I beg to move,
That this House
has considered Dr Elsie Inglis and the contribution of women to World War One.
As always, it is a great pleasure to be in a debate with you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allocated time for this important debate in this important week for remembering Dr Elsie Inglis. She was a truly historic and remarkable woman—an Edinburgh woman, no less, and very proud of her roots. This week is the centenary of her death and of the state funeral that she was afforded, which will be re-enacted tomorrow.
Who was Dr Elsie Inglis? Born in India in 1864, she was the daughter of John Inglis, a chief commissioner in the Indian civil service. She studied medicine at Dr Sophia Jex-Blake’s then newly opened Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women and was one of the first women in Scotland to finish higher education, although she was not allowed to graduate. She went on to complete her training under Sir William Macewen at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary.
The now famous exhortation,
“My good lady, go home and sit still”,
was the response that Dr Elsie Inglis received when she asked the War Office whether female doctors and surgeons could serve in frontline hospitals in world war one. At that time and for many years to come, that was the attitude that women faced in making vital contributions to society.
Despite attempts to repress her efforts—and those of many other women—to contribute, Elsie did not, in the words of the exhortation, “sit still”. Instead, she persevered, setting up the Scottish women’s hospitals, which were all-female units that played a vital role with Britain’s allies, including the French, the Belgians and, particularly, the Serbs.
Elsie was 50 when war broke out and she defied British Government advice by setting up female-staffed field hospitals close to the frontlines. She travelled to France within three months of the outbreak of war, and the Abbaye de Royaumont hospital, containing some 200 beds, was in place by the end of 1914. That was followed by a second hospital, at Villers Cotterets, in 1917. Tens of thousands were helped by the hospitals she set up in France, Serbia, Ukraine and Romania, acting with the support of the French and Serbian Governments.
Prior to that, Elsie was a strong advocate of women’s rights and a leading member of the suffragette movement in Scotland, playing a notable role in the establishment of the Scottish women’s suffragette federation in 1906. She fought energetically against prejudice and for the social and political emancipation of women, and had already made a huge impact in Edinburgh by working in some of the poorest parts of the city with women and babies who were in desperate need of help. Selflessly, she often waived the fees of patients who could not afford to pay.
Politically, Elsie was a staunch campaigner for votes for women, and her involvement in the suffragette movement prompted her to raise money to send out to female doctors, nurses, orderlies and drivers on the frontline. She recorded many great achievements, including setting up 14 hospitals during the war—staffed by 1,500 Scottish women, all volunteers. Most notably, Elsie raised the equivalent of £53 million in today’s money to fund greatly needed medical care for those on the frontline. Her efforts reached across the waters on another level, attracting volunteers from New Zealand, Australia and Canada. As I am sure everyone would agree, that showed fierce independence and capability from women who were well ahead of their time.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this timely debate and on ensuring that it coincides with the anniversary. This type of discussion, debate and acknowledgement is significant, given the issues that he mentioned. For example, we must not only pay tribute to the many voluntary detachments of women in the first world war from all across the UK, including Scotland and Northern Ireland, but ensure that future generations never forget the contributions that they made.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. Commemorating the centenary is easy, but we need to ensure not only that the education and commemorations run right through society, in schools and workplaces, but that all four corners of the United Kingdom commemorate the contribution of women—and indeed, of everyone, including those who made the ultimate sacrifice in giving their lives.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he agree that we need to learn lessons not necessarily only from the extraordinary contribution that women made during the great war and the social strides that they made in that time, but from what happened during the peace? It is certainly the case that many of the advances retreated in the immediate post-war era and into the 1920s, and in many ways women were set back to where they were in 1914. As we approach the centenary of the end of the great war, perhaps we need to give thought to what happened shortly thereafter.
Absolutely. As the hon. Gentleman said, we should commemorate not just the contribution that women made during the wars, but the contribution that they made subsequently. Indeed, in this very building, Emily Davison is commemorated downstairs for her contribution to the suffragette movement. I am very much of the view that if more women had been running the world, perhaps the great wars would never have happened.
I think the hon. Gentleman might have misunderstood my point. In the years following the great war, many advances that women had made and the position that they had established for themselves in society sadly took a step back. People such as Dr Inglis, who had become very prominent, were in fact told to take a back seat, particularly when the men came back from the war.
Absolutely. Women are still fighting the same battles today. The advancement that they made during the great war was almost forgotten, until the second world war, of course, when women again played a significant role. We need to remember their contribution not just during the war efforts, but in between. That is part of the story of the commemorations and the story we should tell of our recent history.
The women’s dedication to help thousands of badly injured men in dire conditions is commendable. In Serbia in particular, the typhus epidemic had gripped the country, and without those women many tens of thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of lives would not have been saved. Serbia was home to the first Scottish women’s hospitals field unit in 1914. Despite the life-threatening conditions of the typhus epidemic, to which four staff from the Scottish women’s hospitals had lost their lives, Elsie went to serve in the hospital on the frontline. Sent out to look after 300 beds, Elsie and her team were in fact faced with 550 beds filled with injured and ill soldiers. With a dreadful lack of sanitation in the overcrowded hospitals, Elsie faced the Serbian officials and firmly refused to let the overcrowding endanger the lives of patients and nurses. A true heroine, she went from negotiating with Serbian officials to finding innovative ways to deal with the overflow patients at the hospital, without a second thought for her own safety. Her colleagues took the same approach.
Even after the beginning of the great retreat, in which Serbia was invaded by the Austrian army, Elsie and many of her volunteers refused to give up. Again, she defied demands from the British Government to return home. Despite finding out that she had cancer—I stress that she had cancer as well—she set up two more field hospitals. In 1915, she was captured and repatriated, but still did not rest until Serbian soldiers were guaranteed safe passage out of Serbia. Once this safe passage had been granted and the soldiers arrived in Newcastle, Elsie battled through the pain of her own illness to greet them. Sadly, she passed away on
It has been said that Dr Elsie Inglis
“made Florence Nightingale look like a part-time care assistant”.
Her fierce dedication to helping others leading up to the great war shows that Elsie really was a role model in her own right. I am pleased that my constituents in Edinburgh and people in the rest of Scotland have such an outstanding figure to look up to and aspire to. Elsie broke down barriers and proved time and again that women will always be an integral part of society. She continually praised the work carried out by her many volunteers, refusing to think of her effort as any greater than theirs. Elsie never asked them to do something that she would not be willing to do herself. She took part in the most menial tasks and always worked as part of the unit.
Elsie’s humbleness about the great things that she achieved is why I feel so strongly about remembering her legacy and giving her and other women who contributed to world war one the recognition and commendation they deserve. We should commemorate and celebrate her life and work.
The UK should properly recognise Dr Inglis and the other unacknowledged British heroines who set up the Scottish women’s hospitals during the first world war. To mark the centenary of her death, I am pleased that this year the City of Edinburgh Council has decided to name a street after her and that the Edinburgh Evening News is running a fundraising campaign to have a statue of Elsie erected in her beloved Edinburgh.
