The lives of women across Norfolk were completely changed by the First World War with many left to look after their families and take on the role of provider while their husbands went to war.
Local communities utilised their skills to assist the war effort – from fishermen’s wives mending nets ready to be used on the drifters, to farming families becoming land girls to help feed to nation.
STORIES FROM THE FLEGGS
The Flegg Villages of Hemsby, Martham, Winterton, Somerton, Scratby and Caister, are situated north of Great Yarmouth. They have been farming and fishing communities for centuries due to the luscious farmland and being near to the North Sea.
This fishing industry continued during the First World War. Local fishermen’s wives were employed to mend nets ready to be used on the drifters. They worked in big long buildings called ‘netting chambers’ at Winterton and Caister. These women were called ‘Beatsters’. Along with mending fishing nets, local women also collected people’s laundry to wash and iron for a small fee.
Land girls were vital in feeding the country and the Army over in Europe. This wasn’t new for most women as they had been working the land alongside men for centuries. The Vineries in Hemsby, owned by Mr and Mrs King, hosted a group of land girls who worked on the farm. However, during the First World War methods of farming changed. Horses, which were traditionally used to help farm the land, were in short supply with many of them sent to France for the use of the Army. Tractors were imported from the USA and in July 1917, J.J. Wright a local agricultural engineer, distributed them on behalf of the Government. No one had seen a tractor prior to this.
Violet Meal (neé Durrant) from Caister actively served as a nurse during the First World War. Violet was one of 57,000 women across the country to join the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC) between January 1917 and November 1918. She was sent to Audruicq, France, to nurse the wounded soldiers but unfortunately while she was there she contracted an unknown illness. She died on the 3 April 1920 at the age of 31. Violet is one of 21 Norfolk women who died in military service during the First World War commemorated with a Commonwealth War Graves Memorial.
WOMEN OF RAVENINGHAM
Raveningham was an estate village, with the majority of the land and houses owned by the Bacon family. The 1911 Census recorded how local women were employed, 51 of them had no outside paid work and no income of their own.
The majority of the women in paid employment were working as servants, housekeepers and char women. The exceptions were Elizabeth Mead (dairy worker); Elizabeth Curran (postmistress); Sarah Grice (drapers Assistant); Gertrude and Frances Hoyle (headteachers at County Council Elementary Schools) and Edna Pembroke (teacher at Raveningham Hall).
Early in the war it was recognised that it was necessary to gain the support of women for the war effort. At nearby Loddon, a well-attended meeting was held in the Lecture Hall on 14 October 1914 where Miss Morris of London gave an address on ‘Women and the War’. She explained what the women could do to help in the present crisis.
All ages could ‘do their bit’. The East Suffolk Gazette recorded: “For some time past the elder girls attending the Raveningham school have been busily engaged in knitting woollen goods for the soldiers and Mrs Bacon sent off to the front, nineteen pairs of socks, four pairs of cuffs and ten pairs of mittens.”
The Bacon daughters were also involved in charitable work. They took part in a concert arranged by Mrs Thackerey at nearby Norton Subcourse for The Belgian Refugee Fund and Norton School Fund.
As pressure grew to keep Britain fed and more men were sent to the front, more women worked on the land. However, the large number of local men who had gone to serve their ‘King and Country’ left a big gap in Raveningham during the war. Many of them did survive but 17 did not return and the loss of these men had a profound effect on their local community for years afterwards.
During the war Great Yarmouth was attacked four times by the Germans from the sea and air. On 3 November 1914, Yarmouth was bombarded with shells fired from German War ships just off the coast. They missed and hit the beach instead causing no destruction. The attack lasted 90 minutes. Shortly afterwards blackouts were called for and a train patrolled the coast from Mundesley to Yarmouth keeping watch.
Yarmouth faced another attack on 14 January 1915, when the Germans dropped bombs onto the town. Yarmouth was the first British town to suffer the wrath of the German Zeppelin but it wasn’t the last.
St Peter’s Plain was badly hit and two people were killed. The First and Last Tavern on Southgate Road, Fish Wharf (now the Dolphin Pub) and the Salvation Army Building were also hit. It was terrifying for the townsfolk, many of whom were women with children. Three people were seriously injured. The casualties of the bombings were as young as 14 and children were pulled from the rubble.
Soon the Zeppelins headed up the coast towards Kings Lynn where Alice Gazley (26) and Percy Goate (14), of Bentinck Street, were killed instantly as a result of shock.
Alice’s husband had been killed at Mons, in August 1914. She was taking shelter with the Fayer family when a bomb hit the house causing it to collapse. Alice was killed instantly while the members of the Fayer family were badly injured. The Goate family were in bed when a bomb hit their house. Mrs Goate gave an account of that night at the inquest of the death of her son.
“We were all upstairs in bed, me and my husband, and the baby, and Percy, when I heard a buzzing sound. My husband put on the lamp and I saw a bomb drop through the skylight and strike the pillow where Percy was laying. I tried to wake him, but he was dead. Then the house fell in. I don’t remember any more.”
It was later reported that the Germans were heading for the Humber but had ended up bombing the East Coast by “accident”. The attack on 14 January 1915 had left destruction, four people were killed, eight were severely injured and £7,000 (or £428,565 today) worth of damage was caused.
The following day a notice was sent to every household in the town and surrounding area on what to do in another attack or even in an invasion. People were told what routes they had to take if an evacuation was called.
In April 1916, Yarmouth was bombarded once more. Windows were broken and buildings shook. People left the town scared of what was to come.
The fourth (and final) attack on Yarmouth was on 14 January 1918, causing damage and destruction. In total four people were killed and eight people were injured.
Thousands of women across the country lost their husband or a loved one as a result of the First World War. Mourning and death became a way of life. Throughout the town, women wore black armbands due to a shortage of black for traditional mourning clothes. This is when the idea of wearing an armband instead of a black outfit came into effect.
THE STORY OF THE SUB-POSTMISTRESS
With the outbreak of war in 1914 every male employee of the General Post Office (GPO) was sent a letter encouraging him to enlist, causing a shortage in male labour. In the Norwich GPO this meant an increase in female telegraphists and clerks, whilst in the villages of Norfolk more women took on the role of sub- postmistress. Many rural post offices were run by sub-postmistresses within their husband’s or father’s business, often a local grocers or drapers. 151 sub-postmistresses are listed in Kelly’s Norfolk Trade Directory for 1916.
The role of sub-postmistress was much more common than that of a clerk or postmistress due to the GPO‘s marriage bar of 1847. The bar stated only single women could hold established positions, whilst married women had to take on the lesser paid, unestablished role of sub- postmistress. However, the lack of male labour did require the marriage bar to be temporarily abolished in the First World War.
The First World War generated a much greater workload for the Post Office, necessitating an increase in deliveries and therefore more female messengers. In Norwich GPO female telegraphists and clerks processed the influx of letters and telegraphs. The Post Office could not have handled such a work load without these temporary workers. Sub-postmistresses sorted all their local communications, connecting their community with their loved ones who were away at war. These postal services were vital for morale not just at home but also for soldiers as receiving letters and parcels from their relatives was one of the few comforts a soldier could look forward to. Being a postal worker was a rewarding role but could also be a painful duty.
Sub-postmistresses would be the first in their village to receive the bad news that somebody local had been killed or was missing in action.
Unfortunately, after the war ended many clerks were let go when male labour returned and sub-postmistresses were replaced by their husbands. Nevertheless, many sub-postmistresses continued their duties and by 1925 Norfolk had 48 more sub-postmistresses. They also left a legacy for the future: by the Second World War more than 100,000 women were female workers and the marriage bar was abolished in 1946.