Category Archives: Women

“I am content to have done my bit” – the death John William Irons

What would you want to tell your loved ones if you were killed in action? It must have been a question that many soldiers, sailors and airmen considered during the Great War. This is the story of one Londoner’s last words to his mother.

John William Irons was born in Islington in 1884, the eldest son of John and Mary Irons. By 1901, John senior had died and Mary was working as an office cleaner, living in Lambeth with her 18-year-old daughter Ellen (working as a “fur machinist”), 16-year old John William who was working as an assistant in a stationer’s shop, and two younger sons, Frederick and George. Later that year, Mary married widower Ernest William Collett, who was living in Camberwell. They had three children, one of whom died in infancy. In 1911, Mary, Ernest, their two daughters, Mary’s three sons (Ellen had moved out), and four boarders, were living at 112 Kennington Road – close to the current location of the Imperial War Museum.

Lance Corporal J.W. Irons © IWM (HU 116215)

Lance Corporal J.W. Irons © IWM (HU 116215)

John William Irons was listed in the census return as a clerk. By 1914, he was working for Messrs Adams Bros and Shardlow Ltd, a printing firm based at 72 Chiswell Street, London EC. In August 1914, he left the firm to join the army. When he went out to the front in May 1915, the firm sent him gift boxes every fortnight.

The 5th Berkshires were at Noyelles from 27th February 1916 until the 29th, when they moved into the frontline trenches. According to the war diary “C and D [Companies were] in front line A and B Coys in support trenches”. The battalion also received a “Draft of 43 N.C.O’s and Men arrived from Etaples”. On 1 March, one soldier died, but the war diary doesn’t give any details.

On 2 March, the war diary tells us that a “Mine exploded in front of D Coy and Crator [sic] occupied by Coy Bombers Casualties O.R. 3 killed 7 wounded”. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists three men of the battalion who died that day: L/Cpl Victor J Stokes, Pte William E Carter and L/Cpl John William Irons.

A few days later, Mary Collett back in Kennington received a letter from Revd Jospeh O’Reilly. The letter describes Irons having been killed by a shell; whether this was separate from the mine explosion, part of the occupation of the crater, or simply the generic description of death resulting from an explosion (rather than gunfire) is hard to say.

Dear Mrs Collett

Possibly you may have received a telegram recently with news of your son John, but if not it falls to me to inform you that your poor boy has made the Great Sacrifice for God and Country. The letter enclosed was found on him in an envelope upon which was the written request that the finder might past [sic] it to you.

I sincerely simpathise [sic] with you in your sorrow. He was a very good Catholic boy – always receiving the sacraments when opportunity permitted. He was killed by a shell on the night of March 2nd. Death was instantaneous.

I buried him yesterday and possibly I shall be able to have a photo of his last resting place sent to you.

(Revd) Joseph C O’Reilly, CF

36 F[iel]d Amb



The letter Revd O’Reily sent back was addressed to Mary Collett and had clearly been written by L/Cpl Irons when contemplating going into the front line as it is dated “Armentieres, June 7, 1915”, the location and date that the 5th Berkshires went into billets for a week before going into the trenches for the first time:

Dear Mum,

In case I get bowled out I have scribbled this line to you.

Now, Mum, do not worry about me as I am contented at having done my bit. Keep up your spirit and work on as you have always done. Remember me to all at home, also Nell and Sam, and all my chums when you can.

In is hard to imagine the emotions Mary must have felt when she received that letter from her son. In a letter she sent to the Imperial War Museum, she told them that a “Better son a mother never had”.

Mrs Collett was clearly very proud of her son. She sent information about him and a photo of his grave to the Imperial War Museum in 1918. Possibly this was the same photo sent by Revd O’Reily in 1916:

LCpl Irons

Lance Cpl Irons’s original grave marker © IWM (HU 116216)


The grave is in Vermelles British Cemetery, where Irons lies alongside Stokes and Carter. After the war, the Imperial War Graves Commission (as they were then known) offered the families of the fallen the chance to add an inscription to the otherwise-uniform headstones. Mary Collett clearly took her son’s letter to heart when she composed his inscription, which reads:





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Posted by on 30 September 2016 in Ordinary Londoners, War Dead, Women


Permission to return home

Separation in wartime meant that many servicemen and women must have missed the deaths of their parents or siblings, or the births of new family members, at home. One soldier from Forest Gate was lucky enough to be granted special permission to go home to his mother’s sick bed.

Eliza Georgina Benison married civil engineer Alexander van Ransellaer Thuey in 1877 and they raised eight children, first in Stevenage and later in Forest Hill. Alexander died in 1902, but the family were living at 1 Sidney Road, Forest Gate in East London in 1911. Alexander junior (the eldest son) and his wife and son (also Alexander) lived there along with Eliza and five of her other grown-up children (Johnny, whose name is crossed out on the census form, was boarding in nearby Courtenay Street with his employer, a grocer). Shortly after the census was taken, Eva married an Adolphus Herbert Fiford from the Isle of Wight

Census entry for 1 Sidney Road, Forest Gate, 1911

Census entry for 1 Sidney Road, Forest Gate, 1911

When war came, the three Thuey brothers all joined up.  John joined the Essex Regiment on 8 March 1915, Alexander enlisted in the Army Service Corps as a motor driver on 29 May 1915, and Cecil joined the Royal Field Artillery – I’m not sure of the date, but he was a Corporal by the end of 1915, serving on the Western Front. Someone called Herbert A Fiford served in the artillery during the war, it seems likely that this was Eva’s husband.

Alexander Thuey had gone to the Western Front (via India, after enlisting at Grove Park) in September 1915. On 21 November 1915, he was at Armentieres when he was seriously wounded in action – his service record lists his wounds as GSW, i.e. gun-shot wound, a generic term that could include shell fragments to his left foot, head, Hand and abdominal wall.

