Roath Women and the War: Part 4

Roath Road Wesleyan Methodist Chapel was situated on the corner of City Road and Newport Road . Built around 1860 it was a substantial building reputedly able to seat 1000. The Roath Road Magazine was originally established as the magazine of the Roath Road Wesleyan Methodist Sunday School (DX320/3/2/i-iii). From November 1914 it was published monthly as the ‘Roath Road Roamer’ (RRR) to provide news on the war and, in particular, the fortunes of service men and women associated with the Roath Road Wesleyan Church, School and Congregation serving in the armed forces (DAWES6). It was distributed throughout the area and sent overseas to provide soldiers, families and friends with news from home and updates on colleagues serving in the forces. In particular, it featured photographs and letters from soldiers serving overseas.

From the outset the intention was that the magazine should feature the contribution made by the women of the parish and, in particular, those ‘in uniform’. Altogether, the magazine included details of 19 women from the Roath area. Many were sisters of serving soldiers, sailors and airmen and the magazine included photographs of 17 of the 19 and several letters. Referred to in the magazine as ‘our Lady Roamers’ the short pen pictures featured over the coming weeks provide an insight into how the war resulted in women moving into roles and occupations previously dominated by men.

At the outset of the war possibly the most obvious route for women looking to contribute to the war effort was to take up the call for volunteers made by both local charities and national bodies such as the Red Cross. Seven of the women featured in the magazine took this route. However, later in the War, as a result of the shortage of manpower following the introduction of conscription in 1916, opportunities opened up for women in many new areas of work. By 1918 Lady Roamers were also to be found in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, the Royal Air Force, the Land Army and local services including the railways and the post. Furthermore, from their letters we know that several served overseas.

The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.  May Brooks, May Kear, Edith Townsend and Gladys Townsend

The formation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in 1917 was a significant milestone in accepting that women could undertake roles within the Armed Forces other than nursing. While the Land Army, although organised on military lines, remained essentially a voluntary and domestic body, the WAAC was more akin to an army unit.

May Kear

Six of the Lady Roath Roamers were photographed in WAAC uniform. May Kear and May Brooks were in the distinctive brown gabardine coat frock  and round broad brimmed felt hat of the WAAC.  By 1918 the WAAC had become Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC) and two sisters, Edith and Gladys Townsend, were pictured wearing the uniform of the QMAAC. Like many of the Lady Roath Roamers the sisters had a brother, Fred, serving in the Army.

Townsend sisters

Over 57,000 women enrolled with the WAAC. Life was far from glamorous but must have still offered the opportunity to travel and a degree of independence well beyond the expectations and horizons of many young women from Roath at that time. While some were employed as mechanics, for most, opportunities were restricted to roles such as cook, clerk, waitress and driver. The letters from Edith and Gladys in the June 1918 edition of ‘The Roamer’ provided a good flavour of their early months in the QMAAC:

‘Well we have done some travelling since we first joined up, spent the first three weeks at Kimmel Park as Mess orderlies, we felt like old soldiers, then we had a month at the training camp at Abbey Wood, near Woolwich, experienced three air raids there, no damage was done anywhere near us although we were very excited. From there we were sent to Newcastle, made a stay from the Thursday before Good Friday until Easter Tuesday, did two Church Parades, one on Good Friday to the Parish Church, the second one we marched from Bensham Workhouse to the Cathedral. We enjoyed both services very much. Bensham Workhouse is the hostel where we were stationed. Being holiday time we were able to have a good look around and enjoy ourselves, we thought Newcastle very much like Cardiff, so felt more at home there than we have at any other place. Arrived at this camp on Easter Tuesday afternoon about 4 o clock, just about fagged out after travelling all day. Felt very strange at first but now we have settled down and know the ins and outs of the different Messes and like the life very much’ (Vol.44, p.6).

We know from May Brooks’ service record that her life in the WAAC followed a similar pattern.

May Brooks

May was 18 when she enlisted, and living at Elm Street, Cardiff. A clerk at a confectionary firm in Cardiff she applied for the WAAC at the Cardiff Labour Exchange. The Exchange’s records confirm that they saw her as a very suitable candidate. However, enrolment was conditional on passing a medical and the provision of two character references. From her war record we know that on this score, May passed with flying colours with a reference from a neighbour on Elm Street describing her as trustworthy, reliable and industrious. She also received a glowing testimonial from the Editor of the ‘Roath Roamer’, W. E. Clogg:

‘I believe her to be a steady, honest, straightforward girl and a capable one too. I have every confidence in thoroughly recommending her’.

Uniform and accommodation were provided free of charge but from the weekly wage of 24 shillings paid to lower ranks, 12 shillings was deducted for food. Although women serving in the WAAC did not have full military status, discipline was strict. There was a particular concern at how best to manage men and women working and living alongside each other in military camps. In ‘General Rules’ it was stipulated that:

‘Members of the WAAC will not whilst off duty associate with Officers and other ranks of the Army without the written permission of a Controller or Administrator’.

May Brookes worked at a number of army bases in the south of England. Like thousands of others she contracted influenza during the epidemic that swept the country in 1918, spending a week in hospital. She was discharged on compassionate grounds in June 1919. As with many advances made by women in 1914-18, the WAAC was seen as primarily a response to the war and in 1921 its successor body, the QMAAC, was wound up.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

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