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Category: Women in London history

Call the Midwife … an unlikely hit?

By John Rennie

WHEN WE originally wrote about Call the Midwife a few years ago, it seemed likely that Jennifer Worth’s book would join the ranks of hundreds of other East End memoirs – if better written and more entertaining than most of them. Little likelihood, it seemed then, that Worth (who retained her East End links long after she’d moved out of London, through

Jennifer Worth, author of Call the Midwife

Jennifer Worth, author of Call the Midwife

membership of the East London History Society). The book was actually a classic ‘sleeper’, selling steadily in local East End bookshops (and increasingly on Amazon of course) for years before the BBC picked it up.

It was an unlikely, though profitable autumn in her life, and as so often it happened by chance. As we wrote when reporting on Jennifer’s death: “She was in her sixties before she embarked on the career that gave her fame. Husband Philip recalls her leafing through a magazine on midwifery and chancing upon an article by midwife, Terri Coates: who argued that somebody should do for midwives what novelist James Herriot had done for vets. “Why not?” thought Jenny and began to pour her memories onto the page. Call the Midwife (2002) and Shadows of the Workhouse (2005) were steady rather than meteoric sellers at first. It was only when they were reissued in 2007 and 2008 that they really took off. A follow-up in 2009, Farewell to the East End was another hit, and TV would soon come calling.”

There are things to cherish about the TV series (Miranda Hart does a superb balancing act between comedy and drama) and the sugar is usually well complemented by a hefty dose of reality: lest we get too sentimental about how great the old East End was, we’re brought back to earth by illness, death and misery, no bad thing! There are things which work less well – in your writer’s opinion, a little Vanessa Redgrave in deathlessly

Call the Midwife

Call the Midwife

serious voice-over mode goes a long way – but it’s a terrific reminder of the struggles into the early days of healthcare in the Welfare State, as we used to call it. So don’t stop there. It’s all in Worth’s excellent writing. Take a look at her other books: you won’t be disappointed.

 

Whitechapel Murders Canonical Map

A GOOGLEMAP of the five ‘canonical’ Whitechapel Murders, though others have been attributed to ‘Jack the Ripper’. Many thanks to ‘Giove’, a Google Earth hack somewhere in sunniest Italy. He compiled the information that we’ve mashed together into this map. More information will be added … work in progress!  Oh, and according to the Daily Mail, Jack the Ripper has been identified as a doctor from Essex (by a Uruguyan who’s never been to London). Well it’s a theory, and it can join the rest of them I suppose.


View Jack the Ripper Canonical locations in a larger map

Strikes in the East End of London during World War 1

1910 strike picture

Police strike in 1910

The years before the First World War saw more strikes in the East End of London than ever before, and it was little wonder that unrest centred on this part of London. A centre for industry and imports, with a high proportion of poorly paid and casual workers, the East End suffered more than most from the driving down in wages and fall in living standards that beset Britain at the time. Great East End industrial conflicts of the late Victorian era, such as the 1887 match girls’ strike in Bow, and the dock strike of 1889, had been followed by ‘the Great Unrest’ – a series of crippling strikes in the years before 1914.

With the outbreak of war, East Enders buried many of their grievances beneath the patriotic fervour required to get through what would be the most terrible war yet for Europe. Regardless of the fact that most residents of Stepney or Shadwell had little idea and less interest in events in Sarajevo or Sinai, Londoners would pull together behind their boys … up to a point. In any case, strikes were officially banned: the TUC and the government had agreed on that. And with the Labour Party joining Lloyd George’s coalition government in 1916, there was no true opposition. But there were stresses. Wars are always meant to be over ‘by Christmas’ of course, but the conflict limped interminably on, and by 1917 Londoners were heartily sick of the endless casualties and the privations at home.