Eliza collapsed in shock when she heard that her eldest son was badly wounded. According to newspaper reports, she was “crying out day and night for sight of her boy” (whether this meant Alexander or Cecil is not clear). The family feared that she was dying.

When he heard about his mother’s condition, Cecil immediately requested leave from his unit to go and be with her. It was refused. Another letter, countersigned by their doctor (a Dr Goodson) also had no effect. Desperate to get her brother home, Eva Fiford then wrote to the King, explaining the situation.

Daily Mirror article on the Thueys' story, 27 Jan 1916

Daily Mirror article on the Thueys’ story, 27 Jan 1916

Remarkably, the King replied positively – or rather B.B. Cubbitt (later Sir Bertram Cubbitt, vice-president of the Imperial War Museum), a senior official at the War Office, wrote to her saying

Madam – In reply to your petition to the King, which was forwarded on to this department, I am commanded by the Army Council to acquaint you that a telegram has been sent to the military authorities over-seas that leave may be granted to your brother, Corporal C. Thuey, R.F.A., as an exceptional case. – I am your obedient servant, B.B. Cubbitt

So, Cecil Thuey, who had apparently concluded that he would never see his mother alive again, was woken in the night and told that he was allowed to go home. He then rushed back and his presence apparently had a huge restorative effect on his mother, who recovered and survived her illness. Cecil returned to the front in late January 1916.

In September 1916, Alexander Thuey was discharged from the army suffering from bronchitis, which had developed prior to the war but was aggravated by his active service. Sadly, he then died on 2 October 1918, leaving Gertrude a widow.

Having served on the Western Front in the Essex Regiment in 1916-17, John Thuey transferred to the Royal Flying Corps as a driver in February 1918 and thus joined the Royal Air Force when it was founded in April that year. He served with his unit in South Russia from April 1919 until March 1920, after which he left the RAF. He and Cecil both survived their military service: John died in 1943; Cecil married Neva Oxley in 1918 and lived until 1975.

Eliza Thuey died aged 61, towards the end of 1919, a year after her eldest son had passed away and while her youngest son was still absent on military duties. I hope that Cecil and his sisters and sister-in-law were able to be there for her at the end, as they had been when she was ill four years earlier.



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Posted by on 26 January 2016 in Ordinary Londoners, War Dead, Women


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The loss of the Persia

Soon after Christmas 1915, the British public heard bad news from the Mediterranean. A P&O passenger ship, the SS Persia, was sunk by a German submarine with the loss of 334 lives.

The Persia was built in Glasgow and launched in 1900; it left Tilbury docks on 18 December with 519 passengers and crew on board, 184 of them passengers. According to a contemporary newspaper article, “She was very heavily loaded with parcel post and mails, but there was very little cargo on board, and no war material.” After calling at Gibraltar and Marseilles, the Persia headed towards the Suez Canal on its route to India. On 30 December, its journey was abruptly ended in the Mediterranean.

SS Persia at Aden, c. 1900

SS Persia at Aden, c. 1900

Londoner Georgina Lee (in Wales for New Year) wrote in her diary on January 3rd 1916,

“Another terrible tragedy like the Lusitania horror. This time a P&O liner, the Persia, has been torpedoed in the Mediterranean off Crete without warning. Out of about 500 souls, 334 have been lost including 60 women and children. There was no panic, a few boats were lowered, and as the ship went down a few among those washed overboard were taken up into the boats but the vast majority were drownded.
“Some of the lost are American, including the American Consult for Aden [the British colony in modern-day Yemen] and his secretary. Perhaps this new outrage will at last arouse Present [Woodrow] Wilson’s anger and break his determination to remain patient.”

In her hopes about Wilson’s actions, Lee was wrong – it took him another 15 months to declare war, only after having fought a general election in which his party trumpeted his record in keeping America out of war with Germany and with Mexico. Lee’s diary entry gives a good insight, though, into the public revulsion at attacks of this sort. The New Zealand newspaper quoted above referred to “a profound sensation throughout Great Britain” caused by the sinking of the Persia following the recent “piratical destruction” of French and Japanese ships.

The SS Persia was sunk at lunchtime on 30 December 1915, south-east of Crete, by German submarine U-38, which had not issued a warning to the ship before opening fire.

The website The Sinking of the Persia gives a lot of detail about the ship and the sinking. Their description of the passengers is worth quoting at length:

“On board was a diverse mix of military (mainly officers) going out to postings in far flung parts of the British Empire, wives and children going out to India to be reunited with their fathers administering the Empire, there were Belgian nuns heading out to India, a team of YMCA staff heading to Egypt, missionaries, an American diplomat, business executives, the entourage of a maharajah, an Indian gentlemen having just had his case heard at the Privy Council, civil engineers, doctors, nurses, the headmistress of a Bombay school and a miscellany of other professions. The group that was under-represented was tourists for the run had become dangerous and wartime was not a time for the frivolity of viewing the pyramids or going tiger hunting in up-country India.”

That website gives information about many of those who died (including one of the proprietors of the Times of India, F.M. Coleman) and who survived the journey, so I will focus only on a few of the London connections, three women of the 32 who died – only 15 women survived the sinking. The three were women had very different life stories, but strong connections to the Empire.

The most glamorous is Eleanor Velasco Thornton. Nelly Thornton (also known as Thorn or Thorny) was born in 1880 in Stockwell, the daughter of an Australian engineer, and has supposedly found immortality as the model for the female figure on the bonnet of Rolls Royce cars. She worked as secretary to Claude Johnson, the first secretary of the Royal Automobile Club, until 1902 when he became a partner at Rolls Royce and she became the personal assistant of John Douglas-Scott-Montagu MP (later Lord Montagu), the owner of The Car Illustrated. Thornton went on to become his mistress and they reportedly had an illegitimate child together – Montagu was married to someone else.

Nelly Thornton and the Rolls Royce emblem said to have been modelled on her.

