Margaret Watson (b.1907) War and Memory

Margaret Watson was just seven-years-old when the First World War began. By the start of the Second World War, Margaret was a wife and mother and working as a saleswoman in a gowns salon. Her memoir includes accounts of her experiences of War both as a child and as an adult; some heart-rending, some horrifying.

Recalling her early memories of World War One, Margaret writes that when “War had been declared, my father a reserve, was called up [and] we were left to the tender mercies of Lizzie” (p.5). We are told how in her father’s absence, Lizzie, Margaret’s stepmother, would often act abusively towards Margaret and her younger brother, as a consequence of her being “drunk a lot” (p.5). In an effort to protect his children, Margaret remembers how her father “deserted to come to us, as someone had written informing him as to our neglect” (p.9). As a result of his actions, Margaret describes the harrowing moment “the Military Police came and took my father away” (p.9) and the devastation she felt in her inability to help him or prevent their separation.

This moment is echoed in a later passage of Margaret’s memoir, when she recalls the memory of being separated from her husband and children following the declaration of the Second World War; “My husband was on the R.A.F reserve list, one of the first to go… All children were being evacuated… Off went Granny and the two children, labels on their lapels, I was sad to see them go, gas masks around their necks.” (p.21). As a result of the War, Margaret describes how her home life changed drastically. She talks about finding the nights “terrifying” when living alone, detailing the frightfulness “in the air raid shelter in the back garden… to sit there awaiting the all clear siren” (p.21).

Evacuees at Reading Station, September 1939.

However, it was not just her home life that was altered for Margaret; the War changed the world of work for women drastically too. Before the Second World War, most working-class women were employed in low paying trades that were associated with female skills. Domestic service was the single largest employer of women, with the textile and clothing sectors coming a close second. Before the War was declared, Margaret recalls how she herself was working as a “gown saleslady” and remarks that the “wages were poor [and] the Salon was heated to suffocation” (p.24). However in 1941, the strengths and abilities of women were called on as never before. When men went to serve in the armed forces, women were called on to enter into professions which were previously thought of as unsuitable for them to be employed in. And although their wages were still half that of men, they were still much higher than anything most women had ever known.

Margaret recalls how on her journey home from work one day, she was intrigued by “a big notice on the wall at the Labour Exchange, “Women Required to Train as Heavy Vehicle Drivers, No Experience Required, Training given free” (p.25). Of the position, she writes that she “applied, was accepted and [was] sent to a large store in Buchanan St. in Glasgow. This free training was part of the war effort” (p.25). Around 600,000 women served in uniformed services such as nursing, policing, the military, or – like Margaret – in transport. For many working-class women, their service during the War provided them with a new found confidence. Of her position, Margaret writes that she felt “prestige at being employed here… and I gained in confidence” (p.26).

However, when the war ended, many believed that women should leave their new positions and resume the roles they had previously occupied in order to provide jobs for returning soldiers. It is no surprise that few women were willing to return to the menial work of domestic service, and Margaret was no exception. In her memoir, she recalls the dread she felt at the thought of returning to work in the Gowns Salon where her “poor feet ached like hell” (p.24) and states that “gown sales jobs were definitely out for me” (p.25). It is perhaps a result of the confidence Margaret gained in her transportation job that altered her expectations of not only her work, but also her own self-worth.

World War I: Volunteer women drivers in a Wolseley, donated towards the War effort.

This change in attitude, however, was not perceived by all as a good thing. After World War II, there was a common belief that the employment of women threatened the pay and service of male workers, and therefore many desired for women to return to areas of work that were deemed ‘appropriate’ for their gender. Margaret’s account of the mistreatment she endured from the “chief driver” (p.25) whilst working in the transportation industry leads me to believe that this was a view that he shared. Margaret describes how he often “eyed me with suspicion” (p.26) and when instructed to work together, writes that “the old bat would not allow me to turn the wheel” (p.25). Although Margaret does not specify the reason for the man’s dislike of her specifically, her belief that he was “annoyed when he was told that he must let me drive” seems to imply his disapproval of her presence behind the steering wheel and also a lack of respect for her driving ability.

It is a fact that after the War, women were forced out of the men’s jobs they had been occupying and it appears as though this was the case for Margaret. Of her position as a Driver, she writes, “I had happy times there, meeting many people. When the war ended, we [women] were no longer required, I was sorry to leave” (p.31).

In an attempt to persuade women out of their positions and recruit them back into domestic service, The Ministry of Labour produced this poster.

Ministry of Labour Recruitment Sign, 1940s. On display at the People’s History Museum in Manchester, UK.

However it is a result of the driving experience that Margaret gained in the years during World War II that made it possible for her to acquire work in later life that made her children feel “very proud” (p.27) and herself feel as though she had “reached the top bracket” (p.31). Driving for a “smart West End Company” Margaret recalls fondly how “for thirteen years… I had a smart uniform and a gleaming car… I drove all over Scotland, summer and winter” (p.31).  It is because of her contribution to the War effort and the skills she obtained in doing so that Margaret was able to alter her prospects and the lives of her family for the better. Her memoir recalls the fascinating story of a fourteen-year-old girl working in a “dirty, nasty” carpet factory (p.11) who through embracing opportunities, is able to progress to living a full and exciting “life of travel [with] good companions” (p.31).

 


 

Burnett, John. Mayall, David and Vincent, David (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography (Brighton: Harvester, 1897) Vol: 2 No: 802

Image References:

Evacuees at Reading Station. (Accessed: 29/12/2014)

World War I Volunteer Women Drivers. (Accessed: 29/12/2014)

 

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