The Peek-A-Boos in War Time: “getting busy on war work”

Figure 1: Inside cover of May Byron, The Peek-a-Boos in War Time. Illustrated by Chloe Preston, 1916. Author’s own collection.

I have always had a fascination with childlike illustrations. Depictions of children behaving as adults allows us to consider difficult subjects in less serious or threatening ways, perhaps. Or, is it just that their amusing innocent construct draws us to these types of images, stirring up sentimental memories of childhood? For my BA in History of Design, at the University of Brighton, I wrote an essay about the artist Mabel Lucie Attwell who had been one of my favourite illustrators, ever since I read Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies as a child. Her prolific legacy of drawings make her one of the most well known of the artists from this period but she was not the only illustrator to use children to amuse, or depict emotional situations. Other artists include Ludgate, Thomas Gilson, Fred Spurgin, Agness Richardson, Evgenie Richards, Mac and Flora White. Included in my collection is a postcard that features an injured soldier returning home; ‘Home from the Front’, (Figure 2) was part of the ‘Khaki Kiddies’ series. In the cartoon the wife, or sweetheart, welcomes home her injured soldier, holding her dolly behind her back, suggesting a surprise new-born. Her husband is bandaged from injuries sustained in battle and wears a medal on his uniform. Many children during the First World War would have been greeted by the physical change in their fathers, or brothers, on their return from battle, so this ‘gentle’ representation both reflected and ‘normalised’ the sight of injured men, whilst celebrating their bravery. It is the manipulation of reality to transform the horror into a temporary superficiality for a child, that to an adult’s eyes underlines the extreme contradictions and macabre effects of warfare.

Figure 2: Home from the Front. Artist Unknown. Postcard Author’s own collection.

The Brighton artist, Flora White, also playfully illustrates the romance of couples in her postcard ‘Wartime Economy’ (Figure 3) whilst reflecting the concerns over ‘Khaki Fever’ where young women were ‘offering’ themselves to men who had attested. Richard Voeltz defined ‘Khaki Fever’ as the:

dangerous social and psychological afflictions which beset the girls and young women of Britain, causing them to act in unrestrained, even bold and brazen ways, thus threatening the very moral order of the country.

Voeltz, Richard. A., “The Antidote to ‘Khaki Fever? The Expansion of the British Girl Guides during the First World War.” Journal of Contemporary History, (1992) 27, p.627
Figure 3: ” Economy in Seats”. Artist Flora White. Postcard Author’s own collection.

In her autobiography Fortune Grass, Mabel Lethbridge recalled hiring seats to theatre goers so they could sit whilst waiting for theatres to open. This postcard (Figure 3) depicts a similar enterprise during a musical performance where seats would have been hired. The cartoon is also commenting on the romance and morals of young women, their infatuation with men in uniform, whilst simultaneously noting Government calls for economy in wartime. This postcard was part of series by Flora White that also included cartoons reflecting tropes of extravagant dress. When examining the backs of some of these childlike postcards, the senders and recipients are both adults and children so, as commercial objects they purposefully designed to appeal to a cross-generational audience, with the not so innocent double entendres not being fully understood by the younger audience.

The Peek-a-Boo Book

It is the visual attractiveness inherent in the materiality of children’s books, as well as postcards, that is essential to the engagement of the young audience, especially when considering the topic of this blog. The children’s book, The Peek-a-Boos in Wartime by May Byron, was published in 1916 and was illustrated by Chloe Preston. The Scotsman on Thursday 16th November 1916, detailed the price of this book as 2s 6d. A later advertisement placed in the Newcastle Journal, 13th December 1918, stated that Byron’s books were ‘for little ones with large clear print and lovely full page illustrations’ with the price having risen to 4/- in the 2 years since publication (due in part no doubt to rising inflation at the time). The Peek-a-Boos in Wartime was part of a series of children’s books that included a range of titles, but this one caught my attention because it discusses war time occupations, in particular munitions work. The characters in this edition are two girls Jemima and Jane, and a boy, Washington, who participate in various wartime roles from munition work to gardening with little success resulting in amusing mishaps (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The Peek-a-Boos just struggling as train porters. Illustrator Chloe Preston, 1916. Author’s own collection.

My interest in this book focuses on the representations of the workwear depicted in the illustrations and the descriptions of these garments. The book opens with the author describing an incident where Washington, the boy Peek-a-Boo is scornfully accused of being a ‘slacker’ by some overall clad passers-by. His everyday clothes are visual evidence of his non-involvement in the war effort. Clothing or uniform was a visual marker of support for the war effort and not playing one’s part was a prevalent discourse during the First World War. The result of this incident drives the Peek-a-Boos to dash to the nearest drapers to acquire overalls. Jane notices that:

the busiest people have got something on to show how hard they work. Aprons, you know; Pinafores, Leggings, Overalls—-

May Byron, The Peek-a-Boos in Wartime p.3

They ask the shop assistant what people who wear overalls ‘do‘ and are told they are worn by munition workers. They rush to the nearest munition factory and are taken on, but being Peek-a-Boos and playful children, they are completely unprepared for the strenuous nature of munition production and their mischievous behaviour almost ends in disaster (Figure 5).

Figure 5: May Byron, The Peek-a-Boos in Wartime, p.7. Illustrator Chloe Preston, 1916. Author’s own collection.

At the drapers shop Jane bought herself a set of blue overalls and pink set for Jemima. My research into the market for overalls during the war has uncovered advertisements that document the range of colourful overalls available, including pink, blue, pinstriped, brown, saxe (light greyish blue), helio (purple) and khaki. Although, as Lou Taylor has suggested (2002: 141), cartoons are exaggerated representations, the illustration should be recognisable in order to convey the joke and the workwear worn by the Peek-a-Boos can be seen to have references from the actual garments worn by munition workers. Figure 5 is a press photograph of munition workers wearing ‘boiler-suits’ that are redolent of Jemima’s workwear. The headwear the Peek-a-Boos don is also very interesting. Jane, on the right in Figure 5, wears the most common of head-covering, a Tammy hat, seen in the majority of portrait photographs of munition workers and by the women photographed in Figure 6. The one piece garment is drawn in at the waist with a fabric belt. This would have been used with safety in mind, rather than as a fashion statement, to prevent the baggy cloth to allow for movement being caught in the machines. Jemima’s overall has a similar belt at the waist in the illustrations.

Figure 5: “Some of the girls who continued duty at Medland Munitions Factory. Original Press Photograph for the Daily Sketch 12th July 1918. Author’s own collection.

Figure 7: Cover. Hardback copy, 1st edition of May Byron, The Peek-a-Boos in War Time. Illustrator Chloe Preston, 1916. Showing Jemima in her pink overalls and head covering pulling a shell on a trolley. Author’s own collection.

However, Jemima, who from the description of the overalls, can be seen on the front cover of the book (Figure 7). She wears a tied headscarf, that during the Second World War was often referred to as a Turban. A photograph from my collection shows a group of munition workers wearing trousers and similarly tied head scarves from the First World War. The photograph (Figure 8) was taken in Blackpool, Lancashire. The location of the photographer’s studio in this Northern seaside town is significant as it is 7 miles north of Lytham, where there was a H.M Explosive Factory producing picric acid. This is a highly volatile and toxic chemical, which had terrible side effects for the women who came into contact with it, including liver poisoning. The result of this was that their skin gradually turned yellow, resulting in the nickname Canary Girls.

Figure 8: Picture of 4 munition workers taken in a photography studio in Blackpool. Orphan photograph. Author’s own collection.

As documented in my previous blog, Wounds of Honour? The Dangers of First World War Munition Work 8th May 2021, injuries and the dangers of munition work were frequent and serious; sometimes life changing. Miss Annie Rose and Miss Lily Smith were pictured in The Daily Record 27th August 1917 displaying their injuries, whilst Mabel Lethbridge lost a leg in an explosion whilst working at Hayes filling factory. May Byron managed to communicate the need for all to engage in the war effort, the exhausting nature of the work, the outward appearance of that involvement and the sense of urgency and seriousness required by the workers, but in a way that was amusing and comprehensible to children; helped along the way by the childlike and endearing illustrations of Chloe Preston’s artwork. Gillian Brown (2022) argues that children’s stories contain didactic tales that along with the illustrations compound familial, societal and generational expectations of behaviour and I would add appearance. From these images the expectation of morals, frugality, loyalty, duty and hard work are being visually conveyed to children and, most interesting in dress history terms, is the trope of a utilitarian overall being associated with these conventions.

Figure 8: The Peek-a-Boos asleep in the turnip patch after their exhaustive war work. Illustrator Chloe Preston, 1916. Author’s own collection.


  • Brown, Gillian. “THE METAMORPHIC BOOK: CHILDREN’S PRINT CULTURE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY.” Eighteenth – Century Studies 39.3 (2006): 351,362,420. ProQuest. Web. 28 Apr. 2022.
  • Byron, May, The Peek-a-Boos in War Time. Illustrated by Chloe Preston. London: Henry Frowde, Hodder and Staughton 1916, 1st edition.
  • Chapman, Jane, Anna Hoyles, Andrew Kerr and Adam Sheriff, Comics and the World Wars: A Cultural Record. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
  • Gullace, Nicoletta F.“White Feathers and Wounded Men: Female Patriotism and the Memory of the Great War”, The Journal of British Studies, (1997) 36:2, 178-206
  • Health of Munitions Workers Committee. Industrial Health and Efficiency. Final Report. London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1918. Print. Ministry of Munitions, National Archives, MUN 5/92
  • Lethbridge, Mabel, Fortune Grass. London: Geoffrey Bless, 1934.
  • Milne, Esther, Letters, Postcards, Email: Technologies of Presence. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010.
  • Taylor, Lou, The Study of Dress History. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.
  • Taylor, James, Pack up your troubles: How Humorous Postcards Helped to Win World War 1. London: Conway, 2016.
  • Voeltz, Richard. A., “The Antidote to ‘Khaki Fever? The Expansion of the British Girl Guides during the First World War.” Journal of Contemporary History, (1992) 27
  • Woollacott, Angela, On her Their Lives Depend. Munitions Workers in the Great War. London: University of California Press, 1995.
  • The Scotsman on Thursday 16th November 1916
  • Newcastle Journal, 13th December 1918
  • The Daily Record 27th August 1917


Chloe Preston was a British author-illustrator born in 1887. She illustrated stories by May Byron and Tom Preston (her brother) notably those featuring the ‘Peek-a-Boos’ and the little wooden ‘Chunkies’. She also designed numerous postcards for Valentines and Raphael Tuck, soft toys for Farnells and nursery designs for Paragon.

War and families

As with many people my family has been sadly touched by war with consequences that have stretched down through the generations. My research journey into the First World War began because of my Great Grandfather, Harry Blackman (Figure 1). I had always been fascinated by family tales of him being lost, killed in action, during the First World War, and because of this my Grandmother, May Roberts, nee Blackman (Figure 7) had only ever met him once, whilst her sister, Alice, never did meet her father. My father had always been very vague about the details and even as a child I had always felt it must have been a sensitive subject for my Grandmother so I was always hesitant about bringing up the topic – hence the snippets of information.

Figure 1: Harry Blackman, front row far right. Date unknown, presumably taken prior to enlisting. The suits worn by all the men appear to have the same seamed cuffs and buttons and they all have the same buttonholed small flower with two leaves. Harry, out of the four wearing straw boaters, wears his at a jaunty angle and displays an impressive pocket watch in his waistcoat.

Years later I endeavoured to find out what I could about Private Harry Blackman and my father’s side of the family. In 2009 I found his name commemorated on the Menin Gate (Figure 2) as he had been killed in action on the 31st July 1917 at the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passendale. As so many before us, my father and I went on a pilgrimage to Ypres to see Harry’s name carved, like so many other missing soldiers from the battles around this Belgium town, on this imposing memorial. It is not until you stand at the foot of such memorials that you begin to comprehend the scale of the loss of life. Luckily it seemed for our family, Harry’s name is within reach so we can touch his name carved in the stone, which strangely seemed to bring us closer to the man we had never known (Figure 3). Sadly this experience was replicated throughout many families across the globe and continues to this day.

Figure 2: The Menin Gate, November 2009. Author’s own photograph. This memorial, designed by Sire Reginald Blomfield, commemorates about 55,000 names from the battles of Ypres with no known graves.
Figure 3: Panel 53 with Harry Blackman’s name within reach.

Harry Blackman was born 22nd June 1889 in Ancoats, Manchester, to parents Thomas and Alice Blackman. Thomas was a packing case maker and journeyman and was born in Bermondsey, London in 1854. On the 1881 census he as a bassinette maker and journeyman carpenter. As a journeyman he presumably travelled up from London to obtain work, finally settling in Manchester, where Harry followed him into the packing case making ‘profession’ when he was old enough. On the 4th May 1913 Harry married my Great Grandmother, Dorothy May Sanders (Figure 4). They both resided in Middleton, Lancashire and were 23 and 18, respectively. A mere five months later on the 27th October 1913 my grandmother, May Blackman, was born! Harry joined the 19th Manchester Regiment in 1915, (Figure 5) most probably with ‘pals’ from the local area and returned home only once before leaving for the Front, which is when Alice, my Great Aunt was conceived. Alice was born on 17th June 1917 and one hopes that Harry heard about his second daughter’s birth before his death. Private Harry Blackman, no. 48680, was killed in action on the 31st July 1917 at Pilkem Ridge on the outskirts of Ypres. His body was never found, although he had apparently been shot by a sniper. The truly awful reality of the battle meant that his body may have been blown up in the shelling, or just as horrific, run over by a tank. The notification of his death (Figure 6) reached the records office in Preston on the 25th August 1917, thus the family, like thousands of others, would not have been aware of his fate for almost a month. My Great Grandmother never remarried and died in 1956, aged 62.

Figure 4: Dorothy Sanders, my Great Grandmother, again date unknown. However, judging by the large bow tied in the back of her hair, this picture would have been taken before she was married, as was the fashion of this time. She wears a high necked lace blouse with a locket necklace and a tulip which is resting on a jewelled brooch.
Figure 5: Harry Blackman, first on the left, pictured with two of his fellow soldiers, possibly from the original photograph (Figure 1). He seems relatively unscathed whilst his friends hold walking sticks and the soldier on the far right has a bandaged head and right eye.
Figure 6: Official notification of Harry’s fate, killed in action 31st July, 1917.

My Grandmother, May, (Figure 7) met my Grandfather, Walter, (Figure 8) when Walter was a bricklayer. As their courtship deepened he reconsidered his profession. During this period if you joined the police force one of the perks of the job was that it came with a house. This was a consideration for my grandfather when he proposed to my Grandmother. As a result of this decision, when war was declared in 1939 my Grandfather would not be called up as being a policeman he held an essential position – something I am sure my Grandmother was relived about because of her own father’s fate. My father was born in early 1939 and had 3 younger siblings.

Figure 7: May Blackman wearing an abstract patterned blouse with bow at the left hand side of the neckline. Date unknown.
Figure 8: Walter Roberts, my Grandfather. Date unknown.

In 1939 my Great Aunt Alice is registered as being a tripe dresser in Salford and living with her mother. At some point between 1939 and 1944 she left Manchester and travelled down to Cornwall to work as part of the national women’s Land Army. There she met and married the son of the farmer she worked for, according to family legend, in July 1944. Her husband William A. C. Stephens was born on 11 January 1920, two 1/2 years younger than Alice and in 1939 was registered as a farm labourer. In 1939 he lived in Helston, Cornwall, with his father, William J Stephens, mother, Annie J Stephens, brother Terrance B Stephens (16), and sister Mabel A Stephens (18). On the 1939 register the Stephens family resided at number 20 Nettles Hill, a tiny terraced cottage. In later life my grandmother often rode down to Cornwall on her motorbike to visit her sister but I never met my Great Aunt Alice. The photograph shows Alice and William (Figure 9) on their wedding day. She wears a tailored pin stripe suit and blouse, a light coloured hat and holds a pair of gloves in her left hand. Alice is also wearing highly polished laced shoes. William’s suit seems not to fit properly or is slightly crumpled with what appears to be something heavy in both pockets.

Figure 9: Alice and William Stephens pictured on their wedding day July 1944.

One can see the striking family resemblance between the two sisters. I have often wondered if their choice of husband, besides the obvious attraction, was perhaps guided by a subliminal need for security as neither of their husbands were called up to serve in the Second World War because of their professions. Their father had perhaps looked for the adventure associated with romantic notions of being a soldier encapsulated in Lord Kitchener’s earnest ‘Your Country Needs You’ campaign of the First World War. It does not seem foolish to suggest that Alice too, inherited her father’s sense of adventure and desire to escape the industrial monotony of factory work when swapping her tripe dressing job for the fields of Cornwall.

For further information on Land Girls see Amy de la Haye’s book Cinderella’s of the Soil or for specific details about the Land Army in Cornwall see

Wounds of Honour? The Dangers of First World War Munition Work.

The chapter titled ‘Wounds’ begins with the words ‘[I]t is seldom that we have a serious accident’.[1] Written by the upper-middle class supervisor Monica Cosens, her memoire recalls her time at the Woolwich Arsenal. The hyperbolic language of this book jars with the picture of two wounded Munitionettes where this blog begins.

I first saw this image in the 1918 book by Mabel Daggert on a library shelf at the Imperial War Museum but have since purchased a page taken from the Manchester Guardian because at its centre was this picture.[2] Research for this Blog resulted in the discovery of an article featuring the same photograph in the Daily Record, 1917 (Figure 1). The photograph in question, features two munition workers who had sustained injuries during shifts in a munition factory. Many women lost their lives in explosions but, there were innumerable incidents of the loss of limbs, fingers, blindness or the removal of metal filings from flesh wounds or even eyeballs. The two women pictured were part of the ‘army of women’, as Mrs Alec-Tweddie called women war workers, and as such were not unusual.[3] However, what is unusual is the fact that their injuries sustained through war work had been documented and publicised. Stories were framed in terms of plucky heroism and the two women pictured, had been honoured with an O.B.E. for dedication to their war work. The caption to the photograph of Annie and Lily reads: ‘Two munition workers who were awarded the Medal of the Order of the British Empire for “bravery and devotion to duty,” in the course of which one had her left hand blown off, and the other lost two fingers.’[4]

Figure 1: Miss Annie Rose and Miss Lily Smith, The Daily Record 27th August 1917

This led me to spend time searching through the British Newspaper Archive looking for reports on accidents at munition factories hoping to find names of women who had lost their lives or been injured. The frequency of incidents one suspects was extremely high, one reason being because, as we can see from the pamphlet Notes on the Employment of Women on Munitions of War, they carried out this dangerous work with very little protective clothing.[5] Figure 2 is a photograph from this pamphlet published, by the Ministry of Munitions, showing a Munitionette operating a lathe. She bends extremely close to the machine wearing no protective eyewear despite the swarf (metal fillings), which demonstrate how easily accidents could happen. The secrecy surrounding the locations and work of munition factories was certainly a factor in the lack of coverage and when explosions, accidents causing disfiguration, or deaths were acknowledged the details were superficial or the seriousness of life changing injuries were downplayed.

Figure 2: Notes on the Employment of Women on Munitions of War. p.43

There were minor accidents and disfiguring illnesses caused by the highly volatile chemicals used, most notably T.N.T. Documents in the National archives which document female supervisors’ reports from 1919 make for grim reading. At the very beginning of the munition production drive when women began to be employed in this industry, welfare provisions were non-existent or at best extremely basic. There were many minor accidents and as the Mile End supervisor recalled in her Welfare Report of 1919:

“I was astonished to find that in those germ-laden surroundings the Doctor performed minor operations, such as cutting off fingers and toes.”

Mile End Supervisor’s Report, May 1919 Ministry of Munitions Archives, National Archives, London. Document Reference: MUN/5/92/346

Annie Slade, who worked at the National Filling Factory No.14 in Rotherwas Herefordshire, recalled women losing their fingers during night air raids as the lights suddenly went out but the machines continued.[6] The Workers’ Dreadnought featured a front-page article on the “Dangers of Munition Work” which described ‘the hideous dangers to which women and girl munition workers are subjected.’[7]  The article exposes the exploitative working practices of the Vickers munition factory in Dartford using the experience of an ex-employee as their source. The woman told not only of the hard work but also the dangers:

Women and girls, some not more than 14 years of age, are carrying cleaning and painting cartridges weighing up to 20 lbs and lifting and arranging weighty boxes and trays of cartridges. They are performing operations which used to be thought heavy for strong men, and at one time they laboured from six a.m. to eight p.m. …… Explosions are of frequent occurrence. Young girls, ignorant of the enormous risks they are running, are employed on piece-work, incited by this method of payment they hurry with their work, though every hasty movement increases the risk.

“Dangers of Munition Workers” The Workers’ Dreadnought, 29th September 1917, Vol. IV. – No. 27 p.1

The article goes on to argue that safety was being sacrificed for “the defence of Vickers’ pocket” and that it was forbidden to mention accidents. The informant spoke of oiled rags being stuffed into the mouths of injured workers to stifle their cries.

Due to the secret nature of the work or the location of the factories many of the incidents of accidental injury were unreported with the exception of larger explosions. Several reported explosions included Silvertown, London, where 73 people were killed, and 300 people were injured on the 19th January 1917 at the Brunner, Mond & Co chemical factory.[8] At Chilwell, Nottingham, on 1st July 1918, 134 people were killed. A total of three separate explosions at the factory at Barnbow, Leeds firstly on the 5th December 1916 causing the death of 35 women, secondly the 21st March 1917 in which two women died and, finally, on the 31st March 1918 in which three men died.[9] There is no doubt from the reports that safety was ignored for the sake of expedited production. The Health of Munition Workers Committee was formed in 1915 by the Ministry of Munitions to investigate the effects of chemicals and working hours on the female workers. As a result of their findings the length of shifts were reduced as productivity was found to suffer when the workers became tired. Milk was distributed to those women working with T.N.T. as it was believed to counteract the side effects. There do seem to have been genuine efforts by the middle-class supervisors to take care of the health and well-being of the female munition workers.

As Angela Woollacott notes by 1916 a report published in the Lancet revealed the dangers of exposure to T.N.T as studied by Doctors Agnes Livingstone-Learmouth and Barbara Martin Cunningham who had spent five months studying munitions workers.[10] Certain measures were recommended including better ventilation in the factories, the frequent washing of uniforms and personal cleanliness. This developed into a regime of the women workers changing into gowns and washing (Figure 3) before eating and the distribution of milk or cocoa before a shift, believing that this would somehow neutralise the effects of the chemicals.  Lilian Barker, The Lady Superintendent for the Woolwich Arsenal wrote in her Welfare Report: ‘the workers on powder were given milk or cocoa free of charge’ [11] but as Miss Parry noted in her report dated 15th July,1919, ‘it did not follow that because milk was provided it was necessarily drunk.’[12] The serious reactions to the chemicals that female munition workers were exposed to included: jaundice, nasal and throat problems, headaches, chest pains, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhoea, skin rashes, fainting, swollen hands and feet, drowsiness, depression, blurred vision, changes in menstruation, irritability and loss of appetite.[13]

Figure 3: Screenshot taken from A Day in the Life of a Munition Worker showing the women having changed into white.

In circular no. 36 dated 26th November, 1915 a Dr. Legge recommends the use of alkaline cream to neutralise the effects of exposure to T.N.T and create a barrier on the skin [14] something advertisers were also quick to capitalise on as shown in the advertisement for’ Icilma’ cream, which included the veiled reference to the skin discolouration caused by working with T.N.T. (Figure 4). Newspaper reports also tell of the habit the women had for wearing face powder, or even using the T.N.T. powder to form a barrier against the chemicals – something Queen Mary remarked upon on one of her Royal visits to a munition factory, when it was revealed the women were using powder as a protective barrier against the harmful effects of T.N.T.:

‘The Queen and Princesses remarked upon the practice of girls who handle T.N.T. powdering their faces profusely…the girls regard powdering as an additional safeguard. All looked healthy.’

The Globe, 18 December 1917, p.4
Figure 4: Aberdeen Evening Express 22nd July 1918

The middle and upper classes saw excessive make-up as a marker of the lower classes. But the working-class women who worked in the munition factories may well have felt the need to use extra makeup in order to hide the resulting skin discolouration caused by contact with T.N.T. The upper-class Mrs Alec-Tweedie wrote disparagingly of the ‘tawdry finery’ of ‘the usual working-class girl’ remarking that ‘the factory hand has been known to pull out her mirror, puff-box and rouge in the middle of a twelve hours’ night shift…’[15] An article in the Daily Mirror actually featured the news:

A “run” was also made by munition girls on face creams, powders and manicure sets for faces and hands “honourably worn” in munition factories. Many of the “Canary girls,” The Daily Mirror learned, were asking for creams to remove some of their “tan”.

“Wise girls prepare for holidays.” The Daily Mirror, 18th May 1918. p.2

The use of the word tan both identifies the women as working class, due to a skin colour associated with working outside, but it also diminishes the harmful side effects of munitions work. As does the postcard by Fred Spurgin ‘Don’t go putting the powder where it is not wanted!’ (Figure 5) which plays on the suggested dual uses of powder. Depicting the female munition worker’s concern with her appearance, as well as hinting in a playful manner of the dangers of a slapdash approach to working with the explosive chemicals. The female munition worker is portrayed in Spurgin’s artistic style with a cinched-in waist, curls protruding from under her cap, wearing stockings and high heels, and heavily made-up.

Figure 5: Author’s Own Collection. Artist Fred Spurgin.

This theme also features on the postcard ‘The Munition Girl’s Toilet’ (Figure 6), which shows a childlike munition worker standing on a newspaper powdering her face using the shiny surface of the shell as a mirror.

Figure 6: Author’s own collection. Artist T Gilson.

The Yarmouth Independent reported in 1916 a meeting that occurred, part of a recruitment drive to encourage women to work in munitions. Warning that working with certain powders may change women’s complexion for a few days a Miss Winifred Gardiner, who ‘pleasantly described work in munition factory’ claimed that the women would not even mind their faces turning yellow when they thought about what their men were suffering at the Front.[16]

Instances were reported when a happy or positive outcome could be disseminated for morale, such as Agnes Mary Peters, a munition worker at the Woolwich Arsenal, who was blinded only a week after entering the Daily Mirror’s Beauty Contest but still received £10 prize money from the newspaper. (Figure 7) She was awarded the Order of the British Empire: “[F]or great courage and high example in continuing to do work of an exceptionally dangerous nature which finally resulted in an accident, by which she was totally blinded and otherwise injured.”[17] Later, in 1920, she married a soldier she had met at St Dunstan’s Home for the Blind in Saltdean, near Brighton (Figure 8).

Figure 7: Photograph taken by the Author. Domestic Front, Liddle Collection, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds.
Figure 8: Agnes Mary (Cissie) Peters and her husband Jack who she met at St Dunstan’s Home for the Blind, Saltdean near Brighton.

