Georgina Gittins pictured above with fellow Wrexham Labour Party member/campaigner Nathan Lee Davies (Centre) and Clwyd South Political Education Co-Ordinator Keith Sinclair (Left).
Clwyd South Labour Party is planning to publish a number of items of historical interest here over the coming months. They will tend to be of local interest and cover Labour Party and trade union related issues but also broader campaigns on behalf of working people.
We are delighted to publish our first article “Wrexham, Suffrage and the Home Front 1911-1918”. The article is based on a talk by Georgina Gittens presented at the Women’s Archive Wales conference in Swansea on 7th October 2018.
Georgina Gittens is a retired staff nurse, an active member of Wrexham Labour Party and Unite Union Community (CLICK HERE), and a good friend of Clwyd South Labour Party (CLICK HERE). She is the driving force behind the “Suffrage in Wrexham” Facebook page, which can be found which can be found by CLICKING HERE.
PLEASE CARRY ON READING BELOW FOR GEORGINA’S EXCELLENT ARTICLE!
Keith Sinclair, Political Education Officer, Clwyd South Labour Party
Above picture: Georgina Gittins
WREXHAM: SUFFRAGE AND THE HOME FRONT 1911 – 1918
Wrexham is the fourth largest town in Wales. Many families, like my own, came to live here during the nineteenth century looking for work amongst the coal mines, the limestone quarries, the iron works, the leather works and the range of breweries.
But this history isn’t about the men, whose history is already well documented elsewhere.
This history is about the women. The main source of women’s employment in Wrexham at this time was in Domestic Service or public houses. My Grandmother worked at The Albion Pub, in Pen-y-Bryn.
This history has been written using the Microfiles of The North Wales Guardian and The Wrexham Advertiser, 1911-1918 which I’ve read in the Wrexham Archive and Local Studies room at Wrexham Museum, along with other documents from that period held in The Denbighshire Archives, The National Library of Wales, The Working Class Movement Library in Salford, The John Ryland Library in Manchester, The Modern Records Centre in Warwick and The Women’s Library in London.
So, what was it like to be a woman in Wrexham, in 1911?
They weren’t mentioned in the local press very often at this time, so it’s hard to tell. I’ve tried to tease out the facts and piece them together.
There was an established middle and upper-class structure whose legacy lives on today in many of Wrexham’s listed buildings. But working-class women and their families lived in rented two-up, two-down back-to-back terraced or courtyard houses which were demolished during the Slum Clearances of the 1930s.
There’s an oral testimony in Wrexham Archives from a lady who grew up in Wrexham’s rented terraced houses during the 1920s. She talks about “NEIGHBOURLINESS.” Whenever there was a crisis – a new baby; a sick child – the women in the street would gather around to arrange childcare, hot meals and help for the family.
Brooke Street, Wrexham. This photograph was taken before the houses were demolished during the slum clearances of the 1930s. From Wrexham Archives and Local Studies Service.
The infant and child mortality rates were higher than the national average. The most common cause of death was diarrhoea, followed by childhood infections. Many of the working-class rented houses had no running water or sewerage systems, particularly those built in the hilly areas around the mines and quarries. There were four public wells and thirty-four private wells so handwashing to prevent the spread of infection must have been a challenge.And there must have been plenty of crises.
But, we had a great MP, Mr Edward Thomas John. He was desperate to improve conditions in Wrexham. (see below)
Photo from Wikipedia
He recognised a high level of opposition to the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Not many men could vote in Wrexham 1911, so why should women want the vote?
The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was a non-militant Union not linked to any political party. Their national aims were to gain public support for Votes for Women, to raise awareness of conditions in factories for girls and women and bring other women’s issues to public attention – for example the White Slave Trade and the links between slum housing and poor health.
Mr John wrote to the Liverpool branch of the NUWSS, inviting them to hold a public meeting in Wrexham. The Liverpool branch was part of the West Cheshire, West Lancashire and North Wales Branch, the founding branch. One of their members said, “What West Cheshire and West Lancashire women think today, England does tomorrow!”
They were already experienced in relief work in the slums of Liverpool as well as scrutinising working conditions of girls and women.
