Blackpool and the Great War: The Role of Women

The RAMC in Training, Blackpool: The Medical Inspection Room and Dispensary, by J. Hodgson Lobely 1918, Copyright IWM.Art.IWMART 3681

During the 1914 – 1918 War, Blackpool played host to thousands of troops who were billeted in private homes and lodging houses. The arrival of the first wave of troops in November 1914 changed the social landscape immediately and, early on, warnings were being issued regarding the behaviour of young women towards the soldiers, and vice versa.

On December 8th a female wrote to the Blackpool Herald complaining of the unwelcome attention of the soldiers’, and dire warnings were heard from the vicar of All Saints Church the following week regarding ‘girls and Tommies’. Reports were to appear regularly in the local press with headlines such as ‘Soldier Worship’ and ‘Little Girls Who Should Be Smacked’.

By 1915 a new term was being used when another clergyman addressed 12,000 troops in Blackpool on ‘…the way in which a soldier should conduct himself towards women and girls.’ He referred to the young soldier ‘… on getting the young girl to walk about with him, only to find she was just a silly young flapper’ (The Blackpool Herald February 12th 1915).

Flappers aside, there were many women who played an invaluable part in carrying out the jobs of the men who had enlisted. Many of these roles were vital, yet a male-dominated society had to lampoon their efforts, as typified in the cartoons from The Blackpool Herald on December 18th 1914.

On September 21st 1915 the Blackpool Gazette reported that, ‘The war is daily opening out new spheres of work for women and extending women’s employment in the spheres that they had previously invaded.’

‘Blackpool Town Council have announced they will give every help [to the war effort] by taking several women pupils in the gardening department. ‘No doubt the heavier tasks customarily performed by man are beyond [their] powers ….’ says the reporter, but continues: ‘…women add grace to any garden, and they will do the same for gardening.’

Prior to conscription in 1916, women were told to encourage the men not already in uniform to enlist. Leading ladies, at a meeting in Blackpool Town Hall, were urged that ‘It was in their power, not only to influence their own men, but to do their duty and influence other men.’ ‘No girl should be seen with a man who is not in khaki’. No mention is made of white feathers in this piece from The Blackpool Herald June 11th 1915, but the message is clear.

New opportunities for work for women brought greater freedom and In March 1918 the matron of St Margaret’s Home for Friendless Women in Blackpool once again discussed ‘the flapper problem’. She talked of girls being brought to the resort from munitions factories by men ‘who could afford the luxury of a motorcar.’ ‘Girls cannot have what they call a good time on a soldier’s pay; good times come from those with means.’

There was not the same stigma attached to drinking in the elegant hotels of Blackpool as there was to being seen in a public house. ‘To sip coffee and liqueurs and smoke cigarettes appears to the mind of the featherbrained flapper the very essence of society life.’ (The Blackpool Herald, March 29th 1918). When the pleasure of the girl’s company waned, they were often left stranded ‘She is introduced to drinks with names foreign to her, and rather than show her ignorance of such expensive concoctions she will partake of them as though they were part of her daily living. The thought of intoxication never crosses her immature mind.’

And what of the Blackpool landladies? Their role cannot be underestimated. Boarding houses, ‘row after row of them’, were packed with soldiers. On February 19th 1915 the Blackpool Herald printed an interview with a Blackpool landlady in order to get her perspective, complete with dialect, on the lads in her care, often very young and away from home for the first time. Described as ‘…a big, bony, typical holiday hostess, with a rugged face, but kindly eye.’

‘These lads,’ she said, ‘aye they’re aw reet’. ‘So you’ve ten?’ asks the reporter, and the response is the happy boast, ‘Aye, ten, and there’s a bed apiece’. Landladies had to provide for the soldiers billeted on them with the strict War Office allowance, making for very little profit. The report continues, ‘There can be little doubt but what the soldiers realise this. Many of them will light the landlady’s fire in the dark of the morning, and in a hundred ways pay filial duty to their foster-mother, giving her as little trouble as possible…’ And how do you like mothering such a big family? I asked my own particular landlady. ‘….when they’re cross I chivvies ‘em, and when they’re in trouble, well then I tries to be just – mother.’ She goes on, ‘I’ve had three sons sir. Two of ‘em’s in t’trenches now – t’other – when t’Lancashire’s were cut up – yes ‘e died sir. Oh aye, I mothers ‘em aw reet.’

Louise Thornton

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