First World War Centenary: How women’s rights shaped the social climate of post-war Havering
12:54 28 January 2014
The senseless slaughter invoked by the First World War – the “war to end all wars” – ended the lives of 16 million people worldwide and permanently maimed many millions more.
In Havering the repercussions of the conflict were no different, with the scores of names on the war memorials highlighting the losses its communities suffered.
And for those of the lost generation who survived, their lives were irrevocably changed; with many suffering from loss of limb, shell-shock and the struggles of “reintegrating” into society.
The experiences of such soldiers is where the impact of the war is the most keenly felt, but it also heralded a period of social change in the borough.
None more so than for women; who had responded with enthusiasm to their call to arms.
More than 300 worked at the munitions factory which was created at the Roneo Works in Romford, with others serving at the Oldchurch Workhouse Infirmary and the army camps of Hare Hall, Gidea Park.
Although their fight for rights gained credence after the war, the roots of the movement were still gaining some notice beforehand.
Cllr Andrew Curtin, a historian and Havering Council’s cabinet member for culture, towns and communities, said: “Some local people were engaged in the campaign for women to have the vote and equal rights.
“A major suffragette march from East Anglia in 1913 stopped at Romford and women such as Frances Bardsley were key in ensuring girls were educated.”
Bardsley was the founder in 1906 of a Romford school for girls that took her name and still exists today.
Despite many females being pushed out of their roles by the returning men in 1918, others continued to work. “Women worked as ticket collectors on buses,” said historian Brian Evans. “Even though that wasn’t a brilliant job, it was more about meeting the public.
“Eventually they became booking clerks if they were clever and good at sums.”
In 1918, the Metropolitan Police created an experimental unit of women, who dealt specifically with women and children. Their roles included advising girls about their behaviour and co-operating with welfare organisations. They were not able to arrest people until several years later.
One of the most well-known was 26-year-old Dora Jordan, the daughter of an Essex policeman, who patrolled in Hornchurch from August until October 1919.
Another notable female was Grace Hewitson, who worked as a telephone operator at Sutton’s Farm Aerodrome, Hornchurch. She was one of the first Women’s Royal Air Force personnel there.
The Great War also sparked a change in residents’ everyday lives, including the wealthy; whose circumstances had already started to shift.
“The big estates which used to dominate the area were in terminal decline,” said Cllr Curtin, “And with them the way of life and social structures that they supported.”
Highlights of Havering’s centenary programme
- An exhibition hosted by Havering Museum and Local Studies
- The restoration of the borough’s main war memorials
- Poppy planting over the next four years
- A letter-writing project with local schools
- Library talks
- A timeline and dedication to soldiers at Rainham Library
- A Queen’s Theatre musical about pilot William Leefe Robinson
- Living history attractions
Country houses such as Gidea Hall, Dagnams and Bedfords were still running, but experienced the problem of a lack of staff.
“Women and men who were involved in the war realised they didn’t want to be servants anymore, so it wasn’t easy to find them,” said Mr Evans.
“Most of those left were really dedicated.”
The mindset behind this was the idea of people wanting a better life and in some ways they did – with the rise of retail in Romford and the social spirit which came with the 1920s.
But the spectre of the Great War was not forgotten.
“Everybody had relations of some sort that were killed,” said Mr Evans. “And before the war people would have been very jingoistic, but after they realised that they did a service to the country but didn’t know what they had fought for.”
Did a member of your family serve in the First World War? Do you have stories or memories from the period that you would like to share? Have you uncovered little-known facts or researched a particular subject to do with the war?
We would love to hear from our readers to help shape our coverage of the centenary year.
Get in touch through Twitter or Facebook, email reporter Beth Wyatt at email@example.com, call 020 8477 3800 or write to Beth Wyatt, Romford Recorder, 539 High Road, Ilford, IG1 1UD, to take part.