Category Archives: Women

Inside this Island Fortress, WVS Book Review

Jon Mill’s series on Home Front Insignia was originally planned to run to at least eight volumes, sadly it seems only the first four titles ever made it to publication. Of these I have already reviewed a couple of them and just before Christmas I managed to track down the first book in the series covering the Women’s Voluntary Service. This service was set up just before World War II to provide voluntary support to the ARP services, but as the war progressed found its remit extending into any role the government or local authorities needed it to fulfil. This included running canteens, organising rest centres and co-ordinating salvage drives. There are a number of excellent titles covering the work the WVS set out to do and this book is looking specifically at the insignia and ephemera of the service.skm_c30819011707540As such it is packed with both colour photographs of surviving items and black and white period shots of the badges and uniforms being worn. The WVS did not supply uniform to its members; they had to purchase it for themselves, but a small number of retailers were designated official suppliers and those who could afford uniform had something that matched their colleagues. Printed cloth brassards and badges were far more prevalent and worn with volunteers own civilian clothing. Mill’s covers a great many of these, both official and locally produced variations.skm_c30819011707550As with all Mill’s books the text is succinct, but highly readable and covers many of the items a collector is likely to encounter in detail. Jon Mill’s seems to have cornered the market in these sort of specialist publications on home front insignia, this however is not a bad thing as he is both hugely knowledgeable and a very readable author. This latter point is in some ways as important as the knowledge he is imparting. Many otherwise excellent reference books are let down by the author being unable to communicate his information in a clear way that is pleasurable to read- these books then become a chore to read. Happily with a Mill’s book you know that this will not be the case and even what could be a dry subject such as badge variations remains readable and accessible to the layman.

Unlike some of the other titles in this series, Mill’s covers the WVS in other countries as well. The organisation was copied in Canada and perhaps most significantly in India and he covers this organisation and its insignia in some detail which is a nice addition.skm_c30819011707551Copies of the book are available through the author, please email via the address on the ‘About’ page and I will be happy to put you in contact with him.. If you have an interest in the uniformed women’s services or the home front then this title is highly recommended.

Postcard of the Edith Cavell Memorial

This week’s postcard is a view of the Edith Cavell memorial in London:SKM_C284e18110611560 - Copy (2)This monument was unveiled in 1920 and this card was posted in 1921, just a year later. The monument was designed by Sir George Frampton and is situated just outside Trafalgar Square. Frampton adopted a distinctively Modernist style for the memorial, which comprises a 10 feet (3.0 m) high statue of Cavell in her nurse’s uniform sculpted from white Carrara marble, standing on a grey Cornish granite pedestal:SKM_C284e18110611560 - Copy (2) - CopyThe statue stands in front of the south side of a larger grey granite pylon which stands 40 feet high and weighs 175 tons. The top of the block is carved into a cross and statue of a mother and child, sometimes interpreted as the Virgin and Child:SKM_C284e18110611560 - Copy (3) - CopyOn the pedestal beneath the statue of Cavell is an inscription which reads: “Edith Cavell // Brussels // Dawn // October 12th 1915 // Patriotism is not enough // I must have no hatred or // bitterness for anyone.” The last three lines of the inscription quote her comment to Reverend Stirling Gahan, an Anglican chaplain who was permitted to give her Holy Communion on the night before her execution. These words were initially left off, and added in 1924 at the request of the National Council of Women.

The face of the granite block behind the statue of Cavell bears the inscription “Humanity”, and higher up, below the Virgin and Child, “For King and Country”. Other faces of the block bear the inscriptions, “Devotion”, “Fortitude”, and “Sacrifice”. On the rear face of the block is a carving of a lion crushing a serpent, and higher up, the inscription, “Faithful until death”.

Edith Cavell was a British nurse who was working in German occupied Belgium in the first World War. She was responsible for helping up to 200 British soldiers escape capture by the Germans and when this was discovered she was executed by them as a traitor. This naturally made her a martyr to the British and her remains were repatriated to Great Britain after the war and following a service in Westminster Abbey buried in Norwich Cathedral.

The site chosen for the statue had previously been occupied by a monument to General Gordon which was relocated to Khatoum. The design of the memorial did not receive universal praise with the author Osbert Sitwell describing the memorial in his 1928 book “People’s Album of London Statues” wrote that:

with its absurd babies and all its apocryphal tackle of quite meaningless and sentimental allegory, further vitiated by a mistaken effort at German modernity, is an eyesore and atrocity of the most infamous kind.

