Kitty & her Chow Chows

I have always been interested in my family history, particularly my great-grandmother and namesake Kitty, and before I learnt how to find censuses and official records last year, I used to occasionally google Kitty’s name to see what I could find. A few years ago I discovered that the website had some wonderful pictures of her, in connection with her very successful career as a breeder of chow chows. I recently decided to share some of my family photos of Kitty, her sons and the dogs, with Sandra of, to say thank you for preserving and sharing a part of my family history.

You can read the wonderful post Sandra wrote about Kitty, (who bred her dogs under her married name of Mrs Bernard Cuthbert) here. Sandra has shared some wonderful articles about Kitty which have given me a lot of insight in Kitty’s life and career, including the first article about her (that I’m aware of) from 1927. She began breeding dogs from her home in Catford, London, and when the family moved to Canvey Island in 1933, they took their business with them and continued to have great success there. I was particularly moved to see this article from Sandra’s collection:

My great-grandfather Bernard Cuthbert was killed in an accident in 1958 and his death was a great shock to Kitty. They had been married 47 years, since she was 16, and had always had a very strong and close relationship. I’m lucky enough to have in my possession many handwritten letters from him to her, which show how devoted he was to her and how much he loved her, but nothing written by Kitty herself. So to see her own words here, about the effect the death of her husband had on her, means a lot to me.

Unlike his wife, Bernard seems to have been rather camera-shy, so I don’t have many photos of him. However I do have this lovely photo of the two of them at their son Don’s wedding in the summer of 1953.

1958 was not a good year for poor Kitty. Although it was the year that her first grandchild (my mum) was born, it was also the year of several deaths: her husband, her mother, and two of her sisters-in-law with whom she had been close. I’m glad to know that as well as her loyal son and beloved grandchild, she also had her treasured dogs around her to comfort her, as well as receiving many kind of letters of support from friends and clients.

So thank you, Sandra of, for providing such valuable context for my family’s history!

Kitty in the First World War

Kitty, front row centre, with colleagues in the Ordnance Section of the Australian Imperial Force Headquarters, around 1916. From my personal family archives.

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:


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

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.

The beginning

I don’t know why it took me so long to actually start researching my family history. It’s a topic that always interested me, and every now and then I’d google the names of my great-grandparents, but aside from a couple of photos of my great-grandmother, I never found anything. I knew my grandad had been researching our family history in the 1990s, and I knew his papers would still be around somewhere, but it never really occurred to me to look at them.

During the first lockdown last year, I googled my great-grandmother again and this time Ancestry came up. I signed up for a free trial and found all kinds of information I never realised was so easy to access. I naively resolved to find out “everything” before the end of my two week trial… and now nine months later I’m still learning more about my family history everyday, not just on Ancestry but on other sites too.

When I told my mum I was researching our family history, she gave me my grandad’s notebook and papers. There were birth, marriage and death certificates, copied out census records, printouts of microfiche, pages of scribbled notes. He had filled out a pedigree chart of course, but to my surprise he’d even done one for me. I was a young child at the time and he never showed it to me, but it was like he knew I would need it someday.

Going through all my grandad’s notes and knowing I’m carrying on his research makes the whole process of researching my family history even more personal and rewarding. Back when he was doing this, he didn’t have the internet to help him. He had to visit or write to record offices for information. I have the benefit of online indexed transcriptions from all over the world, which makes things easier in a lot of ways but a little overwhelming in others. Whenever I find more evidence to back up what he already found, or something that confirms a hunch of his, or something that eluded him, I feel so proud, and I know he’d be proud of me. I wish I could talk to him about it all and show him what I’ve found and tackle those stubborn brick walls together.