The Second World War took place between 1939-45 and was commonly known as ‘The Peoples War’, often remembered as a time when class barriers broke down and liberation from traditional codes – especially for women took place. Sue Bruley’s Women in Britain since 1900 focuses on the varying roles of women in Britain with particular attention on the role of women during WW2. In her chapter, ‘We Can Do It!’ Bruley explains how ‘The outbreak of the war produced conflicting tendencies as regards women’s labour. A wave of conservative nostalgia swept the country and many enlisted men felt that a wife at home symbolized what the struggle was all about. Many women, on the other hand, realized that the war might give them increased opportunities and were keen to take advantage of this’ (Bruley, 1999, 93). Florence recalls helping her young niece Dora who was trying to get into the services but was too young for both the Army and the Land Army however, seeing how keen she was too help Florence added two years to her age and she started at A.T.S in the Royal Queens Regiment.
From March 1941 all women aged 19 to 40 had to register at employment exchanges. This was progressively increased, so that by 1943 50-year olds were included. On the basis of this, women could be directed into specific jobs. ‘Women were classified as either ‘mobile’ or ‘immobile’. Single women without dependants were mobile and could, therefore, be directed to work anywhere they were needed. Married women were regarded as immobile and had to be found work locally.’ (Bruley, 1999, 93) Florence tells us:
“Because we had no family I had to do a war job I applied for a job as a lady gardener at Hampton-Court Palace starting on 11th November 1938 and stayed there for 4 years…” (30)
I think it’s touching how Florence’s fond memories of her Father working at Hampton-Court Palace led her to apply for work there during the war and in a sense following her Father’s footsteps.
“It was hard work I used to cycle from our home in Stoneleigh to Tolworth Station, I had the key to the shed there where I put my bicycle, no one about it was so early 4.30 in the morning. I walked to the Red Lion bus stop, caught a trolley bus to Kingston – then to Hampton-Court we started work at 5.30 in the summer time the clocks were altered then so we had more hours to work.” (30) Florence describes there being four lady gardeners as well as the older gardeners who were too old for war.
We had the press there one whole day taking photos of us working, we asked what was it for and was told the photos will be in books etc telling the people abroad what the women were doing, such as taking a man’s job on while he was at war.” (31)
The Extended Employment of Women agreement (1940) gave women doing ‘men’s work’ without assistance or extra supervision the right to graduate towards the male rate over a period of time, but it also made clear that women were to be regarded as temporary workers. The Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act (1942) guaranteed their removal at the end of the war.
Florence remembers how they use to get many raids because they lived in a direct air route to London and the planes used to take their bearings from the River Thames. In her memoir she describes how during this time their home was bombed on the 9th September 1940 at 5-30 in the evening and how her and John had hid in the cupboard under the stairs which they had made as a cover during air raids. She remembers how frightening the raid was telling us that her clothes were torn and buttons had been lost from her dress as she climbed out. Florence describes the aftermath of the bomb falling telling us they were forced to leave their poor damaged house which they loved and take refuge in the local church – “All the houses were new, and we were all married about just over a year it was all very sad. We had to stay in the church all night – I spent most of my time looking after the babies who had been put to bed on tables.” (32)
She writes how supportive and strong her Father was to her during this difficult time describing how he came over to help clean up the mess cycling all the way from Hampton-Court Palace where he worked as a warder watching the Palace overnight. After finding Florence and John at the church, she tells us how she broke down in tears crying and how her Father was very sympathetic, kissing them and saying:
“be brave, chins up, don’t give up, this is what Hitler wants to do to us all, we will show him what we are made of…” (34).
Florence explains how this pep talk made her feel so much better and her Father having been a soldier for 25 years knew what he was talking about. Florence describes how when her Father was told he was too old for regular service being 58, he helped to train the Militia at the local hall and other A.R.P work although was very sad when he was told he was too old for the
army saying: “The only army I am fit for is the Salvation army” (34). Florence goes on to tell us of a memory of being in the cinema with her mother when a news flash came on instructing all territorials to report to the Barracks immediately her mother turned to her and said we must get home as her younger brother Wally was in the territorials. Florence writes how on arriving home she found her father at the front door waving Wally off claiming: “When I was at war I didn’t ever believe I would live to see the day I saw my own son off to war. God help us” (35).
Another year later, Florence and John’s home was bombed once again. On another occasion, Florence tells us how she and John’s mother were visiting her parents when there was a raid on and a thick fog looming over London. Owing to the weather, Florence explains that the planes were flying low, so low in fact that a plane knocked the fence down around the park and two Spitfires collided killing both pilots inside. Whilst this was taking place, Florence and her Mother in law lay on the wet ground frightened and shocked waiting until they were helped to safety.
Memories of war began early for Florence, witnessing the effects of WW1 on her active Father as well as the effects it had upon her mother and life at home. Having experienced the turbulent effects of WW2 more directly, it comes as no surprise that Florence was relieved for war to finally be over and even more so that this would enable the next chapter of her life to begin. After 9 years of marriage she tells us, we were blessed with a son Richard John born April 20th :
“At last my dad’s words had come true he said just before he died that I should be blessed with a child” (39).
Bruley, Sue. Women in Britain since 1900, (Macmillan Press Ltd: Great Britain), 1999.
181 COOTER, Florence Anne, ‘Seventh Child’, MS, pp.71 (c.71,000 words). Brunel University Library found in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989)