Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Surplus Women - the legacy of WW1

Clarrie, Winifred & Hilda Griffiths
Most of us have them on our tree — Maiden Aunts. My great-aunt, Hilda Victoria Griffiths, depicted right with her sisters, my grandmother Winifred (the youngest) and Clarrie, the eldest of the three, is probably the one I knew best, out of all my maiden aunts.

Often overlooked by family historians for obvious reasons (that the line stops there, as with single men) single women can end up being labelled and dismissed as what's almost become a term of condescension — "spinster".

While the dictionary definition of a spinster is simply "an unmarried woman", the term conjures up society's stereotype — an elderly lady, sitting in a corner knitting, assumed to know little of the "real world", even seen as a bit batty, to be viewed with pity. Or worse, considered a "dried up", embittered old maid who'd been "left on the shelf", to be treated with scorn, mockery and even contempt.

Surplus Women

The unfairness of this attitude was made particularly clear to me this week while reading Singled Out, by Virginia Nicholson which examines the trauma of what the press of the time termed Surplus Women, following the First World War.

The loss of so many young men who'd died in the trenches completely distorted the natural balance of the sexes, confirmed by the 1921 census which revealed that for every 1,000 men of marriageable age, there were around 1,200 women. In consequence, there would be a considerable number of women who would never find a mate, an outcome considered a crisis situation in an era when society saw marriage as every woman's goal.

Hilda (left) with younger sister, Winifred
You would think that, given the status quo was brought about by such traumatic circumstances as a world war, allowances would be made for the women affected. But while there was sympathy and understanding by some, it seems there were others who looked down disdainfully on those women who didn't prove "good enough" in the inevitable competition to find a partner.

Mystery fiancé

Any woman born at the turn of the 20th century, as Hilda was, became a surplus statistic, as did Hilda's sisters — my grandmother, Winifred, who would have been 17 at the end of the war, and Clarrie, who would have been 23.

But Clarrie would be married by 1921 and by 1929 so would Winifred (albeit to a much older man, not of her own generation, though that's another story). But Hilda, born in 1897, would be 32 by the time of Win's marriage, an age considered far too old to have any reasonable hope of attracting a husband.

There was the sniff of a story that Hilda was engaged before the war and that her fiance was killed. Sadly, I have no name and no more information than that to establish the truth of the tale. Perhaps, as I've speculated before, my "unknown soldier" from the tank corps (see Mystery Unravelling... slowly) is the man in question and is the reason why I've been unable to link him to the family tree.

Nieces and nephews

Like many surplus ladies of her generation, however, Hilda was determined to make the most of her life, even if it didn't include a husband and children of her own.

My Rupert, one of many
versions Hilda made
She had several great-nieces and great-nephews who benefited from her love of sewing. Amongst the many things she sewed, she made Rupert Bears for each of us, using patterns she drew herself by hand, so each bear had its own distinctive character. My sister and I considered our own bears to be very precious and were horrified at the way our male cousins played with them, throwing them around through the air in games of derring-do!

Hilda worked for British Rail, having first joined the railways as clerk with the Great Western Railway in 1916. When she retired, she enjoyed travelling around the country visiting friends and family, thanks to the 'perk' of discounted fares as a former employee. 

Hilda's GWR employee entry in 1916
When she wasn't travelling, she lived in a caravan on a residential site in Wolverhampton which my sister and I thought was the most exciting thing in the world. When we visited, we would sit up at the bedroom end of the van at her "dining table" playing with a set of kitchen scales and weights, measuring out rice into different containers.

Hilda's caravan after it was moved to Wales
for family holiday use

Hilda was a great cook, too. In her minute kitchen, she would conjure up the most amazing cakes and biscuits for tea.

When she moved into a long-awaited council flat in the late 1960s (when she would have been around 70 years old) we couldn't understand the appeal over the "romance" of living in a caravan. The fact that she would no longer have to make do with a condensation-inducing gas fire for heating, a chemical loo in a cupboard in the kitchen or trek across the site for a bath, was completely lost on us!

Lost opportunity

Hilda died in 1975 in Codsall, Wolverhampton, aged 77. In life, she was always cheerful, kind, enthusiastic and always busy. I wonder how she felt about being one of the Surplus Women.  Did she, like many who are mentioned in Virginia Nicholson's book, feel that she'd missed out, that she'd been robbed unfairly of a life she might have expected if the war had never happened? If she did, I never saw any sign of it.

And what was the truth about the story of a lost love? That, I fear, may be one of those mysteries which is destined to remain ever secret.


Do you have maiden aunts on your tree? What were they like? If you've any memories to share, I'd be delighted to hear about them.