Tag Archives: durham

The Shock of the New: Women in Trousers?!

In this guest blog, Caroline Nielsen explores how war changed the lives of women on the home front not just in terms of their daily work, but in the clothes they wore to do it.

One day in early 1915 in the pit village of Horden, County Durham, 22 year-old Elizabeth “Lizzie” Holmes set off to post a letter for her father-in-law. She was on her way home from work, and the Post Office was on the way. This seemingly innocuous errand ended with her being mobbed by children.

Two female bag fillers use two short poles to assist a female coke heaver as she hoists a large sack of coke onto her back. © IWM (Q 30859)
Two female bag fillers use two short poles to assist a female coke heaver as she hoists a large sack of coke onto her back. © IWM (Q 30859)

Why did Lizzie inadvertently become the centre of attention that day? Lizzie was wearing men’s work clothes. Her heavy shirt, leather trousers and boots was the standard gear of all above-ground pit workers. Along with a number of her friends and neighbours, Lizzie had taken a labouring job at the local pit operating the coke ovens. For the first time, the children were confronted with a woman wearing an outfit that they had previously only associated with their fathers, grandfathers and older brothers. For one brief moment, Lizzie reminded all who saw her that the war had changed fundamentally changed British industry as they knew it. Women were taking men’s jobs in all industries, including in the male-dominated coal industry.

That the simple act of wearing men’s work clothes was evidently so shocking seems odd to modern audiences. But in 1915, trousers were an exclusively male garment. That doesn’t mean that women did not periodically wear trousers albeit in very limited contexts. Women’s fashion had toyed with the idea of trousers for at least three decades before Lizzie set off on her errand. A small number of Victorian and Edwardian ladies adopted baggy trousers and “bifurcated skirts” (long culottes) as part of their campaign against the restrictive fashions of the time. In spite of their efforts, trouser-wearing was not widely adopted until the late 1920s and 1930s when masculine tailoring became a staple of haute couture. Even the sportiest Edwardian lady pilots and racing-car drivers preferred to tie their long skirts modestly around their ankles.

This caricature of the 'new woman' as a mechanical toy shows a version of 'rational dress', which evolved in protest against the tyranny of traditional physically-restricting fashions for women. National Archives: COPY 1/174 no.312 (16 Jan 1901)
A caricature of the ‘new woman’ which shows a version of ‘rational dress’, which evolved in protest against physically-restricting fashions for women. National Archives: COPY 1/174 no.312 (16 Jan 1901)

Male impersonators were also a regular feature on British music hall circuits where performers like Vesta Tilley drew large audiences. These women performed risqué songs while dressed as young men. Part of the thrill was that audience could see their legs! Lower-class women had, of course, been wearing work trousers for centuries. During the Victorian era, leather trousers were associated with the “pit brow lasses” of Lancashire. Women who chose to wear “men’s clothes” outside of these contexts risked a more negative response from their communities. Cross-dressing was a moral issue. By the early twentieth century, dressing in masculine clothes was gradually being associated with lesbianism. Trousers were associated with clear contexts: politicised fashion and distinct regional trades. They were not associated with respectable miner’s wives, at least not in the Durham area. The fact that it was Lizzie, a woman who may have already attracted negative comments from her community, probably added to the children’s response.  She was an extrovert and in her own words, “a bit rough and ready”. She had tattoos, liked a drink, and on at least one occasion ended up in a fight, an event which she enjoyed describing when she was interviewed in her mid-80s.

Lizzie revelled in the notoriety of being proclaimed “the first woman in Horden to wear trousers!”. We will never know if this title was truly deserved. However, her story demonstrates how the First World War expanded the employment opportunities available to women. Lizzie was offered the opportunity to work in a trade that had previously been barred to her as a married woman in a County Durham village. The Northern Coalfield was almost exclusively male.  The 1911 census shows how shocking the arrival of female coke oven workers would have been in Horden: officially there were only 13 female coke workers recorded in the entire Durham area. While this figure was definitely an under-estimate, it explains why the children were so surprised!

Lizzie’s time in the coal industry was short-lived. Like most women who joined heavy industry during the First World War, Lizzie saw her wartime job as a temporary expedient. She expected to leave the job once her miner husband came home from the front. The majority of married women never entered the labour market during the war, believing that their place was at home with their families. The Government, trade unions and employers similarly saw women’s employment only as temporary. The end of the war saw the mass withdrawal of women from the labour market. Some went voluntarily like Lizzie. Many others were summarily dismissed. Some trade unions began lobbying for a ban on the employment of married women, concerned that the war had all too readily demonstrated that women were able to compete with their male counterparts. Women were encouraged to return to more “gender appropriate” trades like domestic service. Lizzie spent the rest of her working life as a charwoman, raising her family and caring for her wounded husband Jimmy.

Click here to view an image of Lizzie (front row, far right).

