Elizabeth Rignall (B.1894): War and Memory

Later still in the war we would watch from our garden the “Fireworks” at night. These were localised and nowhere near as spectacular nor as extensive as in the Second World War’ (Rignall, 90)

St.Emin's Hotel, where Elizabeth worked in P.D.22
St.Emin’s Hotel, where Elizabeth worked in P.D.22

All So Long Ago spans from Elizabeth’s experience of the Boer War as a young girl, sitting on her father’s shoulders to watch the City Imperial Volunteers returning home, ‘I can still see the gun carriages and ammunitions wagons passing in procession, carrying those too badly wounded to walk’ (Rignall, 14), right up to her participation in the Second World War: ‘What I overlooked, of course, was that a girl of twenty-two would be considered of much greater use to the war effort than a woman of forty-seven’ (Rignall, 116). However, the First World War can be seen as the most impactful period for Elizabeth, as a time in which the class and gender barriers of society seemed to break under the united patriotism of the country.

Joanna Bourke expands on the social revolution the war brought about to the introduction of women in the workplace: ‘Between 1914 and 1918 an estimates 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). In 1916, Elizabeth certainly seized the opportunity to broaden her prospects, by applying for ‘an advertisement in a daily paper for “women of university standing for responsible war work” at the princely salary of two hundred and fifty pounds per annum’ (Rignall, 85). She was accepted for a post at St. Emin’s Hotel in the priority Department of the Ministry of Munitions, a department assigned for the allocation of metal supplies throughout the country ‘both for war and civilian purposes’ (Rignall, 85). Elizabeth’s role, along with three other women, was to summarize the essential information of the applicants: ‘Even today I experience a little warm thrill when I hear or read of some of the famous firms and organisations with whom we had this distant contact’ (Rignall, 85). Elizabeth’s patriotic stance regarding the war is demonstrated in her proud tone recalling her time in the department: ‘As you may see it was really responsible work and I was happy in the though that albeit only a tiny cog I was of some use to the war effort’ (Rignall, 85).

Winston Churchill, Minister of Munitions during WWI
Winston Churchill, Minister of Munitions during WWI

The Christmas of 1916 saw a new section, P.D.22, set up to exclusively deal with civilian purposes of metal stocks, which Elizabeth was given charge over: ‘I was naturally elated at the offer and was soon in charge of ten highly intelligent women ensconced in a huge room on the fourth floor of the hotel’ (Rignall, 88). Elizabeth excelled as head of P.D.22, with her position also serving to dispel any doubts of her capabilities as a woman: ‘Many were the deputations we received from the various civilian trades, and one that really delighted me personally was of three men from the Plumber’s Union, whose leader on reaching St. Emin’s had demanded categorically to meet the head of P.D.22. When confronted by my four-feet-eleven and a half self all three were quite taken aback; but on recovering insisted on shaking me heartily by the had, with the remark that it was the first time they had ever received a reply within twenty-four hours from any Government Department’ (Rignall, 89).

The suffragist, Millicent Fawcett argued that the First World War ‘revolutionised the industrial position of women. It found them serfs and left them free’ (Bourke, 84). However, the idealism of Fawcett’s statement is demonstrated by the anger generated towards women taking men’s jobs in the rising unemployment levels of post-war Britain, as well as the fact that many contracts of female employment only ran ‘for the duration of the war’ (Bourke, 85), leading to a mass withdrawal of women from the workplace. After the war had ended and P.D.22 had disbanded, Elizabeth was offered opportunities of employment that ‘could have altered the whole course of my life’ (Rignall, 93) but, constrained by her responsibilities in supporting her family, she had to decline and return to her career in teaching: ‘not one offered me a starting salary that would have enabled me to continue to contribute to the education of the two younger children or to help finance my mother’s housekeeping. So with the utmost anguish I had to turn them all down’ (Rignall, 93).

References:

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

Rignall, Elizabeth, All So Long Ago, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:586

Image References:

St.Emin’s Hotel (Accessed: 27/01/2016)

Winston Churchill (Accessed: 27/01/2016)

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