Nelly Thornton and the Rolls Royce emblem said to have been modelled on her.

The figure for the cars was commissioned in 1910 by Johnson from sculptor Charles Robinson Sykes. There were rumours immediately after its unveiling that the figure was Thornton, who had certainly modelled for Sykes. According to a detailed article on the subject, however

“By now he [Sykes] had obtained plenty of practice at drawing scantily clad winged goddesses, and at sculpturing nude female figures. He would therefore have had no difficulty in creating the figurine he had in mind, though he would have needed the services of a model to help him perfect details of the mascot’s pose. Jo Sykes remembers Eleanor Thornton as a strong, vigorous, statuesque woman – rather like Nike in many ways – and not the floating delicate form embodied in The Spirit of Ecstasy. So although Eleanor probably posed for the specific purpose of helping Charles develop his design for the mascot, it is not in its finished form a figure of her or any real person.”

Even so, Thornton appears to have been as close to being a model for the Spirit of Ecstacy as it was possible to be. She was on the Persia with Lord Montagu, who survived the submarine attack.

Another young Londonerror who perished was Miss Gladys Enid Macdonald. She was also the daughter of an Australian, her father being James Middleton Macdonald, chaplain at Oxford University and later a senior chaplain in India. Enid’s brother Roy was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy when he was drowned aboard HMS Hawke in October 1914; the Macdonalds therefore losthe both of their children at sea during the war. In the official records, Enid’s address is stated as 60 Stanhope Gardens, Kensington (near to the museums). She was on the Persia travelling to India to marry the wonderfully named Rowland Hatt-Cook, of the Public Works Department of the Indian Civil Service; their wedding was due to be held in Bombay in January 1916. Hatt-Cook later served as an officer in the Royal Garrison Artillery.

Gladys Enid Macdonald's entry in the record of lives lost at sea

Gladys Enid Macdonald’s entry in the record of lives lost at sea

Another woman with a London address was Mary Fernandez. In the National Archives’ list deaths at sea, her occupation is stated as “Mrs Bird’s Ayah” and her address as “Ayah’s House, 26 King Edward Road, Hackney”. Ayahs were private nannies hired by British families in India to look after their children and often accompanied the families on their journeys back to the UK. An article on the Women’s History Network blog gives more information about these travelling Indian nannies. It summarises how they ended up in London:

“We can divide them into ‘ayahs who happened to travel’ and professional ‘travelling ayahs’. The usual pattern was that ‘ayahs who happened to travel’ sailed to Britain with the family they worked for in Asia, to help with the children on the voyage. The families were either returning home on furlough, or to re-settle. The ayahs then waited in Britain, sometimes at the Ayah’s Home in Hackney, for a new family who would engage them for the trip back to Asia.”

The Ayahs’ Home in Hackney is precisely where Mary Fernandez gave as her last address. She appears to also have been there in 1911; at least there is a Mary Fernandez listed there in the census, aged 41 and born in Bombay. Her occupation is listed as ‘ayah (travelling)’. The Women’s History Network article also refers to the fact that many ayahs were given European names, so Mary Fernandez may not have been her real name. It would be very interesting to find out more about her than the scant references in wartime records. A set of letters sold in 2014 on ebay mention her and her death on the Persia; these appear to be letters to and from her aunt, Isabella Bell.

The Ayahs’ House in Hackney had been at 26 King Edward’s Road since 1900, when it moved from near Aldgate. It was run by a matron called Mrs Sara Annie Dunn, under the auspices of the London City Mission who tried to convert the stranded ayahs (and other nannies) to Christianity.

According to an Open University article “Mrs Dunn told the India Office in 1910 that the Home dealt with about ninety ayahs a year. The Home was designed not only for Indian ayahs but also for nurse-maids from other countries such as China who were similarly brought over by families and required assistance in returning. The travelling season was March to November and so the Home was practically empty from November to March. During the First World War, women were not allowed to travel by sea and so there were many more stranded ayahs during those years.” Mary Fernandez was obviously an exception to the wartime travel ban for some reason, to her cost. (If you saw the BBC tv series Remember Me, starring Michael Palin, Mary Fernandez’s death is remarkably similar to the series’ back story)

These three women ended up travelling across the British Empire on board the Persia for very different reason: a nanny, a mistress/secretary and a bride-to-be. They all met the same end, though, when the ship encountered a German submarine. The loss of these and the other 331 people who perished on board is a reminder of the reach of the the war beyond the Western Front.



Posted by on 30 December 2015 in Events, War Dead, Women


Patience Huthwaite and Reginald

War can break families apart, it can disrupt the normal patterns of family life through absence or death on war service. Patience Huthwaite suffered just this problem when her boyfriend Reggie Bryant was sent to serve in Iraq in 1916 and was reported missing in action.

Patience Huthwaite was born in London, daughter of house decorator Henry Huthwaite and his wife Patience. In 1901, she was seven and living with her parents and three brothers (Henry junior, James and George) at 40 Euston Road.  In 1911, though, she was living in an “Industrial School” in Blackburn Lancashire, doing laundry work

In August 1915, she was living in central Colchester. We know this because she was receiving letters from Reginald Bryant, a young man from Diss (apparently also a decorator) who was in training in Colchester as part of the Norfolk Regiment. These letters are available on the Great War Archive. It is not clear whether Patience was already in Colchester and met Bryant there, or moved to Colchester to be near him – something a number of girlfriends and wives did during the war.

Reginald Bryant, Norfolk Regiment (image from Great War Archive ©University of Oxford) - sadly there are no photos of Patience

Reginald Bryant, Norfolk Regiment (image from Great War Archive ©University of Oxford) – sadly there are no photos of Patience available

Sometime in early 1916, Reggie was sent overseas. Unfortunately for Patience he was sent to Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), meaning that he was unlikely to be able to come back on leave – which men serving on the Western Front could about once a year (or more often for officers).