Lizzie was interviewed in 1976 as part of the Peterlee Development Project, a collaboration between the artist Stuart Brisley, Peterlee Council and the Artists Placement Group. Some of the materials from this are now available on through Durham County Records Office and their People Past and Present Archive.

Remembering Elisabethville: The Belgian Refugee “Colony” of Durham

In this guest blog, Caroline Nielsen relates the surprising history of Birtley and the Belgians.

5619167244_9b50ec7fee_z“The World War One at Home” project offers communities a chance to reflect on their histories and discover new, and sometimes surprising elements of their shared past. Few have a history as surprising as Birtley, County Durham*. During the First World War, this small industrial village was at the heart of Allied diplomatic relations when it became a central hub for thousands of Belgian soldiers and their families.

Birtley seems an unlikely place to uncover such a fascinating hidden history of wartime international politics. In 1914, Birtley was fairly typical of most North-East industrial communities of the time. Life revolved around the local mines and heavy industries. There were two small cinemas, the Co-Operatives, and a number of small churches and parks. The outbreak of the war in August 1914 changed Birtley for decades to come. Approximately 3,500 men from the local area enlisted into the armed services. Others left the area to work in other parts of industrial Tyneside. More significantly, the residents of Birtley gained over 4,000 new neighbours. Birtley was chosen as the site of two munitions factories, staffed entirely by Belgian soldiers, their families and other refugees. The resulting community was nicknamed “Elisabethville”, after the Belgian queen Elisabeth of Bavaria.


The outbreak of war in 1914 left many Belgians homeless and penniless. The historian Tony Kushner estimates that over 1 million fled the country, approximately one-sixth of the Belgian population. Of these, he estimates about 200,000 arrived in the UK. They were initially cared for by a series of central and local Refugee Committees, set up by well-meaning individuals and churches. All refugees had to register with their local Police and Committee, and inform them of their personal circumstances and movements. They also had to carry identity papers, or face arrest as German “enemy aliens”. Some were abused in public after being mistaken for Germans. Most Belgian refugees settled around London, although in other large communities formed in Birmingham, Winchester, and of course, in Birtley. At its height, Elisabethville accommodated between 2-3.75% of the entire Belgian refugee population living in the UK!

Elisabethville was the product of a unique diplomatic collaboration between the British and Belgian governments. The British built the munitions factories and the workers’ accommodation, and then turned the entire site over the Belgian government, who then provided the workforce. Most of the workers were injured soldiers and their families, although other refugees also worked there. Many had travelled from London, where some had worked in other Belgian-run munitions factories in Twickenham and Erith (Greater London). What made Elisabethville different from these other factories was the intention behind it. In return for the munitions from the factories, the British government allowed a sovereign Belgian “colony” to be temporarily established in Durham.

Elisabethville was a planned community for the munitions workers, similar to the community built for the “munitionettes” of Gretna. The workers and their families lived in purpose -built accommodation adjacent to the factories. Single men lived in hostels while married men and families lived in small prefabricated houses. More buildings were gradually added to Elisabethville, including an infants’ school, shops, church, and other amusements. It had its own official newspaper, “the Birtley Echo” written in English, French and Flemish. The Belgian authorities also brought over an independent police force and the camp was run according to Belgian law.


Despite their new homes having all the mod-cons (like flushing indoor toilets), life in Elisabethville was neither idyllic nor quiet. Munitions work was dangerous and many were seriously injured or killed in industrial accidents. Political divisions also caused problems. There were tensions between the French- and Flemish-speaking workers, and between the workers and the Belgian authorities. The Belgian authorities were paranoid about the so-called persuasive influence of British trade unionism in their factories. Paradoxically, British trade unions were openly hostile towards the Belgians, accusing them of accepting lower wages and more brutal working conditions. Camp tensions reached breaking point in April 1916 and a riot broke out after one political activist was arrested by the Elisabethville police. The arrest and subsequent removal of the prisoner alarmed the British authorities so much that it caused a minor diplomatic incident. Contact with the locals was discouraged, although it is clear that many local residents developed close ties to their new neighbours. Some married into their new community.

The Belgian government was adamant that all of Elisabethville’s residents had to return to Belgium at the end of the war. By December 1918, the majority of the workers had been repatriated back to Belgium. The locals moved into the Belgian accommodation blocks. Demolition of the site began in 1938. Now two anonymous buildings are all that remain of this once large and diverse community.

Commemorating Elisabethville allows us to consider the remarkable moment in British history when part of County Durham became temporarily Belgian.

The history of Elisabethville and the Birtley Belgians was covered by BBC Newcastle as part of its ongoing “World War One at Home” series.

* Birtley was historically part of County Durham. It is now part of the metropolitan borough of Gateshead, Tyne and Wear. Records relating to Elisabethville, its factories and its residents can be found in the National Archives, Tyne and Wear Archives, Beamish Living History Museum, and Durham County Records Office.