Other women who were awarded O.B.E.s included Netta (Elspeth) Daniel, Isabella Dixon, Maude Bruce (Figure 9), Jenny Algar, Gladys Herrington and L.M. Ede, an examiner. Another young girl, Mabel Lethbridge, from an upper-class family wrote about her experiences in a book Fortune Grass published after the war in 1934. She described the explosion at the Hayes filling factory in which she lost a leg, but her story was reported at the time using positive hyperbolic language. The announcement of her O.B.E praised her ‘courage and high example shown on the occasion of an accident in a filling factory, causing loss of one leg and severe injuries to the other.'[18]

Figure 9 Miss Maud Bruce who worked at Gretna, Dumfries, Daily Record, 27th August 1917

Feminine characteristics of selfless care for others before oneself is demonstrated in the case of Margaret Winifred Burdett-Coutts who, after losing a finger and badly lacerating her hand in a circular saw “went quietly. away to have it treated in order not to unnerve her fellow workers.” She apparently felt that:

“the price I’ve paid for doing my duty is a light one compared with the wounds and sufferings of the brave lads out in the trenches. I think it is up to us women ‘to do our bit’ as far as we can”

Herfordshire Express, 14th January 1918, N.P.

Included in the archive of the IWM are photographs that form a memorialisation of female munition workers and details of the cause of death. The relations of one worker Mrs Margaret Armer Bradshaw donated two photographs, one of her in her munition workwear (Figure 10) and the other of her with her children and husband (Figure 11). She was killed by an explosion at the Liverpool filling factory at Aintree on 23rd July 1918.

Figure 10: MRS MARGARET ARMER BRADSHAW (WWC M55) Mrs Margaret Armer Bradshaw, Munitions work. Killed by the explosion of a shell on duty 23 July 1918. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
Figure 11: MRS MARGARET ARMER BRADSHAW (WWC M55-1) Mrs Margaret Armer Bradshaw, Munitions work. Killed by the explosion of a shell on duty 23 July 1918. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

The fact that they included both photographs gave her memory some humanity and pathos as she was remembered for her contribution to the war effort but also as a mother and wife. The Scotsman reported in June 1917 that accidents with explosives had increased from 485 in 1915 to 641 in 1917 but how accurate this figure was is questionable. It seems that only when the explosions were too conspicuous, because of the scale and devastation of the damage or loss of life, that they were reported. Injuries that were sustained were viewed in comparison with those suffered by serving men at the Front. Women were always viewed as serving or conforming to expected notions of duty but, their injuries and, or the visible manifestation of their work would have been apparent to the public in very visible ways during the war. However, the decommissioning of weaponry after the war was also fraught with danger. Reports of the inquest of those who perished in the 1924 explosion at the Slade Green factory, Erith, Kent, where cartridges were being dismantled, listed 12 women who died.[19] As late as 1924 when the Erith accident occurred, munition work was still hazardous but the longer reaching effects of working with the toxic chemicals had and would continue to take their toll on women’s bodies leaving them unable to conceive and suffering from the side effects of the toxic chemicals for the rest of their lives.


1 Cosens, Monica, Lloyd George’s Munitions Girls. London, Hutchinson & Co.1916. Print. p.69

2 Daggert, Mabel, Women Wanted: The Story Written in Blood Red Letters on the Horizon of the Great World War. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1918

3 Mrs. Alec-Tweedie, Women and Soldiers. New York: John Lane Company, 1918. Print.

4 The “Manchester Guardian” p.299. N.D.

5 Notes on the Employment of Women on Munitions of War. London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office. 1916

6 Laws, Bill (editor), In The Munitions: Women at War in Herefordshire. Herefordshire: Logaston Press, 2003. Print. p.11.

7 “Dangers of Munition Workers” The Workers’ Dreadnought, 29th September 1917, Vol. IV. – No. 27 p.1

8 Accessed January 2015. Hartlepool Northern Daily, 23 January 1917 p.2

9 Accessed 25.5.14. Sheffield Daily Telegraph 7th December 1916 p.6

10 Woollacott, Angela, On Her Their Lives Depend, Munitions Workers in the Great War. California: University of California Press, 1994, p. 81

11 Barker, Lilian, Welfare Report, Woolwich Arsenal, May 1919, Ministry of Munitions, National Archives, London, Document Reference: MUN/5/92/346/33.

12 Parry, Miss D, Welfare Report, Ministry of Munitions, National Archives, London, Document Reference: MUN/5/92

13 Richardson, Jennifer, Female Munition Workers Dress in Britain 1914-1918: A Visual and Material Culture Analysis. PhD University of Brighton, 2019. p.136

14 Circular no 36, 26th November 1915, Ministry of Munitions Archives, National Archives, London, Document Reference: MUN/5/147.

15 Mrs Alec-Tweedie (1918) p.55

16 Yarmouth Independent – Saturday 18 November 1916 p.6

17 Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 9th January 1918 p.6

18 Sheffield Independent – Friday 02 November 1934 p.6

19 Sheffield Daily Telegraph 21st February 1924 p.5


Mrs. Alec-Tweedie, Women and Soldiers. New York: John Lane Company, 1918. Print.

Cosens, Monica, Lloyd George’s Munitions Girls. London, Hutchinson & Co. 1916. Print.

Daggert, Mabel, Women Wanted:The Story Written in Blood Red Letters on the Horizon of the Great World War. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1918. Print.

Laws, Bill (editor), In The Munitions: Women at War in Herefordshire. Herefordshire: Logaston Press, 2003. Print.

Richardson, Jennifer, Female Munition Workers Dress in Britain 1914-1918: A Visual and Material Culture Analysis. PhD University of Brighton, 2019. Print.

Woollacott, Angela, On Her Their Lives Depend, Munitions Workers in the Great War. California: University of California Press, 1994. Print.

Munitionettes and Magic Lantern Slides

Figure 1: Punch 27th March 1918, p.208

I have started to add glass lantern slides to my collection because of the clarity of the photograph, which has been transferred onto the glass slide. Initially the materiality of the object was not my focus but once my first slides were delivered I questioned why such objects existed, what were they used for, how were the images on the slides disseminated, engaged with, what was the original market or even the manufacturing process. I now have 9 in my collection all relating to First World War female munition workers. This Blog will discuss my findings as to the scenes depicted on the slides and the reasons for their existence. I had always assumed that Magic Lanterns were a Victorian phenomenon, something that historian Joss Marsh has documented, arguing that although ‘its popularity peaked in Britain around 1805…. it died out as a headlining popular entertainment in the 1830s…’ but it was still a form of entertainment into the 1920s coinciding with the growth of cinema.[1] With this in mind these glass slides are not unusual.

Figure 2: An example of a British Magic Lantern date unknown.

The History of Magic Lanterns

According to the Magic Lantern Society a magic lantern was ‘part of a marvellous world of optical projection’.[2] The Society maintains that the origins of projecting images goes back hundreds of thousands of years but for the purposes of this blog I will be concerned with the First World War and the specific slides in my collection. The Magic Lantern Society has a brief history of the magic lantern claiming that the trade was vibrant in the late 1870s and 1880s. According to the website in this period there were over 30 companies producing lanterns and slides in London alone. These companies included Carpenter & Westley, York & Son, Newton & Co. and James Bamforth. While the cinema may have overtaken the magic lantern for public entertainment, according to the society, lantern shows continued to disseminate education and religious instruction. ‘From the 1900s onwards many of the smaller family lantern or slide businesses disappeared or were amalgamated with larger firms, but there were still lantern and slide suppliers trading until after the Second World War.’[3] Searching through Punch I came across an ‘advertisement’ offering the services of a magic lantern, slides and an operator in 1920.

Figure 3 Punch 28th January 1920 p.7

According to the informative 1898 book, The Magic Lantern written by J. A. Manton, the President of the Sheffield Lantern Society: ‘The optical lantern is simply a modified form of microscope whose function is to project on to a suitable surface an enlarged image…the size of the picture being limited only by the size of the room.’[4] This fascinating book details the mechanics of the magic lantern, the recommended ways of illumination and includes detailed drawings. A magic lantern contained a luminant (light), 2 optical lenses to magnify the image and a sliding cradle to hold the glass slide. The diagram (Figure 4) from the book displays the principle of the projection with the light (L) shining through 2 convex lenses (C), the refracted light is then transmitted through the picture, to come together at F where the image is shown on the screen.

Figure 4: Manton, J.A, The Magic Lantern. London: Iliffe, Sons & Sturmey Ltd. 1898, p.10

Manton explained two ways to create photographic slides for the keen enthusiast, which were either by reduction or contact. Having read Manton’s description and closely examined my slides I am able to deduce that they were produced by the ‘Reduction’ technique. Manton describes this process as follows:

the negative is again photographed on a reduced scale, and the resulting picture, when washed and dried, is masked and framed……by a piece of opaque paper, and then protected from injury by a cover-glass of exactly the same dimensions.[5]

Object Analysis

Women’s work was discussed nationally in many forms such as newspaper articles, films, cartoons and on postcards, to name a few formats. Thus, the dissemination of the contribution of women to the war effort in the form of Magic Lantern talks was not unusual. However, what struck me is the contradiction between this ‘old-fashioned’ medium and the modernity of First World War warfare and the appearance of women in their ‘modern’ workwear that was depicted on the slides.

