Tag Archives: mines

Mass movement, Pals and trawlers

​Matt Shinn looks at the eastern coastal counties of Britain where many major events in the First World War took place, but which few of us now are aware of. 

Nick Evans is Lecturer in Diaspora History at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull. For him, one of the previously overlooked things that the World War One at Home project has helped to uncover is a story of mass migration.

‘Up to the outbreak of war, Britain had been an increasingly isolated island nation,’ he says. ‘But the influx of Belgian refugees in the first four months of the war was bigger than any other wave of immigration in British history. And more people moved between and within parts of the British Empire than they had ever done previously.’

Robb Robinson
Robb Robinson

‘A third of the Tommies weren’t white, and many of them had travelled great distances to reach the front lines.’ As Nick Evans says, ‘we tend to think of the First World War as involving home regiments just hopping over to France from the South East of England. But even some of the British regiments – those from Scotland, for example – had already travelled hundreds of miles, before they embarked for the Western Front. And soldiers were often treated as aliens in the places where they were stationed. “One Scot, based in Lincolnshire, even put an ad in the local paper inSkegness, saying “I’m not foreign – I’m from the Western Isles of Scotland.”’

The threat of invasion

The reason why Scottish regiments had travelled down to Lincolnshire, and were stationed there, was to counter the threat of invasion. This is another ‘forgotten story,’ according to Nick Evans: the fact that Scottish troops were kept near the eastern coast of Britain, protecting the home front in the early years of the war, is a good example of what the World War One at Home project has been able to unearth. ‘There’s hardly anything in the archive about this,’ says Nick Evans. ‘We wouldn’t have known much about it without going to local sources.’

We forget how close we were to the conflict in France and Belgium, and how the prospect of invasion must have loomed in people’s minds

Indeed, the entire East coast can be seen as a front line in the war, and it is clear that the threat of invasion was taken very seriously: ‘in Skegness, instructions were even provided on what to do when the Germans invaded.’ The bombardment of Scarborough by German warships, meanwhile, was described in the press as a ‘failed invasion.’ Once the German army had captured Ostend in Belgium in October 1914, says Nick Evans, ‘we really were next.’

East Coast War Channels

 Popular prejudice

 The World War One at Home project has also revealed real patterns of prejudice.  Hull saw the most serious anti-German riots in the country, especially after Zeppelin  raids on the city, in which civilians were killed (according to Nick Evans, ‘often what  we think of as aspects of the Second World War – air raid shelters in British cities,  for example – were also there in the First World War’). Many Jewish people who had  settled in East Yorkshire, and had been the subject of prejudice before the war, now  also found themselves targeted because of their German-sounding surnames.

 Street shrines

 Urban areas in East Yorkshire also saw the formation of many so-called Pals  battalions, in which men who had enlisted together in local recruiting drives were  able to serve alongside their friends, neighbours and work colleagues. What this  meant, though, was that entire communities could be devastated in a single battle. A  sign of the way that towns and districts could be changed forever is the shrine in Sharp Street in Hull, which commemorated the men from the surrounding area who were killed serving with the Hull Pals. An impromptu affair made of wood, the shrine is now lost, but surviving photos show how the grief of local communities could be given visual expression.

The war of the little ships

Robb Robinson is a Lecturer at the Maritime Historical Studies Centre, University of Hull. ‘When you think about the maritime dimension to the First World War,’ he says, ‘most people think about the big battleships, and the Battle of Jutland. But the maritime war also involved many hundreds of small trawlers, with fisherman clearing mines and attacking German vessels.’ The Western Front didn’t really end in Flanders, in other words: ‘it continued right up the East coast of Britain. This is another aspect of the war which is very much under-explored: the war at sea as it was carried on month after month, by armed trawlers.’

A shipyard in Beverley was the centre of the production of trawlers for the North Sea fleet: one such vessel, the Viola, was

The Viola Bell
The Viola Bell

requisitioned by the Admiralty to become one of the first ships to use depth charges, and during the course of the war it was involved in the sinking of U-boats. ‘Go round the world now,’ says Robb Robinson, ‘and you can still find the bones, the wreckage of these trawlers.’ Having been involved also in the Falklands War, the Viola, for example, is now in South Georgia.

The coastal communities of East Yorkshire made a significant contribution to the trawler fleet. ‘I come from a fishing family myself,’ says Robb Robinson – ‘my grandfather worked on minesweeping duties in the First World War.’ Up and down the East coast of Britain, this was an aspect of the war that many thousands of people were involved in, directly or indirectly.

But it’s the little details in the stories, which the World War One at Home has unearthed, which for Robb Robinson give the project its particular power. The fact that the wife of the Viola’s skipper, for example, was involved in collecting sphagnum moss in the Shetlands during the war, for use as surgical dressings (other dressings, developed for the Allied forces by Hull-based Smith and Nephew, helped the company to grow into the multinational manufacturer of medical equipment that it is today).            

‘This was the first total war,’ says Robb Robinson, ‘which affected every aspect of society. And it’s only by assembling the little facets that you begin to see the bigger picture.’

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.