Reggie being away was a particular problem because Patience was pregnant. Worse was to come, though, when Reggie was reported missing in action. He was with his unit at Kut-al-Amara when the garrison there was besieged and defeated by the Turkish Army. The garrison fell at the end of April and a large number of Reginald’s comrades were taken prisoner (and treated terribly by their captors). Reggie Bryant was not among those prisoners, however – he was reported missing a week before Kut fell.

Letter to Patience confirming that Reginald was missing in action (from Great War Archive ©University of Oxford

Letter to Patience confirming that Reginald was missing in action (from Great War Archive ©University of Oxford

Patience gave birth to a son in September 1916, whom she named Reginald Bryant Huthwaite. As the letter above shows, when Regginald junior was born it was still not confirmed whether his father was alive or dead – Patience was writing to the War Office in December 1916 to try to find out. The advice sent to her was probably that she should write to the Red Cross office that dealt with inquiries about missing servicemen.

Contrary to what is often thought, pre-marital sex was not so uncommon in the first half of the twentieth century. In some ways the change from the 1970 was more in how people responded to pregnancies, with unmarried parenthood becoming more acceptable.

As Pat Thane put it in a report for the British Academy:

“Until the 1970s, illegitimate and legitimate birth rates followed similar trajectories: they rose and fell together, both rising between c.1750 and 1850 and falling from the later nineteenth century to the 1930s, suggesting that they were influenced by similar factors. In 1846-50, 67 in every 1000 live births were illegitimate. The figure fell steadily to 40 in 1906-10. During World War One it rose to 53.9 in 1916-20. This was probably due to marriages being prevented or delayed due to the absence or death of men at war rather than, as was assumed at the time, to licentious behaviour by young people liberated by wartime conditions.”

At the time of the Second World War (in advance of which illegitimacy rates were similar to before 1914), the moral panic about illegitimacy that had occurred in the Great War re-emerged. The Registrar General’s pre-war statistics showed that pre-marital pregnancies (i.e. illegitimate births and those within marriage that occurred significantly less than nine months after the wedding) accounted for 14.6% of all births, and more among younger mothers. This figure decreased as illegitimate births increased during the war. He felt that the explanation for the increase in illegitimacy was

“almost unquestionably to be found in the enforced degree of physical separation of the sexes imposed by the progressive recruitment of young males into the Armed Forces and their transfers to war stations at home and abroad, rendering immediate marriage with their home brides increasingly difficult – and, in the case of many – quite impossible”

It seems more than likely that Reginald Huthwaite was one of those children whose parents would have married had they had the chance. Eventually, the authorities decided that Reggie Bryant had died (usually this was after about a year with no news). This left young Reginald without a father of course. He soon acquired one, though, when Patience married Reggie’s brother Clarence (also a veteran of the Norfolk Regiment in the Great War: the Commonwealth War Graves Commission page for Reggie says he was one of six brothers who served). According to the family’s account (on the Great War Archive), Reginald Huthwaite was brought up by his maternal grandmother, Patience senior, in London. He remained a Huthwaite for the rest of his life and died in 1999.

The Great War affected families in many ways. The lives of Reggie Bryant, Patience Huthwaite and their son show just one of those stories.


Posted by on 24 March 2015 in War Dead, Women


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London buses at war 1914-1918

This week sees the end of London Transport’s “Year of the Bus”, as well as the first year of the centenary of the Great War. In this last post of 2014, we will have a brief look at some of the changes to the life of London’s buses that the years 1914-1918 brought – at war and at home.

Military service

In one of the earliest posts on this blog, we heard of a Londoner who travelled to the Front in 1914 on the same bus that he had used at home – with the same driver! This was just one of many London buses that were deployed with the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 and remained there for the duration.

A London bus (still displaying the LGOC's name) at Ypres in 1914 © IWM (Q 57328)

London buses (still displaying the LGOC’s name) at Ypres in 1914 © IWM (Q 57328)

Wrecked bus at St Eloi in France, only two weeks after leaving Willesden Garage in 1914 (Daily Mirror photo)

Wrecked bus at St Eloi in France, only two weeks after leaving Willesden Garage in 1914 (Daily Mirror photo)


The first buses to come into service did so slightly earlier, though – back in London. As soon as the war began, London’s buses were pressed into action. The same issue of the Daily Mirror that carried pictures of the scenes in Westminster on the night that Britain declared war on Germany also showed the Territorial Force using a requisitioned bus to transport men and ammunition – the men sat on the upper deck, while ammunition “from the powder magazine in Hyde Park” (an oddly detailed description for wartime!) was carried inside.

A London bus used to transport Territorial soldiers and ammunition (Daily Mirror, 6/8/1914)

A London bus used to transport Territorial soldiers and ammunition (Daily Mirror, 6/8/1914)

Once the buses did reach the front they were used for various purposes. As well as transporting men to the front, they were also used for transport in the opposite direction – both for regular movement of troops and to move the wounded back to hospital for treatment.

London buses used as amublances in 1914 (Daily Mirror, 13/10/1914)

London buses used as amublances in 1914 (Daily Mirror, 13/10/1914)

It was not only people who needed to be moved around at the front. Pigeons were housed in converted buses:

A former London double-decker bus (B.2125), camouflage painted, used as a travelling loft for carrier-pigeons. Pernes, 26 June 1918 © IWM (Q 9000)

A former London double-decker bus (B.2125), camouflage painted, used as a travelling loft for carrier-pigeons. Pernes, 26 June 1918 © IWM (Q 9000)

Even more dramatic was the change to this bus, stripped entirely of its superstructure and made into the mobile base of an anti-aircraft gun.


