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Military historian at Family History Society

Military historian Larry Bohana was the speaker at the March meeting of the Frome branch of the Somerset and Dorset Family History Society. His talk was entitled ‘the Role of Women in World War one’. 

Larry outlined the life of most women before the start of the war, which consisted of a career choice of service, or if they lived in the north of the country, working in mills. Very few other opportunities were open to them.

The 1.2 million women in service could expect to work 12-14 hours a day with one half day off a month. By the time they paid for their uniforms and keep some were lucky to have 2/6d left at the end of the month. Married women were deemed to have one purpose, to produce children.

At the start of the war 500,000 men signed up and within a few months the total was much higher and the jobs that they vacated had to be filled.

An early use for female labour was to keep transport moving in London. Women became tram drivers, conductors and even handled teams of horses. They worked on the railway but only as guards, became police women but with no power of arrest.

They moved on to light industry and by 1916 heavy industry, agriculture and very importantly, forestry. By the time the war finished there were 22,000 women working in forestry producing timber for the forces and domestic use. The wages were often as much as £5 per week compared to the 2/6d per month as domestic servants.

Women worked in the munition factories doing often very dangerous work. A number of them were killed in explosions. Many women worked with trinitrotoluene (TNT), and prolonged exposure to the sulphuric acid turned the women’s skin a yellow colour. The women whose skin was turned yellow were popularly called canary girls. Prolonged exposure to the chemicals also created serious health risks for the workers.

When the war finally ended in 1918 women were expected to return to domestic life vacating the jobs they had so successfully filled to the men returning from overseas and, by 1919, only 18% were still employed.

The suffragette movement was started in the later 19th Century to lobby for the right to vote for women, however, it was not until after the war ended in 1918 that women over 30, provided that they were married, were allowed to vote. Votes for all women over 21 were introduced in 1928.

The Society’s next talk will be on Tuesday 28th April when Dave Milner will give a talk entitled ‘Where there is no will there is a way’. Don’t forget the regular family history advice sessions at Frome Library on the first Saturday in the month from 9.30am – 11.30am.