Women’s presence on the battlefield is not a new phenomenon. From Boadicea, the Celtic Warrior Queen, who led an uprising against the Romans in the first century AD to Hannah Snell who served for two years as a marine on board the Swallow in the mid 18th century disguised as a man, women have played a part.
Today women serve alongside their male counterparts in the modern military arena - in Afghanistan as bomb disposal experts, in the RAF where in 1994 Flight Lieutenant Jo Salter became the first female operational fast jet pilot, flying Tornados with 617 Squadron and 2013 will see the first women officers serving on Vanguard class nuclear submarines.
And with the fast approaching centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the role women played in both the military and on the Home Front continues to be recognised.
In 1917 Lieutenant General H. Lawson recommended using women in the army in France. The reaction of Field Marshall Haig was that women would not be capable of the hard, physical labour, but by March of that year the first women were deployed overseas and by early 1918 there were 6,000 WAAC’s in France. Far more women enrolled than had been anticipated.
In Swindon women also rose to the challenge, from schoolteacher Mary Slade who galvanised a group of volunteers to fund raise for Swindon men taken prisoners of war to munitions worker ‘Lily.’
The role of women in the GWR Works during the Second World War has been well documented; however there is less evidence for the First World War. Apparently there were problems employing women due to the lack of toilet facilities and a canteen. Another problem was that the men frequently worked stripped to the waist and it was considered inappropriate to have women working alongside them. However the GWR had a number of contracts with the Ministry of Munitions and we know that women were employed in the Works.
This photograph shows a group of Swindon women munitions workers, some of them wearing sweetheart badges indicating they have a loved one serving in the air corps. The only clue to the identity of these women is the name Lily printed on the back. The photos came from a batch that once belonged to a Mrs Humphreys 146 Dixon Street.
And of course the war touched everyone.
Celia Sarah Davis married William James Pitt on November 25, 1905 at the Register Office in Swindon. William worked as a Boiler Maker and Labourer in the Loco Works and the 1911 census shows the couple living in Hawkins Street, Rodbourne with their four young children. They went on to have another two children.
A reservist, having previously served with the Royal Warwick Regiment, William re-enlisted in October 1914. He was 43 years old. On April 4, 1917 he was discharged suffering for tuberculosis and permanently unfit for service.
William’s daughter Violet remembered that when her father came back from the war he was ill and had to live in a special shed in the garden of 21 Hawkins Street. She recalled playing round his feet in the kitchen, making dens under the blanket that covered his knees. He died just three months later on July 17, 1917.
Here is a photograph of Celia wearing her best hat and William in army uniform. In the 1930s Celia worked as a cleaner at the Civic Offices in Euclid Street but how she managed in those early post war years with six children to raise alone has passed out of family memory. She later lived at 142 County Road, opposite the football ground. She died there in 1947 having survived yet another world war.
For so many of the women these wartime losses came at an age when they would have expected, or at least hoped, that life would be entering a more peaceful phase, when the worry of raising a young family was past. Women like Mary Jane Preater.
Haulier Charles Preater was born in Abergavenny, Monmouthshire but grew up in Maiseyhampton. His wife Mary Jane was born in Cheltenham, the eldest child of Benjamin and Leah Pickett. Charles and Mary Jane married in Swindon in 1880.
Along with his haulage business Charles was also the licensee at the New Inn on Cromwell Street where in 1901 he and Mary Jane lived and where their ten children were born.
Official documents and Victorian census returns frequently record a married woman as having on occupation. With two demanding businesses and a large family to care for Mary Jane’s life must have been a busy one. She probably looked forward to the time when her sons would take over the businesses and she and Charles could take a well earned rest.
Four of Mary Jane’s six sons answered the call to colours - only one returned. Arthur Benjamin Preater, a private in the Wiltshire Regiment, 2nd Battalion was killed in action October 18, 1916 aged 30; Charles Lewis Preater private in the Wiltshire Regiment 6th Battalion also killed in action April 29, 1918 aged 29 and Herbert Frederick Preater Lance Sergeant in the Worcestershire Regiment 2/8th Battalion 22 years old when he was killed in action November 1, 1918.
The census taken in 1921, three years after the end of the Great War, revealed there were in excess of 1.7 million more females than males in the population. These are the stories of just two of these women.
The photograph of Celia and William Pitt and family details are published courtesy of Steve Arman
The Preater family memorial at Radnor Street Cemetery is published courtesy of Duncan and Mandy Ball www.oodwooc.co.uk