A London bus after a major re-fit as an anti-aircraft gun-carraige (from Illustrated War News 1916)

A London bus after a major re-fit as an anti-aircraft gun-carraige (from Illustrated War News 1916)

Back in Blighty

The volume of traffic on London’s public transport system in the early twentieth century was enormous. In 1881 41.1 million bus journeys were taken in the capital, along with 40.5 million train journeys; by 1901 the figures were 269.9m bus journeys and 236.5m train journeys plus 340.7 journeys by tram – nearly 850m journeys in total. In 1908 the total number of journeys was 1.36 billion and in 1913 over 2 billion.

Around nine hundred or a thousand London buses went to war during 1914-1918. According to the Metropolitan police’s chief superintendent of carriages, there were 2,277 “motor omnibuses” on the capital’s road at the end of 1918, compared with 3,057 in 1914. This must have made a difference to the availability of public transport in the streets during the war years – with the reductions in civilian train services as well, it was noticeably harder to get around during the war than in the years that preceded it. Bus manufacturing also virtually stopped – turned, like so much other production, to war purposes for the duration. The numbers of passengers, however, continued to grow: 2.37 billion journeys on public transport in London in 1918, 682 million of them by bus

As well as the disappearance of the buses, many of the omnibus workers also went to war. By February 1915, 21% of the men employed in London’s bus and tram services had joined the armed forces and only 3.5 percentage points of the shortfall had been made up.

By late 1915 it was quite obvious that women would be needed to keep London’s transport infrastructure working. The first female bus conductor was taken on by Tilling’s (one of the smaller of the main bus operators) on their No 37 route in late 1915. The London General Omnibus Company (LGOC), the main bus provider in the capital, lagged a bit behind but eventually took on bus female bus conductors in February 1916.

One of the first female London bus conductors (the caption notes that London was behind other towns in employing women this way) (Daily Mirror, 28/10/1915)

One of the first female London bus conductors (the caption notes that London was behind other towns in employing women this way) (Daily Mirror, 28/10/1915)

A few months later, the LGOC started to employ women - in rather unfriendly weather conditions (especially for an open-topped double-decker!) (Daily Mirror, 25/2/1916)

A few months later, the LGOC started to employ women – in rather unfriendly weather conditions (especially for an open-topped double-decker!) (Daily Mirror, 25/2/1916)

As with most expansions of women’s work during the war, this change was greeted with much publicity around women doing their bit and how they could do ‘man’s work’. By mid-1918, the number of women employed on buses across the country had increased from 300 to 4,500 (on trams it was even greater: from 1,300 to nearly 22,000). It was estimated that 90% of conductors on trams and buses were women. Generally, men were retained as drivers and doing some of the heavier (and dirtier) engineering roles. The conducting role was said to be beneficial to the health of those women who did it.

In reality, women were not always seen as directly comparable to men doing the same work, so – although their pay was generally the same as men’s – women working on London’s buses were denied a 5s per week ‘war bonus’ awarded to their male colleagues in the summer of 1918. That August, women transport workers in London began a strike that went nationwide to secure an equal war bonus, which was then extended to women munitions workers later in the year. .

(Daily Mirror, 20/8/1918)

(Daily Mirror, 20/8/1918)

Just as buses at the front could be caught up in the devastation of war, so too could some unlucky vehicles – and their crews – in London. When bombs fell around Liverpool Street station, one bus was very heavily damaged and its driver and conductor killed.

Michael Macdonagh described the scene in his war diary:

Making my way across Moorgate Street and down London Wall, I came to the place where a bomb dropped in front of a motor-onmibus bound for Liverpool Street Station, and blew it to pieces. Twenty people were on board, including the driver and conductor. Nine were instantly killed and eleven seriously injured. The driver had both his legs blown off and died on his way to hospital. The door of a block of offices was pointed out to me where the housekeeper standing on the steps was killed. The roadway was strewn with the glass of shattered windows.

In the driver and conductor’s well-attended funeral procession the next week, a bus was decked out with garlands in his honour.

Seven hundred omnibusmen attended the funeral of their colleauges killed in the 8/9 September 1915 Zeppelin raid. A decorated bus took part in the procession. (Daily Mirror 21/10/1915)

Seven hundred omnibusmen attended the funeral of their colleauges killed in the 8/9 September 1915 Zeppelin raid. A decorated bus took part in the procession. (Daily Mirror 21/10/1915)

As with so many aspects of London life, the Great War brought big changes to the buses. Transport was one of the major – and most visible – areas of the expansion of female employment, while some of the vehicles went to war in 1914 alongside their male operators.


  • Sheila Taylor (ed), The Moving Metropolis: A history of London’s transport since 1800
  • Daily Mirror, 1914-1918 editions and modern story about buses
  • London Transport Museum website
  • Parliamentary papers: Royal Commission on London Traffic (1905, Cd 2597), State of Employment (Feb 1915, Cd 7850), Report from the Select Committee on Transport (Metropolitan Area) (1919 (147)), Women in Industry (1919, Cmd 135),

Posted by on 30 December 2014 in Famous companies, Ordinary Londoners, Women


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Kathleen Passfield and the end of the Zeppelin menace

Women in the Great War could not play an active role in fighting the Germans, but they could be important in supporting the war effort. The most direct way was in munitions factories, making ammunition to help the armed forces win the war. Kathleen Passfield worked in a factory with a more immediate war purpose – to bring down the Zeppelins spreading terror across London.

Zeppelin-inspired recruiting poster, 1915

Zeppelin-inspired recruiting poster, 1915

Kathleen Hamilton Devonald was born in 1897 in New Cross (also known as Hatcham New Cross), the eldest of five children of crane driver William James Passfield and his wife Ellen. The family lived in Edmonton, with William’s mother Sophia; in 1911 they were living at 6 Exeter Road.

In May 1915, the German aerial campaign against Britain began with Zeppelins dropping bombs with apparent impunity. Londoners suffered air raids for more than a year without seeing one of these huge cigar-shaped raiders destroyed (although one was brought down in the Channel in March 1916). Forty-six people had been killed in the raid on 13/14 October that later led to the suicide of J.N. Petre, the landlord of the Old Bell Pub. In the summer of 1916, they returned in force. A raid on 24-25 August saw 44 bombs dropped on the Isle of Dogs and south-east London killing nine and injuring 45.