The N.W.S.C

Interestingly, each of these slides have a hand-written descriptive sentence in white ink explaining the scene depicted and at the top (again in white ink) is the sentence ‘NWSC Women’s Work). I was intrigued by these initials and originally expected them to be representative of a women’s political organisation, perhaps with roots in the Suffrage movement. But I could not find any evidence for this. In the end I Googled these initials and found that they represented the ‘National War Savings Committee’. At first, I was sceptical about this result. I decided to research the British Library’s online Newspaper Archive to see if there were any advertisements for magic lantern talks to see if this approach would help in determining the meaning of the initialism N.W.S.C. Some of the photographs shown on the slides I recognised from the collection held in the archives of the IWM. These were taken by the Horace Nicholls, who was the official Government photographer tasked with touring the country recording the work being carried out for the war. I was intrigued as to how these ‘official’ photographs had found their way onto these commercial items, convinced as I was that the initials N.W.S.C was some form of national women’s organisation. The search of the newspaper archive resulted in finding a notice in the Burnley News Saturday 19th October 1918 which announced the following:

Figure 5: Burnley News Saturday 19th October 1918

Having seen this notice the perplexing question behind the meaning of these initials and the purpose of these slides was clear. The Government had allowed the photographs taken by Horace Nicholls to be used to facilitate raising funds for the war effort. How much money was raised by the sale of these slides is something that perhaps may never be known.

The Slides

The slides are 3mm thick glass, measuring 8.1cm square and weigh 49 grams each. The edges are protected with black papery tape. The image has a black tissue like paper border glued onto one side of the slide which is then protected by another glass slide. One corner of each slide has a label stuck diagonally across the slide that it is slightly hidden by the border tape. By carefully peeling back some of the tape (Figure 6) the writing on the label is revealed as ‘Maker Newton & Co 37, King St Covent Garden London’ (one of the main manufacturers mentioned by the Magic Lantern Society). On each on the slides there is also a circular numbered sticker indicating that there was an order to the slides, or that they were part of a series. I now own numbers 43, 44, 45, 47, 49, 52, 53, 54 and 57.

Figure 6: Author’s own glass slide showing the labels and notations

Slide 43 (Figure 7) was taken inside a factory. The notation reads ‘making fuses’. In the foreground a long workbench is divided into 2 by a long piece of wood across the length of the workbench. The end of the workbench has 2 metal numbers nailed to it – a number 9 and 10. The workbench has two different processes being carried out by 10 women seated each side. The group of women sat on the left appear to be packing the fuses into boxes. On the other side of the workbench are operating some sort of drilling machines. Once they have filled a box of the fuses, they are set in the middle of the table for the women on the other side to continue with the process. Looking closely at the picture this division of workstations and procedures is repeated throughout the factory as can be seen by the pulleys and straps that stretch up to the ceiling and which drive the motors for the machinery.

Figure 7: Slide 43 – Author’s own Magic Lantern Slide

Slide 44 (Figure 8) features two women working on a Condenser Tube, according to the description. The inside of the factory shows just how little consideration was given to health and safety as we know it today. The women are sat on make-shift seating comprising of two piles of stones, or perhaps wood, with two planks of wood stretching from one pile to the other. The female munition workers sit on the planks of wood and are possibly screwing or tightening nuts on the tube unit. Both women wear mob caps and blouses underneath their overalls. From the angle of the photograph, we cannot see whether these women are wearing trousers or long gowned overalls over everyday clothing.

Figure 8: Slide 44 – Author’s own Magic Lantern Slide

Slide 45 (Figure 9) is titled milling machine is one example of where these images were used in other forms. This slide shows a female munition worker using a milling machine. She wears dark coloured overalls and a striped mob cap. She appears to be wearing a broach at the neckline of her overall. The most striking element of this photograph is the lack of personal protection the woman wears considering her work exposes her to sharp pieces of metal. The IWM Sound Archives hold oral testimonies of the injuries sustained by the workers, including metal filings becoming embedded in workers’ eyes, or injuries to hands etc.[6] Figure 10 shows how this same image was disseminated across other media and publications.

Figure 9: Slide 45 – Author’s own Magic Lantern Slide
Figure 10: The Graphic, 19th February 1916 p.253 Author’s own collection

Slide 47 (Figure 11) features two women ‘testing mines’, as described on the slide. One of the women is obscured by the large spherical mine so we are unable to see any of her clothing. The woman in the forefront is tightening 1 of 4 nuts on the side of the mine with a spanner. (Incidentally on a visit to the archives held at Loughborough University, I was able to examine a spanner used by trainee munition workers at the technical school and was surprised by the weight of this heavy metal tool.) The way in which this woman holds the spanner conveys the weight of the instrument but also the strength in her arms, wrists and hands. Her workwear appears to comprise of a tunic under which she is perhaps wearing trousers, but as the condition of the photograph has deteriorated in the corners it is hard to ascertain whether she is wearing boots or puttees, a form of bandage used to prevent any excess fabric catching in machinery. The mine itself appears to be resting on rails, held in place by planks of wood and a gauge at protruding from the top displays the pressure. Again, the scene demonstrates through the women’s clothing and the working environment, the industrial and dirty nature of the work.

Figure 11: Slide 47 – Author’s own Magic Lantern Slide

Slide 49 (Figure 12) ‘Ship Building’ is the clearest of all the slides I own. It was taken in a dockyard in front of a partially built warship surrounded in scaffolding. The forefront of the picture is filled with what I thought to be lines of piled planks of wood, which are being picked up and moved by 4 women. The same image was printed in the Illustrated London News, 10th June 1916, (Figure 13) captioned as ‘handling long steel bars’. Three of the women furthest away from the camera wear dark mob cabs, trousers and tunics, under which light coloured blouses can be seen. To the left of these women another lady, on her own, carrying the majority of the weight of the steel bar. She wears a very light outfit, that may have been off white or pale blue in colour, which would have signified her superior position (possibly a supervisor). Again, she wears a mob cap, trousers and tunic and blouse underneath. The background, not surprisingly for an industrial port, is filled with other industrial buildings. There appears to be a small crowd of either of workers or visiting dignitaries, some women visible in the crowd, wear large-brimmed hats, as was the fashion for more mature, upper-class women. During the war factories received visitors, whether army officials, other factory managers, politicians and royalty and these visits were recorded for a variety of reasons; company records, the country’s morale and propaganda. This was the third slide I purchased because I recognised the image as being one taken by Horace Nicholls and in the collection of the Imperial War Museum. Originally this slice had confused me slightly, as I could not understand how this image being part of the Government’s official record of the war, had transformed into a commercial object.

Figure 12: Slide 49 – Author’s own Magic Lantern Slide
Figure 13: Illustrated London News, 10th June 1916, p.8

Slide 52 (Figure 14) ‘Police Corps. On duty in Munition Works’ shows munition workers lined up alongside a single gauge railway track that snakes its way into the distance. The women are wearing heavy, thick tunics and trousers that look extremely similar to those worn at the Gretna factory. A policewoman is inspecting and tidying one of the girl’s outfit and I suspect the reason the women are on parade is that the King and Queen were visiting the factory. Figure 15 is taken from a book I acquired on a visit to the Devil’s Porridge Archives, Gretna. It shows the King touring the extensive factory complex, which stretched over 9 miles from Dornock, Scotland to Mossband, England.

Figure 14: Slide 52 – Author’s own Magic Lantern Slide
Figure 15: ‘The Royal Party greeted by Munitions Girls at Gaillard Towers, Dornock’. Routledge, Gordon. L. Miracles and Munitions. Longtown, Cumbria: Arthuret, 2003, p.41

Slide 53 (Figure 16) is labelled ‘Railway Carriage Cleaners’. Twenty-four women either standing on the track outside a railway carriage, on ladders or inside in the process of cleaning the windows or the inside compartment. All of the women are wearing tunics, trousers and mob caps. The colour seems to be uniform, but a couple of women do appear to be wearing a darker shade of workwear and are perhaps the supervisors.

Figure 16: Slide 53 – Author’s own Magic Lantern Slide

Slide 54 (Figure 17) is this time labelled as ‘N.W.S.C Navy’ and ‘munition works’. In the forefront a female munition worker sits with her back to the camera on a vehicle, seemingly on a track that moves the heavier shells and munitions around the factory. On her left women are tightening the tops of the shells, which one assumes will be then lifted onto the empty racks for transportation. A large notice is attached to a pillar that reads Smoking is strictly prohibited in the shell filling factory. If any worker was found to be smoking, they faced instant dismissal. The women wear all-in-one boiler suits which we can see from the seated worker are fastened down the back with buttons. The woman driver also wears a blouse out, over her workwear, perhaps to look ‘nice’ for the photograph, or this may have been how the women liked to feminise their workwear.

