War Relics

By beatrice behlen on 3 Aug 2011

I am aware that I have been woefully neglecting this blog, but I have rather a long list of excuses, some of them pretty good. My most recent distraction, if that’s the right word, was a summer school which we ran over three weeks in July. One of the sessions was about the experiences of women during the two World Wars and I showed the students examples of women’s uniforms including the one you can see below.

The trousers and tunic are made of very heavy, dark blue cotton. There is no embellishment whatsoever apart from the letters ‘GER’ embroidered in red on the collar. GER stands for Great Eastern Railway, the line that linked Liverpool Street Station to Norwich and other towns in East Anglia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

During both wars, transport was one of the main areas where women replaced men. According to one statistic (from the National Archives website), the number of women ‘employed in the transport industry expanded by 555% to roughly 100,000′ between July 1914 and November 1918. (There is more detailed information at the end of this article.)

Female conductors, or ‘conductorettes’, in particular seem to have attracted much attention and were photographed a lot (maybe that’s why this one looks a tad suspicious). I guess they were more visible than, say, women working in a munitions factory. The female conductor’s uniform was more aligned with contemporary fashionable dress than our tunic/trouser combination, which was made for heavier work.

The GER outfit was part of a group of women’s workwear that has been returned to us fairly recently by the Imperial War Museum. The whole lot had been sent to the IWM in 1932 (!!!) to feature in an exhibition about London in Wartime. I wanted to find out more.

I suspect the idea of representing the Great War in a museum was, if not initiated, then possibly reinforced by an article published in The Times on 20 February 1917 (p. 11) in which ‘A Correspondent’ reported on ‘A National War Museum. What Paris Has Done’. The journalist starts by praising the Musée Carnavalet in Paris, which English visitors used to leave bemoaning the lack of an equivalent institution in their home country. Of course that situation had been remedied with the opening of the London Museum in March 1912. However, now Paris, or rather a certain ‘M. and Mme. Henri Leblanc’, had beaten London to it again.

The couple had opened a private museum in some 15 rooms of two ‘first-floor appartements‘ in the 16h arrondissment which was open to the public on Thursday afternoons and the first Sunday of every month. Apparently, the Leblancs’ first objects were acquired on 2 August 1914: ‘a copy of the French Mobilisation Order, a few newspaper broadsheets, and some tiny patriotic emblems that were being sold to the war-fevered populace on the boulevards’. Since then, the couple had amassed around 150,000 ‘souvenirs of the war, classified and scientifically arranged’. The Leblancs did not only collect French artifacts but also objects from the other nations involved in the war. Concentrating on 2-D items such as prints, brochures, newspapers, photographs and stamps, they also included medals, ‘flaglets’ and ‘toys bearing on the war: toy guns, leaden soldiers in the uniforms of all the belligerent nations, model cannons and ambulances, aeroplanes and submarines’. They had even found room in their picture gallery to install cases for ‘groups of beautifully modelled wax figurines dressed in costumes of the period’.

Like modern museum curators, Louise and Henri Leblanc realised the importance of establishing an emotional connection with the visitors to their museum and they had installed what was ‘colloquially known as the “Chamber of Horrors”‘: ‘portraits of the notorious Germans of the day, flanked by their brutal posters and with samples of their savagery’. The article ends with the writer expressing his (or her) fervent hope ‘to arouse in some hearts at home the patriotic desire to go and do’ as the Leblancs were doing. (By the way, their collection is still preserved in the Bibliothèque de Documentation Internationale Contemporaine in Nanterre and a museum in Paris.)

It may have been coincidence, but only two days later, on 22 February 1917, The Times (p. 3) published the following notice:

A Collection of War Relics
While steps are being taken at the London Museum to establish a permanent collection of local war relics, it is not at present the intention of the authorities to open the exhibition until after the war.
Many London war posters, photographs of Zeppelin raids, originals of drawings that have appeared in the illustrated papers and unpublished photographs, a bomb, and other relics relating to the metropolis, have already been got together, and these are being added to frequently. The articles, which are being carefully stored, will eventually be shown to the public in a room in the museum at Lancaster House, which is closed for the duration of war.

Apparently Guy Francis Laking, the first Keeper of the London Museum, had sought permission to photograph the damage done during zeppelin air raids already in 1915 (Francis Sheppard, The Treasury of London’s Past, p. 87). Two weeks after the above notice had appeared in the newspaper, on 25 April 1917, Laking sent letters to several railway companies stating that he was

forming at the London Museum a War Gallery of exhibits relating to the present War, appertaining to London, and I am anxious to make this representative as possible. If you could see your way to spare me a costume of your female workers, such as –
Ticket-Collector, etc.
my Trustees would be extremely grateful as these would form important additions.

Laking did not only approach railway companies, but also The Mayfair Window Cleaning Company, which sent ‘a set of uniform [sic], tools and pails in use by our Women Window Cleaners’ as well as  a ‘ladder, which is being made, similar to those used by the women’. J. Lyons & Co. provided ‘a costume similar to those worn by our Women Drivers’ and the GPO (General Post Office) dispatched the uniform of a female messenger, the cycle/motorbike couriers of their day whose job it was to deliver telegrams.

In the meantime, on 25 March 1917, it was announced that ‘sanction has been given by the War Cabinet to the scheme put forward by Sir A. Mond, M.P., the First Commissioner of Works, of establishing a National War Museum’ (The Times, p. 5). The aim was ‘to collect and preserve for public inspection objects illustrating the British share in the war’, including ‘arms and other war materials’, ‘trophies captured from the enemy’ and ‘souvenirs found on battlefields’, as well as the literature, art and music of war. The long list of desirable artifacts does not seem to contain uniforms although some must have made their way into the collection.