The Scottish Women’s Hospitals Trust, led by my constituent Ian McFarlane and his trustees, aims to work with the Serbian Government and the Edinburgh Evening News to get the funds to build this well-deserved and much-overdue monument. A private ceremony was held at her grave on Sunday to mark the centenary of her death. As a mark of her growing reputation, a commemoration will also take place at St Giles’ cathedral tomorrow, on the same day as her state funeral 100 years ago.
But what about the countless other women who poured compassion and dedication into saving lives during the great war? November 2017 also marks the centenary of the foundation of the Women’s Royal Naval Service. The Royal Navy became the first of the three services officially to recruit women. Expansion of the wartime Navy led the Wrens to take on tasks that the Royal Navy had previously considered beyond women’s capabilities. Women’s contributions to the war effort went from strength to strength, and many Wrens were involved in planning naval operations, including the D-day landings in June 1944.
In December 1941, the Government passed the National Service Act 1941, which allowed the conscription of women into war work or the armed forces. In 1944, some 74,000 women were doing more than 200 different jobs. Of the courageous Wrens, 303 were killed on wartime service; we should pay tribute to them and all their efforts. On
I would like to recognise in particular the contribution of two great Scottish women to the WAAC: Alexandra “Mona” Chalmers Watson and Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan. Mona was from a high-achieving Edinburgh family and was the first woman to graduate from Edinburgh University as a doctor. Helen, who studied botany at King’s College London, had deep family roots in Ayrshire and Aberdeen. As well as playing leading roles in the WAAC, they fought hard against the patriarchy to show that women must have a more equal place in society and in the world.
It is also 100 years since Passchendaele, one of the most notorious battles of the first world war, which the House commemorated last month. In just three and a half months of fighting, an estimated 550,000 Allied and German troops were killed, wounded or lost. Around 90,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers went missing: 50,000 were buried without being identified, and 42,000 were never recovered from the fields of Flanders, which turned into an ocean of mud.
As well as paying tribute to those who lost their lives, I would like to recognise the contribution of Sister Kate Luard, who served as a nurse in the second Boer war as well as being head nurse at a casualty station on the western front. Sister Luard often described her work in letters from Passchendaele as “UBC”—“utter bloody chaos”. Despite the chaos, she persisted, saving countless lives. I am glad that her efforts were recognised; she was awarded the Royal Red Cross and bar. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to serve so close to the frontline under such enormous pressures, but her letters are a small insight into the passion and dedication that it must have taken to do so:
“The uproar is almost stupefying. They burst on two sides—streams of shrapnel which were quite hot when you picked them up. They came everywhere, through our canvas huts. Bursting shells are an ugly sight—black or yellow smoke and streams of jagged shells flying violently in all directions. It doesn’t look as if we should ever sleep again.”
More than 100,000 women joined Britain’s armed forces during the war. From ambulance driving to translating, women served Britain in a variety of ways; I will highlight a few more. Elizabeth Knocker and Mairi Chisholm set up their own first aid post close to the Belgian frontline at Pervyse in November 1914. Mary O’Connell Bianconi went to France in August 1917 as a member of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, where she worked as a driver in the St Omer ambulance convoy. After an air raid in July 1918, Molly and six of her driver colleagues drove their ambulances to pick up the wounded. Dame Katharine Furse joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment in 1909. On the outbreak of the first world war, she was chosen to be head of the first VAD unit to be sent to France. In 1917 she became the director of the newly formed Women’s Royal Naval Service.
We all know the immeasurable contribution women made back home—everything from working in munitions factories to building guns. I wish that I could identify by name each and every woman who made an enormous contribution to the great war. Unfortunately, time does not allow, but those unmentioned are by no means unnoticed. It is hard to imagine that women with such passion and hunger to help, and who spoke up when they were told to be quiet, could ever be forgotten. They most definitely helped to pave the way for future women to crack the glass ceiling.
Some important centenaries approach next year. To name a few, April 2018 will mark the formation of the Women’s Royal Air Force, an invaluable asset to the RAF in which around 32,000 women enrolled in its first two years. May 2018 marks the day that nine members of the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps became the first British women to die on active military service when their trench was hit by a German bomb in Abbeville, France.
Many of the women whom I have mentioned saved lives through innovative thinking, putting the wellbeing of others above their own safety. They often worked under fire, in unthinkable conditions with little sleep and few resources. They offered a helping hand not because they wanted praise, but because they had valuable experience and skills to offer to those who were also putting their lives on the line for their country. I am extremely pleased to have had this opportunity to ensure that we continue to give them the recognition that they deserve, and I hope that their legacy will live on.
I will finish where I started by reading out what is on the gravestone of Dr Elsie Inglis, who is buried in Dean cemetery in Edinburgh:
“To the beloved and honoured memory of Elsie Maud Inglis. Born 1864, died on active service 1917. Surgeon, philanthropist, patriot, a leader of the movement for the political emancipation of women and founder of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for foreign service. Mors janua vitae”— meaning “Death is the gateway to life”.
Order. There are six people seeking to catch my eye in this debate. I will call the Front Benchers from 10.30, so we have 45 minutes to divide between six people. Members can do their own arithmetic, but that is about seven to eight minutes each. I will not impose a time limit at this stage, but I hope that people will bear other contributors in mind.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate and thank Ian Murray for securing this debate on an important part of our world war one history that at times is unfortunately overlooked. The contribution made by women in the great war, in particular Dr Elsie Inglis, should not be understated, and it is a pleasure to pay tribute to them today.
As the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, I am proud to draw Members’ attention to the role played by women of the borders at that challenging time, especially those who served alongside Elsie. While reading about the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, I could only imagine the harrowing scenes that they saw. One of those women was Sarah Dempster Allan, born in 1889 in the small village of Sprouston near Kelso in my constituency. On the outbreak of war, Sarah joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and was posted to a chateau near Troyes, where she performed her duties in a canvas tent. I am sure that it felt a long way from the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, which she had left to join the cause.
Because their unit was housed in a portable tent, she was then moved to Salonika in Greece before moving on to Macedonia. Unfortunately, her time helping the Serbs was short-lived; she was forced to evacuate back to Greece, and return to the United Kingdom shortly after. Despite being born in 1889, Sarah lived well into the 20th century, dying at the age of 102. It is an honour to tell colleagues her story here today.
Of course, the Scottish Women’s Hospitals were only one way that women helped to win the war. Munitions factories, the civil service and agriculture would have been crippled by the flight of young men to fight on the frontlines had women not stepped forward to help the cause. Propaganda posters from the time give us a visual reminder of the huge need for women to do their bit for the war effort. There can be no question but that that call was answered; Elsie is proof of that. Even when the Government refused to help her, Dr Inglis and her team went above and beyond the call of duty by travelling the 2,000 miles to Serbia to help those in dire need.
That does not even come close to giving a full picture of the time. Many women, while taking on extra practical duties for the war effort at home or abroad, had to endure tremendous heartache and sorrow. Living in constant fear of bad news from the front about their fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, uncles and cousins would have been an experience tantamount to torture, never mind living with the constant threat of invasion. We must not forget the many women who set up or joined branches of the women’s institute, women’s guild and “the rural”, many of which continue today, including in my constituency, as part of that important war effort. Turning surplus produce into vital rations for the frontline was as important a task as any other.
