Campaigning for peace-Norfolk Women in the First World War

On 3rd December Frank Meeres, Archivist at Norfolk Record Office presented a lunchtime talk ‘Women at War.’ This introduced us to some of the key women associated with Norfolk who played various roles in the war including three who survived, Mary Sheepshanks, Ethel Williams and Beatrice Gurney and two women who died in the cause of the war, Violet E Davey and Violet Tillard.

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A photograph of Beatrice Gurney who worked for the church army in Belgium. NRO catalogue number MC 117/3

Mary Sheepshanks – feminist and pacifist

Brought up in Liverpool, Mary Sheepshanks became a resident of Norwich when her father John Sheepshanks became Bishop of Norwich in 1893.  Mary was secretary of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, and editor of its magazine Jus Suffragii [‘the law of suffrage’]. She attended a Women’s peace meeting held in London on the 4th August, as it happened the very day on which war was declared. Mary was a pacifist by conviction and turned the magazine into a paper promoting the anti-war cause.

In 1914 Sheepshanks became part of a group of British women raising funds for refugees who had fled Belgium for neutral Holland. With Chrystal Macmillan, Sheepshanks sailed to Flushing with the first food convoy to supply refugees. The scenes the women observed in Holland led to them putting pressure on the British Government to take in refugees: the Record Office holds several documents relating to the raising of money for Belgian refugees who have found shelter in Norfolk.

 ‘A woman of many firsts’

A woman of many firsts, Ethel Williams was born in Cromer and attended Norwich High School. As it wasn’t possible to study to become a doctor in England Ethel studied in Vienna afterwards moving to work in Newcastle. It was here she became the first woman in North East England to learn to drive a car.

Ethel Williams too became a leading anti-war campaigner, and a supporter of the two main groups opposing the war, the Union of Democratic Control and the No Conscription Fellowship.  The former was by far the larger group, with 300,000 members including Mary Sheepshanks. Ethel Williams chose to join the No Conscription fellowship, a more radical group with 15,000 members.

A third peace group was a Quaker group ‘The Fellowship of Reconciliation’, which had a religious basis: the founder was a member of the Society of Friends and those interested in reading more about this society can find the group’s records here at Norfolk Record Office.

A fourth organisation was the Women’s Peace Crusade, a woman-only group campaigning to stop the war.  It was founded in 1916 by Helen Crawfurd, a Glaswegian who had been brought up in Ipswich.  The Crusade held meetings in the last year of the war, and spread across Britain, including Norwich.

These groups all did function in Norwich but tantalisingly little is known about them as no records are known to exist (some groups, being likely to state persecution, will deliberately have kept few records).  If anyone knows of any records, or who has an ancestor who was a member of these groups, the Record Office would love to hear from them.  In terms of further research, the best sources held by the Record Office would be archives of groups known to be sympathetic to the ant-war movement or to pacifism, such as the Society of Friends or the Primitive Methodist church.

Women and work

Another notable female figure in Norwich was Dorothy Jewson a leading pacifist in Norwich who wanted to employ women in non-military roles. She formed a toy making ‘commune’, mainly funded by herself and her associates.  She acquired an old warehouse in St Benedict’s in Norwich and up to sixty young girls worked there at any one time, making toys which they then sold on Norwich Market Place.

Helping the starving

After November 1918, although the fighting was officially at an end, there was still much to be done: there was starvation in many parts of Europe, including Belgium, Austria and Russia.  The Quakers led the way in famine relief, but many other women played their part including both Mary Sheepshanks and Ethel Williams.  Another Norwich woman, Beatrice Gurney, worked with the Church Army in Belgium: she was appalled by the number of war orphans there and organised a special party for them, recorded in her diary, held at the Record Office.

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The party Beatrice Gurney held for Belgium war orphans in Namur. NRO catalogue number MC 117/3  

To be fair, women who had been pro-war also helped in this, such as Lucy Bignold, by then in her eighties. She was a w member of the Norwich branch of the Council of Women: the Record Office has the minutes of the group, showing that they considered whether it best to bring starving children back to England or to look after them in Vienna.  They held a house-to-house collection of clothes, and a charity concert to raise money – there is nothing new about concerts like Live Aid!

Lives lost in the cause of the war

The Record Office has the diary of Tom Copeman, a local Quaker who worked with the starving in Russia.  Women were with him there too, including Violet Tillard, a former suffragette who in pre-war times had travelled East Anglia setting up suffragette groups.

Her story is a tragic one: she caught a disease from the children she was helping and died in Russia: her short life had been dedicated to feminism, pacifism and to helping the needy.  We could contrast her story with that of another Violet – Violet Davey, who joined the RAF and is officially listed as ‘killed in action’, probably the only Norfolk woman of the First World War to lie under an official Commonwealth War grave.  War creates so many different kinds of heroine!

Do you know of any records relating to the peace groups mentioned in this post or have an ancestor who was the member of one? If so we would love to hear from you!

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