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How Norfolk’s women transformed the First World War

PUBLISHED: 08:00 05 November 2017 | UPDATED: 06:34 06 November 2017

First World War Women of Norfolk exhibition at The Forum. Lizzie Figura-Drane, heritage assistant at The Forum, looking at the war diaries of Honor Elwes. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

First World War Women of Norfolk exhibition at The Forum. Lizzie Figura-Drane, heritage assistant at The Forum, looking at the war diaries of Honor Elwes. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2017

For many people, the First World War conjures up images of “our boys” courageously fighting in the trenches, sacrificing their lives in the service of their country. But this weekend, an exhibition opens to celebrate the often forgotten but just as significant contribution made by women to the war effort.

Women working for Boulton & Paul during the First World War. Picture: THE FORUM Women working for Boulton & Paul during the First World War. Picture: THE FORUM

The free First World War Women of Norfolk on Active Service exhibition, at The Forum in Norwich, charts a time when the role of women in wider society and how they were viewed was totally transformed.

Whereas in 1914 many women were seen as domestic workers, the conflict thrust them into industries such as farming and engineering while their husbands, fathers and sons went off to fight.

It was a challenge they relished and excelled at – as fascinating diaries and historical records, obtained by volunteer researchers as part of a public call for stories, show.

Many, like Win Elwes from Congham, near King’s Lynn, proved they were every bit as brave, courageous and skilled as men, winning a military medal for collecting wounded men from a burning ammunition dump in northern France.

First World War Women of Norfolk exhibition at The Forum. Exhibition research volunteers. Picture: ANTONY KELLY First World War Women of Norfolk exhibition at The Forum. Exhibition research volunteers. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Yet although the struggle for women’s equality would go on, a spokesman for The Forum said: “Thousands of Norfolk women had their lives completely transformed during the First World War, challenging stereotypes and proving that their strength and bravery was essential to the war effort and beyond.”

Unlike the Second World War, when women went straight into munitions factories and engineering works, volunteer researchers for the project said it was not always clear what role women would play in 1914.

The popular belief that “it will all be over by Christmas” meant many never even envisaged a scenario where large numbers of men would be absent from Norfolk’s factories and farms.

“They couldn’t actually find things for women to do,” said Rita Gallard, who was part of a team of volunteer researchers working on the project.

The pictures document their active service throughout the war. Picture: THE FORUM The pictures document their active service throughout the war. Picture: THE FORUM

“It was only gradually that women were pulled in. No-one anticipated the war would drag on in the way it did.

“It wasn’t until 1915 when there were questions about how many more men were needed – and you couldn’t send so many more men out without replacing them.”

Suddenly, women found themselves doing jobs previously dominated by their male counterparts – and helping to keep the country going in a time of national crisis.

Many, for example, joined steel-framed building specialist Boulton and Paul, in Norwich, which quickly started production of aircraft at its Rose Lane works and built 2,500 military aircraft during the war.

First World War Women of Norfolk exhibition at The Forum. Picture: ANTONY KELLY First World War Women of Norfolk exhibition at The Forum. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

By the end of the conflict in 1918, it employed more than 1,200 women.

Norfolk’s large agricultural economy made an urgent call for women to work on the county’s farms and fields.

“There was a huge need in the labour force in general,” said volunteer Mary Bradford.

“In Norfolk we produced a large proportion of the food for the country. There was this huge gap when men left the land.”

First World War Women of Norfolk exhibition at The Forum. The war diaries of Honor Elwes. Picture: ANTONY KELLY First World War Women of Norfolk exhibition at The Forum. The war diaries of Honor Elwes. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Some worked in hospitals and abroad in Norfolk Voluntary Aid Detachments, while others joined Women’s Royal Air Force and worked on one of the 30 airfields across the county.

Mrs Bradford added: “Although there was a desire to get back to the conditions of peacetime, the war opened up lots of opportunities for women.

“There was an attitude of respect for women for what they did.

“Having done what they did, it couldn’t be forgotten and the part they played in the Second World War was based upon what they had been shown to do in the First World War.”

First World War Women of Norfolk exhibition at The Forum. Picture: ANTONY KELLY First World War Women of Norfolk exhibition at The Forum. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Fellow volunteer Daryl Long said: “I found from my research that women relished these training opportunities.

“They learned all these new skills and they wanted to carry on working.

“They had to prove themselves, but they did prove themselves.”

Mrs Long believes in some ways the First World War was a “blip” for women’s rights, as once the war ended things went back to how they were in many ways.

First World War Women of Norfolk exhibition at The Forum. The war diaries of Honor Elwes. Picture: ANTONY KELLY First World War Women of Norfolk exhibition at The Forum. The war diaries of Honor Elwes. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

However, she added: “I’d like to think that when they did get married and have children, they were more aspirational for the next generation that followed.”

It in part led to the Norfolk’s first female MP, Dorothy Jewson, winning election to the House of Commons in 1923.

Sarah Power, learning and events manager at The Forum, said: “We’re so grateful to Norfolk people for sharing their stories of remarkable women with us.

“This exhibition is a celebration of the role of women on active service and on the home front in the First World War.

First World War Women of Norfolk exhibition at The Forum. Honor Elwes. Picture: ANTONY KELLY First World War Women of Norfolk exhibition at The Forum. Honor Elwes. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

“It shows what an impact they made not just to the war effort but to wider society as well.

“We hope visitors to the exhibition will be inspired to think about their female relatives who lived through such a great time of change.”

Robyn Llewellyn, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in the East of England, said: “From active service to engineering and the Home Front, this project offers a valuable insight into the role of Norfolk women during the First World War.

“Thanks to money raised by National Lottery players, and with vital help from volunteers, people across the county have been sharing their stories and this new exhibition is a fantastic opportunity to share their discoveries and learn more about Norfolk in the First World War.”

About the First World War Women of Norfolk on Active Service exhibition

The First World War Women of Norfolk on Active Service exhibition is part of a three-year project by The Forum.

The project, called Norfolk in the First World War: Somme to Armistice, was made possible by £90,000 awarded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The free exhibition aims to bring to life the stories of women during the conflict, with items such as a book from the Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital at Catton Hall and the diaries of Honor Elwes – whose sister Win collected wounded men from northern France – on display.

It will also be marked by a series of high-profile events celebrating women’s role in the war, including a talk by BBC chief news correspondent Kate Adie on Tuesday, November 7.

Military historian Neil Storey will host a “hands-on history” event about the roles women played in the Great War on a particularly poignant day – Saturday, November 11, Armistice Day, between 10am and 4pm.

The exhibition is open for people to look around each day, between 10am and 4pm, until Sunday, November 19.

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