The shortage of manpower also had an inevitable effect on industry. Though women couldn’t do the heavy work on the East and West India Docks, they could replace men in the factories – munitions factories had mushroomed all over Bethnal Green, Stepney and Wapping – and it led to conflict on both sides. A series of unofficial strikes by men, protesting at the ‘dilution’ of the workforce by women), simply exaggerated the manpower shortage, and had the unexpected effect of forcing up piecework rates for the women. By the time the war ended in November 1918, London had even seen its first strike for equal pay by women working on the trams and buses – legislation wouldn’t arrive until the Equal Pay Act in 1970.

But perhaps the most alarming signal to any government is when the officers of national security start turning. There had been isolated mutinies within the British army, with enlisted men turning on their officers, but they tended to be summarily dealt with on the battlefield. More worrying was a demonstration called by the National Union of Police and Prison Officers on Tower Hill in August 1918. East End copper Tommy Thiel had been sacked for this union activities, and the vast majority of London bobbies downed truncheons in sympathy. A squad of 600 flying pickets ensured the strike stayed solid.

And there were other ways of protesting. With wages held down, a depressed wartime economy and strict rationing, East Enders were feeling severely pinched by 1918. Rent strikes became common (and would bleed into the Poplarism rate strikes of the 1920s): Londoners couldn’t avoid noticing that Russia’s role in the War had ended with a workers’ revolution, and many were sympathetic. For those female munitions workers, their reward at the close of hostilities in November 1918 was ‘thankyou and goodbye’. Many women saw their jobs disappear, while many others were given back to returning soldiers. And numerous soldiers returned to no job, no home and broken families. Their option was the Poor Law and the workhouse or begging on the streets of Whitechapel. The British Government scented revolt in the air, and became distinctly uneasy.

With the Armistice, the dam was broken, and four years of frustration came flooding through. Historian Walter Kendall argues that “the crisis British society faced between 1918 and 1920 was probably the most serious since the time of the Chartists”. The police union grew to 50,000 members, while mutinies in the army multiplied. Things came to a head in 1919, with Lloyd George’s misguided plans in for a British expeditionary force to the Russian port of Archangel. Not content with four years of exhausting conflict, Britain now planned to invade Russia and put down the Revolution. The scheme had to be abandoned when British soldiers declared solidarity with Russia and simply refused to embark. The Government backed down and demobilised the angry soldiers – more men would return to Civvy Street and no jobs.

Again in 1920 Lloyd George proposed military action against Russia (Poland and France had already invaded her western territories) and again the East End stepped in. In May that year, men at the East India Docks refused to load a ship called the Jolly George which was bound for Russia with a load of munitions for the Polish army. East End railwayman then stepped in, refusing to carry cargoes of weapons bound for the docks. And union members began to withhold their labour in pursuit of closed shops, forcing every employee to join the union.

There were some ironies though, and the enemy wasn’t always obvious. Black American writer Claude McKay was visiting London in these years, and spent time with Sylvia Pankhurst at the offices of her Women’s Dreadnought newspaper. There were some 60 sawmills in London, most of them out in the East End and most out on strike, and right opposite the Dreadnought’s 198 Bow Road office was one of London’s biggest. The union men told McKay indignantly that some of their fellows were still working. The part-owner of this home for scabs? None other than “George Lansbury, Labour member of parliament and managing editor of the Daily Herald…the strikers thought it would make an excellent story for the Dreadnought. So did I!”

Lansbury, of course, would do more than most to champion the cause of East End workers in the years to come. The 1920s would see East End dissent on an unprecedented scale.

Rebecca, Abraham and Simeon Solomon – a Victorian tragedy


View The Solomons in a larger map

It’s a tragedy worthy of Victorian melodrama – a gifted trio of siblings rise from the East End, but their careers as painters are cut short in tragedy and shame. Abraham Solomon’s life would be curtailed by illness and an untimely death. Rebecca Solomon would be written out of history after her tragic demise under the wheels of a London cab. And Simeon Solomon, perhaps the greatest of them all, would be destroyed both by alcoholism and a moral stain almost unspeakable in Victorian times.