The monument still stands near Trafalgar Square and is the site of pilgrimage for devotees of Edith Cavell on the anniversary of her death when floral tributes are laid for her.The_Edith_Cavell_Memorial_(5992690965)_(cropped)

Wren Petty Officer’s Badges

Last year we looked at a wartime Petty Officer’s badge in red thread here. That example was for a male PO in working dress and recently I have been lucky enough to pick up an example of the same badge, but in blue:imageThe blue colour indicates that the badge was for a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, whilst the king’s crown indicates that this is a badge from the Second World War. The badge has clearly been worn on a uniform at some point, but it still retains the paper backing to protect the rear of the stitching:imageIn the same purchase of the petty officer’s badge, this trade badge of an ‘S’ inside a star was included:imageThis is a Wren’s trade badge for the supply branch and many Wrens were drafted into this branch to manage the navy’s stores in warehouses ashore, freeing up men for service aboard ship. It is likely that this pair of badges has been together since the war. Again this patch has been worn, but retains its backing:imageOne Wren Petty Officer describes some of her duties in wartime:

In April 1942 I joined the WRNS and was sent to Alton where we had a 6-month course at a place called Surbiton Towers. We learned morse code and had to read it at 25 words a minute, four-letter code. We had to pass at over 90% before we were allowed to be considered competent and sent to a wireless station.

I was sent to Scarborough with a number of other Wrens. It was a new underground station and we worked shifts 8 — 1, 1 — 11 and 11 — 8. I remember one time when all the lights fell down and as we were underground, we were in the pitch black. However, up there, we didn’t really come into contact with the War as there was no bombing etc…

Then I went to a holding depot in Rochester and was sent to Greenwich Royal Naval College where I was a writer keeping records etc. From there I was sent to Chelsea Embankment and as I was a writer, I got interested in running the WRNS quarters. I became Petty Officer Quarters Assistant. I loved that — it was a very interesting job. I went to Parkstone Gardens, Chelsea. I had to see that they had their meals which was a very busy job. I think we had about a shilling a day for each Wren — of course, a shilling would buy quite a lot then but you still had to make sure that nothing was wasted. I also had to see that the quarters were clean and well run.

When we were in London with the bombing, we really sort of treated it as routine. We had wire netting on the windows. On the siren sounding, we had to go to the basement. Quarters were almost empty during the day as staff were out on duty. When I was in charge of the register at Chelsea, they were allowed to go and sleep elsewhere as long as they were registered and it was considered better to disperse them so as to avoid the problems of direct hits. If they were able to go home or to someone they knew that was all right. I went home of an evening and I think that was reassuring for my Mother

Here we see Wren Constance Hale with the petty officer’s badge clearly visible on her sleeve:PearnConstanceWRNSPettyOfficerHMSPhilante

World War Two Humorous Postcard

This week we have a nice little postcard from the Second World War. The fit (or lack thereof) of army uniforms has long been a source of humour and one famous joke went that in the army there were two sizes of clothing, too large and too small. If your uniform fitted you , then you were clearly the wrong size. This card though pokes gentle fun at the size of army trousers:SKM_C284e18060515060In many ways the back of the postcard is more interesting than the front:SKM_C284e18060515061The card was sent to a Private Hatfield of the ATS who was based in Chilwell:SKM_C284e18060515061 - CopyIt seems to have been sent by a fellow ATS member, possibly on leave:SKM_C284e18060515061 - Copy (2)The card reads:

Dear Margaret

I am having a fine time, dancing, beer and men, but it’ll be grand to see all the girls in Camp. Hope you are all fine in Hut 44.

Love Peggy

Chilwell Camp was particularly large, as recalled by one member of the ATS, Joan Ball:

After training I was sent to Chilwell, Nottinghamshire. The camp was enormous, with three thousand army personnel and three thousand civilians. Military policemen were on duty at all the entrances and we had to salute every officer we met. We were billeted in the Queen Elizabeth Barracks, a large building on top of a hill. The dining room, catering for a thousand girls, was huge. The food was generally plain and rather stodgy. We had scrambled egg, which arrived on huge trays and was made from dried egg, for breakfast. It was not a pretty sight; but it was either that or porridge. We brought bread and cheese back from meals to toast for supper while sitting around the fire trying to keep warm. Mother sent me food parcels occasionally, which was a treat.

