Autobiography of Beatrice Kitson
The First World War
Then came the war and the years that were to give a new orientation even to those of us who stayed at home and who had no one near to us at the front. I shall always have a vivid recollection of those first few days. A meeting was called at the Vicarage, consisting chiefly of ex-lady mayoresses, and it was decided to start a register of all who were willing to help. Through the press they were asked to report at the Town Hall, a few of us undertaking to be there to take down names. We were given the small antechamber to the Victoria Hall with no window or ventilation but to make us welcome that hot August morning a large fire and red velvet seats had been provided. And there, armed with a few pencils and some scrap paper, we prepared to face the war. Women flocked in clamouring to be given something to do, anything to help. Round the outskirts of the crowd Emily Ford hovered, distraught over the pitiable tales of the wives of the aliens who even then were being interned under armed guard in the big hall. She brought in the weeping women for the comfort of a few minutes’ rest on a velvet chair, or a few words of sympathetic cheer. The sight of armed guards at the door had sent them into agonies lest their men folk were to be taken away and shot.
I suppose no one in the least realised the rush that there would be to join the forces or to volunteer for work. As regards the women, at any rate, no plans had been made and there was no one to take the lead. Two things at once became evident: the need for bandages, for shirts and socks for the men joining the forces. Someone had to be found to organise these two branches of supply but it was not easy to put your finger on the right person amidst the hundreds of applicants. Somehow order gradually evolved out of chaos. For days we were busy, taking down names, classifying and making out a card index. But looking back one wonders whether there was much use in all our labours, beyond calming the first excited rush and keeping the clamour to some extent away from the departments which were actually doing the work.
My next war activity took the form of munitions work. Those were the days (November 1914) before it was common to become a munitions worker and I went more with the idea of finding out what conditions were like in the shops than of being useful as a producer. I arranged to go to G and B for a fortnight, to be one week on the day shift and one on nights. The shifts were of twelve hours and seven days a week. It was necessary to get up at 4.30am in order to be on time. It was with considerable trepidation that on the first morning I presented myself at the factory gate, and contrary to expectation word had not been given to the foreman. However, after a short delay, I was put on to a machine in the bullet-making department in the charge of a girl to teach me. As a matter of fact there was little to learn beyond mechanical dexterity and speed. The constant repetition of the same action several times a minute, hour after hour: the work consisted of putting bullets into small holes in a revolving disk, with as a stimulus to exertion, a machine going constantly a little faster than you could keep pace with it and of course the thought of your wage sheet at the end of the week. The disk being wet the lights flickered and gleamed across it in a most giddy-making way. Then the monotony of it – you were forced back on anything inside your head: poems, holidays and anything to keep your thoughts off the pain in your back, if you were not to become hypnotised by the machine (Gibson). One learnt a lot in that fortnight: the power to go on hour after hour with red hot knives running into your back, a wondering admiration for delicate and underfed girls who could do their day’s work week in week out, with never a grumble, with no prospect of any release, and keep their tempers and their spirits; a conviction of the folly, so often proved previously, of expecting larger output from increased hours.
Try as one would, it was impossible after four hours without a break to work at the top speed, and in spite of all resolutions one found oneself stealing minutes at the beginning and end of each period. Then too the frequent changes from days to nights made it much more trying, for though one was hungry by midnight one’s digestion did not immediately take kindly to hot roast pork at that hour, and no sooner had it got acclimatised than you were back again on days. And of course for the workers living in crowded and noisy homes the impossibility of proper sleep was an added stain. We were well fed but the washing arrangements were distinctly primitive: a long wooden trough with some two inches of water in it at which, as soon as the bell went, we scrambled for a chance to dip our oily hands. If you were lucky, someone would thrust a lump of soft soap into your groping hand; towels we provided for ourselves. Having had the stupidity to go in a linen collar and being distinctly lacking in the gift of small talk on the pictures or dress it was quickly obvious that I was not the ordinary hand and I did not get on to intimate terms with any of my fellow workers. But I would not have missed the experience for a good deal and have often wished since now that I know more of the GNCA huts at Ripon; it happened to be an extraordinarily interesting time. When I arrived the staff consisted of four women and two men as leaders. However shortly afterwards the two men were withdrawn for other work and we were, I believe, the first hut in England to be entirely run by women.
The last night before they left we gave a supper to all the GN workers in the camp and they employed the midnight hours, oblivious of the fact that we had had to get the whole spread ready after our work finished at ten and should have to clear all away before going to bed, in mutual praises and enlarging on how useful the women were but of course there was much of the work that they could not do. We couldn’t help smiling for our leader had gone to pieces rather badly and had done practically no work for some weeks and things were not going well. However, it also put us on our mettle and ensured that whatever happened, no. 4 hut was going to be a success and it began to pull up from that day. The Chief was cut out for the post, accustomed to lads, a worker, never ruffled or flurried, very keen on the GN side of the work and a thorough sportsman. She was the first person to introduce boxing matches into a GN hut. I think the men felt instinctively that she was genuinely a friend, that her religion went all through and was not merely on the surface and they responded to it; whilst at the same time she set the pace for the staff.