During the mid-1800s, the Solomons became stars of the London art world, alongside Millais, Rosetti, Holman Hunt and the others of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It was remarkable that a single Whitechapel family would produce not one, but three such figures … but then the Solomons were a remarkable family.

Father Meyer Solomon (who would Anglicise his name to Michael) was the scion of a Jewish clan which had arrived in Whitechapel, probably from Holland, at the end of the 1700s. Meyer made his fortune manufacturing hats, principally the fashionable ‘Leghorn’ straw boater. Wealth overcomes a multitude of prejudices and Meyer was among the first Jews to be made a freeman of the City of London. In those days, when the City livery companies wielded real power by keeping people out of the Square Mile, the honour allowed Meyer to become richer still. In turn, money allowed the ever-growing Solomon brood certain freedoms.

Meyer had married Kate Levy, herself a gifted painter of miniatures, and the couple had eight children. And at the family home, 3 Sandys Street in Bishopsgate, artistic expression and experimentation were encouraged. Abraham was the couple’s second son, born in 1823, and he was prodigiously gifted. At 13, Abraham became a pupil at Sass’s school of art in Bloomsbury, and in 1838 won the Isis silver medal at the Society of Arts for his drawing. In 1839 he was admitted as a student to the Royal Academy. That same year he won a silver medal for ‘drawing from the antique’, and in 1843 another for drawing from the life.

Abraham carved out a solid career producing those mainstays of Victorian art – biblical studies, such as his first exhibited work, ‘Rabbi expounding the Scriptures’, depictions of scenes from popular literature (including tableaux of Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Fair Maid of Perth’ and Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘Vicar of Wakefield’) and of course those sentimental and moralising subjects so beloved of the Victorians – ‘Waiting for the Verdict’, ‘Scandal’, ‘Doubtful Fortune’ and many more. The titles would appear horribly prescient in the light of what was to come for the Solomons.

By now he was teaching art to little sister Rebecca, born in 1832. She also attended classes at the (now long gone) Spitalfields School of Design, and would then share Abraham’s studios at 50 Upper Charlotte Street, from at least 1851 to 1856 and at 18 Gower Street from 1857 to 1862. So talented was she that she worked with the great John Everett Millais, exhibited around Britain for nearly two decades and was called ‘one of the great women of the age’.

Now youngest sibling Simeon joined the family firm. Born in 1840, he started taking lessons in drawing and painting from Abraham in childhood and showed astonishing skills of draughtsmanship. He started attending Carey’s Art Academy in 1852, the same year big sister ‘Beckie’ first exhibited at the Royal Academy. Now Simeon went on to the Royal Academy Schools, a route barred to Rebecca because of her gender (she joined other female artists in protesting furiously and fruitlessly against the ban).

Tragedy was to strike the Solomons for the first time in 1862, when Abraham died suddenly of a heart attack in Biarritz. He was just 39. The two younger siblings now drew closer together, sharing a studio at 106 Gower Street from 1865 to 1867. As well as making her own paintings, Rebecca acted as Simeon’s agent, and organised lucrative commissions, including one for Liverpool shipping magnate Frederick Leyland. Denied equal status with male painters, Beckie was showing a flair for marketing her own work, with her illustrations appearing in popular prints such as The Churchman’s Family Magazine and London Society, Art Journal and the Illustrated London News.

Simeon was now mixing with the great artists of the age, the pre-Raphaelites who were outraging the art establishment by dismissing the great painters of the day. They reserved their particular loathing for the painterly style of artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, who they dubbed ‘Sir Sloshua’, but in fact were dismissive of most of the art of the preceding 400 years, believing the rot had set in with Raphael (hence their name).

