Women in Newcastle and their wartime roles, 1914-18

Over the next few months, interns and volunteers on the Reflections project will write a few blog posts to discuss their experience working on the project and some of the research materials they have uncovered. This time volunteer Catherine Humphries discusses her research into Women in Newcastle and their wartime roles.

My research for this project has concentrated on the role of women in Newcastle during the First World War, with particular emphasis on munitionettes, nurses and female activists.

I began by looking at the diaries of Ruth Dodds (b. 1890). Ruth was active in professing her pacifist, feminist and liberal beliefs, serving as secretary of the Gateshead branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage societies after joining at the start of the war.

Gaiety Picture Hall_Nelson StreetHer diaries offered interesting insights, particularly of the expected role of women in wartime in contrast to the role they carried out. For her entries after the initial outbreak of war, Ruth explains that her father, upon taking a train to Durham with the 8th Durham Territorials, witnessed a soldier saying to his wife upon his departure, “Tak’ care of the bairns!”, emphasizing the belief that women’s role should remain unchanged in wartime. She also expresses shame that she was feeling depressed about the war when her sisters carry on, “both splendid at ‘business as usual’”, suggesting that women’s assigned wartime role was to maintain the morale of the home front. Ruth mentions meeting with Dr Ethel Williams on several occasions, the prominent Newcastle doctor, socialist and suffragist, emphasizing her continued activism and pacifism during wartime.

Ruth’s diary entries also allude to the role of cinemas and theatres in wartime; “We went to the Picture Hall tonight, but we didn’t escape the war, we say the King reviewing troops” and cinema goers stood up and cheered at the National Anthem. Referring perhaps to the Gaiety Picture Hall in Nelson Street, first opened as The Music Hall in 1838, she suggests that people saw cinemas as a form of escapism during the war. Ruth also notes on the 10th October 1914 that she “hung about to see the soldiers marching to the recruiting meeting in the Tyne & Pavilion”, indicating that theatres were used as recruitment centres as well as- for entertainment in wartime Newcastle.

Ruth also highlights another role undertaken by women during the war; writing letters and sending parcels, containing books and cigarettes, “to our soldiers” and prisoners of war. This supportive role of women is also indicated in Ruth’s entries describing her meetings with the Reservists wives, where mothers attending with their children and “told stories of their husbands at war”, forming a supportive network of women. Ruth also refers to her conversations with Myra, a nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) in which women served as cooks, nurses and maids during the war. Their responsibilities included sorting and washing uniforms as well as feeding and looking after wounded soldiers. See Heaton History Groups research on VAD nurses for more information

My research followed on from this enquiry, and I began to look at the Red Cross online archive to find women VADs serving in Newcastle. There were two VAD auxiliary hospitals during the war, 10/ Northumberland V.A., Pendower and St. John Ambulance Brigade Hospital in Kensington Terrace, located near the Hancock museum and Newcastle University Robinson Library. The Royal Victoria Infirmary provided training for VAD nurses, and are depicted here in the staff photo of the 1st Northern General hospital wearing the Red Cross on their uniforms in 1916.

I was able to find the VAD cards for nurses serving in Newcastle during the war, including Miss Elizabeth Alice Burdon and Miss Hilda Carnes, who both served in VAD auxiliary hospitals, as well as Miss Phyllis Cromwell who served as a cook. From looking at the VAD cards it became clear that the majority of women employed in the Red Cross VAD hospitals in Newcastle during the war were single, suggesting that the wartime role of women in Newcastle was largely dependent of marital and familial status and obligations.

Single women, such as Ruth Dodds, often undertook wartime work in factories, becoming ‘munitionettes’. Ruth worked in Armstrong’s Munitions factory in Newcastle and spoke of her work with excitement. It is clear that women were encouraged to retain their femininity while undertaking masculine positions of wartime work with their munitions overalls from Fenwick’s being “both pretty and useful”.

My research into Armstrong’s Factory and women workers led me to consulting J. Bath’s book, Great War Britain Tyneside: Remembering 1914-18. Bath emphasizes the communities created by the wartime necessity of employing women. ‘Armstrong’s opened a large canteen specifically for the women workers. Special social clubs were formed for the women themselves… which provided light refreshments, music, reading, games’. Bath also alludes to the role of cinemas in wartime Newcastle; Going to the cinema offered escapism from war, especially for ‘women and children, who were generally not welcomed in the pub… Many families routinely went every week, enjoying a touch of escapism in a bleak time. Newcastle alone had thirty cinemas in 1914’.

My research also focused on female activism in Newcastle during the First World War. In D. Thom’s Nice Girls and Rude Girls: Women Workers in World War I, evidence of activism in Armstrong’s factory as a result of the employment of women workers necessitated by the circumstances of war can be found. Armstrong munitionettes took part in ‘the tea-break strike’ which developed into a strike for female workshop representation, ultimately gaining union organisation and recognition. That the circumstances of wartime gave women a stage for political activism is also evident in the actions of Dr Ethel Williams. In N. Todd’s article ‘Ethel Williams: medical and suffrage pioneer’, we see that the Williams took her stand against the war during her time as secretary of the Newcastle Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council, hiring Newcastle town hall for holding anti-war meetings to express solidarity with the February 1917 revolution in Russia.

From my research, I can conclude that the role of women in Newcastle during the First World War encompassed several positions depending on familial responsibilities, ranging from political activism, work in munitions factories, nursing as well as supporting and maintaining the morale of the home front.

Catherine Humphries

This entry was posted in 1914, 1916, 1917, 1918, Lit and Phil, Newcastle, Uncategorized, volunteers, Women and the war, World War 1 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Women in Newcastle and their wartime roles, 1914-18

  1. Dear Catherine,
    Reading through your interesting summary above has caused me to ask if you ever came across any references to German POWs interned in the Newcastle area?

    Assuming you are able to see this, I would be very interested to hear your response as it has always been understood that one such person was my grandfather, and there are no other family members left who might have been able to help.

    Kind regards,


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