And then we went to war: Part One

A number of former pupils undertook war work in WW1. This information comes from various sources, most notably from the Old Masonic Girls’ Association magazine, Massonica (now Masonica with a single s). However, one case in particular, that of Dorothy Watson, comes from an entirely different source which may suggest that there are other examples of war work that have either gone unrecorded or are recorded in non-central places yet to be discovered.

These postings look at the various kinds of war work former pupils undertook.

The War office and its various departments occupied nine of our pupils. For the most part, we do not know exactly in what capacity although it seems likely to be using secretarial skills. With two exceptions, Effie Rankin and Alice Blunt, all of these former pupils had been born in the 1890s. Effie was fractionally older (b. 1886) and Alice ten years older than she. Comparison of the birthdates of the others and the dates when employed suggest that these posts were probably their first since leaving school at 16.

Effie Rolph Rankin had been due to leave school in July 1903 but had been retained as a pupil teacher for a year. Then she trained at the Battersea Polytechnic as a cookery teacher followed in 1907 with a post in a technical school in Mansfield, Notts. Subsequently, she had posts in East Ham and Uxbridge. She had temporarily returned to the school in 1915 as a teacher but by 1917 she was working for the Ministry of Munitions.

In May 1915 a new coalition government had come to power:

The Prime Minister has decided that a new department shall be created, to be called the Ministry of Munitions, charged with organising the supply of munitions of war. Mr Lloyd George has undertaken the formation and temporary direction of this department, and during his tenure of office as Minister of Munitions will vacate the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The quarters allocated to the new Ministry were at 6 Whitehall Gardens, London.

Marian Rayden also worked in the Ministry of Munitions. She had been due to leave school in 1913 but had been kept on to help with the music teaching in the senior school. Later she returned to this area and qualified as LRAM in 1923. There is no record of what her work at the Ministry entailed although we do know that after the war she took work in a commercial office so there may be a connection.

Alice Blunt left school in 1894 and went to a school abroad for two years. The records do not say where but she began work in the Censorship office “censoring German letters” so presumably she was a fluent German speaker. This might imply that some of that two year stint abroad had been in a German-speaking country.

The War Office also employed thousands of bilingual women to work on postal and telegraphic censorship monitoring correspondence with neutral countries all over the world. Assisted by the Post Office, this censorship was the largest of its kind and helped the government to catch spies, control the dissemination of military information and to compile economic data used to better execute the blockade of vital imports into Germany.

The Ministry of Food was a department tasked with ensuring that the Home Front supported the war effort. According to a leaflet they produced, Britain had a surplus supply of potatoes but wheat was in short supply. They encouraged the use of potatoes in recipes which might have previously employed wheat: save the wheat and help the fleet.

Another history blog notes the following:

Our favourite recipe from this collection is the Treacle Potato Pudding, which is made using the following recipe:

1 lb. mashed potatoes, 1 egg, half an ounce of sugar, 1 ounce of ground rice, 1 ounce of cooking fat, flavouring essence or other flavouring, 3 tablespoons full treacle, 1/2 teaspoon full of baking powder.

Coat a plain charlotte mould whilst warm with a layer of thick treacle. Mix the potato, egg, sugar and melted butter together and add a few drops of flavouring essence. Stir in, lastly, the baking powder. Put the mixture into the prepared tin and cover with a greased paper. Steam the pudding slowly in a pan containing boiling water in a moderate oven or in a steamer for about 1 and a half hours. When cooked turn out carefully on to a hot dish and serve.

Patience Colledge, the former pupil who worked at the Ministry of Food, later became a nurse and in 1929 left to nurse in Perak, Malaysia. Thereafter, apart from a very brief reference to her marrying in Australia, the School loses contact with her. I hope the Treacle Potato Pudding was not to blame.

Two other pupils, Elizabeth Wright and Winifred Corble, worked at the War Office but we don’t know which section. It is interesting to note that Winifred worked at the War office from 1915 as it was in that year that her brother, Edgar, became the first Old Boy of the Boys’ Masonic school to be killed in WWI. He died in Ploegsteert in January 1915 and is buried there.

The remaining three former pupils of the Girls’ who are known to have worked in Civvy St doing war work all worked for what was originally called the Air Board. They are recorded as “working on the Air Board at the Cecil Hotel”. The Royal Air Force was officially established at the Hotel Cecil, now Shell Mex House on the Strand, on the 1st April 1918 by merging the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service.

The Hotel Cecil was named after Cecil House a mansion belonging to the Cecil family, which occupied the site in the 17th century … the hotel was the largest in Europe when it opened, with more than 800 rooms. The hotel was requisitioned for the war effort in 1917, and the very first headquarters of the newly formed RAF took up part of the hotel from 1918 to 1919. (from Wikipedia)

So these three girls, Clara Weston, Ellen Carter & Hilda Orme, newly emerged from school, could be said to be witnesses to history as they are all recorded as working there in 1918 when the RAF was first formed.

War work with connections to hospitals was undertaken by another group of ‘girls’. Dorothy Caine was doing something but the reference in Massonica is vague in the extreme! She was “doing war work of some kind possibly with Red Cross but she had to give it up for health reasons”. Presumably this information did not come directly from her but about her via another former pupil so it is not possible to say what she did. Almost as vague is the reference to Marion Bloomfield’s war work – “had been working in a hospital during the war”. The comment had been made in relation to her having gone to live in Guernsey for health reasons, the implication being that whatever she had been doing during the war had had an adverse effect on her health.

May Pelton, on the other hand, we are told was doing secretarial work in a military hospital in Newcastle in 1918. She was another who suffered loss from the war as her brother died whilst serving on HMS Monarch in 1915 although, his military record reveals, the cause of death was “by means other than disease, accident or enemy action”. Ethel Cossham Park, who was also employed as a secretary before and after the war (and probably during it too) undertook voluntary work making bandages, a task she exhorted other former pupils to join her in doing. Following the war, she went to live in France, during which time she married, albeit in London, afterwards returning to live in France.

Two former pupils enrolled in uniformed organisations. Mary Dixon joined the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) and visited school wearing her uniform in 1917.

She was still at school when the war broke out and, being born in 1899, probably left in 1915.

[In 1917] The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) were formed to free up valuable and experienced soldiers from the rear areas for front line service.

Doris Davis, just a year older, joined the Volunteer Corps and also visited the School wearing her uniform. It is hard to pin down exactly what this was from the brief reference. It could have been “the Women’s Auxiliary Force, a voluntary organisation of part-time workers. Uniformed, they worked in canteens and provided social clubs; they also worked on the land and in hospitals.” Or it could have been The Women’s Volunteer Reserve although that was expensive to join with a self-funded uniform costing £2. “The Women’s Legion was the largest voluntary body and it adopted a military-style uniform. The WL volunteers became involved in many forms of work, including cooking and catering for the army in England.” It could even have been the WAAC itself as joined by Mary Dixon.

It is clear from the dates of birth of these former pupils that many swapped their school uniforms for military or quasi-military uniform with hardly a moment’s breath in between. Sometimes from the comfort of a hundred years away we forget the impact the First World War had on that generation of young people. Doing their bit for their country was more than just a patriotic duty: it had a profound effect on them.

Table of war work

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