The breakthrough came on the night of 2-3 September 1916, as one witness described it:

“Never shall I forget…hearing an odd chunkety, chunkety noise. It sounded as if a train with rusty wheels were travelling through the sky. I ran out on to the balcony and saw something which looked like a large silver cigar away to my left, and I realized that it was a Zeppelin. Almost immediately it burst into flames and the sky turned red. Then came the sound of cheering. It seemed as if the whole of a rather far-away London was cheering, and almost unconsciously I began to cry ‘Hooray! hooray!’ too. But suddenly I stopped. We were cheering whilst men who were after all very bravely doing what they thought it their duty to do were being burned to death.” (Quoted in Mrs Peel, How We Lived Then)

Zeppelin SL11 had been destroyed by Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson, a 21-year-old pilot with 39 Squadron flying a BE2c.

As he wrote in his report of the action (from wikipedia):
“At about 1.50 a.m. I noticed a red glow in the N.E. of London. Taking it to be an outbreak of fire, I went in that direction. At 2.05 a Zeppelin was picked up by the searchlights over N.N.E. London (as far as I could judge).
“Remembering my last failure, I sacrificed height (I was at about 12,900 feet) for speed and nosed down in the direction of the Zeppelin. I saw shells bursting and night tracers flying around it.
“…I flew about 800 feet below it from bow to stem and distributed one drum among it (alternate New Brock and Pomeroy). It seemed to have no effect;
“I therefore moved to one side and gave them another drum along the side – also without effect. I then got behind it and by this time I was very close – 500 feet or less below, and concentrated one drum on one part (underneath rear). I was then at a height of 11,500 feet when attacking the Zeppelin.
“I had hardly finished the drum before I saw the part fired at, glow. In a few seconds the whole rear part was blazing. When the third drum was fired, there were no searchlights on the Zeppelin, and no anti-aircraft was firing.
“I quickly got out of the way of the falling, blazing Zeppelin and, being very excited, fired off a few red Very lights and dropped a parachute flare.”

The destruction of Zeppelin SL21, viewed from Hampstead Heath (artist's impression, from Flight Magazine 7 Sept 1916)

The destruction of Zeppelin SL11, viewed from Hampstead Heath (artist’s impression, from Flight Magazine 7 Sept 1916)


Key to the victory was having the right ammunition. Lt Leefe Robinson’s report notes the mixture of Pomeroy (exploding) and Brock (incendiary) ammunition, which he fired into a particular gas drum in the Zeppelin to set it alight.

John Pomeroy, the New Zealander who invented the explosive bullet had had a long fight to get it adopted for attacking Zeppelins. After an initial rejection by the War Office, he came back to London in 1916. He and his wife apparently made the first 5,000 rounds of this ammunition in a room at the top of Adastral House (the headquarters of the Air Ministry at No 1 Kingsway). The ammunition was adopted and went into full production in August 1916. According to a 1924 newspaper article, Mrs Pomeroy and 500 ‘girls’ worked on this ammunition order in Edmonton.

One of the women who worked at the Pomeroy factory in Edmonton was Kathleen Devonald, who married Private J.H. Passfield in Essex in late 1916. Kathleen became a superintendent at the factory. Through their work, the Pomeroys, Kathleen and their colleagues helped in a very direct way to end the Zeppelin raids, which died out over the winter of 1916/17. In 1919, Kathleen Passfield was awarded the Medal of the Order of the British Empire for her work at Pomeroy’s factory: ‘for great courage in continuously exposing herself to serious personal risk in the court of the manufacture of munitions of a peculiarly dangerous character’.

Kathleen’s husband James Harold Passfield had joined the Middlesex Regiment in 1915 and served with them – and later the 6th Highland Light Infantry – at Ypres, the Somme and Cambrai. He was wounded twice and suffered from shell shock. Her brother Ernest also served on the Western Front and in Egypt in 1917-1918, first in the Queen’s Regiment (West Surrey) and later in the Machine Gun Corps. Both men survived the war. After the war, James and Kathleen lived first on Durley Road in Stamford Hill and later on Grays Inn Road



National Roll of the Great War

Dictionary of Australian Biography on John Pomeroy

A War Narrative, Northern Advocate , 22 January 1924;

Anti-Zeppelin Bullet, New Zealand Herald, 14 February 1919




Olive Mudie-Cooke, official war artist

Only a handful of women became official war artists in the Great War. One of them was Londoner Olive Mudie-Cooke, – creating evocative images of the conflict while serving as a driver during the war and visiting the battlefields after the Armistice.

Olive was the younger of two daughters of Henry Cooke and his wife Beatrice, nee Mudie. Henry was a carpet merchant, who lived at 3 Porchester Terrace in 1911 with  Beatrice, their daughters and two servants. Olive is listed in the census return as a painter, aged 21, while Phyllis (23) was an archeology student. In 1916, Olive Mudie-Cooke went to France as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) driver; as well as the Western Front, she served in (and painted of Italy) .

In an Ambulance : a VAD lighting a cigarette for a patient, by Olive Mudie-Cooke © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3051)

In an Ambulance : a VAD lighting a cigarette for a patient, by Olive Mudie-Cooke © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3051)

Mudie-Cooke’s most famous picture is this one of a VAD worker lighting a cigarette for a wounded soldier. Restricted to scenes well behind the lines, many of her images depict the process of evacuating wounded men from the front and treating them.

