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Abingdon Women in World War 2

During times of war, there are always extra duties to be performed even by those who are not on the front line. Those who stay at home have to keep the citizens safe. Supplies have to be distributed, and refugees have to be housed. More strain is put on places like hospitals, and extra help is needed there. In towns with army camps or air bases nearby, those serving there have to be looked after.

Many men are away from their homes and their usual jobs, and their places are often taken by women, who keep the industries and civilian life going.

In Abingdon it was organisations like the Townswomen’s Guild and the Women’s Voluntary Service who did a lot of work. It was Agnes Leonora Challenor, who in 1939 founded the Abingdon branch of the Women’s Voluntary Service, and the members helped were they could by performing clerical work or as drivers.

As mentioned, the health service is one place that needs extra help during war time, and many Abingdon women rose to the challenge. It wasn’t just doctors and nurses who were needed, though. Mary Carslaw, whose father had a doctor’s surgery in East St Helen Street, had trained with the Red Cross, and she was a cook: “I did not want to be a nurse,” she recalled in an interview, “it was not my scene at all.” She became what was called a Mobile Member, which meant that she was dispatched to hospitals all over Berkshire, wherever she was needed.  Later she was a cook at the Military Hospital in Reading.

Joan Ballard was also trained in the Red Cross and worked for the Blood Transfusion Service Facility in Abingdon. She and other Red Cross members also worked at The Warren, the hospital on Radley Road. Joan was also one of many women who took in evacuees. She had two men, who worked at the Esso depot, and a mother and child from London staying with her, and remembered the difficulty of providing for them as well as her own family in a time of shortages and rationing – a lot of time was spent queuing! Running a household took a lot of planning and organising.

The Warren hospital

One of the largest non-military war services for women was the Women’s Land Army. The WLA had already existed in the First World War, but it reformed in June 1939. The war severely disrupted the import of food into Britain, and more food had to be grown domestically. With many of the male agricultural workers away with the armed services, their places were taken by the women of the Women’s Land Army, also known as “land girls”. Many of the women were recruited from cities and towns like Abingdon. To put a positive spin on the work, it was sometimes represented as a healthy, outdoor lifestyle. In reality the work was hard, with 48-hour weeks (50 in the summer) and no paid holidays. Living conditions could be very basic, and on top of that the women were paid less than male agricultural workers, and up to half of their wage could be deducted for board and lodging. Even so more than 20,000 women volunteered in the first two years of the war.

Eileen Cox probably would not have met her husband if she hadn’t been a Land Girl. She grew up mainly in Liverpool as her father had a job in the shipyards there. When the war broke out, she first worked in a munitions factory, and then in aircraft inspection. Later she joined the Land Army and worked in Bedfordshire. During that time Land Girls wrote letters to servicemen and sometimes became pen friends with them. Eileen wrote to a serviceman called John. They struck up a friendship, met up after the war, fell in love and got married. John was from Berkshire, and so they moved to Abingdon in 1951.

Eve Taylor, who was born in Abingdon in 1923, also joined the Women’s Land Army.

A lot of women did volunteer work in the towns where they lived. They were ARP wardens and fire guards, they “dug for victory” in their gardens and allotments, and from 1942 they could join the Women’s Home Defence Corps.

Elizabeth Aldworth performed a variety of volunteer duties during the war. When war broke out in 1939, she had just finished school. She was one of the volunteers who received refugees arriving at the railway station and distributed emergency rations which were given to them on arrival. She also volunteered at the canteen in the Church Hall behind St Nicolas’ Church, and the Salvation Army tea van at RAF Abingdon.

Later she studied English at St Anne’s College, Oxford, and during that time she became a fire watcher. These were volunteers who kept an eye out for fires caused by incendiary bombs. This duty often had to be performed during the night, and Elizabeth recalled having to stay at her station in the Department of Education overnight. Fire watchers were trained in the use of fire extinguishing equipment, so they could tackle a blaze without having to wait for the arrival of the fire brigade. They were also given a handbook, and Elizabeth’s copy is now in the museum collection.