Figure 17: Slide 54 – Author’s own Magic Lantern Slide

Slice 57 (Figure 18) the final slide in the collection, thus far, has the actual location of the factory, unlike the others, probably because it depicts the canteen and not any of the ammunition making processes. The picture is of a large group of women workers in the Woolwich Canteen. All the women pictured are on a break during their shifts and are wearing their overalls and mobcaps. The garments show the traces of their dirty, greasy work and the variation in the colours, signifying the supervisory roles, can also be seen. Many of the women’s overalls have different coloured sleeves to the body of the overall or ‘gown’ as it was referred to by A. K. Foxwell in her book Munition Lasses.[7]

Figure 18: Slide 57 – Author’s own Magic Lantern Slide

The main reason behind the purchases of these slides was for the clarity of the image, but it has shown me another nuanced way in which the work of munition workers was disseminated during the conflict. The convergence of these images of the modern means of production for a war that necessitated a modern approach to established methods of warfare, the unusual-dressed appearance of women to carry out roles in previously male only occupations and the old-fashioned method of projection is striking.

[1] Foxwell, A. K. Munitions Lasses, Six Months as Principal Overlooker in Danger Buildings. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1917. Print


[3] Ibid p.60

[4] Manton, J.A, The Magic Lantern. London: Iliffe, Sons & Sturmey Ltd. 1898, p.9



7] Marsh, Joss, “Dickensian ‘Dissolving Views’: The Magic Lantern, Visual Story-Telling, and the Victorian Technological Innovation”, Comparative Critical Studies: 6:3. pp 333-346. p. 334

Permit Book no 155148

When Permit Book No 155148 appeared on eBay for sale I knew immediately I had to add it to my collection. It is the most expensive single item in my collection of photographs and ephemera associated with female munition workers from the First World War. The regulations required the owner of this permit book to document their appearance, height and include a photograph. Photographic technology of this time was limited to black and white, which is frustrating to our modern eyes. As a dress historian I long to see the colour of the clothing worn so descriptions are extremely important. The fact that we can imagine Emily’s complexion from the description gives her picture a little more vitality and, strangely, humanity. Identifying the person, or people, in the photographs from the First World War has become increasingly more important to me; perhaps as a way to memorialise these long forgotten individuals.

The front cover of this Permit Book (Figure 1) besides detailing the issue number also provides instructions if the document was lost. The cover is also stamped with the King’s Coat of Arms and the phrase ‘Defence of the Realm’ to authenticate it as an official document. 

Figure 1: The Permit Book Cover of Permit book no 155148. Author’s own collection

Defence of the Realm Act 

The Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) was passed on the 8th August 1914, only 4 days after the declaration of war. The Act granted the Government the power to acquire land and to control the range of resources necessary for the administration and/or procurement of the war. Originally the wording of the Act was brief but, importantly, its brevity and vagueness allowed the Government to increase its scope as and when required.[1] DORA also introduced restricted opening hours for public houses, which still exist today, as Lloyd George, who initiated and triumphed a campaign to observe abstinence, exclaimed that the Empire had 3 enemies – ‘Germany, Austria and drink… the greatest of these three deadly foes is drink!’[2] This quote even appeared on temperance pledge cards such as the one in Figure 2.[3] Interestingly David Thomas was a young boy when he signed this card, he was 7 in 1911 and Lloyd George made this speech in 1915 (Figure 3). To justify the limited opening hours of public houses, drink had been blamed for the loss of factory production hours. Following the Shell Scandal of 1915, when the shortage of ammunition had been made public by Sir John French, the efficient manufacture of munitions was critical. The Ministry of Munitions was founded in May 1915 and the form munitions production took was reformed, so that by 1917 there were 150 times the amount of shells being produced, compared with the quantity of 1914.[4]

Figure 2: Pledge card signed by David Thomas. Author’s own collection.
Figure 3: 1911 Census record for David Thomas and family 3, Nicholl Street, Swansea. Courtesy of

One of the greatest concerns of the Government was the protection of the country’s security. There was thus, heightened secrecy surrounding the location of certain factories, the reporting of explosions and the developmental research of warfare. The existence of ‘Enemy Aliens’ was such that the movement and internment of foreign nationals, or their immediate descendants, was strictly controlled under DORA. Anti-German fervour led to the boycotting and, in circumstances, the destruction of German businesses, many of whom anglicised their names as a result. 

Permit Books

The most likely reason for the use of these permit books was to explain the presence of citizens in certain locations. For example, Figure 4 shows an example held in the Imperial War Museum belonging to a Miss Dorothy Florence Sweet of 15 Woodside Park Road, North Finchley, was granted permission to sketch and paint for business in the East Sussex area.[5] Tales of espionage abounded during this period so to see someone sketching may have aroused suspicions, especially if Dorothy Florence was sketching near any military camps located in and around East Sussex towns such as Lewes or Shoreham, for example. Security surrounding military areas was of paramount concern so the movement of people was strictly controlled in a combination of bureaucracy, legislation, transportation and these books were early examples of identity cards.

Figure 4: Dorothy Florence Sweet permit identification page. 

Permit Book No 155148

My permit book was issued at Dartford on the 19th May 1917. (Figure 5) It was issued to a Miss Emily Adelaide Hill, who gave her address as 44, Priory Road, Dartford, Kent. The ‘Personal Description’ notes her height as being 5 foot 4 inches with a medium build. She has been described as having fair hair and blue eyes with no distinguishing marks. The black and white photograph shows her looking slightly away from the camera lens displaying no facial expression. She has long hair, which is presumably pinned behind her head into a bun and has a pretty, simple, beaded hair grip on the right side of her head. She is 28 at this point and, although unmarried, it was the fashionable at that time for a young women of her age to wear their hair in this style, rather than loose, or in a long plait. She wears a plain white but smart shirt with a brooch at the top of the neckline.

Page 2 (Figure 6) comprises of a ‘Declaration of Identity’ in which Emily has detailed her Christian names, nationality, date of birth (27th October 1889), place of birth (Plumstead, Kent) and importantly for me – her occupation as a munition worker. Page 3 gives her father’s details as William Hill and documents both her parents as being ‘English’. Interestingly, page 4 reveals that she has no ‘male relatives (fatherhusbanddaughter’s husbandsons or brothers only) in arms for or against His Majesty and Allies during the present war’. This is perhaps surprising as there is a presumption of later generations, because of the publicly accepted narrative of the First World War, that every family had a relative serving in some branch of the armed forces.

Figure 5: Page 1 of Permit book no 155148. Author’s own collection
Figure 6: Page 2 of Permit book no 155148. Author’s own Collection

Page 5 (Figure 7) had to be countersigned by two persons, who witness the applicant’s own signature in order to verify their identity (which is particularly significant in Emily’s post war story – I’ll explain why later). A Mr S. G. White of 41, Priory Road, Dartford, an Engine Driver by profession is the first signatory. The second witness is a Mrs Cutter of 40 Priory Road, who described her occupation as an Engine Fitter.

Figure 8: Page 5 of Permit book no 155148. Author’s own Collection

Figure 9 confirms that permission for Emily A. Hill had been granted and authorised on page 7 of the document, giving the permit number as C5059. She has been granted permission to visit the Isle of Sheppey between 22 May 1917 until 28 April 1918. The Isle of Sheppey contained military and naval bases as well as munition factories and was thus designated a military zone. It was due to this status as a military zone that the permit requirements were enforced. Permits would be checked at the railway station, which served as a barrier checking travellers’ identities before they could enter or leave the Isle of Sheppey. A strict curfew prevented civilians entering or leaving the island between 9 pm and 5 am. The railway was the only way in or out of the island as civilians were not allowed to travel by road. The rest of the book contains blank permits, which would have been completed if Emily Adelaide had had to move around the country through work, one assumes.

Figure 9: Page 7 of Permit book no 155148. Author’s own Collection

Emily Adelaide Hill

This little permit book contained only so much information and I wished to find out more about this Munitionette. So I searched for Emily Adelaide Hill on to see what I could find. An Emily Adelaide Hill, whose details match those in the Permit Book, appears on a Family Tree that has been created on the website.[6] Further searching resulted in finding Emily on the 1891 and 1911 censes. In 1891 Emily is listed as aged 1 living with her parents William, Emma and 1 month old sister Dorothea, who died a year later. Plumstead is in the Registration District of Woolwich and is geographically very close to Woolwich, where the Royal Arsenal is situated. Her father’s occupation was a ‘Hammerman’ or ‘Smith’ and may have worked at the Arsenal or in a dockyard. By the 1911 Census Emily is residing at 44, Lawson Villas, Priory Road, the address written in the Permit Book. (Figure 10).