Fortunately there weren’t too many air raids. Life was busy but we had plenty of leisure pursuits at the camp. Telephones were a luxury in most homes at the time so I wrote lots of letters.

I was trained as a clerical officer. After passing my exams I was allocated to an office about a mile from the barracks. It being such a large camp, discipline required that we march to work in platoons. When it was dark the last person at the rear carried a lantern. Eventually I was promoted to Lance Corporal and was in charge of the platoon as well as joining the guard duty rota at the barracks.

M Newberry was another at Chilwell:

I served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (A.T.S) and the Women’s Royal Army Corps (W.R.A.C) from 1940 to 1951. I was aged 23 when I volunteered to join the A.T.S at the recruiting office in Trinity Square, Nottingham on 12th September 1940. A week later I was embodied at Neville’s Cross Recruiting Depot, County Durham on 20th September 1940. After 3 weeks training and being kitted out in uniform I was posted to Central Ordnance Depot (C.O.D), Chilwell, Notts, Platoon 4, Hut 48 on 11th October 1940.

From then my work was in the Depot M.T. (Mechanical Transport) Stores, Building 157, R.A.O.C (Royal Army Ordnance Corps), with the road and railway bringing the stores in at one end and the rail and road taking the stores out to all the war zones at the other end.

The A.T.S were billeted in a camp on the hill overlooking the Depot brick huts with the so called ‘Donkey Store’ (hard to get going). These huts housed 24 girls each. They had to be meticulously cleaned each day, except weekends, for inspection, with all bedding barracked perfectly. This was before we marched on parade to and from work, twice a day to the Depot.

The stores we were packing were for the R.A.O.C and we had to be Trade Tested and learn about stores. This meant that we were given an increase in pay when we passed these Tests and then allowed to wear the R.A.O.C badge over the lapel coat pocket. After that we worked hard to earn promotion, I was fortunate to gain a quick year of holding Lance Corporal, Corporal, Sergeant, Staff Sergeant ranks in 1942/43. Then finally I was promoted to Warrant Officer II in 1945, which is shown in my records.

Trade Testing gave us a foresight into stores we could be handling in the course of our work, particularly the areas due to receive them in all corners of the world such as in the African Campaign, the North Atlantic (Mumansk) and Japanese (Far East) where stores were specially treated for the climatic conditions for example Tank Sealing (Arcticisation) for Russia, (Wax Dipping) South East Asia Command for humidity. Welding and tyre re-treading was a speciality done by A.T.S as well as Clerks, Cooks, Orderlies and Admin. We had Russian representatives stationed in the Depot to oversee the Arcticisation of tanks, vehicles and spares.

Night shift was introduced as the war intensified and bunk beds were introduced to accommodate more A.T.S up to 5,000 in Chilwell from all over the country and the British Empire e.g. Jamaica. D Day, VE Day and VJ Day will long be remembered by the A.T.S. who were stationed at Chilwell.

At the end of the war we still had plenty of work to do as stores were returned to Chilwell by the troops coming home. This continued until my demob number was due and after careful consideration I decided to accept my recommendation for a Commission in the A.T.S.

Female Pierrot with Machine Gun Corps Cap

This week’s image is rather unusual and depicts a young lady in what appears to be the dress of a pierrot, wearing an army cap:SKM_C284e18041711450The cap has the badge of the Machine Gun Corps:SKM_C284e18041711450 - Copy (5)Whilst the dress has distinctive pom-poms on it, typical of the costumes worn by pierrots:SKM_C284e18041711450 - Copy (6)The pierrot show was hugely popular in the United Kingdom throughout the first half of the twentieth century. The concept had been taken from the French pierrot shows and brought to this country in 1891 by the singer and banjoist Clifford Essex. The character of pierrot came from French pantomime and wore baggy clothes in black or white, with contrasting pom-poms sewn on. English pierrot troupes consisted of a number of men who dressed up in distinctive costumes and then put on concert parties with singing, dancing, jokes and juggling amongst their repertoires. They became synonymous with shows on the piers of the country’s seaside towns and throughout World War One soldiers set up their own pierrot troupes as part of concert parties put on to amuse the troops. The popularity of these shows was such, that even the Australians copied the concept creating their own ‘Digger pierrot’ troupes. This young lady would probably not have been one of these troupes operating near the front line, although there were women in YMCA concert parties in France during the war, it is more likely for her to have belonged to a group back in the United kingdom putting on shows for either convalescent troops or even just the general public. Her costume is clearly inspired by the traditional male pierrot costume, but made as a dress rather than as baggy trousers and a jacket.

