Writing WW1 Rochdale women

On Tuesday, I spent some time researching some of the roles Rochdale women played in World War One. From anti-war suffragists to voluntary nurses to the ‘Canary Girls’, I’m using this research in a poem I’m co-writing with poet Eileen Earnshaw of Word Weavers and the Rochdale Pioneers Museum. We have been commissioned to write a poem about women’s contribution to the First World War. I thought I’d share my learning and some of the process that I will be using to contribute to the poem. The notes below are focussed primarily on women either from or in Rochdale from that time period. They are presented as short snippets from books and some thoughts on them.

Witnessing the walking wounded
The VAD were a group of civilian volunteers who worked in the UK and/or sent other parts of what was the British Empire. Kathleen lived in Dearnley and witnessed the return of soldiers from the Somme, sent all over the country to recuperate. The initial news reports seemed to differ dramatically as the wounded ‘came in such numbers that no one could fail to see that the reports had been false and that the casualties had been appallingly heavy’.[1] This is an excerpt from what Kathleen Yarwood, the Voluntary Aid Detachment matron of Dearnley Hospital, Rochdale, saw:

‘They were coming up the road past the house, a huge, long procession of walking wounded. At least they were supposed to be walking wounded, but some of them weren’t really fit to walk at all, and there weren’t nearly enough ambulances to bring them […] it was shocking’.[2]

Suffragettes, suffragists, and pacifists
Esther Roper had set up two local subcommittees of the Women’s Social and Political Union, one in Gorton, Manchester ‘and the other in Rochdale, a typical cotton town’.[3]

Ada Nield Chew moved from Crewe to Rochdale to continue her campaigning with the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. As an anti-war campaigner, she later fell out with the pro-war Christabel Pankhurst. My colleagues Dr Kirsty Bunting and Dr Orlagh McCabe at Manchester Met Uni are running a fantastic outreach project on Ada and an article about her can be seen here: Ada Nield Chew: England’s forgotten suffragist.

The Canary Girls
In the poster: a smiling young woman defiantly ties up her hair in the foreground, in the background a soldier squats by an anti-aircraft gun. The accompanying text declares: ‘On Her Their Lives Depend.’

On her their lives depend
‘On Her Their Lives Depend’ WW1 propaganda poster. Image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/63054810@N03/12502952573 Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

It was argued that ‘around 900,000 women were involved in making shells, guns and aircraft for the British forces’.[4] In the munitions factories, women were at risk of developing toxic jaundice – this was caused by overexposure to TNT. The women’s skin turned yellow – hence the name ‘canary girls’ – and was ‘sometimes fatal’.[5]

Of course, following the war, women were expected to surrender their new jobs, an opinion published in The Daily Graphic stated ‘The idea that because the State called for women to help the nation, the State must continue to employ them is too absurd for serious women to entertain’.[6] Too late: fuel had been added to the fire for liberation and equal rights campaigns.

Crafting for the cause
The Women’s Institute was founded in Canada with the first UK wing forming in Wales in 1915 and spreading throughout the country. During the war, WIs ‘encouraged women to keep chickens and pigs, grow food in their gardens and in small holdings, preserve food, and knit clothing for the troops’.[7] The famous jam of the Women’s Institute was to feature in the Second World War. Founded in Canada, the UK branch was founded in 1915 with its popular magazine Home and Country dating back to 1919.[8] This call to ‘knit for victory’ reverberated in the States where the ‘Wool Brigades’ encouraged people to ‘knit a bit’.(I learned how to knit socks at the end of last year, and can confirm that the Kitchener stitch is pretty fiddly!)


Poetic process
Because of the snow, I’m working on a poem over email with Eileen! Hopefully, when it’s possible to travel, we’ll meet up. For me, I tend to over-research then chose bits to use! As the weather has been pretty much a super-blizzard in West Yorkshire, the image of falling snow as white feathers kept coming to me. I wanted to get emotion as a contributions from women who felt strongly about the war into the poem – whether for or against. We’ve tried to keep it as Rochdale-specific as possible but, because war affects everyone, there is some universality about it. For me, I’ve found it fascinating to learn about the lives of women during this time period and am drawn to the political machinations at the time (particularly around women’s suffrage and liberation). As a crafter, I’ve found the information on weaving, knitting and baking also fascinating. I have included some fun links below.

This poetry project has a little bit of a Challenge Anneka element about it as we’ve only just been invited. We wanted to work together to create something that is both an inter-generational piece and a piece by women from two different parts of Greater Manchester. We’ll be performing the poem next week for the Ambition for Ageing agenda. Hopefully, I’ll be allowed to share our work, but if not, then I will see if I can include an excerpt.


I hope that by sharing this research that it was useful in some way. The best thing about collating this knowledge is that it was free, in a lovely space, with specialists on hand. Support your local library!

[1] Lyn Macdonald, The Roses of No Man’s Land, (London, Penguin Books, 1980), p. 170.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Jill Liddington & Jill Norris, One Hand Tied Behind Us, (London: Virago Press, 1978), p.79.
[4] Gill Thomas, Women In History. Life on All Fronts: Women in the First World War, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p.10.
[5] A. Susan Williams, Women In History. Women and War, (Hove: Wayland Ltd., 1989), p. 18.
[6] Excerpt from The Daily Graphic republished in Thomas, p. 18.
[7] Mary Turner, The Women’s Century: A Celebration of Changing Roles 1900-2000. (Kew, Richmond, Surrey: The National Archives, 2003), p. 48.
[8] Penny Kitchen, For Home and Country: War, Peace and Rural Life as Seen through the Pages of the W.I. Magazine 1919 – 1959 (London: Ebury Press, 1990).

Links just for fun!


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