Without the contribution of women such as Elsie Inglis of Edinburgh or Sarah Allan of Kelso, our brave men on the frontline would have gone without bullets in their guns, uniforms on their backs and food in their rations; they would have been left for dead on the battlefield with their injuries unattended. Almost certainly, we would have lost the war, and we may not have been standing in this place today. As the then Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, put it:
“For this service to our common cause humanity owes them unbounded gratitude.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) on securing this debate. It is timely given the important anniversaries of women’s role in our history that we are celebrating and commemorating.
The contributions made by women during the first world war have long been overlooked. As we commemorate the centenary of those events, it is important that the topic receives the respect and recognition it deserves. It is important to recognise that for too long, the role of women in history in general, and particularly in conflict, has been airbrushed out—largely by men. As the European continent and much of the world descended into war, many brave soldiers and sailors, including Plymouth lads, responded to the call; they were sent overseas to the trenches or to serve their country in the Royal Navy. They were not alone in their bravery: many of Plymouth’s women back home valiantly stepped in to fill the roles that had been left vacant and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South has described, took part in providing medical support.
As more men were sent to the front, women were able to move into roles that previously had not been open to them. In Plymouth, many women became the factory workers, railway guards, postwomen, tram drivers and police officers who kept Britain and Plymouth going during those dark years. That happened right across the country, not least in my area. Thanks to the support of superb local historian Chris Robinson, who writes about the role of women in Plymouth in the world wars, some of the stories of the sacrifices that women made can come to the fore.
One key role that women took up in world war one, which proved vital to our war effort, was the often dirty and dangerous work in our munitions factories. Women put their lives at risk, being exposed to poisonous chemicals and accidental explosions. In Plymouth, a technical school was established for women in that work, and within a year nearly 400 women had been trained there in how to create munitions and were busy working on production lines in Union Street, Prince Rock and Bull Point. Women carried out that important work, helping the allies in their endeavours to outgun the central powers. The great travesty is that women were thanked for that service by receiving less than half the wages of men doing similar work.
I pay tribute to the women of Glasgow who worked in the munitions factory. At the start of world war one, about 15,000 women were reckoned to work there; by the end, over 65,000 women were working there and playing a vital role in supporting the Army as they went forward. I place on record my tribute to those women of Glasgow.
There are many untold stories of women’s contributions to the war effort that need to be told across the country, including in Scotland.
A further way in which women contributed to the war effort came with the establishment of the women’s police service, which was set up by Margaret Damer Dawson in 1914. Damer Dawson had worked towards establishing a female presence in the police force for a number of years, but the war provided a new opportunity. The WPS was Britain’s first uniformed women’s police service, and within the first three months there were 50 recruits in Plymouth. That voluntary service of spirited women paved the way for the first official female police officers a few years later. One of the first to join up and serve in the WPS was Plymouth’s Nancy Astor, who is celebrating her own anniversary in two years’ time as the first female Member of Parliament to take her seat and who represented the seat that I now represent. She opened the door for more women to stand for election, and her service to our country started in the women’s police service in Plymouth.
I pay tribute to the people who have worked so hard over the last year to recognise the role of women in world war one, in particular the volunteers and staff from Plymouth City Council and Plymouth Museum who have expertly welcomed visitors and told stories of men and women’s services to our armed forces at the Commonwealth War Graves’ “Poppies: Wave” on Plymouth Hoe. That memorable and moving installation created a wave over our war memorial and is a fantastic example of how to use the ceramic poppies. It provided an opportunity for events and discussions about the people named on the war memorial, who were predominantly men, and the untold stories of women who contributed.
Earlier this year, shortly after being elected, I tabled a number of parliamentary questions about the role of women in public life and in particular about the number of statues that we have of women. As 50% of the population, it is right that 50% of the stories that are told are about women. I understand that the Department does not keep central statistics on the number of statues or pieces of public art dedicated to women from history, but given the anniversary of women getting the right to vote next year and the 100th anniversary of Nancy Astor’s election in 1919, now might be a good time to start, so we can begin to correct that and to tell the story of women’s role in public life.
When we commemorate the anniversary of the first world war, it is important to remember the brave men and women up and down the country who gave their service to our country, not only those who fought on the front or at sea, but those who fought on the home front as well. I hope that this debate concludes with the erection of the statue and the memorials that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South spoke about, and that it enables us to talk more profoundly and clearly about the role of women in world war one, which has been far too overlooked to date.
It is, as always, a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to follow my hon. Friend Luke Pollard. I congratulate my hon. Friend Ian Murray on securing this timely and important debate.
Dr Elsie Inglis made an enormous contribution to humanity. She set up hospitals that helped thousands of injured men, woman and children, combatants and civilians, who were caught up in the horror of world war one in Serbia. She battled to improve hygiene and cleanliness against typhus and other diseases. It is also beholden on us, however, to give credit to her political thinking and the women’s suffrage movement, in which she became involved in the 1890s to protest about the grossly inadequate medical facilities available to women at the time. That led directly to her founding the medical school for women.
We have heard Members speak eloquently about Dr Inglis, a woman who led in making a better world, but I will take this opportunity to discuss a colleague of hers, Bessie Dora Bowhill, another woman who organised and improved others’ lives. She was the daughter of a prosperous farmer in Berwickshire, then part of the constituency of John Lamont. She was born on
I am grateful for that intervention. Bessie’s parents retired to Dunbar, which was then part of the constituency of Berwickshire but is now part of East Lothian. Bessie embarked on a nursing career that took her not only all over Scotland, but on two major overseas adventures. She trained in Edinburgh in the 1890s and she was night superintendent at the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary until May 1900, when the Boer war started. She enlisted in Princess Christian’s Army Nursing Service Reserve and was sent to the No. 13 Stationary hospital outside Durban in South Africa, where she served for the duration of the Boer war. On her return, she worked in hospitals in Falkirk, Dundee and again in Aberdeen before being appointed matron of Perth Royal Infirmary in 1909.
After the outbreak of world war one, she volunteered with Dr Elsie Inglis in the Scottish women’s hospital in Serbia, where she retained her senior position as matron of the unit and served until 1916. When she returned home, our local paper carried Bessie’s report of her ordeal, “Dunbar Nurse’s Experience in Serbia A Tale of Privation and Adventure”, in her own words, including the following account:
“At night the Prussian Guards simply walked into the town without any fuss whatever, and took it. Dr Inglis and her staff were told to prepare beds for 50 Germans, and next morning we received orders to leave the hospital to them. Only half-an-hour was given to us to get out, and all we were allowed to take was our beds and bedding.”
Bessie was awarded the British War Medal and the British Victory Medal for her work in Serbia. She was also awarded Serbia’s Cross of Mercy.
