Women at War


At the start of the war the motto had been “Business as Usual”, based on the assumption that the victory would be quickly won and would not therefore  require any fundamental economic and social changes. During the course of 1915 it became clear that “Business as Usual” would not suffice, although many changes were slow to take place.  It wasn’t until October 1915 that Newport Technical Institute turned out its first batch of men and women trained for the munitions industry, in this case for Ebbw Vale Munitions Works. 

In some professions women replaced men more quickly than in others.  All but two “Class A” male teachers in Monmouthshire volunteered for military service early in the war and were replaced by women. The secretary of the Newport branch of the National Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen and Clerks reported that there had been a boom in the number of female clerks and that a number of women had left shop work to take up this new profession.  While the number of males in the branch had fallen from 237 to 195 during the year, the number of women had increased from 150 to 267.

The increase in the number of women workers was not, however,  as great as is often thought.  The fact that in January 1916 the local press thought it newsworthy to report that a “girl postman” had been appointed in Aberbeeg (with another three by June), to relieve male postmen who  had been called up indicates that it was still something of a novelty.

Attitudes towards women workers were slow to change, particularly in the heavy industries that dominated the valleys. In 1916 managers at every colliery in Monmouthshire rejected suggestions from the conscription tribunal dealing with miners that they should employ women. When the colliery manager at Lancasters, Cwmtillery,  was asked by the Local appeals Tribunal to try to find a substitute for a surface worker who had been called up, he replied “You would not suggest that women should be employed? It would be very awkward for women to get about among the trucks in petticoats.”  The “first professional woman driver” in Newport was not employed until March 1916, when Miss Jane Howe began to drive the West Park laundry van.  It wasn’t until the end of 1916 that Finches shipbuilders in Chepstow employed its first women workers.  Even then only 14 were taken on.

The farmers were initially reluctant to use women.  With much of the work on farms still being done without the aid of motorised machinery, the hard physical labour and sheer brute strength required for jobs such as ploughing with teams of horses was considered to be beyond women.

Even in occupations that might be considered to be more appropriate to women, the numbers employed were limited.  Newport Technical Institute did not begin training women for clerical work until 1916, while women shipping clerks were “a rarity” at Newport Docks.  A larger number seem to have been employed as railway clerks.  At a meeting of the Newport branch of the Railway Clerks Association, the chairman welcomed the large number of ladies present and, unusually for the trade union movement at the time, reminded the meeting that it was the union’s policy to achieve equal pay for equal work.   

In January 1918, the Blaina Co-operative Society, which had a large number stores in the Western Valleys, employed 95 women, but also 165 men.  When the conscription appeals tribunal reviewed the cases of 12 of the Co-op’s exempted male employees –the secretary, two managers, two bakers, one ledger clerk, three grocery assistants, a provision hand, a boot and shoe repairer and an electrical engine attendant- the General Manager appealed for their continued exemption on the grounds that their work had greatly increased during the war, stating somewhat over-dramatically that “the substitution of females would be absolutely fatal”. 

Farmers were initially slow to see the potential of female labour.  In March 1916 Newport War Agricultural Committee was told that certain other areas of Britain were making much greater use of women (notably Scotland, where 40% or rural women worked on the land) and resolved to set up a “Ladies Committee”.  The farmers were more keen on using German prisoners of war, but were told that there were none in Monmouthshire.    

Young women from wealthier families did much to convince the farmers.  Miss Clay of Piercefield Park, Chepstow, daughter of the Chairman of Monmouthshire Chamber  of Agriculture formed a squad of  13 “ladies” at St Arvans to work at such tasks as distributing manure. 

By harvest time 1916 the farmers’ attitudes were changing and the use of female labour was becoming more organised..  Lady Mather Jackson, in a presentation to the Monmouthshire War Agricultural Committee, was able to report that the Ladies Committee had appointed registrars in every village to canvas women and to arrange meetings with farmers.  278 women had been registered and arrangements had been made with the Usk Agricultural Institute to take between four and six trainees at a time for one month courses.   The scheme seemed most popular in the Chepstow area, where a squad of 20 women were working five days a week under the direction of Miss Clay.  In the Monmouth district, however, it was reported that the farmers were far more reluctant to take on women, preferring instead to employ old men, and the total hours worked by females amounted to less than 50 per week.

Even with formation of the Women’s Land Army, the number of females working on the land remained limited.  In January 1918, Lady Mather Jackson reported that in Monmouthshire 182 girls working on farms plus 16 in forestry.

In some cases women were left to run their own farms.  By 1916 Mrs Harriett Evans , aged 63, and her daughter were running Hollybush at Malpas, a 104 acre farm with 23 acres of arable land, 40 beef cattle and 17 dairy cows.

It was not always easy to find women to replace men.  Abergavenny Rural District Council sought to replace its missing roadmen with women but had been unsuccessful. The language used in discussions between the Surveyor and members of the RDC illustrates that they were not used to talking about female labour and unintentional humour was caused when the Surveyor stated to councillors  “if you engage women on the roads I must insist that members of the council do not interfere with them.  They must be left absolutely to me.”    

It was becoming increasingly apparent that the mass involvement of women in the workplace and other aspects of the war effort would have profound social effects in the future.  Lady Rhondda gave an indication of this in a speech she gave while  opening a Red Cross Hospital in Newport in 1916: “After the war women are not going to sit at home but are going out in the world to work besides their husbands and brothers.”  In May 1916 Sylvia Pankhurst addressed an ILP meeting at the Empire in Blaina. The meeting passed a resolution calling for the vote for all men and women at the age of 21. 

Although it brought a degree of liberation and independence, the new forms of work  also brought hardship and sacrifice.  In November 1916 Gladys Pritchard of Baldwin Street, Newport, died of TNT poisoning, contracted while working in the shell factory at Pembrey. Working conditions were often harsh, even in occupations that seemed relatively light.  According to one of their number, Newport tram girls  found themselves  starting split shifts which began  at 7.30 a.m. and did not end until midnight or beyond.  They were subjected to harsh industrial discipline, not being allowed, for example, to sit down in the tram even if there were no passengers on board.  Although they were being paid £1 a week, they found that any “shortages” caused by giving incorrect change (a frequent occurrence during the blackout) were immediately taken from their wages. Such deductions often amounted to 25% of their earnings. Some women workers began to stand up against such treatment. In August 1918 female workers from the Abertillery Steam Laundry  came out on strike against regular cuts in their wages when work was slack. 

The growing independence of women was not welcomed in all quarters.  The belief that greater numbers of women were to be seen drinking in pubs drew particular disapproval came from several quarters.  In April 1915 it was reported that a number of publicans in Newport were banning women from purchasing alcohol. Newport Watch Committee issued an appeal to licence-holders to “exercise their influence in prohibiting undue drinking among women”.  A Newport Temperance worker, Miss Charlotte Griffiths, declared to a conference in Newport in 1916, “Why had not the Government prohibited the sale of strong drink to women at the commencement of the war … It was a crying shame it was possible for women to have drink”. 






The more we do the more we may,

It makes no difference to our pay:

We stand and work the whole day long,

The praise we get is ‘that is wrong’.

And women are a load of fools,

Cannot even set their tools;

We get but nineteen bob a week

The reasons is not for to seek

We do as much you see but then

We must not earn as much as men.

The hours are seven until three,

Are fair enough you will agree,

But what we earn and what we get,

Doesn’t coincide as yet.




They were told that the panacea was to employ women. Personally he was afraid that in this part of the county they could not get much assistance from female labour.  They might get women to milk and to hoe and weed.