Monday August 3, 1914 was a bank holiday, and there was plenty to enjoy despite the temperate but showery weather borne on a fresh westerly breeze.
At Chester’s Royalty Theatre audiences could catch the first appearance of the Three Van Dammes, while there were races at Hooton Park, a floral and horticultural show at Cholmondeley, and the band of the 3rd Battalion Cheshire Regiment was scheduled to play on the Groves.
Yet within 24 hours of this bank holiday larking, Britain would be at war and the world would be turned upside down – not just for the millions of men who fought on land, sea and in the air but the millions of women who would serve too, on the ‘home front’.
Some women had always been part of the workforce of course – in factories and mills or domestic service, as dressmakers, landladies, shop owners or schoolteachers.
But if the vote (no taxation without representation) was still frustratingly beyond their grasp in August 1914, war did open up opportunities and freedoms previously closed to half the population and brought a much wider cohort of women into the workplace as a result.
Munitions factories sprang up across the area, the largest of which opened at Queensferry in the summer of 1915 at an old boiler factory which had been in use as an internment camp for ‘enemy aliens’.
At first, Queensferry employed mostly men, but as the war dragged on it was ‘munitionettes’ who increasingly took on the dangerous task of filling shells with TNT – the chemical turning their skin yellow which led to the nickname ‘canaries’.
Winnington-based soda ash manufacturers Brunner, Mond and Co turned their factory to the production of ammonium nitrate and purified TNT and by 1918 reportedly employed around 2,400 women, while more than 500 were engaged in dangerous munitions work at Northwich.
Pay was good, so it’s little surprise so many women were prepared to risk the dangers in return for a wage that gave many of them proper independence for the first time.
Meanwhile in December 1915, lady lamplighters made their first appearance on Chester streets, with 10 young women aged 19 and 20 employed to tend to its 1,000 lamps.
While the Chester Corporation turned out to be less than enthusiastic about employing women in many roles, it did also agree to take on female tram conductors.
Railway companies were far less reticent about harnessing the county’s available female workforce, particularly at Crewe where most of the men who had worked there had volunteered or been called up.
Women were pressed into service in the works, steam sheds, railway offices and stations, filling roles like carriage and engine cleaners and ticket collectors.
And over at Birkenhead, towards the end of the war women police began to appear on the streets.
While women filled jobs in factories and on the railways, others enrolled on horticultural training schemes in public parks at Heaton, Crewe and Birkenhead.
And although it was poorly paid compared to munitions work, hundreds more also took on farm labour, becoming ‘land girls’ – a role formalised with the formation of the Women’s Land Army in 1917.
A County Women’s War Agricultural Committee was formed in Cheshire early in the conflict, and if many farmers had to be convinced to employ women, those who did utilised their female labour force picking potatoes, milking herds and fertilising fields.
By 1917, women were taking part successfully in horse team and motorised tractor ploughing competitions.
Women were also visible in many other lines of less physical work including lady ‘postmen’, telegraph messengers, clerks and typists. The Girls’ Friendly Society helped provide accommodation for women war workers.
And for middle class Chester girls, nursing was a popular option. Military hospitals were set up at places like the city’s former workhouse, Hoole Bank, Helsby, Parkgate, and at private homes including Eaton Hall, the seat of the Duke of Westminster.
Sadly, these gains in female freedom weren’t to last.
With the Armistice, most found themselves out of work as men returned from the Front.
The reward for their wartime toil wasn’t the universal suffrage that had been demanded before 1914 – while women over 30 were given vote it would take another decade to extend that right to all.
Instead, the opportunities afforded by the war mostly slipped away as women were expected to return, quietly, to home and hearth. But those four years showed just what they were capable of, given the chance, and laid the foundation for what would eventually come.
Words by Catherine Jones