After that, Bessie slips from the historical record. Perhaps she was unable to carry on in nursing after what she witnessed in Serbia. I have found only two subsequent mentions of her: on
I raise Bessie’s case today to highlight the enormous contributions made by women, which far too often go unnoticed and without thanks, but which have been crucial to shaping and deciding the future of us all, and often illuminate and focus the true meaning of moments in history. I think of the strength of the contribution made by women during the miners’ strike of 1984-85. The roots of the strike go back to the aftermath of the devolution debacle in the 1970s. The Labour Government fell in 1979, when they were defeated by one vote in a vote of no confidence; Scottish National party Members were among those who voted against them. The result was the 1979 election and the victory of a Conservative Government under Britain’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. In 2014, in moving a motion in the Scottish Parliament on the miners’ strike, Iain Gray said:
“With so much at stake, it was no surprise, then, that when the dispute came, it was not just any strike... In East Lothian, the Labour club was turned over to the strikers as their headquarters and soup kitchen. The Co-operative was generous to those who were its members as well as its customers. The Royal Musselburgh Golf Club felled its trees for fuel and the council set up a hardship fund.
The wider labour movement mobilised too, in practical ways, collecting food and money to keep the miners—”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report,
Order. I have given the hon. Gentleman a little latitude, but he seems to be straying from the title of the debate; the miners’ strike is quite some distance from Dr Elsie Inglis and the contribution of women to world war one. If he got back to the subject, I am sure we would all be grateful.
I accept your guidance from the Chair, Mr Davies; I merely wished to reiterate that the contribution made—often silently—by women during world war one and subsequently has often gone unheard in a history written by men.
Millicent Fawcett, an English suffrage organiser from Dr Inglis’ time, described the suffrage movement, in words that are still so apt today in the fight for justice and equality for all, as
“like a glacier;
slow moving but unstoppable”.
We must remember and celebrate the bravery, intelligence and service of women such as Dr Elsie Inglis and Matron Bessie Bowhill, of women who supported the miners’ strike by setting up the soup kitchens, and of women today.
Dr Inglis, like Keir Hardie, supported the suffragettes; that is where the link with the miners may come in. Both opposed the war, but both were there to help out when the time came.
I am grateful for that intervention.
We must remember women such as Dr Inglis, but also women today who suffer under universal credit, zero-hours contracts and ill health, but fight for others before themselves. Whether through imaginative thinking, fighting typhoid or promoting cleanliness, they have always supported and served others before themselves. I hope that the battle will be won for women sooner rather than later.
It is always a pleasure to speak in Westminster Hall debates. I congratulate Ian Murray on presenting his case so well. It is no surprise that we all wish to speak not only about Dr Elsie Inglis, but about women from our own parts of the country who did so much so many years ago. The debate gives us a timely opportunity to do so, almost 100 years to the day since Dr Inglis’ death.
Some may wonder what an Ulster Scotsman has to say about the contribution of Dr Inglis and women in general to the world war. It can be summed up very briefly: I have to give sincere thanks and honour the memory of a lady who was one of a generation of women who won the war on the home front, and whose memory should be honoured when we mention any victory in the war. It is good to have that on the record. A well known saying that I use often and that is certainly true in my case is that behind every good man is a better woman. Behind every victory in the world war was a woman at home, keeping the home fires burning, the cattle milked and the grain growing, caring for the children and continuing life.
This summer, I attended the Milwaukee Irish Fest, as I have done for the last six years; it is an honour as a Unionist to attend such an occasion. I was pleased to see Carol Walker of the Somme Association in Newtownards as a fellow speaker on the list. Her topic was the role of women in the first world war, and she has been kind enough to provide me with her notes on the topic. They are fascinating and give a small insight into the wealth of knowledge and experience that is available from a visit to the Somme Museum on the boundary of Newtownards in my constituency of Strangford. I encourage any visitor to my wonderful constituency to take the time to tour the museum and learn more about our vibrant history and the vital role that we played in the war.
Prior to the outbreak of the first world war, more than 800,000 women in Britain were in paid employment. The majority were in low-paid jobs—domestic service, agriculture or fireside industries such as sewing—and were paid 50% less than men doing the same job. That was a matter that clearly needed to be addressed and settled. In the 19th century, education reinforced the female role as that of a wife and mother, but women were increasingly beginning to make a significant impact on society as their legal and social status started gradually to improve.
By 1910, universities in Ireland were admitting women to all courses, and by 1914 education was much more open to women, but it was mainly the wealthy who could enjoy the benefit. Middle-class women tended to take “respectable” jobs, such as governess or teacher. Irish women had a long informal involvement in politics in the 19th century, with many participating in food riots and agrarian societies. The general progress being made by women throughout society allowed them to become more actively involved in the political issues of the day, such as home rule. Many thousands of Unionist women signed a declaration against home rule in 1912—indeed, more women signed than men.
I would like to talk about two ladies. One notable local political woman was Winifred Carney, a suffragist, trade unionist and Irish independence activist who was born in Bangor but moved to Falls Road in Belfast. She was in charge of the women’s section of the Irish Textile Workers Union, where she met James Connolly and became his personal secretary. Winnie was also a member of Cumann na mBan and was present at the General Post Office during the Easter rising of 1916. She probably had a “road to Damascus” experience, as she later married George McBride from Belfast, an Orangeman and a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Such is the history of our politics in Northern Ireland! George had served with the 36th Ulster Division at the Battle of the Somme.
The overall lack of women’s involvement at the higher levels of pre-war politics resulted in ignorance of women’s issues. A major issue was the right to vote. On
Jessie Getty from Newtownards, the main town in my constituency, joined the Ulster Volunteer Force nursing corps in 1913 and went on to enlist in a voluntary aid detachment on the outbreak of war. Jessie served at the military hospital in Wimereux during the first world war and, like so many others went on to marry a soldier whom she had nursed back to health.
During the war years, many women were prominent in supporting war charities such as the Red Cross and sailors’ charities. Buffets were regularly provided for returning soldiers by ladies at the railway stations and docks in Belfast. In the old town hall, they packed parcels and dispatched them fortnightly to Ulster prisoners of war. Clearly, women were very active; they may not have been at the front in large numbers, in battle or in nursing care, but at home they were very much holding the reins. Nurses worked long hours looking after wounded sailors and soldiers in the accommodation provided by the UVF hospitals; that is an enormous part of our history, too.
Many married women found that their husbands returned from the war with serious mental as well as physical injuries. Today, such issues are addressed more than in the past—in those days they were perhaps unknown. Many men were treated for the effects of neurasthenia, but for countless others no support was sought or provided. In those days we clearly did not have the level of care that we have at least the potential for today. Many were left to cope alone with flashbacks, night terrors and severe depression, and a great strain was put on family life and relationships.
The first world war was a watershed for women, especially in relation to new employment and enhanced voting opportunities. The work of the suffragettes and women’s contribution in war made it apparent that a change in the laws concerning elections was needed, but that was slow to happen. Overall, even though more women were becoming involved in trade unions, women were still employed on lower wages than men—often half the male rate. That is still a battle to be fought today, for some.
Time has beaten me, but I conclude by again highlighting why this Ulsterman is speaking on this topic: I recognise how thankful we must be to the thousands of women who helped to win the war, at home and on the frontlines alike. They must be remembered, and honoured, and that is what we all seek to do in the debate.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank Ian Murray for securing what, for me, is a crucial debate.
