No Petticoats Here tells the stories of remarkable women who lived during the First World War, through song. As a folk singer, songwriter and some time teacher of history I take great interest in combining music with stories from the past. Frustrated at the relatively small amount of attention given to women’s stories during the centenary commemorations of the First World War, I decided to look closer at women’s achievements from this period.
My research took me from Flanders to the battlefields of the Somme, through the doors of many museums and research centres and brought me into contact with some incredible historians and authors as well as the relatives of some of these incredible women.
The title No Petticoats Here is inspired by Sir Arthur Sloggett’s words to Dr Elsie Inglis: ‘Go home and sit still. We don’t want any petticoats here’. In keeping with Elsie’s decision to take a medical team to Europe regardless of this discouragement, No Petticoats Here remembers the incredible courage and commitment of individuals and groups of women who followed their instincts and in doing so challenged the gender expectations of their time.
I began my research with Dorothy Lawrence after finding out that theatre maker Lizzie Crarer, who generously shared her own research with me, was writing Over the Top about Dorothy. Aged seventeen years and an orphan when the war broke out, Dorothy Lawrence wished to pursue a career as a journalist and war correspondent. ‘I’ll see what an ordinary English girl without credentials or money can accomplish. If war correspondents cannot get out there I’ll see whether I cannot go one better than these big men with their cars, credentials, and money’ wrote Dorothy.
My song Freewheeling describes Dorothy’s journey from England to Albert, on the Western Front, by bicycle (an investment which cost £2 of her precious savings). Once in France Dorothy managed to procure pieces of the uniform from soldiers and dressed as Private Denis Smith. In this guise Dorothy spent 10 days and 10 nights sleeping amongst ruins and cabbage patches and washing in dirty water – all of which eventually took its toll. Through illness Dorothy was forced to give herself up in order to protect her helpers. In contrast to this picture of a courageous and adventurous teenager, Dorothy could be found some seven years after the war in Hanwell Asylum, and she was detained under the Lunacy Act for almost forty years without a single recorded visitor. Through my song Who will Remember’ I aim directly to confront the rejection of this spirited woman who perhaps stood little chance of finding a place in a patriarchal post-war society.
A visit to Hampshire Record Office led me to Ada Yorke (née Hind), where I found a newspaper cutting of Ada Yorke alongside her son Captain Harold Yorke – they were both wearing medals from the Great War which they had been awarded at the same investiture. Ada had wanted to be a doctor but as a woman this opportunity was not available to her. Although underage, Ada trained as a nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, against her father’s wishes and in 1883 Florence Nightingale invited Ada to become Senior Sister of the Army Nursing Service in the Sudan War.
At the start of the Great War Ada lectured for the British Red Cross and the War Office appointed her Staff Matron-in-Chief of the Southern Command of the British Army. Ada Hind was awarded the Royal Red Cross for exceptional services in military nursing in 1883 and Matron Ada Yorke subsequently received a bar to her Royal Red Cross on 3rd July 1918, for her extensive services in the Great War. Her son Captain Harold Yorke from the Royal Army Medical Corps received the Military Cross.
Images of female nurses are often presented as the face of women of the Great War and yet Ada’s story reminds me just how courageous each of these individuals were. Whilst in today’s world, one hundred years after the Great War, Ada may have trained as a doctor, she nevertheless tirelessly placed her talents and skills at the service of others in the way she was able.
Whilst researching individual women I was drawn to the stories of women footballers such as Lily Parr, Jennie Morgan and Bella Raey. Collectively, women footballers of the Great War had a phenomenal impact on the lives of their communities and their country. When the FA suspended men’s football teams from competing in 1915 it was women who kept the sport alive. Encouraged to play during breaks by factory owners to build morale, women munitionettes’ teams organised fundraising matches. These women footballers kept the game alive, raised thousands (millions in today’s money) for PoW and soldier’s charities, only for women’s football to be banned by the FA for an incredible fifty years (1921 -1971).
A visit to Priddy’s Hard (now part of the Explosion! museum at Portsmouth Historic Dockyards) inspired further research into the army of women workers who joined the war effort. The women’s increased involvement in making munitions came at a time the British Army was disastrously short of fire power. The British government legislated (the Munitions of War Act, 1915) to gain greater involvement in the output of munitions factories and driving the price of munitions down. As a result factory owners were keen to employ women who traditionally worked for lower wages and the policies of substitution and dilution were widely used to prevent women from becoming skilled labourers (i.e. jobs were broken down into the most basic tasks so women remained unskilled). Women organised and joined trade unions bringing a huge shift in attitudes towards women’s labour. Despite these giant steps forward, many women gave up their jobs in favour of men after the Great War.
Written for Sheroes of History by Louise Jordan.
No Petticoats Here shares the stories of other remarkable women and hopes to encourage discussion of their incredible lives and achievements. You can find out more about the project and the women Louise has researched by visiting www.nopetticoatshere.co.uk where you can also find out how to buy copies of the album.
The album is also available for download from on iTunes and Amazon. Please do get in touch and share your thoughts on Twitter @nopetticoats @ljordanmusic and on Facebook www.facebook.com/louisejordansings.
Find out more…
Hampshire Cultural Trust’s has a documentary about Ada Yorke which you can watch here.
Learn more about women’s football during the First World War on Gail Newsham’s website about the Dick, Kerr Ladies and in the short documentary, No Game for Girls: