The Hemingfords in World War 1
5. The Women
WOMEN AT THE BEGINNING OF WORLD WAR 1 had few options open to them outside the home.
Before marriage, they may have been employed, as domestic servants, often ‘living in.’
There were shops selling food and other necessities in the Hemingfords, where some may have worked.
Some were employed as seasonal workers at harvest time on the many farms and orchards around the two villages.
None were paid as much as men for similar work!
There was no gas or electricity or main drainage in the Hemingfords. Cooking was done on a coal fired kitchen range;
homes were lit by oil lamps or candles. Garden produce was preserved, in the form of bottled fruit and vegetables,
pickles and jams, for use over the winter months. Simple domestic chores involved hard physical work,
often in unsanitary conditions.
Women of a middle class background lived a very different life. Few expected to work for a living.
They were supported by the men of the family and were accustomed to having servants to do all the domestic chores.
Many also considered it their duty to do charitable work.
All social classes would find that by 1918 life had changed forever.
In the Hemingfords, as elsewhere in the country, the war began to have a serious effect on normal life.
Men were enlisting in large numbers and in an agricultural community this meant that many farmers were
finding it increasingly difficult to grow the food which was so desperately needed.
Schools were without schoolmasters, churches without vicars and choir members.
Women were urged by the government to encourage the men in their families to join up.
Women and children left behind could follow the news of the war in the local papers, much of it reporting the huge
numbers being killed or wounded, but would have had little up-to-date information about their own husbands and fathers.
The standard communication told them very little.
The local area was important as a training area, not only for the army but also for the newly recruited young men
learning to fly at Wyton. Good rail links meant that men could quickly be sent to the ports for transfer to the front.
There were large numbers of troops in camps around this area and a Scottish cavalry regiment’s officers’ mess in St Ives.
The War could not be ignored.
Women were being asked to be, not only the home-makers, but an important part of the war effort. They and their children began to
play a significant role in food production. Boys as young as 11 could leave school to work on the land.
The government, desperate to produce enough food for the home front, put women in charge of local food production.
In August 1915 Village War Food Societies were formed to help with shortages of food. The aim was to identify vacant plots of land,
even common land, and to get permission to cultivate them to produce food cooperatively, using women and child labour. Children in
infants’ schools were taken out of lessons and whole classes picked blackberries for jam making.
In Hemingford Abbots farmer F C Ruse appealed against the call-up of one of his men saying that from his 200 acre farm he had lost
nine men to the armed services, leaving him with only three to work his farm, of whom only two could work with his six horses.
Losing one of the these would leave only one to work them. The comment was made that more women should work on farms.
By September 1915 formal agricultural training had begun for women to work on farms.
The Women's Land Army was formed in February 1917 (in spite of male resistance in farming communities) in an attempt to provide a
full-time, properly regulated workforce for agricultural industries. The Women’s Land Army was not part of the army or even under
the control of the War Office. It was funded and controlled by the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries –
but as an organised body supporting the war effort, it deserves its place in any consideration of the fighting forces.
It eventually employed 113,000 women; female labour made up some one-third of all labour on the land, the remainder being a
mix of enemy prisoners, Army Service Corps, infantry labour units and agricultural workers outside military age.
The following advice was given to those joining the Women’s Land Army:-
‘You are doing a man’s work and so you are dressed like a man; but remember that because you wear a smock and trousers
you should take care to behave like an English girl who expects chivalry and respect from everyone she meets’
Still more demands on the time of women were being made. Men at the front needed warm clothing which was not being
adequately supplied by the army, so women were urged to knit socks, gloves and scarves to send to the front.
The field kitchens were made by Perkins of Peterborough and called by the men ‘Polly Perkins’
In the Hemingfords women must have been constantly afraid of losing the men they loved who were fighting in the trenches.
They and their children were often hungry and keeping families healthy was a huge problem. Houses were inspected by the RDC
Medical Officer of Health, who had to notify the existence of a number of diseases eg diphtheria, TB, Phthisis, scarlet fever.
Cases could result in the whole family being excluded from school, removal of the patient to an isolation hospital and
disinfection/fumigation of the dwelling.
In 1915 a case of poliomyelitis in Hemingford proved fatal.
The home was fumigated and considered no further threat to the community.
Those living in the tied and Parish cottages were coping with poor living conditions, such as we can hardly imagine
today – damp, sometimes flooded, difficult to heat, especially as coal became more expensive.
Apart from the main road through the villages, roads were rough tracks, which would be muddy and full of puddles in wet weather.
At the end of January 1918, there was a sudden thaw and St Ives and the low-lying areas were flooded, particularly
Filberts Walk and Victoria Terrace.
Residents worked by lantern to get their pigs and poultry onto higher ground. The water was several feet deep from
Victoria Terrace to the Woolpack and Low Road was flooded as well. The floodwater was over the railway line at
By dint of hard work, four men prevented the flooding of HG by damming the riverside road leading to HA with gault.
Before 1914 many women had demanded equal voting rights with men and the Suffragettes had made their presence felt
on the streets of the major cities, especially in London. By the end of the War women had assumed an important and
vital role on the Home Front. Votes were granted to women in 1918 but only to householders over the age of 30.
Few women in the Hemingfords would have been allowed to vote.
Kate Adie in her programme about women 1914 -1918 made the following observations:-
By the end of 1918, only a third of adult women were in employment, the same as before the war. Within a dozen years their
wages were less than half those of men in the same industries. The clock had struck midnight. The Cinderellas were no longer
in the limelight; they were at home by the hearth. The lot of women was to be carers once more, to return to a traditional maternal role.
A Ministry of Labour leaflet made clear the Government’s position:-
‘A call comes again to the women of Britain, a call, happily, not to make shells or to fill them so that a ruthless
enemy shall be destroyed, but a call to help renew the homes of England, to sew and to mend, to cook and to clean and
to rear babies in health and happiness.’
Women finally gained equal voting rights with men in 1928.
The women of the Hemingfords had played no small part in
proving that women were worthy of equality with men.