Etaples Hospital Siding : a VAD convoy unloading an ambulance train at night 1917, by Olive Mudie-Cooke  © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3089)

Etaples Hospital Siding : a VAD convoy unloading an ambulance train at night
1917, by Olive Mudie-Cooke © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3089)

Mudie-Cooke’s art could be light-hearted, such as his image from her postwar book With the VAD convoys in France, Flanders and Italy:

'VAD ambulance driver in theory, in popular fiction and in real life' by Olive Mudie-Cooke - reproduced in 'Fighting Different Wars'

‘VAD ambulance driver in theory, in popular fiction and in real life’ by Olive Mudie-Cooke – reproduced in Janet S.K. Watson, Fighting Different Wars

On the whole, though, the examples of her work in the Imperial War Museum collection (donated by her sister Phyllis Tillyard, who married literary scholar EMW Tillyard after the war) are more serious. When she returned to the Western Front in 1920, Olive Mudie-Cooke found the haunting scene of two British tanks that had been put out of action in November 1917.

Dop Dopter and D24. Two Tanks, Polcapelle, by Olive Mudie-Cooke © IWM (Art.IWM ART 5395)

Dop Docter and D24. Two Tanks, Polcapelle, by Olive Mudie-Cooke © IWM (Art.IWM ART 5395)

The two tanks had been part of an action near Poelkapelle on 9 October and were put out of action after engaging the enemy, ‘Dop Doctor’ (D32) apparently when trying to pass D24 (Deuce of Diamonds) after the latter tank had been knocked out of action by a direct hit from enemy fire. Mudie-Cooke was not the only post-war visitor whose eye was caught by the scene, several photos exist on the internet of the same scene, and a Great War Forum thread has more information about them.

More sobering than the wrecked tanks is a scene that Olive Mudie-Cooke painted depicting British medics treating a French peasant wounded by ammunition left on the Somme battlefield.

After the War : a VAD ambulance bringing in French peasants wounded by shells left on the Somme Battlefield. Beaulencourt Convoy, by Olive Mudie-Cooke  © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3087)

After the War : a VAD ambulance bringing in French peasants wounded by shells left on the Somme Battlefield. Beaulencourt Convoy, by Olive Mudie-Cooke © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3087)

I haven’t been able to find out Olive Mudie-Cooke’s life after the war, beyond her visit to the battlefields. Sadly, she died in France on 11 September 1925. The following year an exhibition of her art was held at Beaux-Arts Gallery on Bruton Place.


Posted by on 8 December 2013 in Women



Hannah Spash: Blown up three times

Men and women did not have to be at the front to be at risk in the Great War. Air raids and dangerous war work also threatened life and limb. Hannah Spash spent her late teens and early twenties as a munitions worker and was injured three times.

Hannah Spash was born in 1897, second-youngest daughter of blacksmith George and his wife Kate Spash. They had married in around 1883 and had 11 children in total. By the 1890s, the family were living in Camberwell, where the last six of their children were born.

Hannah Spash during the Great War (image from IWM Women at War archive)

Hannah Spash during the Great War (image from IWM Women at War archive)

In 1911, the family (parents and those last six children) were living at Alfred Cottage, Lower Abbey Road, Belvedere – between Woolwich and Erith in what is now South East London, but was then part of Kent.  Hannah and her younger sister Polly were too young to work, but their brother Isaac was an engine cleaner for the South Eastern and Chatham Railway Company (which had a monopoly on rail travel in Kent), one sister worked as a domestic servant and another in a laundry. Middle sister Lillian, though, had managed to get a job as a clerk to photographic slide manufacturer.

When the war came, Hannah was one of many young working-class women who took up munitions work. By the end of 1917, she had worked in three different factories and had had rather hair-raising experiences in each. In December that year, she met the King and Queen on a visit to her place of work. Her account of the meeting, and her career, was published in the press that week:


Hannah Spash, a happy-faced girl of 20, is one of the girl workers to whom the King and Queen spoke during a visit to a munition factory in the London area yesterday.

“The King asked me whether I liked the dangerous work better than any other,” she said later, “and I replied, to the King’s amusement, ‘Well, I have been blown up three times, your Majesty, so I have got used to it.’  And so I have.  The first time I was very lucky. A pot of a certain chemical dropped in my shed and the explosion blew an arm off the girl standing next to me, but I escaped almost unhurt.

“The second time the explosion blew up the table at which I was working, and it was wonderful that I did not have both legs blown off instead of having only a knee and foot dislocated and my face badly scarred. You can see the scars now.  The third time was when I was working in a gunpowder shed. The explosion blew the shed to pieces and killed two girls. I was flung out on to a field, and only recovered consciousness while being taken home.

“All the accidents happened in a year, and I had to be away three months after two of them, but I was always longing to get back to work. I am still on explosives.  Why do I like it? Well, I am very fond of a brother who is fighting in France, and I like it because it helps him and the others who are there.”

(Unnamed newspaper, 15 Dec 1917. Transcribed by Sue Light: link)

In January 1918, Hannah Spash was awarded the Medal of the Order of the British Empire “For courage and high example in countinuig her work in a filling factory having been on three separate occasions injured by explosions.”

Despite her apparent keenness to work in dangerous factories, Spash survived the war. In the early 1920s, she married Joseph Dawson, with whom she had at least one child. She provides an great example of the work done and bravery shown on the home front during the Great War.


Posted by on 21 September 2013 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners, Women


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1918: Annie Bridger’s bad year

1918 was a bad year for Annie Bridger. She was doubly bereaved, but also suffered the pain of uncertainty about her husband’s fate.

Annie grew up in Wandsworth, the daughter of a labourer – the second-youngest of Charles Henry Langley’s children with his wife Mary Ann. The family lived at 27 Garton Street, off Allfarthing Lane. The 1911 census records five of the children still living at home, 14-year-old Annie was a laundry apprentice, presumably working with her older sisters Louise (21) and Elizabeth (19) who were laundry workers. Two sons were also living in the house: 16-year-old James, working as a railway porter, and schoolboy Walter.

