My great-grandmother Kate “Kitty” Beatrice Cuthbert, née Williams, is one of the most interesting characters in my family history. A successful breeder of Chow Chows, a shop proprietor, a councillor, a defender of neglected wives and children, but before all those things, when she was 20 years old, she worked at the Australian Imperial Force headquarters in Westminster, London.
Kitty was obviously proud of this part of her life as she kept this reference letter for the rest of her life, and I found it among her old papers and photos. You can see a scan of the original document here, but here’s a transcript:
AUSTRALIAN ORDINANCE SECTION
27th September 1918
To all whom it may concern.
Mrs. K Cuthbert has been attached to this Section for nearly two-and-a-half years, and during that period she has discharged her duties in every respect in an able and conscientious manner. Her work required a considerable amount of tact and diplomacy and her missions to other government departments on difficult work have always led to success. I can recommend her as a splendid acquisition to any firm or Government Dept. knowing she is honest and straight-forward and full of ability. She is terminating her position here on the question of salary, and it is regretted that this Section has not the power to influence her employers to retain her services.
G E Blight Lt. Capt
pp LIEUT: COLONEL
In early 1916, when her service with the AIF began, Kitty was 21 years old, had been married for five years, had a three-year-old son, and had been earning a living since she was fourteen. Until the First World War, it was expected that women would give up work once they married, to focus on the unpaid domestic duties of the marital home, and with a husband bringing enough money in to take care of the family. Kitty, however, continued to work after the birth of her son, even though her husband, Bernard, didn’t enlist in the military until 1917.
One of Bernard’s letters home to Kitty suggests that her motivation to work was due to financial necessity. He writes: “[I] never thoroughly realised til now what a drawback I have been to you in so many ways. I have not even kept you for the last 2 or 3 years… I am going on for 27 and what prospects do I have when the war is over. No money, no job and one room. And the best wife in the world. I layed [sic] and cried for an hour or so to myself when I thought it.” Poor Bernard! As a self-employed painter and decorator (the family trade) in London, I imagine he was bringing some money in, especially once the war began and many younger men were enlisted. But the idea that his wife should also need to work was obviously hard for him.
Working Women in the First World War
Kitty wasn’t alone as a working wife. Women’s employment rates increased dramatically during the First World War and they were no longer limited to “women’s work” such as domestic service, but were able to take jobs in manufacturing, transportation and agricultural sectors among others. These jobs were often better paid than those in domestic service, and while some, such as factory work, were more hazardous, many women found that ironically the work was not as hard and the days not as long. In 1914, 24% of women of working age were employed; this rose to 37% by 1918, with an estimated 2 million women employed in roles traditionally taken by men. Not only that, but 40% of these working women in 1918 were married.
The government provided funding towards the costs of over 100 day nurseries across the country for the children of women who worked in munitions factories, although women employed in other sectors had to rely on their family and friends for childcare support. The General Post Office lifted their ban (which had been implemented in 1878) on employing married women. For the duration of the war at least, married women were becoming increasingly accepted into the workplace.
The Australian Imperial Force Headquarters
So, what was Kitty’s workplace like? The headquarters of the Australian Imperial Force (the main expeditionary military force of Australia) were set up in London in 1915, serving as a base for administration, finance and provisions, as well as being a “home away from home” for the 331, 781 Australian soldiers serving in France, plus 3011 members of the Australian Nursing Service. From mid-1916, for the next two years, there were never fewer than 50,000 Australian troops in Britain, excluding men on leave. If you’re interested in learning more about the experiences of the Australian soldiers, I highly recommend the article ‘London and the First World War’ by Elise Edmonds for the Imperial War Museum which features several fascinating excerpts from letters written by Australian soldiers about their time in London.
The Australian War Memorial website notes that employed in the records office here was a “large number of girls, whose labour was as effective as that of the soldiers, and much cheaper.” This ties in with the implication in Kitty’s reference letter that she was dissatisfied with her pay and is consistent with the fact that women were vastly under-paid at this time. They may have been paid more than they would have been in domestic service, but in almost all sectors they were being paid less than a man would be in the same job. While Kitty clearly excelled in her role and impressed her supervisors, it seems she was not prepared to be paid less than she knew she deserved, and the AIF were not prepared to increase her pay when there were so many women out there in need of work.
After the War
As the war ended, many people felt society should re-establish traditional gender roles. Many women had been employed on the understanding that their contract would last only for duration of the war. The Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act 1919 required returning soldiers to be given their pre-war jobs back, and 750,000 women were made redundant in 1918. While the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 made it illegal to prevent women from joining professions and vocations and be awarded degrees based on their gender or marital status, the law was broad and seldom invoked, and commercial companies were not generally prevented from adopting unofficial bans on employing married women. Even the General Post Office was able to reinstate their ‘marriage bar’ upon the end of the War, and it was not permanently lifted until well after the Second World War.
Many men blamed women for the rising levels of unemployment, and even among women there was resentment and rivalry. One woman, Isobel M Pazzey of Woolwich, felt so strongly about the subject of married women in the workplace that she wrote to the Daily Herald in October 1919, stating that “No decent man would allow his wife to work, and no decent woman would do it if she knew the harm she was doing to the widows and single girls who are looking for work. Put the married women out, send them home to clean their houses and look after the man they married and give a mother’s care to their children. Give the single women and widows the work.” This was typical of the prevailing opinion of the time so it’s no wonder Bernard felt it a personal failing on his part that his wife should have to work.
Personally, with what I know of Kitty’s life and personality, I don’t think she resented working. She was tenacious and confident, and probably found her role at the Australian Imperial Force Headquarters rewarding and challenging. She went on to run her own business (more than one, in fact), and serve on a district council, and it doesn’t seem as though she could have been content living the life of a housewife. In a time where society was trying to cling onto outdated gender roles and expectation, Kitty and many other women, were driving it forward.