Eleanor Rathbone and other forward-thinking women including Muriel Matters, Edith Eskrigge, Maud Royden and Cecily Leadley-Brown addressed a large Public Meeting in May 1911, in Central Hall, Wrexham.
Photo from: AH Dodd A History of Wrexham, page 177. The building on the left is “The Little Theatre.”
They must have made a significant impact as a Wrexham Branch was formed on the spot, a Secretary and Treasurer appointed. They continued to meet until 1918, the Liverpool branch supporting them throughout.
Above picture from The Women’s Library, London.
And I know this because the Press reported it in full! (from North Wales Guardian, May 1911). See below photo.
Above picture from The Women’s Library, London.
The Wrexham Branch of the NUWSS got off to a good start. Three women completed the Pilgrimage to Hyde Park, London in 1911 and in 1913, carrying their banner. See below photo.
Above picture from The Women’s Library, London.
They campaigned locally, always with male protection, gaining Resolutions of support from local Trades Unions and local people.
At the end of 1911 the school governors of Grove Park Grammar School announced that they had procured land on which to build a Girls Grammar School, to give more local girls the chance of a good education. Opportunities for Wrexham women were beginning to broaden from ‘Domestic Service;’ they were now beginning to train as teachers, teaching assistants and governesses.
But Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst noticed that Wrexham was in Wales. She believed that Wales would be a good way to influence David Lloyd George, the first Welsh Cabinet Minister. She held a Public Meeting in the Drill Hall, Wrexham in February 1912 but although it was well attended no recruits appear to have enlisted.
She did not give up. The National Eisteddfod of Wales was held in Wrexham in September 1912; Mrs Pankhurst sent three Suffragettes to heckle Lloyd George during his opening speech at the Chairing of the Bard Ceremony.
Photo above from “The Globe.” The Museum of London
Each Suffragette shouted out one sentence; the crowd of around 11,000 people erupted. The three suffragettes were badly beaten and sexually assaulted. The National Press took photographs and was shocked at the violence, particularly coming from Wales. Questions were asked in Parliament about the incident, and Lloyd George described the Press Reports as “utter falsehood.” Fake News!
The Wrexham NUWSS branch found campaigning very difficult after this, reporting, “We need all the help we can get” especially from young girls who shouted, “We don’t want your stupid papers!”
Then, in 1914, the First World War broke out.
Industrial Wrexham found itself suddenly faced with an increased demand for its high quality coal, steel and leather. These materials were so crucial to waging war that skilled workers were exempted from military service. The male workforce of Wrexham suddenly disappeared on board trains from the General Station, some of them never to return while those that did would be changed forever.
The Council appointed Miss Annie Wordsworth, the Headmistress of Victoria Girls School and NUWSS member, to establish a Register of Women Workers at the local Labour Exchange. She was decorated with an MBE (1918) for her services.
She arranged recruitment, training and employment. Her system seems to have worked very well; women went from being “seen but not heard” to being described in the press as “ubiquitous” “highly efficient” and “smiling.”
Local women set up many voluntary “neighbourliness” schemes on a grand scale, in Wrexham itself as well as in the surrounding villages. Some NUWSS names are involved, others are more difficult to trace. They provided hot drinks. They taught how to make and mend clothes, how to repair household items, how to look after babies and sick children. They provided shoulders to cry on. They welcomed recuperating soldiers as well as their families.
Women carried out continual fundraising for Roseneath and Croesnewydd Military Hospitals. The hospitals needed basic equipment such as strong cups for soldiers, chairs for them to sit on, stretchers on wheels, bandages and surgical dressings; and food. The cost of supply services for the war was over one billion pounds per year – Mr E T John, a Pacifist, informed the Wrexham press – none of this money went towards the aftercare of soldiers.
The Surgical Branch of the Queen Mary’s Guild raised money to buy around 3,300 surgical dressings and bandages per year, and met two days per week in High Street to pack and send them to the Front.
Three ladies ran The Free Library of Wrexham, serving around one hundred people each day.
Volunteers also supported our local Belgian Refugee Committee, supporting up to 100 refugees living with local families.
