August 1915: The Amazons of the SCR

“The summer vacation has been a busy time for many of us. Miss Penrose, with the co-operation of Miss Darbishire and Miss Walton, undertook to organise the National Registration in Oxford” SSA Annual Report, November 1915.

Miss Emily Penrose, Somerville’s Principal from 1907 to 1926, was as renowned for her administrative abilities as she was for her academic achievements and in the long vacation of 1915 she utilized those skills in a very particular form of war work.

In July 1915 the National Registration Act was passed, its purpose to provide the Government with accurate statistics on those available for military service, those doing essential work and those who might be able to replace enlisted men. All adults of working age (15-65), not already serving in the armed forces, were required to register on 15th August 1915.

The task of registration was the responsibility of local authorities across the country and Miss Penrose was asked to organize it in Oxford. St Mary Hall was conveniently central and the SSA Annual Report noted “Old students will probably have seen with pride the numerous press notices which commented on the uniquely efficient manner in which the business of the Register in Oxford was conducted.”

Alice BruceMildred Pope

Somerville’s Vice Principal, Miss Alice Bruce, spent the summer in London working for the Red Cross and Mildred Pope, the Tutor in Modern Languages, was in France with the Friend’s War Victims Relief Expedition.

The most unusual form of war work was probably that undertaken by Hilda Lorimer, the Tutor in Classics who, along with members of the other women’s colleges, set up and ran Shenberrow Camp in the Cotswolds from 5th to 18th August.

Shenberrow was the first collective undertaking of the Belgian Sub-Committee of the OWSSWS (the Oxford Women Students’ Society for Women’s Suffrage), its aim to equip applicants for relief work in Belgium with practical skills (cooking, washing and sanitation, first aid and Flemish).

The site, an ancient British fort with level ground and an excellent water supply, ‘fell into the hands of the Amazons’. Forty-four women attended, including four young Belgians who looked forward to ‘taking a share in the reconstruction of their land’ and gave instruction in Flemish. The women lived under canvas; lamb, delivered by the half-sheep on horseback, was roasted over trench fires. The daily routine included Swedish drill, tent inspection, chopping wood, collecting brushwood and digging sanitary trenches as well as lessons in first aid and how to cook economical, wholesome food. They were joined for the first couple of days by Violetta Thurstan, a Red Cross nurse, who had gone to Belgium at the start of the war, been a German prisoner and had served with a ‘Flying Column’ on the Russian front. Reactions to the camp varied, from the good humour of its occupants to the friendly assistance of the local farmer and the declaration by one baker’s delivery boy: “I wouldn’t live ‘ere, not for three pound a week!”


July 1915: Forage, Farming & Food: Women in Agriculture

Amongst the six students to leave Somerville for war work in June 1915 was Helen Norah Hughes. She had entered the College in October 1914 to read English and was a friend of Vera Brittain’s, but rather than nurse, she became a Checker of Forage for the War Office, one of several Somervillians to work in agriculture.

The first harvest of the war revealed a crisis developing in farming. Over 100,000 agricultural workers had joined the armed forces during the first six months of the war and the British Army depended on farmers for a regular, reliable supply of forage (fodder) to feed the horses which were still its main means of transport. Farmers were unable to produce enough food for human consumption and haymaking was not a priority therefore, in July 1915, the first women were enrolled by the War Office to organise the collection and transportation of hay from farms to the front and, in agriculture more widely, women volunteers began to make up the shortfall in the workforce.

Food production was of paramount importance and organisations such as the Women’s Farm and Garden Union worked to train women in agriculture and overcome bias against them. At a domestic level, the Women’s Institute was founded in 1915 to promote the production and preservation of food and individuals cultivated allotments and gardens. The Somerville College report for 1915 listed two former students who took up agriculture – Mary Scott became a farm labourer and Margaret Moor an assistant ‘cowman’ – whilst helping on the land became a popular form of war work for students in the long vacations.

In March 1917, the Women’s Land Army (WLA) was formed. It encompassed agricultural workers, a forestry section and the Women’s Forage Corps (WFC). The disparate women forage workers were incorporated into the new Corps, the members placed into teams of six, travelling from farm to farm, where they would harvest and bale the hay and drive it to the local station by horse-drawn cart for transfer onto a train. Somervillians, by this stage of the war, were working in agriculture at all levels, including administration on regional committees, large scale food production such as potato  and chicken farming and small scale gardening to supply individual hospitals and refugee hostels with vegetables. Mary Scott worked on the land throughout the war, ran a small holding and became a qualified cow woman and Somerville students spent their vacations harvesting or fruit picking. Former Chemistry tutor, Margaret McKillop, went from lecturing on food economy in 1915 to working for the Ministry of Food in its Information and Statistics Section and wrote Food Values, What They Are and How to Calculate Them, published in 1916.Margaret Seward (McKillop)