Burne-Jones, Rossetti and rest were dazzled by Simeon’s superb draughtsmanship, and he was now moving in the highest artistic and aesthetic circles, becoming a friend of the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. As well as the literary subjects favoured by the Pre-Raphaelites, Simeon was (at Rebecca’s instigation) painting scenes from the Hebrew Bible, and genre paintings showing Jewish life and rituals. But in 1873 his glittering career stopped dead when he was arrested in a public urinal at Stratford Place Mews, off Oxford Street and charged with attempting to commit sodomy. Simeon was fined £100 and fled in humiliation to Paris where he was again arrested the next year, spending three months in prison.

The young star was now cast out. Lucrative commissions disappeared overnight and Simeon began to drink heavily. By 1884 he was admitted to the workhouse. He would produce work sporadically for the next 20 years, but would never again be admitted to the London art establishment.

Rebecca disappeared almost simultaneously. Though she was still painting into the 1880s (the 1881 census shows her listed as an ‘artist painter’ with a studio at 182 Great Titchfield Street) her association with Simeon seems to have destroyed her saleability as an artist. Some stories have her drifting into alcoholism alongside Simeon, but facts on her later life are hazy – not a single photograph remains of Rebecca. On 20 November 1886, tragedy struck the Solomons once more, when Beckie was run over by a hansom cab in central London. She later died of her wounds in hospital.

She swiftly vanished from history, resurfacing only in recent years. Few of her paintings are now exhibited (her copy of Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents, sold at auction in 2008 for more than £600,000 and disappeared straight into a private collection). Simeon, meanwhile, would linger on for two more decades, finally dying in 1905 from illnesses brought on by his alcoholism. He was buried at the Jewish Cemetery in Willesden.

Map of the story:

http://tinyurl.com/6auv5no

[pictures]

‘Wounded Dove’ by Rebecca Solomon
‘The Acolyte’ by Abraham Solomon
‘Two Girls With Their Governess’ by Abraham Solomon
‘Reverie’ by Simeon Solomon
A Leghorn hat
Two pictures of Simeon

Gilda O’Neill obituary

The sudden death of Gilda O’Neill at 59 has robbed the East End of a unique figure. Social historian, novelist and advocate for change, Gilda didn’t just write about the East End, she lived it.

O’Neill first hit the bookshelves in 1990 with a social history about hop picking, drawing on the memories of her mother and her own as a child of the 1950s, taken down to Kent in the dying days of the annual hopping expeditions. Pull No More Bines is a terrific book – there is no risk of a dry history here. O’Neill realised early, and never forgot, that whether you’re writing memoirs or fiction, it’s all about people and their stories. And the subtitle of that first book set the benchmark. ‘Memories of a Vanished Way of Life’ recognised that the East End these people loved had all but gone, with East Enders dispersed to Dagenham, to Basildon and beyond.
Gilda Griffiths was born and raised in Bethnal Green and Bow, leaving school at 15. Her family read like East Enders straight from central casting: one grandmother had a pie and mash shop, her grandfather was a tug skipper on the Thames, her great-uncle was the minder for a gambling den. Gilda did what lots of young East Enders did in the 1960s, she headed into the City for a succession of bar and office jobs. Then, like lots of young East Enders, she married young – to John O’Neill in 1971 after the pair had only been going out together a week . A son and daughter soon followed and hers might have been the story of a thousand other young women from the East End.

Except there was always an intelligence, a questioning and a demand for more. She enrolled at East London Poly and then the Open University. Her ‘Educating Rita’ experience made her realise a couple of things. First that she wanted to write. Second that she didn’t need to look anywhere for her material but back at home. Her parents Tom and Dolly had moved out of the East End to Dagenham by now, and Gilda became fascinated by the way the East End was being steadily pulled to pieces by policy makers. The East End wasn’t a collection of streets and buildings after all – it was a huge network of communities.