“The Business Girls of Wrexham” arranged Motor Tours for soldiers from the local hospitals, stopping for hot food and cigarettes, and providing treats for soldiers too ill to travel. Other workplaces arranged Entertainment Events for soldiers, too.
One NUWSS member, Miss Rooper, her father and her friend Violet Bury (also an NUWSS member) set up a weekly subscription scheme to send each Royal Welsh Fusilier prisoner of war three parcels per fortnight of food and cigarettes. The fund was so successful that it was mentioned in Parliament but by 1917 her father was £1000 in debt and appealing for more subscriptions. The subscriptions were finally taken over by the POW Central Committee in London soon afterwards. A year later, her brother Trevor’s death was announced in the newspaper. Captain Trevor Rooper, of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, was aged 20.
Miss Violet Bury, who had “worked like a slave” for the POW scheme, became Wrexham’s first Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps recruit.
Above photo: A H Dodd, A History of Wrexham
Many women took on First Aid Training to work at the hospitals; some became Probationer nurses, others served as nurses abroad, some were decorated and a source of much local pride. They were trained by Dr Katherine Roseberry Drinkwater, B.Sc., LSA, MB BS, and DPH. She was one of the first women to hold the latter qualification, the Diploma in Public Health.
Dr Drinkwater, like all women Doctors at that time, was only allowed to work with children and women – but judging by Wrexham’s child mortality rates this was no easy option. She had work published in a surgical magazine, which was a measure of her talent. In addition to these roles, she led the First Aid, nursing and midwifery training.
From 1910 she worked with the King Edward VII Memorial, an initiative in Wales to eradicate TB.
During the War years, she attended many public meetings in Wrexham encouraging women to undertake medical and nursing work. In 1916 Dr Drinkwater was one of the first women Doctors to enlist; she served in Malta and was decorated with an OBE in 1918. Despite being very highly qualified she was regarded as inferior to her male counterparts, not allowed a contract, rank or uniform.
The Wrexham draper and clothes store, Lloyd Williams, stocked clothes suitable for all types of work in addition to their usual stock of fashionable wear.
Above photo from The North Wales Guardian
The whole area of paid work is too numerous to list – wherever a worker was required a woman was found who could do the work. “Women’s Rallies” were regularly held in Wrexham, recruiting workers, volunteers, army and medical staff.
“Wrexham Recruiting Office staff, taken at the back of the Wrexham Free Library, 1916.” Above photo from: AH Dodd, A History of Wrexham. Although the men are named, none of the women are.
The Town Crier of Chester was replaced by his wife, who wore “a very similar uniform.”
When the manager of Wrexham Public Baths was called up there were local fears that the Baths would be forced to close; it was very popular, used by 1,411 bathers in April 1918. His wife continued to manage the Baths, working at a lower wage under a new manager.
The only females barred from service appear to be War Dogs, who were required to be larger than an Airedale Terrier and Male!
Above photo: Hundreds of women worked in three local munition works, travelling to one in Queensferry, one in Willow Road and to Powell Brothers Munition Works next to the Wrexham General Station. Judging by our newspaper reports the women at Powell Brothers Munition Works would have regularly witnessed over 100 injured soldiers at a time arriving on hospital trains.
They responded to this by raising money for the local military hospitals; like many munitions factories in England, the Wrexham women formed a football team. They took on an experienced women’s munition factory team from Aintree who were regularly coached and used to competing against other highly successful women’s teams in Lancashire. They were thrashed 5:0 but raised £184.
The match was the first women’s football match to be played at the Racecourse, on Boxing Day 1917.
From The Wrexham Advertiser, December 15th 1917 front page. See below photo.
They organised fetes, with ladies’ sports competitions such as three-legged races, skipping races and obstacle courses – and Sports for wounded soldiers. The newspaper reports Silver Band competitions and Solo instrumental competitions (all won by musicians from Brymbo). These Fetes must surely have lifted the spirits of all involved. The Bank Holiday fete advertised below raised £1,213 for the Hospitals.
They also had a very successful Tug-of-War team, coached by a Mr T Jones, competing with other local women’s teams and raising money. See below photo.