I admit that before I heard about the campaign for the Elsie Inglis memorial in Edinburgh I knew little about her. As I heard more and was drawn in, I was astonished at the contribution she had made and moved by what she had done, not just for the many soldiers she saved or eased through the horrific suffering and death of the first world war, but for me and my generation. As has been mentioned, the centenary of that great war is coming up next year, but there is another centenary, that of the Representation of the People Act 1918, and Elsie Inglis was at the forefront of campaigning on both.
In Edinburgh, Elsie Inglis was one of eight women—the others being Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell—who campaigned for the right of women to practise medicine in the city. I wonder where we would be today without them. They led the way, and so many women have been able to follow and do so much. Elsie Inglis was a role model for the women of her time, but she is also a role model for us all today. Before the war, she had qualified as a physician and, appalled at the standard of care for other women, she was prompted to become a suffragist and to set up a maternity hospital in Edinburgh for poor women. The hospital, originally called The Hospice, became the Elsie Inglis Memorial Hospital. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh South and many others have detailed, Elsie Inglis’ achievements were huge, as were those of many other women in the great war, in world war two and in every conflict since. The contributions, suffering and achievements of those women have been vital to not just our modern wellbeing but our very survival as we are today.
The fact that these women have often been overlooked is at times the result of the women’s own modesty. Recently, at the funeral of a friend’s grandmother, I heard her story for the first time. She was to many people an ordinary, loving grandmother and mother, who had led a pretty standard Scottish life, but at the funeral I heard the remarkable moving story of a then young woman, who like many others had put her life on hold to join up and serve in the armed forces. She was a spotter for the RAF. That is an example of the contributions that so often have been overlooked. It is my generation who have benefited from many such achievements, who are able to stand here today and contribute to the wellbeing of our country. No opportunity to recognise those contributions should go unmarked.
Elsie Inglis is not just an example of the women who made a contribution to the great war; she is part of a glorious thread woven through British history of the contributions that women have made at home during war and at the front itself, and after war too. My mother, Nessie Jardine, appears on a monument in my home town to those who have died from asbestos-related conditions as a result of working in the shipyards on the Clyde and elsewhere in Scotland, which have played such a vital role in this country’s wellbeing. By honouring Elsie Inglis, we honour all such people, and this is an opportunity for which we should be grateful.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend Ian Murray, who has done us a great service in introducing the debate and drawing attention to the extraordinary story of Dr Elsie Inglis. I had not planned to contribute, but hearing the amazing story of Elsie reminded me of another formidable woman, and I want briefly to refer to her achievements.
Before I do that, however, I want to reflect on the fact that now, of course, world war one is a war of history not of memory and, for many, the conflict is characterised by the slaughter in the trenches on the frontline. It is incredibly important that we commemorate that aspect of the campaign, but this debate has provided a timely reminder of the extraordinary contribution made by women over that period in history and the process of social change that was unleashed by the conflict.
I was pleased to see Dr Murrison in the debate earlier. I have had the pleasure of supporting some of the work he has been doing in commemorating the centenary of the first world war, and during that process I have had the opportunity to look at many amazing and extraordinary stories of the contribution made by women throughout that period of our history, many in Yorkshire and in my constituency of Barnsley. But one woman particularly caught my attention and I want to tell her story.
This is the story of a woman called Mary Barbour; some hon. Members will know it. Mary lived in Glasgow, and politics meant as little to her as it does to some of the people most disillusioned with our politics today, but in 1914 something changed. Mary’s husband, David, went to fight on the frontline and she was left alone at home with their two young boys. With so many men away on the frontline, the city’s private landlords sensed an opportunity and cynically began hiking the rents of Mary and her neighbours, trying to make an easy profit out of people they thought could not fight back. But in Mary Barbour’s case, they messed with the wrong woman.
Working with friends, Mary organised a rent strike. Together, they led tenants into a protest that grew into one of 20,000 people and became known as Mrs Barbour’s Army. Together, they forced the Government to take immediate action to protect people from unfair rent increases—the first-ever rent protection legislation. Mrs Barbour did not even have a vote when the war broke out, but her experiences led her to become one of the first women to represent her city as an elected councillor—as it happens, Mr Davies, a Labour councillor. Mrs Barbour did not wait for someone to tell her she could make a difference; she just did it. She did not ask for anyone’s permission to say what she knew to be right; she just said it.
Mary Barbour—who, along with many other great women, stood up for this country—will be getting a statue in January, in Govan, Glasgow, where she came from. The statue also includes ordinary people—Mary Barbour’s Army—marching behind her. This is the first time there will be a statue of ordinary children and women, and it will soon be unveiled in Govan, Mary Barber’s home town.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. My hon. Friend Luke Pollard made a point about the importance of commemorating the stories of women, so I am delighted to hear that the formidable Mary Barbour will have her story formally marked with the erection of a statue in January.
In holding the debate today, we are shining an important light on some incredible and inspiring stories of women who were true pioneers. We are doing so in a way that recognises their memory and the fact that the struggle for equality is not a battle consigned to history, but one that is very much alive today.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Davies. I commend Ian Murray on bringing the debate forward today. I am particularly pleased to speak in it not only as a woman and an Edinburgh MP, but as someone who has long held an interest in the work of Dr Elsie Maud Inglis, one of Edinburgh’s finest adopted daughters.
Elsie pursued women’s equality not just through words, but through work. She campaigned for the vote and she took part in the war, even when she was rudely told not to. Elsie did not “know her place”—she wanted to make a better world for all women. Many folk in her home city of Edinburgh, where she lived, trained and worked for much of her life, still do not know who Dr Elsie Inglis really was, beyond the name of the old maternity hospital where so many Edinburghers, including my partner, were born.
As we have heard, awareness of Elsie Inglis’s work is growing, with a local campaign in the Edinburgh Evening News gathering steam and a long-standing and relentless campaign for greater recognition led by Alan Cumming and Ian McFarlane. There are a few plaques here and there that commemorate the tremendous work of the Scottish women’s hospitals, but notably there are many more in Serbia, as we have heard. All credit to Clydesdale bank for putting Elsie’s image on its £50 notes in 2009. However, it is hardly the heights that Winston Churchill predicted when he said:
“The record of their work, lit up by the fame of Dr Inglis, will shine in history.”
I am not going to go over all Elsie Inglis’s achievements—those have been ably covered by other Members—but suffice it to say that hers is an incredible story. The grit and passion this woman and her colleagues showed in standing up to the prevailing attitudes to women and driving their plans forward regardless remain an inspiration to us all. The challenges for women at that time make her story all the more astonishing. Elsie Inglis was not a nurturing angel in the role women were expected to adopt; we remember her for her surgeon’s skills, her leadership, her tenacity and her vision, and for the impact she made on so many lives and the principles by which she lived. Elsie may have had a relatively privileged background, but she chose to take on the screaming wealth and gender inequalities of society. She was a progressive before that term became fashionable.