Pull No More Bines was a personal story as well as a social history. A Night Out with the Girls: Women Having a Good Time followed in 1993, then My East End: Memories of Life in Cockney London (1999). The comment by one happy reader about Our Street: East End Life in the Second World War (2003), says it all. ‘Real history about real people – not a load of dates and politics but first hand accounts of how people actually lived/survived through the second world war.’ The ironically titled Good Old Days: Crime, Murder and Mayhem in Victorian London came in 2006 and East End Tales in 2008.

Gilda’s workrate was formidable, as alongside the histories she began writing novels. The material was the same – an East End that was just out of sight, just about to be lost forever. They became hugely popular, with the writer turning out a book a year. A growing readership would devour The Lights of London, Playing Around or Getting There and impatiently wait for the next. The critics weren’t always kind. With shamelessly heart tugging cover photos of 1950s East End urchins – all basin cuts, bobs and cheeky smiles – and with the author’s name gold, embossed and larger than the title, O’Neill was never going to be a darling of the London Review of Books or the Booker Judges.

But, as her commissioning editor, Lorraine Gamman, wrote in an obituary this week, those people didn’t get it. Those who did were ‘the women who read Gilda in big print, or listened to her on audio books and wrote five-star reviews on Amazon, or the taxi drivers who heard and loved her contributions to the Danny Baker or Robert Elms radio shows.’

Those who dismissed the books as simply historical soap opera were missing the truth behind them. The Flanagans, Lovells and Tanners of ‘Rough Justice’ may be fictional families, but the men are casual dock workers, the Spanish Civil War and the threat of fascism in the East End is the backdrop. The historical details – large and small – are beautifully observed, as O’Neill drew on her background as a writer of East End histories, and of her own life. This may be fiction, but it’s no less true.

By now she had moved back to the East End, to a Limehouse much changed and gentrified since the 1950s and was doing her best to encourage others to stretch their wings. She spoke movingly at the Skills for Life Conference in 2008 on how her confidence had been crushed by teachers and career advisers. She became involved in the National Year of Reading with her message that ‘everybody has a story’ and that the policy makers should be listening to learners, not lecturing them. ‘Everyone has a story to tell,’ said Gilda.

And in her story, the personal and the general are never really separated. One of O’Neill’s most popular histories is an immaculately researched trawl through centuries of history, from the Romans, to the ‘stink industries’, through the Huguenots to the Bengalis of today. But its title ‘My East End’ makes it clear – it’s about the people who live here now. And so we get Gilda’s interviews with local pensioners, precious snippets of social history gathered before they are lost.

The East End of the early 1900s through to the 1950s (when an infant Gilda enters the story) was a time of poverty, when luck, juggling and mutual aid could just about get families from one payday to the next. People seemed to live in each others’ houses, especially the kids. It’s not a rose-tinted world. If there is happiness, laughter and a lot of love, there is also crime, drunkeness, violence, unemployment and early death. Throughout, O’Neill turns a sympathetic eye, seeming to say that people are good, but they often do bad things. Perhaps the element that the critics dismissed as sentiment and sugar was something else entirely – affection and kindness.

• Gilda O’Neill, writer, born 25 May 1951; died 24 September 2010

[boxout, can lose if too many words]

Gilda O’Neill’s books

Non fiction
Pull No More Bines: Hop-Picking: Memories of a Vanished Way of Life (1990)
A Night Out with the Girls: Women Having a Good Time (1993)
My East End: Memories of Life in Cockney London (1999)
Our Street: East End Life in the Second World War (2003)
The Good Old Days: Crime, Murder and Mayhem in Victorian London (2006)
East End Tales (2008)

Novels
The Cockney Girl (1992)
Whitechapel Girl (1993)
The Bells of Bow (1994)
Just Around the Corner (1995)
Cissie Flowers (1996)
Dream On (1997)
The Lights of London (1998)
Playing Around (2000)
Getting There (2001)
The Belts and Bow (2001)
The Sins of Their Fathers (2002)
Make Us Traitors (2003)
Of Woman Born (2005)
Rough Justice (2007)
Secrets of the Heart (2008)

The murder of Hannah Brown

Any piece of detective work is a jigsaw puzzle – finding which bits fit and which don’t, carefully sifting and experimenting until the big picture emerges. In the case of the unfortunate Hannah Brown, however, it was literally true. A series of horrifying discoveries around London, in the early weeks of 1837, had the whole of London horrified and fascinated by one of the capital’s grisliest murder mysteries.

