Amy Frances Gomm: (b.1899): War and Memory – Part two

Life went on, though. I had to face it.’ (Gomm, pp.143)

As we continue from part one, Amy told us of conscription coming into place. This leads us to the next part of her memories of World War one. The world still had to keep turning and in Amy’s words ‘Keep the home fires burning.’ (Gomm, pp.140) Amy wanted to get an office job because that was what earnt one of the highest wages, however her father believed women’s jobs should only be those of the domesticated type.

‘Shopping in town one day, I noticed a queue at Sainsbury’s in High street. Nobody, then, disregarded queues. It might be they had sugar or margarine; perhaps even butter. But that wasn’t likely.’ (Gomm, pp.132)

a picture of an advertisement for Sainsburys, 1914. Find this picture here
A picture of Sainsburys in the 1900’s at Christmas time with fresh turkeys. Find this picture here.

It turned out that this queue was in fact a job opening, to become a junior clerk/ cashier. Amy did get this job, however because of her father’s extremely traditional values she was obligated to return to the shop to tell the manager she did not have permission, therefore meaning her job hunt continued. The ‘Keep calm and carry on’ phrase that was so heavily implemented onto the people of Britain, really seems to be the attitude with everyone who did not go away to fight. ‘Conscription was beginning to bite. Men were being called up.’ (Gomm, pp.136) Because men were leaving their everyday jobs to fight for the county, this meant that more openings were becoming available for women. ‘Between 1914 and 1918 an estimated two million women replaced men in employment…Even at the time, women from a variety of backgrounds saw in this cataclysmic war a chance to elevate dramatically their economic and social status through radical reform of employment prospects’ (Bourke, 84). Amy and her sisters certainly took advantage of this, with Dorothy getting a job in ‘The Co-op’ in the tailoring and outfitting department. Amy did want this job however, ‘It was a delicate business, selling shirts and underwear to men’ (Gomm, pp.136) and her father deemed Dorothy as the most responsible. This ironic honesty of the past is why Gomm’s memoir has been a pleasure to read throughout, with her personality becoming fonder with every turn of the page.

A picture of one of the Co-operative stores in the 1900’s. Find this picture here
An amazing picture of women window cleaning during WW1. Find this picture here
A female guard on the Metropolitan Rail in January 1917. Find this picture here

Although women did replace men in the workplace, Amy admits that ‘You still had to ‘know somebody’, even at that stage of the war.’ (Gomm, pp.139) Amy is very reflective about the war, and almost appears to view it in stages perhaps why it is easy for her to recall her memories and retell them like a story. ‘Dawson coins the term ‘composure’ to describe this process through which stories of the personal past are fashioned. It refers to the use of narrative in order to create a past which can be lived with ‘in relative psychic comfort.’ (Roper, 183)

‘In spite of our comparative wealth, that last year of the war, and the first post-war year, was when the shortages hit us hardest..’(Gomm, pp.140)

A Ministry of food poster, WW1. Find this picture here
A photocopy of a rationing book, WW1. Find this picture here

Amy goes into detail revealing plenty about how the rationing worked. ‘There’d be days when substitute foods, off the ration would be in the shops. Tinned fish or meat; fresh or tinned vegetables. It was a question of knowing which shop had what, on which day, and standing-perhaps for two or three hours- to get it.’ (Gomm, pp.140) These struggles appear to have made her angry at how the rationing system worked, and she clearly thought it was unfair.