The Wrexham Branch of the NUWSS raised money to buy a Welsh Suffrage Bed for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, of France and Serbia. These hospitals treated some of our own Royal Welsh Fusilier soldiers. The hospitals were established by a Scottish Woman Doctor, Dr Elsie Ingliss, who was an NUWSS member. She tried to enlist in 1914 but was told, “My good lady, go home and sit still,” so instead, she opened her own hospitals which were welcomed in France and Serbia, and were funded, managed and staffed by women.
The Food Crisis of 1916 – 18 hit Wrexham very hard.
German U-boats sank our merchant navy ships, carrying imported food. This was highly effective. Food became very scarce and expensive, prices being raised by 110% and unaffordable to many working class people. Wrexham Council tried to mitigate this by releasing land to be cultivated as Allotments, but the winter of 1915 – 16 was very hard and spring was late so vegetables remained scarce. Youths skating on Acton Lake were criticised in the press – why hadn’t they enlisted?
Sugar was rationed, only to be used by people who had grown their own fruit.
Two men were prosecuted by the Wrexham Angling Association, as Angling was still regarded as a sport, rather than a means to feed a family.
In February 1917, the newspaper reports Mr J M Edwards from Brymbo distributed over eight tons of seed potatoes to Brymbo, Tanyfron and Bwlchgwyn.
None of the sixty women who trained as Agricultural workers were taken on by local farmers in Denbighshire. Every week, the newspapers published the results of Tribunals exempting workers from service, including agricultural workers; and most weeks, tribunals urged farmers to take on women land army workers and increase food production. The Land Army was so successful in neighbouring Flintshire that three training centres held regular efficiency tests, ploughing, milking and sheep shearing competitions.
Finally, an Agricultural Census of Denbighshire was taken by the military authorities in January 1918. It identified 15,000 acres of fertile but uncultivated land which potentially could be used for growing food but still no action seems to have been taken. The Census could have perhaps been a national ‘audit’; they reported that neighbouring Cheshire had no uncultivated fertile land.
Food in Wrexham remained scarce, its markets virtually empty. The newspapers become an upsetting read, reporting rising levels of suicides and infanticides in Coroner’s Court reports and prosecution cases.
Miss Annie Wordsworth and Miss Harrison were appointed by the Council to a Food Control Committee to fix prices, stamp out ‘dirty milk’ (contaminated or watered down milk) and improve the supply of food. Initially this appears to have failed as farmers and milk sellers ignored the recommendations of the Food Control Committee, but by November 1918 milk was being delivered to streets in allotted carts, nursing mothers and children were allocated free milk where the family income after deduction of rent came to less than five shillings per head, and anyone selling contaminated milk was duly prosecuted and heavily fined.
Coal miners in Rhos, the most highly populated area, called a public meeting; they were working shifts with only dry bread to eat. Strike action was considered unless the inequalities of food supplies were improved and profiteering ended by the government. The newspapers reported that many women were present at the meeting.
Wrexham women queued for inadequate deliveries of food at prices they could not afford; by 1918 they responded angrily “with big sticks,” the police being “powerless” according to the newspapers.
An Army Recruitment Officer in 1918 noted the male stock of Wrexham to be ‘inferior.’ He put this down to bad parenting, the failure of parents to feed their children and young men properly.
How many women in Wrexham became new voters in 1918?
In 1916 the Government realised that men serving abroad would not fulfil the twelve-month residency qualification and would be unable to vote. A review of voting qualifications was therefore required. In recognition of the terrible burden shouldered by working-class men and women, all men aged 19 who were serving in the Armed Forces were enfranchised along with all men over the age of 21, and women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification.
The list of new electors in Wrexham was published on Saturday June 29th. According to the North Wales Guardian, the number of electors had increased from 4,000 to 8,500, “of which two fifths were women;” a total of 3,400.
This history is so fragmented that it’s taken over a year to put together; I’m sure Wrexham is typical of many industrial towns and its history represents that of many women and families of this period. In this, the Centenary Year of the end of the First World War and of some women earning the right to Vote, we need to be mindful that a whole section of women’s social history is in danger of being lost.