As convenor of culture in Edinburgh, I supported another 100th anniversary back in 2009, when there was the recreation of the 1909 Gude Cause suffrage procession along Princes Street, which I believe Elsie played a part in organising. That was such a memorable day, when we sisters and a few brothers celebrated not just the efforts of those women in gaining the vote, but the changes we have seen in the 100 years since. The accompanying “Votes for Women” exhibition at the Museum of Edinburgh—it was curated by another woman passionate about the history of the suffrage movement in Scotland, the excellent and late Helen Clark—was hugely successful and was extended by popular demand month after month.
Finally, the role Elsie Inglis and her contemporaries played in carving a path for me and other women to get involved in politics and medicine and to help build a better society for our daughters and our sons began to be more widely recognised in Edinburgh. Elsie deserves a statue in Edinburgh, at least as much as the grand generals on horses, the visiting royals clad in tartan trews or that famous terrier in the graveyard. I hope we get one, and soon. If as many Edinburgh girls and women as could manage it gave just £1 each towards that project, we would reach the target very soon. That would be a lovely tribute from those of us who owe many of the freedoms we enjoy today to women like Elsie. However, it is even more important that her legacy is a living one, where we work to protect our NHS from privatisation, tackle poverty and inequality, and ensure that every child has the best possible start in life. I am sure Elsie would approve of the Scottish Government’s baby box policy. One of my favourite slogans from the 1909 march, which was recreated in song for the anniversary, is:
“Ye maunna tramp on the Scottish thistle”.
That mood still resonates now, and the UK Government would do well to mind it.
It is good to see at least one woman being celebrated in this Parliament, which has so often failed many, many women. I could refer to the unfairness dished out to the Women Against State Pension Inequality pensioners, or how universal credit disproportionately targets women. There is the horrifying rape clause, the continuing disparity in wages between men and women, and many more examples. Elsie Inglis was an utterly remarkable woman who did an enormous amount of good, but she was fortunate to have started from a position of some privilege. We should be levelling the playing field and giving every woman a chance—at least a chance—of a life lived to its full potential. I am certain she would agree with that. Her great-nephew, the Reverend Hugh Inglis Maddox, said recently:
“My great-aunt spent her life showing men that women could do anything.”
Let that be her legacy.
I welcome the commemorations for the 100th anniversary of Elsie Inglis’s death. At the weekend, I—alongside our Health Minister, Elsie’s descendants and Edinburgh’s Lord Provost—attended a beautiful memorial service in Dean cemetery, where Elsie lies. It is good to see Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon paying hearty tribute to this hero. I believe she is attending the ceremony in St Giles cathedral tomorrow. Here in London, the many roles of women in world war one are marked in a lovely, moving memorial at the Cenotaph, but among all the unsung heroes, Elsie’s is a name that deserves to be sung about—a story that deserves to be told.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend Ian Murray on securing today’s debate. We have heard some wonderful contributions, starting with his own, followed by a speech from John Lamont. My hon. Friend Luke Pollard made a good point about the statistics on the representation of women in public art; perhaps the Minister could reflect on that. Given what we have heard today, the representation of women in our public art is pitiful, and much needs to be done to rectify that, including collecting statistics. Indeed, another matter that the Minister could fruitfully give some thought to after the debate is the number of women artists represented in the Government’s art collection.
My hon. Friend Martin Whitfield reminded us of the role of women in the great war, but after being admonished by you, Mr Davies, he did not stray too far into the issues relating to the miners’ strike. I think the historical thread he was trying to draw out was understood by all concerned: women have made a huge contribution not only during national and international conflict, but during industrial conflict in this country.
Jim Shannon appropriately reminded us of the complexity of politics in Ireland at the time of the great war, embodied in the person he spoke about, Winnie Carney. That complexity is at last being much more openly acknowledged, as is the contribution that Irish men and women from all over Ireland made during the great war, prior to the Easter rising and the civil war that followed the great war. It is right that that should be much more openly acknowledged and debated in the UK and Ireland.
Christine Jardine said that the women are part of a “glorious thread woven through British history”, and I entirely endorse that remark, which sums up in a single phrase what we are discussing this morning. My hon. Friend Dan Jarvis spoke about Mary Barbour, a huge figure in the “Red Clydeside” movement at the time of the great war and thereafter. Indeed, as well as the rent strike, she organised the women’s peace crusade. When discussing the great war we should also talk about the complexities and the controversy in relation to the way that that war broke out and was fought.
I am glad to be here on behalf of the Labour Front Bench and pleased to be able to contribute to this important debate during the period of the first world war centenary commemorations. As we have heard, the story of Dr Elsie Inglis is remarkable. Her work in setting up women’s medical units on the western front so soon after the outbreak of the war, and her later involvement in arranging women’s despatch units to attend to other areas of fighting, is an incredible story. As a result of her work, there were 14 Scottish women’s hospitals along the frontline, where almost 1,500 women served, often in atrocious conditions, serving an estimated 20,000 allied soldiers.
Today we have heard of Dr Inglis’ drive and her initiative and compassion, all of which led her to use her skills to help others. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South said that when she was told by the War Office to,
“go home and sit still”,
she turned to France for support to make her goal a reality. She also turned to the sisterhood and solidarity of the women’s suffrage organisations, which were crucial to her success, as they raised the equivalent of £53 million in today’s money in support of her cause. She is a fine example for us all to follow. Do not follow the Government’s advice at all times is one message I take from her example. We are grateful today for her service and her sacrifice, and indeed her belligerence, independence and stubbornness, which led her to carry on despite the opposition from her own Government. This month’s celebrations in Edinburgh are a fitting tribute to her work and I wish all the best for the service at St Giles’ Cathedral taking place tomorrow, which hon. Members have mentioned.
Earlier this year we had the opportunity to pay tribute in the Chamber to those who fought in Passchendaele. During that debate I was glad to be able to pay particular tribute, as a Member of Parliament representing a Welsh constituency, to the Welch Regiment, the South Wales Borderers and the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who all fought alongside each other in the 38th Division, and to the Welsh Guards who fought in the third battle of Ypres. In Wales we particularly remember the poignant death of the poet Ellis Evans, better known as Hedd Wyn, who was killed before he was able to claim his prize of the chair at the National Eisteddfod during the war; he was killed at Passchendaele. As ever, we remain in remembrance of their great sacrifice for the freedom and future of our country. In addition to paying tribute to the local forces as part of that debate, many Members talked of the brave work of women across the country, as well as from their particular constituencies, during the great war.
Across the UK women served at home and abroad to ensure the success of the allied forces. Many, like Dr Elsie Inglis, left for the western front to care for the wounded. In the munitions factories, as we have heard, many working-class women undertook hazardous manufacturing work. In fact, in the second world war, my father’s sister, my Auntie Mary, worked in the Currans munitions factory in Cardiff. In the first world war there were 11 munitions factories in Wales alone, and by the end of the war 80% of the workforce in those factories were women. It is a myth that women were not in paid work before the first world war. Many, like my own relatives, worked in service before getting married. Many of the women who worked in the munitions factories transferred their aprons working in service to work in overalls in the munitions factories. In that dangerous and dirty work, they found both a way to contribute to the war effort on the home front, and for many, for the first time, a way to earn a significant and stable independent income.