The hut thronged with people; we would have perhaps 1,000 or 1,500 men in an evening and it was a great triumph when one of our friends in the office reported to us that an official return of the whereabouts of the men in the evenings had been sent in Rl 15 (of E.23 Wesley in G. army canteen 29 GN countless numbers. Another episode spoke for itself; after an air raid and lights out, every pot in the army canteen was smashed. At No. 4 nothing broke and on another occasion when the light failed not so much as a candle end disappeared, though the men knew they had to go back to dark quarters and many vainly tried to buy candles from us.
The hut was run on real GN lines: services on Sunday, a Bible class and prayers every night lasting about five minutes and it was an experience – if something of an ordeal – at 9 at night to get up on a chai in the middle of the crowded hut to take prayers for the first time, without even a book as a support. I don’t say that most of the men cared much about religion but whatever they were doing all would stand for prayers, very few went out and I believe they liked them and appreciated that their comrades in the trenches and their families were remembered each night. Being Scottish, “the riff raff of Glasgow”, they enjoyed theological discussion with the men who came to speak on Sundays, sometimes one of themselves, and liked it better if they were not parsons and “paid for their job” and the gusto with which 50 or 60 would settle down on a Sunday afternoon and choose and try hymns was tremendous. They were very fond of music; at times this took odd forms, with the piano and harmonium going at opposite ends of the hut, different tunes of course. I shall not forget their enthusiasm when a Music in Wartime party came over from Leeds and gave a really first-class concert, and how they crowded round the door singing “Will ye no’ come back again”. Looking back on sees that the life was not without its hardships; we lived in the hut, each having a tiny rom about 7’ x 4’. A single board is not much between you and fifteen degrees of frost and it was better not to think too long before you tumbled out in the morning to wash in cold water and go out into the hut to open all the windows. (The military authorities were very keen on ventilation.) Even the dregs in the mugs were all frozen solid. The morning was spent in cleaning and polishing and one learnt something of the art of handling men from taking charge of the fatigue parties who came to do the rough work. True they were under the control of a young corporal or sergeant but being generally invalided men as a rule they had no intention of doing much hated fatigue work. We opened at noon and from then till 10 p.m. with a break of quarter of an hour for tea you stood behind the counter handing out buns and tobacco as fast as you could go and dealt with the change, till your brain reeled and refused to function. If in the kitchen you stoked and mashed urns of tea galore and took a pride in beating others, never letting the crowd get two or three deep along the high counter. My record was nine urns in 40 minutes and two jugs of cocoa and odd drinks. The trick was to keep your boiler filled constantly, never let it get off the boil and find time in the intervals to wash up the pots. Then at 10 came the cashing up and putting away and not until after that supper. We had no superfluous luxuries. Our mess room had only little hard chairs. But it was a fine life, lots of hard work, enough responsibility to make it interesting and not too much and the feeling that you were doing something to help the men. We never missed home comforts and it was surprising how quite delicate girls stood the strain. My time there was all too brief but I often went back for a night or two to help at times of pressure.
The only other unaccustomed piece of war work I did was ten days of fruit picking. I stayed with a friend whose home is in the strawberry district so we did not have any experience of living in bunks. We were about a mile from the fields and used to cycle down to start work at 4 a.m. We were allowed the privilege of going home to breakfast and were off about three quarters of an hour as the house being maidless we had to help get and clear breakfast and make our beds before going back. Lunch we took with us and worked on till about three. Mercifully, the fruit had to be got away to the station then, though occasionally we turned on to raspberries after that, or put on a spurt at the weekend and stayed until 5. I am sorry I have no photograph of us in our working togs, our oldest things with a rough apron over all, kneecaps which we were rather proud of having invented and waterproof lined with bits of old blanket for the dew is pretty heavy at 4 a.m.and with three or four chips slung across our backs. The orthodox way of picking is to straddle the rows and one started so, then as one began to feel too apoplectic (fortunately, it wasn’t very hot weather, or one’s back became too uncomfortable, one tried crawling on hands and knees or even sitting and jerking oneself along. The first two or three days were pretty trying bu after than one got more supple. As each chip was filled, it was left standing by your row, then when four or five were ready you took them back to the tent to be weighed and you were given metal checks: 1 and a half pounds, 2 lbs, etc. The fruit was not very big, the London women got the best parts, it would have been difficult to live on our pay. Curiously I found it more trying to pick raspberries though they did not necessitate the same stooping, but there was less chance to vary your position with them. It is interesting to note how every fresh experience gives one a new point-of-view. My first glance at strawberry fields is now to note the length of the rows, very long ones are to be avoided for the walk back between each just enables you to get the creases out of your back before they become fixed. And after G and Bs I ceased to throw open the ventilators in the trams knowing that when you come off a 12-hour shift at 6 on a cold morning you really enjoy a good fuggy atmosphere – drop all up-to-date scientific ideas on the need for plenty of ventilation.
I think I developed late; but at any rate the war helped to shake one out of a rut, quicken one’s imagination and broaden one’s outlook. The last seven years have been full of landmarks – the long illness and death at our house of a very favourite aunt, an invitation to go to a Retreat, new friends, the discovery of the joys of tramping are only some of them. And it is pleasant to find that, to oneself at any rate, each added chapter of autobiography is fuller of interest than those which went before.