Figure 10: 1911 census showing Emily Hill residing at Priory Road: courtesy of

The 1911 census notes her as the niece of the head of the household and her occupation is listed as a bookbinder. Her Uncle is a papermaker, perhaps she worked for him or he recommended her to an employer. Her male cousins, who reside at the same property are all involved in engineering, one at a Gun Factory. Dartford was largely an industrial area, which included many munitions and engineering manufacturing companies. As was common during this period, processions were a popular way of celebrating and promoting occupations, patriotism and as employment drive, as seen in Figure 11 of female munition workers parading through Dartford. Following the end of the war, Emily married a Henry Charles White on 14th February 1920 at the age of 30 at Holy Trinity Parish Church, High Street, Dartford. Her husband, a Henry Charles White, was the son of Samuel George White, who was the counter signatory on her Permit Book and lived a few doors away at 41 Priory Road. There do not appear any records showing Emily and Henry had children. This left me wondering whether in fact her work in the munition industry affected her ability to conceive as this was one of the many side effects of working for such prolonged periods of time with toxic chemicals. Some of the serious reactions to the chemicals included: jaundice, nasal and throat problems, headaches, chest pains, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhoea, skin rashes, fainting, swollen hands and feet, drowsiness, depression, blurred vision, changes in menstruation, irritability and loss of appetite.[7] Emily died age 76 in Dartford in 1966. Her husband, Henry, lived for another year dying on 23rd July 1967 aged 80. They had been married for 46 years both passing away in the same local hospital.

Figure 11: Women workers parade

[1] Hughes-Wilson, John, A History of the First World War in 100 Objects. London: Octopus Publishing Group, 2014. Print, p.42

[2] The Right Hon. Lloyd George, 15th March 1915 Speech made to the Shipbuilding Employers Federation,

[3] David Thomas was still a young boy when he signed this particular card. I found him on the 1911 Census aged 7. 

[4] Hughes-Wilson (2014) p.137

[5] Permit Book no. 343102 Miss Dorothy Florence Sweet Accessed 4th August 2020


[7] Richardson, Jenny, Female Munition Workers’ Workwear in Britain, 1914-1918: A Visual and Material Cultural Analysis. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Brighton, 2019.

Love from Dad

As a little girl I used to watch my Grandmother empty and clean the items in one of her display cabinets. While she took out each object she would tell me its history, who it belonged to (mostly family members) and how it came into her possession. I think looking back, it was this ritual that sparked my interest in Material Culture and, along with her ‘hoarding’ gene, has helped developed the sentimentality I have for the traces of lives lived, left on, or by existing objects. It is for this reason that I had to purchase the three postcards I’m going to share with you in this blog post. All three postcards date from the First World War and were posted from the Front by fathers serving in the army to their children, back in ‘Blighty’. The messages on the reverse are endearing and must have been very precious to the children, albeit the briefest forms of contact from their fathers. It saddens me to have found them separated from the recipients and I endeavoured to search for the fathers in the hope that they survived the war.

My Dear Sonny

The first of the examples that I purchased is addressed to a Master G Dobson, who was living at 21 Unity Grove, Harrogate, Yorkshire. ‘Dad’ has written ‘On Active Service’, which entitled those serving at the Front free postage for the duration of the war.[1] This postcard, like many others, although manufactured in Britain, as is notated on the reverse, has the caption translated in English and French on the front. This suggests that the postcard may well have been purchased across the Channel in France or Belgium. Anti-German sentiments are subtly conveyed by the phrase ‘British Manufacture Throughout’ printed on the reverse.

Author’s own postcard

The use of children to represent adults during this time was not usual, as I discuss in my PhD. [2] The fact that the father soldier has chosen this postcard may have been due to sentimental reasons -perhaps the illustration reminded him of his young son. The young boy wears an officer’s cap and his sorrowful eyes convey the emotional strain of absence. The message on the reverse is quite revealing and stark. Beginning with ‘My Dear Sonny’ the father tenderly hopes that his ‘little man’ and ‘mammy’ are well. He then writes ‘I am just going in nasty trenches for a few days. Ta-Ta. From your Dad.’ One hopes that this sentence did not upset Master G Dobson or Mammy, who may have had to read out the card to her son, not knowing by the time the card reached Unity Grove, if her husband had survived possibly going over the top. This loaded phrase acknowledges the father’s strain and it seemed strange for him to admit to such feelings to his son. It was this last sentence that stayed with me and I determined to discover whether or not Master G Dobson’s father survived. And so began my apprehensive search through the online archives of

Eventually I found a George Robert Dobson age 33, a private chauffeur living at 25 Wharfdale Place in Harrogate, see image below of the 1911 Census record. He lived there with his wife Maggie Dobson age 27 and 2 year old Geoffrey.


Further digging revealed that George Robert Dobson attested on the 6th August, 1914 into the Army Service Corps and the low numbers of his service number, 1195, clearly demonstrate just how eagerly he volunteered two days after war was declared. According to his service record, he had previously served in the Army Service Corps and, although the document notes that his attestation would last for one year, or as long as the war continued, he actually served for a total of 6 years until 1920. On the 1911 census his birthplace was listed as unknown but his service record details this as Driffield, Yorkshire. 

I was able to find the document, below, which details George Robert Dobson’s pre-war record in the Royal Army Corps, also describing his fresh complexion, grey eyes and dark brown hair. It appears that he served in France and Gallipoli being awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal and rose through the ranks from Private to Warrant Officer Class 2.

George Robert Dobson lived until 1967 in Wharfdale. His son Geoffrey, to whom the card was addressed, lived until he was 89 in 1998. Geoffrey’s wife Elsie, who was 2 years younger died in 1996. Geoffrey and Elsie had 2 children, although 1 passed away, their surviving son Brian Peter Dobson was born in 1939 and died in 2007. Brian was survived by his wife Doreen, nee O’Neill.

I am reassured that George returned home after the First World War and his family continued and survived. We do not know however, if he was affected in any way by his experiences during the War and tantalising questions remain as to how this emotive exchange between father and son was cut adrift.

Dear Curly Babs

The postcard ‘And I’m doing my share’ features another childlike individual representing an adult. The winking boiler-suit clad Munitionette wears an enormous blue bow atop of her curly bobbed haircut. She stands with her hands thrust on her hips and in the background a factory belches smoke out of its chimneys. This cartoon caught my eye firstly, because of the character of the Munitionette and the fact that she is wearing trousers. However, it was the fact that the two identical cards had been sent by serving soldiers in Belgium, or France, back home to their children that compelled me to add them to my collection . 

Author’s own Postcard

The first I collected of the identical postcard design, shown above. There is no address written on the reverse, which would most probably have been included with a letter to the soldier’s wife. As Kate Cole explains in her chapter on the exchange of postcards between father soldiers and their children this was a frequent occurrence.[3] The written message intimates that the image on the front reminded the father of his daughter as he has written ‘Belgium. To my Dear Curly Babs, With Love and Kisses From Dad.’ Sadly, no further information can be obtained from either the card, or the message itself as to the people involved in this exchange, unlike my other example.

Dear Bernie

The second version of this card has a ‘Field Post Office’ postmark dated 2 July 1918 and censor number 3920 has cleared it for postage.[4] The postcard is addressed to Master Bernard M Richardson, 15 Kings Avenue, Muswell Hill, London N10 and the message reads:

Dear Bernie, I am sending this to your new home. I wish I could come and see it. I will as soon as I can. Fond love & greetings from Daddy.

Searching the online census records I found Bernard May Richardson age 1 living at 58 Beckwith Road, Herne Hill London. He, along with his sister Marjorie Christine, age 2, lived with their parents and their paternal grandparents – William May and Ann Richardson. ‘Daddy’, Ernest May Richardson, was listed as a commercial Traveller (a salesman) age 34, born in Lincoln. His wife, Harty Sophie, nee Kirk/Kite, who he married in 1907, was born in 1883 in Sutton.

Courtesy of 1911 census record

During the First World War Ernest May Richardson served in the 16th Battalion, London Regiment (Queen’s Westminster Rifles), according to his service record, his service number was 90080.

Ernest May Richardson’s attestation form courtesy of

He attested in 1916 aged 39 but survived the war. According to the Regiment’s history Ernest’s battalion saw action in 1916 at the beginning of July at Gommecourt, south of Arras, part of the Battle of the Somme.[5] The 1939 electoral records show Ernest May Richardson living with his wife Harty and his incapacitated elderly mother.

Ernest May Richardson died in 1940, aged 63, at Epsom and Ewell Hospital in Epsom. He was survived by his widow Harty Sophia Richardson and left £845 of effects. Harty died in 1954.

Bernard May Richardson, the little boy to whom the postcard was addressed was born 14th December 1909 in Harrow and it appears that he followed his father’s example by volunteering for service, although he chose the Royal Artillery. He attested a few days after the Second World War was declared on the 6th September 1939. Bernard’s service number was 1479786 and embarked to Malaya on 6th December 1941.

Courtesy of

His record card above details him as on a ‘Stragglers’ list in 1942. Stragglers were soldiers, who did not surrender and presumably hid and survived in the jungles of East Asia trying to avoid capture. Searching the Forces War Records website I discovered Bernard’s Prisoner of War record card, which shows his father as deceased and his mother as next of kin and dates his status as a prisoner of war in 1943.

Courtesy of

Sadly though this is where his story falters, as I cannot find any further records of him.


Nicholas J Saunders recently noted that:

as first-hand memory disappears, our views are inevitably shaped by the physical remains, and by the interpretations of those who had no part in their design, production or original purpose.’[6]

It is on the reverse of these now delicate postcards where we share the father’s emotional exchanges with their children in the midst of the horror of the First World War and realise how precious these brief messages were to the children themselves to have survived over 100 years later.