The percentage of women in paid work increased from 24% at the outset of the first world war to 37% by 1918. In 1917, 20,000 women joined the Women’s Land Army across the UK. In my constituency, the Green Farm became what is now the very large housing estate of Ely. That subject is quite topical in some ways, as the estate was part of the drive to build homes fit for heroes after the first world war. As a farm during the war, it was predominantly run by female farmhands. One of the workers, Agnes Greatorex, who left domestic service to work there, said:
“Every morning, we would get up at five o'clock and milk a hundred cows. We would then take the milk to Glan Ely Hospital,” where many of the injured soldiers returning from the war were looked after. For many, such work was taken on in addition to the weight of domestic work. Although many men went to fight, women often became the breadwinner at home, bearing the brunt of the increased emotional and domestic labour of running a house and caring for a family. We should also remember that others served at home, but not in the armed forces. Like my grandfather, Edward Evans, they were not allowed to be conscripted in wartime because they worked in the coalmines, but they made their contribution serving at home. My grandmother, Gwellian Evans, worked in service and then domestically supported her husband.
Women such as Dr Elsie Inglis and Agnes Greatorex are a part our history, and we owe them a huge debt. I should also mention some prominent women from Wales. Gwendoline and Margaret Davies are better known as philanthropists in the arts, but they worked with the French Red Cross in canteens and organised convalescent hospitals and transit camps on the frontline. Annie Brewer, a military nurse from Newport, spent the war in France and won many medals for her courage. One citation applauded her
“coolness and total disregard of danger, lavishing her attention on men wounded under fire”.
That sums up some of the incredibly brave contribution made by women on the frontline during the war.
A poster during the first world war depicted a woman wearing overalls and said:
“On her their lives depend.”
Our tributes today make that same message abundantly clear. It is no coincidence that the centenary commemoration of women’s suffrage closely follows that of the first world war. As we know, the suffragettes largely suspended their organising during the war in order to concentrate on the war effort. In the end, the crucial contribution of women to the war helped change the perception of women in the UK, and in November 1918 women over the age of 30 were given the right to vote.
Given Dr Inglis’ commitment to women’s suffrage, it is particularly poignant that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South reminded us, she died a year before the passage of the Representation of the People Act. It is a great injustice that despite her historic sacrifice for our country, she never had the opportunity to cast a vote in an election to this place.
Before I close on the topic of women in the first world war, it is right to consider how these issues continue to play out today. Women’s work—their physical, professional and emotional labour—remains often underappreciated and underpaid. Of course, women play a vital frontline role in our armed forces today. We have come a long way since 1918, but it remains all too common that the contributions of women are underplayed, so I am pleased that this debate today has shone a spotlight on the accomplishments and sacrifices of so many historic women, from extraordinary actions to daily perseverance. I warmly welcome the WomensWork100 programme, which will launch in 2018 through the First World War Centenary Partnership. I thank all the organisations involved for their hard work throughout the commemoration period, in particular the Imperial War Museum.
Our armed forces communities continue to protect us, and I am proud of and humbled by the sacrifices they still make today. At home, the UK armed forces, supported by the entire armed forces community of families, reservists, veterans and cadets, continue to support responses to terrorist incidents and to protect our aerospace. Abroad, they are currently involved in more than 30 operations in 20 countries, from supporting the European Union and UN peacekeeping missions in South Sudan, to responding to the continuing threat posed by Daesh. As we take this time today to remember the contributions and sacrifices made during the first world war, we should also remember the sacrifices that have been made every year since then and are still being made by the brave men and women of the armed forces community. We should also redouble our efforts—all of us; men and women—to work for peace.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I thank Ian Murray for introducing the debate. I know the subject is close to the hearts of many Members across the House, and that has been reflected in the nine moving and poignant speeches and the several interventions made this morning.
We have heard of the importance of Dr Inglis’s work and how it serves as one of many examples of the contributions of women to the war effort. This is a very important subject as we reflect on the first world war 100 years on. I pay tribute to my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend Dr Murrison, who has done so much, alongside other Members of the House, including Dan Jarvis, to commemorate the first world war. There has been a significant number of events, and those taking place in 2018 will be announced early in the new year.
As hon. Members have observed, Dr Inglis was a hugely inspirational woman. As one of the first female doctors in the UK, a pioneer of women in medicine and an ardent campaigner for votes for women, she is a remarkable figure in our history. The hon. Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) spoke about the collection of data. I am open to representations on that matter, but it is important that many commemorations have been based on decisions made in different local authorities. It is about getting the right balance between spending money and allowing local campaigns to come to fruition in the right way. A large number of commemorations that have taken place over the last few years reflected inputs from local communities. Although I do not rule anything out, there are a number of communities across our history—perhaps even ethnic minorities—whose contributions have not been reflected. There is a judgment to be made on where we draw the line on that, but I note the sensible points that have been raised.
Through the upheaval of the first world war, Dr Inglis achieved international fame for the drive, dedication and compassion that were woven into her life, as well as her determination to do what she believed was right—refusing, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh South said, to go home and sit still. She is an enduring inspirational role model for us all. Instead of sitting still, she turned her energies to establishing field hospitals for service overseas.
As has been mentioned, Serbia in particular was in dire need of doctors, and some 600 British women served there as volunteers during the war—in large part due to Dr Inglis’s pioneering work to raise awareness and funds for that cause. She arrived in Serbia in January 1915 with the Scottish women’s hospitals, and used her skill and tenacity to save lives and alleviate suffering in extremely harsh and hazardous circumstances. She demonstrated extraordinary leadership and great loyalty in refusing to abandon Serbian troops in the field, and was herself sent into German captivity with the wounded, rather than withdrawing when the opportunity arose.
I am delighted that the Scottish commemorations panel, ably led by Norman Drummond, is delivering a number of events to commemorate the work of Dr Inglis and her fellow members of the Scottish women’s hospitals movement. A wreath-laying ceremony took place on Sunday at the grave of Dr Inglis in Dean cemetery, Edinburgh, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh South mentioned. Tomorrow, a commemorative service will take place in the presence of Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal in St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, timed to start 100 years to the minute from Dr Inglis’s funeral there.
As with all its previous events, the Scottish panel has produced an historical publication, available to members of the public on its website. The impact of Dr Inglis’s contribution reflects the sacrifice and courage of so many women—something that has been raised by hon. Members across the Chamber. My hon. Friend John Lamont gave a moving and poignant account of the contribution made by individuals from his constituency. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport spoke about the work of Chris Robinson and the sacrifices made by those who worked with poisonous chemicals in Plymouth—a city that is close to my own heart, following my extensive attempt to get elected there several years ago.
Martin Whitfield spoke of Bessie Bowhill and her enormous contribution. Such contributions were often under-reported; that theme has run across many of the individuals we have discussed. We did not really know about their contribution, and that is not right.
Christine Jardine spoke movingly about the many women who made such strong contributions and sacrifices in difficult circumstances, and about the premature death of her own mother—as with my father—through asbestos poisoning.