The men working on the Regent’s Canal in Stepney were used to oddities being washed into the lock gates. Often it was some bounty that had fallen overboard from a goods-laden tug headed up to Birmingham and the Midlands – a barrel of brandy, a sack of coal or a bolt of linen. Occasionally it was something far worse. So it was that in early January that year, the crew clearing the Ben Jonson Locks (behind the Ragged School Museum and close to what is now the junction of Ben Jonson Road, Rhodeswell Road and Copperfield Road) fished a human head from the water. A modern-day detective would have quickly established that it hadn’t been in the water for long, being still recognisable as that of a woman in middle age.

The only problem was that in 1837 the science of policing was in its infancy, and the newly formed Metropolitan Police didn’t yet have a detective branch (formed in 1829, the Met wouldn’t get a ‘CID’ until 1841). It was left to a sharp-eyed doctor to put two and two together.

A few weeks before, on 28 December, a bricklayer named Bond had been working a few miles west, on a new row of houses, Canterbury Villas, on the Edgware Road. Returning to his lodgings in Kilburn on that icy winter’s day, Mr Bond had to traverse the Regent’s Canal – where his eye alighted on a coarse wrapping of sack. The orrified builder noted that from the hessian there oozed a pool of now-frozen blood.

The police were called, to unveil a torso from which both head and legs had been crudely hacked. An inquest was organised and held – in the curious manner of the day – at the White Lion Inn on the Edgware Road. The facts were clear, if incomplete, and the coroner duly noted that the torso was that of “a woman of around 50”. The jury returned a verdict of “wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.”

A few weeks later, in the East End, Dr Girdwood, the district surgeon of Stepney, was puzzling over his severed head. He recalled the gruesome finding in Westminster and wondered whether there could be a connection. Calling his Paddington colleague, he asked for the torso to be exhumed. The untidiness of the murderer’s knife-work made it easy for the doctor to announce that the two body parts were a match. Still the story was incomplete though. Girdwood placed the head in preserving spirits and waited.

The gruesome set would be completed on 2 February. Down in Camberwell, labourer James Page had taken work cutting back willow branches around a culvert. Stepping over the ditch, he noticed a wrapping of sackcloth in the water, from which protuded a human foot. The police arrived, opened the wrapping and revealed two human legs. Rushed to Girdwood for examination, the limbs proved to be the final pieces in the puzzle. Police now had a body but no killer.

The case had filled the London papers however. And on 20 March, a Mr Gay of Goodge Street came to the Paddington churchwarden, asking for permission to inspect the body. Gay had been searching fruitlessly for his sister, Hannah Brown, who had disappeared just before Christmas.

Now the puzzle raced quickly to a conclusion. If the identity of victims sometimes took time to be revealed, the identity of their killers was usually more obvious. The constables of the Met always looked first to family members, friends and lovers; it soon emerged that Hannah had left her lodgings on Christmas Eve, telling friends she was to marry a James Greenacre of Camberwell.

Greenacre proved elusive but was finally tracked down on 24 March, to the lodgings in the Kennington Road he shared with Sarah Gale, his common law wife. In the hallway were packed trunks; in Greenacre’s pocket were tickets for a passage to America. The police searched the trunks, to find items belonging to Hannah.

Justice was swift. Just three weeks later, the pair were standing in the dock at the Old Bailey. Greenacre’s defence was non existent. He first claimed not to have known Hannah, then said she had disappeared. Gale, standing alongside her lover, became similarly confused in her defence, as she was accused of being an accessory after the fact. Today, trials last for months. That of Greenacre and Gale was over in two days, the judge summed up in a few minutes, and the jury took a quarter of an hour to reach their verdict of guilty.