Elizabeth Aldworth’s ‘Fire Guard’s Handbook’, now in the museum collection

In an interview Elizabeth also recalled working in the Admiralty Photographic Library, which was based in the Bodleian in Oxford. She even had to take the Official Secrets Act to be able to work with those documents. She also recalled that they were obliged to perform a certain number of hours of war service per week, a requirement she fulfilled with her various duties.

Joyce Barnett was also a firewatcher and an ARP warden. ARP stands for Air Raid Precautions, and Air Raid Wardens had a variety of duties like enforcing the blackout (“Put that light out!” was their familiar cry), warning of gas attacks by using a rattle, putting out fires (similar to the fire watchers) and recording bomb damage and unexploded devices. But Joyce also had a more unusual job. She was a keen actress and a member of the Guild of Abbey Players, which continued to produce plays during the war years. It was probably her experience on stage which got her the job of reading out announcements from the Ministry of Information through a loudspeaker mounted on a van, which was driven around Abingdon.

Joyce Barnett as a member of the Guild of Abbey Players

Joan Hammond came to Abingdon from Great Yarmouth with her family in 1940, because of the war. She was only sixteen at the time, but she was what she termed “called up”, that is she was obliged to join the war effort, either in a unit of the armed forces or in a civilian role. So she became a civil servant at the RAF Depot in Milton. Not only that, but after working all day at Milton, she then did duty as a firewatcher at night in Abingdon.

Norah Jones, too, had a job during the war years. She went into the MG factory, which was now producing aircraft components, as a riveter. Then she trained as a driver as well. “We drove everything that was going”, she recalled. In her case this included some of the cars which MG was still building, which she took for test drives.

Although many women joined in the war effort as volunteers or in civilian roles, there were units in the armed forces as well which they could join, and a number of Abingdon women did so.

In the Air force there was the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). As war was looming in 1939, it was established to work alongside the RAF. In the first year, tens of thousands of women joined, and when conscription was introduced in 1941, numbers gradually swelled to over 180,000. The jobs to be done ranged from cooking and clerical duties, serving in meteorological and intelligence stations, and driving to aircraft maintenance and repair.

WAAF members being transported in a lorry

Noreen Howrigan was one of those who joined, and she was trained to drive lorries in North Wales. She recalled that she was too short to reach the controls, so she had to have a board at her back to make her sit further forward, “which was jolly uncomfortable”, she said.  After training the WAAF drivers would take part in convoys across the country and also ferry personnel round the airfields.

Another was Joan Sylvester, who served at RAF Abingdon, the home of No 10 Operational Training Unit, which was to train newly qualified aircrew to get used to multi-engine aircraft and to practice flying at night. While women could not become pilots in the RAF, they were trained as mechanics, drivers (like Noreen) or took on clerical roles.

Joan Sylvester in the WAAF

The Army unit for women was the ATS, the Auxiliary Territorial Service. It was formed in 1938, and at first its roles were limited to cooks, clerks, orderlies, storekeepers and drivers. But with an increased demand for personnel the roles available to women were broadened, and eventually they did almost any Army job except serving in combat roles. They could also be sent anywhere where the Army was operating. The ATS became the largest of the women’s services, and as with the WAAF, a number of Abingdon women joined.

Irma Marriott (nee Loader) joined in May 1939. The training took place in the Drill Hall behind Abingdon Station. After training, Irma was posted to the Royal Engineers Postal Service, but she also trained as a cook. She was stationed in several places: Tidworth, Nottingham, Bournemouth and Reading. The ATS had ranks like the regular Army, and Irma was promoted to Sergeant during her service.

Phyllis Jones from Abingdon (see featured image) also joined the ATS.

All these examples show how many different roles women played in the war, and how vital their contribution was for the war effort. Victory would not have been achieved without them.

Featured image: Phyllis Jones (third from left) and three comrades in the ATS.


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