Sometime in the spring of 1914, Annie became pregnant by (I presume) Walter Bridger, a shop assistant two years her senior who lived in nearby Aslett Street. Annie and Walter married in the parish church on 13 September, just at the point when men like Walter (young men in the service sector) were enlisting in the army in vast numbers. On Christmas Day, 1914, their daughter Violet Bridger was born.

The Banns of Marriage record for Walter and Annie Langley - Sept 1914

The Banns of Marriage record for Walter and Annie Langley – Sept 1914

The following summer, Walter left his wife and daughter behind in Wandsworth and joined the London Regiment – on 14 June 1915. Another nine months later Annie gave birth to their second child – Walter Charles Henry Bridger. Annie’s wartime address is given variously as 53 Garton Street, 7 Aslett Street (Walter’s parents’ address and his address on his service papers) and 29 Garton Street.

Walter had joined the second-line battalion of the 23rd London Regiment, a unit initially formed to keep the first-line battalion (the Artists’ Rifles) up to strength. A year after Walter had joined up, though, the battalion went out to France in the 181st Brigade, 60th (2/2nd London) Division, before going on to Salonica that December, and on to Egypt in June 1917.

In April 1918, Annie received a War Office telegram bringing terrible news – her husband was reported missing in action. His unit had been engaged in the First Battle of Amman at the end of March, fighting around the River Jordan. The 60th Division suffered 476 casualties, of whom over 100 were killed or missing. One of them was Walter Bridger.

60th Division marching from Jerusalem to the Jordan Valley, March 1916

60th Division marching from Jerusalem to the Jordan Valley, March 1916

Walter had entered the limbo of the missing, as far as Annie and the War Office were concerned. Like those whose loved ones went missing during the 1916 Battle of the Somme, she sought information about his fate. In May she heard promising news, writing (in the punctuation-light style of many letters of the time) to the War Office that:

I am writing these few lines to you to tell you I have heard some good news about my husband which may please in one way my father saw a gentleman who he new and he said he son wrote home and told him that my husband was taken prisoner of war with one of there fellow mates he saw him taken. Father said the name of the son father was Williams who told father to tell me as he was comeing to my house to show me the letter but has he see dad he told him so I thought it would be best to write and tell you as might find out some time or other about my husband to see if it is right.
Yours faithful Mrs Bridger

Sadly, the rumour – as so often in these cases – was not true, or if he was a prisoner it was never officially reported. Walter’s body was never found and his death was officially recorded in January 1919 to have happened on or after 28 March 1918.

Before finding this out, though, more sad news hit Annie and her family. Her two youngest brothers had also enlisted in the army during the war. James, the older sibling, had joined up early in the war and went out to France in March 1915 in the RAMC; he served in the 4th London Field Ambulance. Walter was conscripted in December 1916 and joined the 7th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers. Walter was wounded during his time in the army and was awarded the Silver War Badge to mark his injury. James Langley some how ended up in a series of Yorkshire units in the last 18 months of the war – in the 1st West Riding Field Company (Royal Engineers), the East Yorkshire Regiment, and finally the 1/6th West Yorkshires as they fought the Germans back across France in autumn 1918. On 11 October – exactly a month before the Armistice – James was killed in action near Iwuy, where his body now lies in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.

We can only wonder at the feelings of the Langleys and Annie Bridger when they received this news, and how they greeted the Armistice that ended a war that had so recently taken away James, wounded Walter Langley, and still held Walter Bridger in limbo. Individual circumstances had such a great impact on people’s attitudes to the war. How did Annie, her parents, siblings, and children feel about this war and the men who were taken or scarred by it? How did they remember Walter Bridger – missing so far away and presumably completely unknown to his son Walter and virtually so to Violet?


Posted by on 22 February 2013 in Ordinary Londoners, War Dead, Women


A Bermondsey family’s war effort: the Holtons

We tend to think of families in the Great War in terms of the service of the sons, brothers or fathers in the armed forces. They were not necessarily the only ones to play a part, though – many women went to work in munitions or other jobs as more men left civilian life. One example of this is the Holton family who lived in Bermondsey.

In 1911, leather finisher James W Holton and his wife Sarah Ann (nee Longhurst) lived at 33 Marcia Road, off the Old Kent Road, with seven of their children, who ranged in age from 11 to 24. They had married on Christmas day 1883 and had a total of 16 children before James died in 1913 (Sadly, seven of their children had died before 1911, another two lived elsewhere).

The Holtons listed at 33 Marcia Road in 1911

The Holtons listed at 33 Marcia Road in 1911

Reginald George Holton, a 14-year-old errand boy in 1911, was working as a warehouseman in 1915 when he went to East Dulwich to enlist in the Royal Field Artillery. He was a 5 feet 4 inches tall, with a tattoo on his right arm. Before going to the front, he got in trouble for going absent without leave for a week in November 1915.

Part of Reginald Holton's service papers

Part of Reginald Holton’s service papers

Despite his indiscretion, he joined 167 Brigade’s artillery in France as a drvier on 12 December 1915 and remained on the Western Front for the next three and a half years. In May 1916, Driver Holton joined the D battery of 162 Brigade’s artillery.

Meanwhile Sarah Holton and her youngest daughter Ethel went to work for John Bell, Hill and Lucas, Ltd, making gas masks in their factory on Tower Bridge Road, Bermondsey. The company were pharmaceutical chemists in peace, so well placed to make gas masks to keep up with the advances in chemicals used in gas warfare in the Great War. They had opened their London Works on Tower Bridge Road in 1909.

According to the National Roll of The Great War, Sarah worked in the factory for three years (presumably from 1915 until the end of the war) and was joined there by 17-year-old Ethel from August 1917 until September 1918.

In the Holton family – like many others – at least three members took part in the war effort. Reginald drove for the artillery in France and Flanders, while his mother and sisters were making gas masks to counter the gas shells fired by his counterparts in the German artillery.

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Posted by on 16 February 2013 in Ordinary Londoners, Women


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