It is an honour to follow Vernon Coaker, and indeed all hon. Members on both sides of the House, in what has been an extraordinarily powerful and emotional debate.
I have not been able to think of anyone other than my great-grandmother this afternoon. She was born in 1895, and she lived with me and my parents until she died when I was nine, in 1987. She was a great woman—a forbidding matriarch—and I loved her dearly. She gave me my first job, which was to take her her tea in the morning and to put whisky in it, for which I received the princely sum of 10p a week. That was a great deal to a seven-year-old in 1985. I would sit on her bed while she sipped her tea and whisky, and she would tell me stories.
One morning, I remember asking her why her friend—I will call her Miss H—had never married, and she told me about this terrible war in which all the young men had gone away and had not come back. It made me cry; it makes me cry now. I found out subsequently that my great-grandmother’s husband, a guy called Harry who was a cider farmer in Somerset, had not gone to war because he had a heart murmur. It was a very curious moment in history when biological weakness actually caused someone’s DNA to be passed on. Miss H did not have any such luck. I also found out subsequently that she had worked in a butcher’s shop, and when the butcher died, he—much to the shock of the town—left the business to her, not to his wife. We do not know whether it was love, but if it was, it perhaps speaks of a time when there were not very many men around.
I think of the norm now. In the first census after the great war, in 1921, it was revealed that there were 1.7 million more women than men in Britain. The press and politicians rather coldly and cruelly dubbed them the “surplus women”. I also think of a speech given in a school in Bournemouth, quite close to where I grew up, in 1918, when the headmistress is said to have told the girls, “I have come to tell you a terrible truth: nine out of 10 of you will not marry. This is a mathematical fact. The local men whom you would have married have been killed, and you must make your way in the world as best you can.” Indeed, they did: they went out and made the best of it, and went on to ensure that their gender was no longer quite so defined by its relationship to men.
All those men who died were sons; many were brothers, and many were husbands. A great many of them were not married, and the women they did not marry did not marry either. This generation of maiden aunts were widowed before they wed. I dare say a great many of them had enormous satisfaction from the jobs and the lives that they built, but as D. H. Lawrence wrote, if mutual love is
“Like a magnet’s keeper
Closing the round”,
then for a great many, the years to come were incomplete. I say their sacrifice deserves no less remembrance.