Greenacre was hanged on the 2nd of May, 1837. By then, Gale had been transported to Australia – from where she would never return.

Map of locations in the Hannah Brown murder: http://tinyurl.com/38htuxu

Women at war

The outbreak of hostilities in 1939 was when war really came home to the East End. Up till then, conflicts had largely been fought far away, with news of victory and defeat dribbling back slowly. Of course the East End had suffered privations, and air raids, during the First World War. But it was World War II when everyone became involved, whether they wanted to or not.

‘It had never occurred to me that I would even leave Bow … maybe I’d work in the City in a bank or something, but that’s as far afield as I thought I’d go,’ remembers Beryl Edwards. Within months of the outbreak of war, though, Beryl was helping hoist barrage balloons on a cold and windy RAF base in Norfolk; just the first of many postings to the airfields helping to protect Britain from the Luftwaffe.

As well as bringing war to the home front in terrifying fashion, with nightly air raids on the East End, World War II changed life forever for many East End women, and changed society for good in the process. A new book, Women at War: In Uniform by Carol Harris describes how the hostilities saw the greatest military mobilisation of women in British history. Many young women, some still in their teens like Beryl, were away from home for the first time. At first, their duties were strictly limited but, as war bit deep into the nation’s manpower, their jobs were expanded. Within a year of the start of war, women were working routinely under fire.

Many WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), such as Beryl, manned anti-aircraft guns in all-female (and later mixed) batteries. Women of the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service and known as ‘Wrens’) maintained and repaired the ships of the Royal Navy and became involved in the top-secret planning for D-Day. Women had first entered the war zone in the First World War, and the units that had been formed then were rapidly re-established in time for the new conflict. The Army’s contingent, known as WAACs (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) were reformed as the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in 1938. By 1945, this arm alone numbered over 190,000, including Second-Lieutenant Elizabeth Windsor, the future Queen Elizabeth II.

During World War I the women’s units had become the butt of ribald humour and worse. Tales spread of promiscuity, incompetence and ill-discipline; music hall comics and newspapers alike wondered whether women could cope with the pressure of war. The truth was rather different. Government inspections of female guard posts and batteries routinely found high levels of discipline, attention to detail and morale, with none of the problems of insubordination and bullying that were an occasional problem in men’s units.

And by World War II there was no question that women were doing dirty, difficult and often dangerous work. Enid Burns was a WAAF officer at RAF Norton during the early forties, in charge of three WAAF sites shielding Sheffield. ‘It is thanks to them that many Sheffielders and steelworks were saved from enemy bombers,’ she recalls. ‘They were a splendid lot of women, tough, brave, uncomplaining and cheerful, doing a very dangerous job, as the winder and steel hawser were lethal and many accidents occurred. We had a terrible fire in a hanger as a balloon was being repaired, and the hydrogen ignited. Many WAAF were badly burned.’

Beryl Edwards remembers well the privations of serving in the WAAF. ‘It was often cold and miserable – long shifts, a long way from home, and the uniform wasn’t the most flattering either! Often we would be woken from a few hours sleep to reposition the balloon, which had been blown out of position by a gale.’ For the male RAF officers and crew boozy evenings in the mess were an escape from the tensions of war and loss of one’s comrades. For young women like Beryl though, letting their hair down was more difficult: ‘We knew you didn’t have to throw off the shackles too much to be tarred with a bad reputation, so most of us were whiter than white,’ she laughs. But 60 years on, and long retired in the Essex countryside, Beryl wouldn’t have missed it for a moment. ‘It changed the lives of so many women, who might otherwise have thought only of marriage and children. And once we’d seen what we could do, there was no going back.’

Women at War: In Uniform by Carol Harris, published by Sutton Publishing, www.suttonpublishing.co.uk, ISBN 0750926333, £10.99