Happily someone has written on the date, 1917, to the photograph so we can date it:SKM_C284e18041711450 - Copy (7)The girl in the photograph may just be larking around with some props in the photographer’s studio, however I do not feel that is the case and I suspect she was genuinely involved in entertainment as a pierrot of some sort. These photographs are very intriguing, but often throw up far more questions than can easily be answered.

Unissued Women’s No 2 Dress Uniform Jacket

I don’t collect a lot of women’s uniform items for my collection, however occasionally something turns up where the price is so cheap I really can’t leave it there, hence the unissued Women’s Service Dress jacket tonight that I picked up for just 50p:imageThis jacket is based very closely on the men’s No2 Service dress jacket, but cut to fit the female figure and buttoning to the opposite side. Other changes made include changing the exterior pockets to a simple straight slit pocket:imageThis example has never been issued so there is a series of white thread ‘x’s up the front indicating where the buttons would be sewn:imageThis allows one uniform to be manufactured and the correct regimental buttons added later by the owner, thus saving the costs of having to have several different patterns manufactured. The shoulder straps are also sewn down with white thread:imageThe jacket came with a packet of staybrite buttons for the Adjutant General’s Corps in the pocket:imageThe Adjutant General’s Corps was formed in 1992 and provides much of the administrative support needed to run the army. It was formed from personnel drawn from

  • Army Legal Corps
  • Corps of Royal Military Police
  • Military Provost Staff Corps
  • Royal Army Educational Corps
  • Royal Army Pay Corps
  • Women’s Royal Army Corps
  • Staff clerks from the Royal Army Ordnance Corps
  • Clerks from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME)

The inside of the jacket is fully lined, with a small change pocket sewn in, inside of which is the original cutter’s label from when it was first manufactured:imageA white stores label is sewn into the inside of the jacket with sizing, which for women has a bust size rather than a chest size:imageThis jacket would have been worn with a khaki blouse and tie and a matching skirt, accompanied by a peaked regimental cap for parades:CaptureThis particular design of jacket has now been rendered obsolete by the new ‘FAD’ dress uniform introduced at the start of this decade and like most items of parade uniform can be picked up very cheaply on the surplus market.

Royal Artillery Compact

One group of items that women always struggled to find during the Second World War were cosmetics, with production of what were often seen as frivolous vanity items severely curtailed. In 1940 the British government introduced the Limitation of Supplies Order that reduced production to just 25% of its pre-war capacity. Companies that had previously made cosmetics were put over to war production, making foot powders for the military. With such shortages, it is unsurprising that makeup, or lack of it, became a common problem for many women. It was recognised that beauty products did help boost morale, and could help disguise how tired and drab a female workforce was feeling working long hours. Despite this, there was never enough supply to meet demand. In 1942 to save metal it became illegal to make powder compacts from metal (plastic had to be substituted). Before this date however most manufacturers enjoyed some success with compacts that featured regimental badges on the front, either as a transfer or as a separately attached badge. Tonight we have an example of one of these compacts:imageThis features the badge of the Royal Artillery:imageThese compacts were popular keepsakes to be bought by servicemen for their wives and girlfriends, the appropriate badge for their branch of service being chosen. The largest regiments such as the Royal Artillery and RASC are the most common of these compacts to find today due to the larger volume of production in the 1940s. Opening up the compact we can see a mirror and a small hinged lid:imageThis opens up to reveal the powder compartment:imageEngraved on the outside of the lid is the trade name ‘Vogue Vanitie’ and that it was made in England:imageDaphne Crisp recalls some of the details of wartime makeup and hairdressing:

I was a young woman working as a hairdresser in the shop, “Dancers” in Braintree. Dancers was a large store with both a barbers and a hairdressers selling expensive cosmetics by Elizabeth Arden and Yardley. There was always great excitement when some make up came in and everyone would be desperate to get it.

There were just young apprentices like myself and older women working as hairdressers there, as all the women aged eighteen and over were doing essential war work. We had only basic soft soap to wash the hair and gum tragent, a really harsh setting lotion which we mixed ourselves. My customers ranged from local ladies, nurses working at Black Notley and prostitutes coming down from London. These were really good tippers and liked to have their hair swept up and clipped at the sides, showing a bare shaved neck.