In 2015, the British residence in Belgrade, as was also mentioned in some very well-researched speeches, was named in Dr Inglis’s honour, as a reflection of her service in Serbia and the historical relationship between the UK and Serbia. She was also featured on stamps issued by the Serbian Mail in 2015, along with other British women of the Scottish women’s hospitals movement. Closer to home, I understand that the Edinburgh & Lothians Health Foundation has an annual Elsie Inglis staff development award, and there is a permanent memorial to her in St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh.
Dr Inglis’s contribution also reminds us of the role played by other remarkable women who made history during the first world war, such as Gertrude Bell, who played an extraordinary role in the middle east; Edith Cavell, the nurse executed in 1915, who was commemorated in a series of events in October 2015; Flora Sandes, who also served in Serbia with the Serbian army; and Vera Brittain, the Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, who left a powerful account of her experiences and the reality of modern war. Those well known heroines are the most recognisable women of the first world war, but we should also remember the vital role played by many less well known, but no less inspiring, women—a theme of some of this morning’s speeches.
The range of organisations established during the war reflects the range of contributions made by women, and the strength of their desire to play their part. Although it is not possible in the remaining time to recount every organisation founded by, or for, women during the war, I will highlight some of the most prominent to give an idea of the scale and breadth of their contribution.
Under military control from the start of the war, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, and its part-time equivalent, the Territorial Force Nursing Service, were greatly expanded and served throughout the war on every front and in every campaign, often in the harshest conditions. Their professionalism and compassion feature in the recollections of many of those who experienced their care. They were supported by the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the Red Cross—staffed by both men and women—which was tasked with nursing, the administration of hospitals and rest stations, clerical and transport duties, and, in response to new developments, air raid duties. Working in Royal Army Medical Corps hospitals from February 1915, they numbered more than 82,000 members by 1920.
Women also served in the Army, the Navy and the newly-founded Royal Air Force in a range of roles previously performed exclusively by men. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was formed in February 1917 and eventually numbered 57,000 volunteers. In recognition of that service, the corps was renamed Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps in April 1918. The Women’s Royal Naval Service, universally known as the Wrens, was also formed in 1917, with 5,500 women serving by 1918 in a wide range of roles. On
The Women’s Royal Air Force was created as part of the newly-established RAF on
Other auxiliary forces assisted with the war effort at home. The Women’s Land Army, formed in February 1917, provided a dedicated agricultural workforce and went on to employ some 113,000 women as field workers, carters, milkers and ploughwomen. Indeed, by the end of the war women made up around one third of all agricultural labour. The first female police officers also served during the first world war. The women’s patrols were tasked with supervising women around factories and workers’ hostels, as well as patrolling railway stations and public spaces.
In addition, a huge number of auxiliary and volunteer organisations were established, which reflected the desire of women across the country to take part in the war and serve their country. The enthusiasm with which women joined the groups and the way they performed their roles played a large part in the decision to increase recruitment of women in the forces.
The Women’s Legion, which was formed in July 1915, eventually became the largest entirely voluntary body. Its volunteers were involved in many forms of work and the strength of response is often cited as a factor in influencing the Government to accept and organise female labour on a more formal basis.
Women began to contribute more than ever to Britain’s industrial output. Although women made up a substantial part of the industrial workforce before the war, largely in the textile industry, as the demand for shells and munitions increased, women were employed in the munitions industry in larger numbers. As has been mentioned a number of times in the debate, working long hours, in difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions, women helped to supply the troops with weapons, ammunition and equipment. By 1918, almost a million women were employed in some aspect of munitions work. Women also began working in much larger numbers in the transport industry. During the war, the number of women working on the railways rose from 9,000 to 50,000. Elsewhere, they worked as bus drivers, conductors, ticket collectors and porters.
I am very pleased to say that that huge range of activity will be reflected in “WomensWork100”, a programme led by the Imperial War Museums and the Centenary Partnership. An international programme of exhibitions, events, activities and digital resources will be launched in February 2018 and will recognise and celebrate the working lives of women during the first world war. Through the stories of those who joined the workforce and against the backdrop of the campaign for female suffrage, it will use the IWM’s Women’s Work Collection to explore the breadth of women’s roles.
The creation of that collection is closely linked with the establishment of the museum. Almost immediately after its creation in 1917, the museum formed a committee to source material to ensure that the role of women would be recorded. That material included items donated by Dr Inglis’s sisters, some of which are on permanent display at the Imperial War Museum North. It is particularly appropriate that next year Imperial War Museums will be sharing stories from the collection.
The Department for Communities and Local Government, which has responsibility for commemorating women’s suffrage, has plans for a project called “Inspirational Women: Speak Up”. It will enable schools across the country to research and present content about the contribution of women to society and will include women such as Dr Elsie Inglis and Sophia Duleep Singh, who served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, tending wounded Indian troops in Brighton.
Although the courage, self-sacrifice and determination of such women is inspiring, we should not lose sight of the loss and hardship endured by women during the war, as reflected in the speech by Jim Shannon. In a recent debate introduced by my hon. Friend David Morris, it was noted that some 600 memorial plaques were issued to the families of women who died in the first world war in the service of their country. Each plaque represents a very personal and tragic story of loss and sacrifice.
Women’s suffrage is somewhat outside the scope of this debate, but the contribution of women to the national effort was rightly a significant factor in the passing of the Representation of the People Act in February 1918. Although I note the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire about what happened subsequently, I am sure that the IWM and DCLG programmes, as well as many other local and community projects, will reflect on that element of women’s experience during the war. The war galvanised women of all ages and social backgrounds to support the war effort and to reconsider their position in society. We should not lose sight of the ever-present contribution of women at home and to the family, maintaining some sense of normality, or looking after the children of those who had entered the workforce.
In those respects and many others, the contribution of women to all aspects of the first world war was hugely significant. I am conscious that the debate has only touched on the many fascinating and moving stories of many millions of our forebears. I am sure that tomorrow our thoughts will turn to Dr Inglis, but as we approach the final year of centenary commemorations, we will continue to recognise and remember the huge role played by women during the first world war and ensure that it is not forgotten.
I thank the Minister and the shadow Minister for their wonderful contributions and the moving stories they told from their personal experience. What we see from the debate—from Dr Elsie Inglis, Mary Barbour and Florence Green, whom the Minister mentioned; from Plymouth to Wales to Glasgow to Edinburgh, from Barnsley to Caithness to Northern Ireland and right across the country; from the RAF, the Army and the Royal Navy—is that the contribution that these dedicated, passionate and often modest women made to the war effort, and subsequently, without any regard to their own safety, shows that we owe them a great deal of respect and remembrance. Perhaps, if someone from the BBC is watching, they might want to change “Dad’s Army” to “Mum’s Army” and make a new comedy series about the contribution of women to the war effort.
We will see many centenaries this year and next in the run-up to the centenary of the end of the first world war. For everyone who made an effort, particularly for women, we will do two things: thank them for the service they gave this country and say that we will always remember them.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered Dr Elsie Inglis and the contribution of women to World War One.