[1] Doyle, Peter, British Postcards of the First World War. Oxford: Shire, 2014. Kindle Loc. 463

[2] Richardson, Jennifer, Female Munition Workers’ Workwear in Britain, 1914-1918: A Visual and Material Cultural Analysis. University of Brighton, 2019. Unpublished PhD Thesis

[3] Cole, Kate, Postcards from the Front 1914-1918. London: Amberley, 2016. Kindle.

[4] The Field Post Office would at this point been the Divisional or Brigade headquarters, or at rail heads.

[5] accessed 16 July 2020

[6] Saunders, Nicholas J. (Ed). Matters of Conflict: Material culture, memory and the First World War. Abingdon: Routledge, 2004. Print. p.5


Cole, Kate, Postcards from the Front 1914-1918. London: Amberley, 2016. Kindle.

de Vries, Guus, The Great War Through Picture Postcards. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2016. Print

Doyle, Peter, British Postcards of the First World War. Oxford: Shire, 2014. Kindle Loc.

Richardson, Jennifer, Female Munition Workers’ Workwear in Britain, 1914-1918: A Visual and Material Cultural Analysis. University of Brighton, 2019. Unpublished PhD Thesis

Saunders, Nicholas J. (Ed). Matters of Conflict: Material culture, memory and the First World War. Abingdon: Routledge, 2004. Print.

A Postcard is better!!

Welcome to the first “Cartoons, Close-ups” Blog!

I am a dress historian, which means I look at history through the clothing worn by women, specifically. I am fascinated by the period just before, during and, after the First World War because of the questions being raised in British society about the role of women. The involvement of women in politics, work opportunities and their demands for ‘independence’ were observed and reflected in debates and representations of fashion, gender and respectability. The reality, however, was less dramatic, especially for working-class women. I am fascinated by the contradictions in society and how working-class women juggled expectations of respectability, work versus homelife, motherhood and duty, survival and bettering oneself.

My PhD thesis researched the specific range of workwear worn by female munition workers in Britain between 1914-1918. I was fascinated by the shock and disgust that was expressed over the sight of women wearing trousers, which are now regarded as acceptable and practical garments worn by women in 21st Century Britain. Since 2014 I have been collecting First World War portrait postcards and cartoons, which depict trouser wearing Munitionettes, as female munition workers were nicknamed. Taking inspiration from the descriptive noun ‘Suffragette’, which was applied to those involved in the pre-war campaign for the women’s vote, the noun ‘Munitionette’ first appeared in print in The Sphere in 1915. I’ve christened this Blog site Cartoons, Close-ups after the cartoon and photographic postcards that I have collected, examples of both I’m going to share with you.

Now Look pleasant!

Portrait photography was particularly popular at this time. Recording yourself and sending it to sweethearts or male relatives fighting at the Front was encouraged in cartoons and on postcards. See Figure 2 which shows a cartoon of a photographer encouraging a soldier in uniform to look his best! Photographic studios featured prominently on high streets across the country and with the introduction of postcard backing, effectively turning the photograph into a postcard, the cost of having one’s portrait captured became much cheaper.[1] An article in the Yorkshire Evening Post, 31st October 1916, detailed the ‘new craze’ among female munition workers to have their photographs taken. Reporting that female munition workers ‘see in the new and cheap photograph a means of obtaining a permanent record of how they “did their bit” in the great war….’[2] The article goes on to report of one Leeds photographer charging 1s 3d and 1s 9d for a dozen copies acknowledging that friends may have clubbed together to share the cost.[3] The importance of having one’s portrait taken and exchanging these cards with sweethearts, friends and family was clearly common practice. Suggestions on how to have a perfect photograph taken as a lovely memento for the soldier sweetheart to take to the front, appeared in an article in Home Notes, June 10, 1916:

“I want a really good photo of you, dear, to take out there with me” is the cry of every soldier just leaving for the Front “and I won’t be put off with any cheap postcard affair – let’s have something really like you.” …When a man says that of course he means “something that is really like you at your best”. So, do please take care that the photographer catches you in one of your happiest moments.[4]

Where a dedication to a relative or friend has been written on the reverse of these postcards, the brief but sentimental exchange of feelings, not only suggests a desire to preserve one’s unusual appearance, but it also contains the implicit desire to present oneself at one’s best, as the cartoons on the postcard below demonstrates. (Figures 1).

Figure 1: Author’s own postcard.

A postcard’s better!

The picture postcard was a hugely successful form of mass communication at the beginning of the twentieth century. According to Esther Milne in her book Letters, Postcards, Emails: technologies of presence, the British postcard market was slower to develop than that of its European neighbours, in particular Germany.[5] This was mainly because of the strict Post Office Regulations in England, that had, until the late 1890s, maintained a monopoly over the production of picture postcards. A change in the Post Office’s regulations allowing pictures on one side and the cost of postage starting off at half a penny, meant it was an affordable means of mass communication with as many as six deliveries per day.[6] James Taylor has explained the scale of postal deliveries to and from the Front during the War, estimating that the number of items handled on a daily basis by the Post Office amounted to over 2 billion a day. Guus de Vries has calculated that at least 30 billion postcards were sent by, or received by, soldiers on the Front over the period of the War.[9] This figure does not include the domestic market. In a recent book Comics and the World Wars: A Cultural Record the authors describe humour as being ‘dependent upon the society in which it exists, adapting and evolving with it..’ reflecting the discourses of a particular moment in time.[10]

Figure 2: Author’s own postcard

Postcards also became very sought after as collectors’ items and souvenirs and were not only sent as communications in their own right but were included with letters:

of these the comic artist-drawn cards counted for a significant proportion, running into millions. In addition, there were millions of cards that were also acquired not for posting but to be added to a personal collection, for exchange or to be given as a gift in person.[7]

James Taylor argues that postcards were not only a form of whimsical communication but they also formed a part of the propaganda activities to encourage the Nation’s continued support of the war, alongside the posters, marching bands, films, lectures, music-hall and theatrical performances, rousing speeches held at rallies as well as town processions and gala days.[8] 

Annebella Pollen has written about the cruel humour contained in Victorian Vinegar Valentine cards, where insults are explicitly expressed.[11] The cartoon postcard beneath features two unmarried women, one a seemingly middle aged spinster who is reading from a  letter. Miss Dainty is unforgivingly catty in her response to the romantic anecdote that Miss Dial’s photograph saved her soldier sweetheart. The difference in age is reinforced by the shorter dress worn by Miss Dainty, which is the height of fashion as opposed to the longer, more modest outfit of Miss Dial. The sender of the card does not refer to the joke cartoon merely telling her daughter that they travelled to Betws-y-Coed, in Wales, from Llandudno by motor bus that day! 

Figure 3: Author’s own postcard

Postcards are commercial items and the artists designed them to be eye-catching through colourful designs and humour. The artists played with topics, which featured concerns prevalent in public debates. These recognisable tropes and commentaries enabled the buyer and recipient to share the joke and experience the camaraderie required by the nation during the war. Postcards were also a quick and public means of communication, so that much like the way we use modern text messaging, the notes are often brief and mostly discuss travel plans, comments on the weather only occasionally acknowledging the cartoon content. In my next blog I’m going to share with you some of the heartwarming postcards sent by serving soldiers to their children back in ‘Blighty.’ 

I hope you have enjoyed this very brief introduction that I will continue to share with you over future blog posts.


Chapman, Jane, Anna Hoyles, Andrew Kerr and Adam Sheriff, Comics and the World Wars: A Cultural Record. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Print. 

De Vries, Guus, The Great War through picture postcards. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2016. Print

Milne, Esther, Letters, Postcards, Emails: technologies of presence. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Pollen, Annebella, ”Love Letters and Hate mail: Victorian Vinegar Valentines”, 8 September 2014

Richardson, Jennifer, Female Munition Workers’ Workwear in Britain, 1914-1918:

A Visual and Material Culture Analysis. Unpublished PhD, University of Brighton, 2019

Taylor, James, Pack up your troubles: How Humorous Postcards Helped to Win World War 1. London: Conway, 2016. Kindle.

[1] Evidence that postcard photographs cost 2/4d each has been found on a high street photographer’s shop window in Swindon from 1906 and in an advertisement in a regimental magazine for a photographer in Eastbourne. The Sussex Patrol, Incorporating the Sussex Signal; Dec 1, 1916; 1, 7; Trench Journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War pg. 0 Imperial War Museum, London at 3/- per dozen.

[2] The Girls’ Record of their War Work. Photographs in munition suits.” Yorkshire Evening Post 31st October 1916, p.5

[3] Ibid

[4] “A Portrait for you Soldier Boy”, Home Notes, No 1170, Vol XC, 10th June 1916, Print. p. 403

[5] Milne, Esther, Letters, Postcards, Emails: technologies of presence. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010. Print. p.105.  

[6] tp:// Accessed 3.10.14 

[7] Taylor, J (2016) Loc.211

[8] Ibid (2016) Loc. Loc.1266 

[9] De Vries (2016) p.11

[10] Chapman, Hoyles, Kerr and Sheriff (2015) p.37

[11] Pollen, Annebella, ”Love Letters and Hate mail: Victorian Vinegar Valentines”, 8 September 2014