary women such as Mrs St Claire Stobart and Lady Muriel Paget of the Anglo-Russian Hospital, Sergeant-Major Flora Sandes of the Serbian Army, and the 'Women of Pervyse' gave what time and help they could. The latter (Baroness T'Serclaes and Miss Mairi Chisholm) gave not only their published wartime experiences describing their aid in Belgium to wounded soldiers and war victims, but also the steel door and other sections of their dismantled dressing station. Dr Elsie Inglis, who had provided much-needed relief during the typhoid epidemic in Serbia, died shortly after her return to England, but her two sisters co-operated fully with the women's section by offering mementoes of her work. One prize piece, a bronze bust of the late doctor by the sculptor Mestrovic, was presented by the Serbian government.

A particularly useful element of the collection is the assembly of press cuttings. Covering such topics as munitions, agriculture, nursing, trades and professions, these albums, though not comprehensive, offer a useful gauge of public attitudes towards the changing role of women. Inevitably the issue of 'the woman's place' drew animated comment. In the Sunday Pictorial of 21 March 1915, Austin Harrison, editor of the English Review, declared that motherhood was the first duty of women suggesting that if they were to fail in this then a biological crisis would result.

By 1918, commentators were concerned not with whether women should perform 'men's work' or join auxiliary services, but whether they should receive equal pay for equal work. There was acknowledgement too of 'the new sense of responsibility that the war has developed in all ranks of women,' (Daily Telegraph) while the Evening Standard observed: 'The majority of girl clerks ... have become accustomed to a life of useful work, and for them the busy idleness of suburban gentility has lost its attraction.' In December 1918, Millicent Garrett Fawcett declared 'we cannot forget what our men have done during the war, but we must not forget either what the women have done, and we must be as ready to give them their chance as we are to help the men who come back.' Women had infiltrated every sphere where men were becoming short, especially the public services - tram and bus services, postal services, farming, on the canals, and so on. Little published material is available on many of these 'substitution' roles, and the press albums fill this gap.

By, the end of the war almost 700 women had died in the service of their country. Edith Cavell may have been one of the first to acquire an international reputation in death, but the Imperial War Museum wished to make sure that every woman who made the supreme sacrifice should be publicly commemorated. The Women's Work Collection is their memorial. It also remembered the living by documenting as many of the activities in which women had participated as a handful of volunteers could collate. Clearly, if an historian had been appointed to advise the Section the collecting activity might have been better channelled and a more statistical approach adopted. On the other hand, a more professional approach might have omitted some of the interesting sidelights, and lacked some of the enthusiasm displayed by the women. The achievement was immense, and all the more so when contrasted with the lack of a comparable response to the Second World War. There are omissions, certainly. Some of the more radical female political groups are not well-covered. However, would a contemporary historian drawn from the upper classes have done any better? Today we have a professional staff able to take advantage of digital technology to record the experiences of people living through conflict. The Women's Work Subcommittee had to rely largely on their wits and their personal contacts. Modern historians and students of history who have already used the collection and those that still have to discover its riches are forever indebted to Agnes Conway and Lady Norman for the unpaid effort they put into its compilation.