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  • Writer's pictureDanielle Harte

Meet 5 Women from WWI (that you must know)

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Meet 5 Women from WWI (that you must know)

The first world war was instrumental in helping project the feminist movement forward. Some argue that the role women held druing the first world war proved that they were more than just mothers and homemakers and much more cabale of holidng positions of responsiliblty, power and jobs that required both mental and physical strength.

While there are thousands of women to write about I have chosen 5 very influential, interesting and must know women that span all different sectors of society...

1. Vesta Tilly - The Singing Soldier

Vesta Tilly who was a music hall celebrity throughout her career she performed in many theatres like the Canterbury Music Hall, Lambeth, The Royal Music Hall, Holborn and Palace Theatre in London many of which don't exist anymore.

She was known for performing in male clothes as part of her routine and when war broke out she dressed as a soldier in Khaki’s and sang songs like 'For King and Country' and portraying the fantasy of army life with songs like ‘The Army of today’s alright’. Performing throughout the war as such.

Vesta Tilley dressed as a women and as man in her stage act
Vesta Tilley dressed as a female and in her male persona for stage

Vesta Tilly and her husband Walter De Frece who was also her manager ran recruitment drives for the army and were known to sign up men during the actual show. One time whilst performing in Hackney she is said to have recruited an entire battalion over the course of a week. Fun Fact they became known as ‘The Vesta Tilley Platoon’.

Tilly was hugely popular at was once was commanded to perform for Queen Mary and per usual part of the act wore trousers; so scandalised was the Queen to see Tilly’s legs that the Queen hid her eyes behind her programme.

After the war Tilly's husband was knighted in recognition of his war effort and Tilly became a Lady, performing for the last time in June 1920 at the Coliseum Theatre London.

2. Queen Mary - The Charitable Bulldozer

Queen Mary of Teck

Queen Mary (wife of King George V) herself was a tour de force at the outbreak of war recruiting volunteers to knit and sow comforts to send to the front. She encouraged ladies in society to cut down on their spending which stopped sales on hats and dresses.

Queen Mary set up the Needlework guild which set about to help soldiers and poorer families. St James’s Palace is where 102,132 items were sent to Queen Anne’s drawing room; stock piling socks, pyjamas, dressing gowns, hot-water bottles, footballs, chess boards, boxing gloves and books and many more provisions.

BUT the surge of volunteers from the upper and middle class women volunteering their time and reducing their spending on non essentials actually backfired on the Queen's good intentions.

meet Mary McArthur....

3. Mary MacArthur - The women who changed the Queen's mind

Mary MacArthur

Mary MacArthur, Scottish born was a women rights campaigner and leader of the national union of women workers whilst in London and begged for someone to stop Queen Mary's women of society knitting.

MacArthur was summoned to meet with the Queen after hard campaigning and explained it was the Queen's own sowing bees that were putting hard working women out of work.

After hearing this Queen Mary set up The Queen Mary Work Rooms which were for unemployed women giving them paying work and supported more charitable schemes like the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corp also known as the WAAC to help, and served her time visiting hospitals. Earning her the nickname The Charitable Bulldozer.

4. Flora Murray and Lousia Garrett Anderson - The partners who ran an all female hospital

Louisa Garret Anderson and Flora Murray both suffragettes who were part of Emmeline Pankhurst militant movement of suffrage before the war, together founded the women’s hospital corp.

Louisa Garret Anderson

Flora Murray

At the outbreak of World War One the British Government did put their faith in female doctors, instead they went to France and ran all female run hospitals there which were extremely successful.

Eventually as the war progressed the British Government realised these British Female Doctors were exactly what they needed and offered them a workhouse in Endell St in Covent Garden. The workhouse was converted into a large scale military hospital with over 500 beds. Florey and Garret Anderson insisted on an all female staff of both Doctors, Surgeons and nurses which they were granted.

They served more than 26,000 men over the war years, all with various conditions from serious injury and lesser injuries. The atmosphere was considered special as sports activities were encouraged to help men recover physically and mentally, they even have fresh flowers that were changed daily by a group of volunteers.

Only one man supposedly refused to be treated by a women and after a few days of pain changed his mind and afterwards wrote to his mother asking to stay a little longer.

In 1917 both Anderson and Florey were awarded CBE in recognition of their work.

5. Bella Reay - The Football Star

Bella Reay was one of the most popular female football players emerging during the first world war. Born 1900 in Northumberland. During the war she became a Munition Factory Worker one of the most popular jobs for women during the First World War.

Bella Reay

When women were being put to work in the factories throughout the country handling heavy machinery and building the guns and shell that would be used at the front line, a social life for these newly independent women emerged.

Part of the that was women's football which emerged as the mens game was suspended in 1915. Initially factory girls began to play on their lunch breaks and soon local factories would challenge each other. On Christmas Day 1916 a game took place between Ulverston Munition Girls and another local group of women. The munition girls won 11-5.

Soon after other factories organised matches. The most famous of football teams was Dick, Kerr’s Ladies FC in Preston but the most prestigious cup to win was The Munitionettes' Cup in north east England in 1917–18. It was held between women's football teams from various munitions and other factories.

Bella Reay emerged as the star of the Blyth Spartans attracting thousands of spectators and media coverage to witness her record score of 133 goals in one season of 30 matches.

A commemorative Blue Plaque was installed on the stand at Croft Park, the home of the current Blyth Spartans AFC in November 2018.


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