‘What hope had we, working all the time the other shops were open?’ pp.140

Although Amy, and many others were not on the frontline as such, they were still on the home front battling a different type of war. ‘The basic foods were rationed, but the rations were so minute that it was near starvation, if that was all you had.’ (Gomm, pp.140) Furthermore, unfortunately for some this was the case. ‘As the war progressed, shortages and inflationary pressure increased, and demands for state intervention became more persistent.’ (Gazeley & Newell, pp.2) Amy discussed how the meat rations eventually became so small, that it would only be a small chop for Sunday, however one was foolish to spend that much money. Although she was frustrated with the rationing system, she still seems to have a ‘get on with it’ type of mindset. ‘If you chose a cheaper cut, we could have the taste of meat for two days a week.’ (Gomm, pp.140) This resentment towards rationing is no surprise when she admits that none of the ‘fresh stuff’ came her way. She tells us of times where they would make a spread called ‘honey sugar’ and that it was ‘palatable, appetizing even, when our tums were crying out for sugar.’ (Gomm, pp.140) She confesses that looking back, after the wartime shortages, she has no idea how they even swallowed it.

A picture of a queue to collect rations from WW1, England. Find this picture here
picture of a diagram of rationing in WW1, England. Find this picture here
a picture from PUNCH magazine, a queue of grumpy people having been shamed are bringing their hoards of tea, sugar butter, honey, beef and caviar into the Food Control depot during WW1. Find this picture here

Although this detest for the rationing is evident, there is also a sense of nostalgia that seeps through, especially when she mentions her beloved Oxfordshire village. ‘The Charlbury relations kept us well supplied with potatoes. ‘We generally managed to get bread; sometimes we’d be lucky enough to get oatmeal, for porridge.’ (Gomm, pp.140) There was a real sense of community that Amy portrayed once the war years started, for instance when people came over to the house ‘It became the fashion, the dire necessity, for callers to bring a morsel from their rations.’ (Gomm, pp.140) The rationing eventually resulted in Amy having an iron deficiency because of the lack of vitamins she was taking in. If the rationing wasn’t enough torture, they were also having to deal with electricity and gas shortages too. ‘The gas ring gave us our only warmth at breakfast and mid-day. It was in the evenings, and on Sundays, that we’d ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ – if we had any coal.’ Amy is referring to a WW1 British patriotic song by Ivor Novelo, however is sounding a little lost for hope and optimism. There were no heaters in shops in the 1900’s also, which led to an extremely cold shift at work for Amy.

‘I can still recall the ache in my bones, and in my more fleshy parts, as the winter whistled in at that open door.’ (Gomm, pp.140)

As the war came to an end, Amy seemed to have been left appreciative and that’s being an understatement. ‘We could and did count our blessings, though. We were among the few who came through that upheaval, unscathed, as far as our family was concerned.’ (Gomm, pp.148.) If you have read any of my previous posts, or read Amy’s memoir you will know that family is the most important thing to her. There was however a deep, deep sadness that Amy expresses when she talks about those who returned home and of course those who did not. ‘Maimed and broken relics of fine upstanding young men were returning, to take up life where it had left off…’ (Gomm, pp.149) She is patriotic on a whole, but it is clear that Amy will never forget the atrocities that it did to those around her. In an almost modest and heroic way, she does not seem to realise herself just quite what she went through. We are however lucky enough to be able to read first hand what it was like for a working class girl like Amy, to experience something much bigger than herself.

‘Often cold, sometimes hungry for food other than bread and potatoes? Long hours of hard work? We weren’t the only ones. We weren’t even the worst in that respect. We still counted our blessings.’ (Gomm, pp.149)

Amputees returning home from WW1. Find this picture here
A bitter sweet moment for soldiers returning home. Find this picture here
Find this picture here
Find this picture here

Bibliography

Bourke, Joanna. Working-Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity London: Routledge, 1994

324 GOMM, Amy Frances, ‘Water Under the Bridge’, TS, pp.163 (c.55,000 words). Brunel University Library.

Ian Gazeley, Andrew Newell; The First World War and working-class food consumption in Britain. Eur Rev Econ Hist 2013; 17 (1): 71-94. doi: 10.1093/ereh/hes018

Roper, Michael. ‘Re-remembering the Soldier Hero: The Psychic and Social Construction of Memory in Personal Narratives of the Great War’. History Workshop Journal. 50.3 (2000): 181-204.

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