On 9 October 1918, more than a month before the armistice came into effect on 11 November, an exhibition advertised as ‘a complete survey of women’s work’, organised by the Women’s Section of the by then renamed Imperial War Museum was opened at the Whitechapel Gallery.

From the very favourable review published in The Times the previous day we know that the ground floor was ‘divided into bays, each with models or lay figures to illustrate the work outlined by photographs and exhibits’ (‘Women’s War Museum. Records and Models.’, p. 11). The Home Office bay was singled out for particular praise. It contained ‘lay figures lent by artists […] fitted out by Miss Anderson, the chief lady factory inspector, in the protective clothing worn in different trades’.

It was noted that samples of work ‘not formerly done by women’ were included, such as ‘a fine model of women lacing an airship’ and – there she is again – ‘a life-like model of a tram conductress in uniform, with a shining ticket punch’. On the upper floor visitors could inspect lay figures of land girls complete with ‘a cow which it took 10 soldiers to carry in’. On the date of the journalist’s visit, Lady Askwith and ‘her Y.M.C.A. helpers’ were serving in the canteen. Suspecting that ‘most exhibitions failed because there were no refreshment bars’, the forward thinking Lady Askwith had taken measures. Readers were assured that Mrs Winston Churchill was lined up to take charge of the canteen the following day.

Meanwhile, over at Lancaster House, the staff of the London Museum was preparing for its re-opening on 22 October (the museum had been closed since February 1916). According to the review in The Times, the three rooms on the top floor devoted to ‘every phase of the Great War’ contained ‘the most “actual” of all the special groups of exhibits’, including ‘costumes of men and women who took their part in war work, at home and abroad’ (21 October 1919, p. 16). Laking seems to have prepared this display already in 1917 as he had sent a group of ‘costumes’ to the sculptor Felix Joubert (who I really want to know more about) in May that year (did Laking fill in an Exit form, I wonder?). It seems Joubert was supposed to prepare figures for six women’s uniforms including – surprise, surprise – two conductorettes, as well as a ‘Fireman’s Costume’.

With the help of an increasing number of colleagues, I am currently trying to find out whether we have any photographs or illustrations of the war display. I do not know when it was taken down but all the women’s uniforms displayed at Lancaster House in 1919 were sent on to the Imperial War Museum in 1932. Unsurprisingly, its new exhibition was also reviewed in The Times but no displays relating to women’s war work are mentioned (‘London in Wartime’, 26 July 1932, p. 17).

At this point the War Museum was housed in the Imperial Institute in South Kensington (now demolished) in very cramped circumstances. Nevertheless it was extremely popular. The Times reported on 25 August 1933 (p. 13) that on Whit-Monday (16 May) the previous year a staggering 15,851 visitors had attended, ‘a number greatly in excess of the figures returned by all the large museums of London, except the Science Museum’. The galleries were overcrowded ‘to the point of acute discomfort, and it was fortunate that there were no untoward incidents’.

In November 1932, Lord Conway of Allington, the first Director-General of the War Museum, brought this dire situation to the attention to the House of Lords. Assuming that ‘a good many’ of their Lordships neither knew the location of the museum nor had visited it, he described its holdings in great detail. These included a ‘large number of beautiful little models of women at work’ representing ‘all kinds of women’s work … many of them of a very fine beautiful character, and all produced by sculptors of repute’. He also mentioned cryptically that ‘women’s work is represented in a number of other ways which I will not detail but you can easily imagine’ (HL Deb 30 November 1932, vol 86, cc 151-68).

My initial enthusiasm for the GER uniform was partly sparked by my ongoing quest to find the ideal workwear for the (female) dress curator. Having read the contemporary accounts, this now seems rather frivolous. I was struck by the foresight of Guy Laking who realised the important part clothes could play in bringing to life the experience of Londoners during the Great War (sadly he died only one month after the Museum’s re-opening, on 22 November 1919); by how early it was recognised that the war should be remembered in a museum; by the popularity of the War Museum (although that should not have come as a surprise) and by the early acknowledgment of women’s contribution.

But what about the GER uniform? The object file holds a letter dated 17 May 1917, sent from the Chief Traffic Manager’s Office of the Great Eastern Railway based at Liverpool Street, which reads:

Dear Sir,
Referring to your letter of 24th. ultimo, addressed to the Secretary, I am sending you herewith specimens of the Women’s uniform as issued to our Ticket Takers, Porters (Parcels, Platform and Goods), and Engine and Carriage Cleaners.
As soon a the exhibition is open, I should like an opportunity of paying it a visit.

Our tunic/trouser combo is the one for the cleaners. Like me, you will be wondering whether the shirt would have been worn over the trousers and if so, whether a belt was used. There are may wonderful photos of railway women online. I particularly like these female engine cleaners in Stafford; this proud looking carriage cleaner and – my favourite – this Underground station painter. None of their outfits is exactly like the GER’s but thankfully there is a film on the Pathé website, which shows a group of female carriage and engine cleaners at work wearing ‘our’ uniform. It seems that the tunic was generally worn loose over the trousers but one women, who can be seen towards the end of the film, has put on a belt. As always, people will find a way to make a prescribed set of clothes somehow their own.

With thanks to David, Sarah and Jenna.

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