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Album of Women’s Work in Wartime. (1914-1919)

Is it Safe? Stay Alert! Messages we can relate to today. Many women during WW1 were Key Workers, hard at work in urban and rural settings keeping the infrastructure going and enhancing societal living conditions.

Photographed by Arthur Reavil.

Arthur Reavil’s photographic Album of Women’s Work in Wartime held at The John Rylands Library provides a fascinating insight into the working lives of women during the First World War (1914-1919). There is little written about Reavil but his photographs depict a time in history when servicemen were away at war and women were called upon to help on the Homefront. 

The women photographed by Reavil were keyworkers during this period. They repaired roads, drove buses, nursed the sick, worked in large factories, maintained roads and tram lines and worked on the land in a variety of roles. Reavil photographs women in both urban and rural settings. The settings are crucial and add a sense of drama and context to the photographs, they also remind me of film stills taken from old movies, capturing a moment in time. 

Cover of album

Nostalgia and memories are held in Reavil’s photographic album. Photographs were and still placed in albums for safe keeping and viewed page by page through thin sheets of clear plastic.  Now many of us carry and view photographs from hand held devices or computer screens.

When opened an extensive hand typed index methodically details the albums contents.  Each photograph has an individual reference number and this provides coherence to the arrangement of the album.  Some effort and patience is required to find the specifics of individual photographs but well worth the effort.

Reavil was a mysterious figure and mainly interested in photographing locomotives and train engines in numerous railway stations across the country, as a consequence in 1926 Reavil was invited to deliver a lecture on “The Photography of Locomotives and Trains in Motion” attending The Royal Photographic Society. It is of no surprise that a proportion of the album is dedicated to women working on the Railway as ticket collectors, porters, railway guards, signal lamp cleaners and Royal Mail workers,

Reavil photographs women at their place of work and they deliver a visual record of women employed in a variety of jobs usually associated with men during this period. Other images depict women fulfilling roles such as window cleaners, painters, mechanics and police women. The photographs provide a fascinating insight into the uniforms and clothes worn by women during this period.  Put together with a variety of hats and gloves the clothes illustrate a specific role and act as a visual reference.  The photographs not only reveal the working lives of women during Wartime but they also offer a record of how women dressed for work depending on the nature of their employment.

The photograph “Bus Conductresses” Reavil captures a female proudly standing at the rear of a bus ready for a day’s shift.  A shoulder bag, money bag, and a ticket machine are worn in a muddle across the smart uniform of the conductress, along with a large badge depicting the number 1095, no name given just a number. Public transport was pivotal and enabled the safe transportation of people to and from their place of work; transport was a key aspect of supporting the economy during the Great War.

Bus Conductress

Reavil has positioned the Bus Conductresses to stand next to banners and a variety adverts. The camera captures an advert glued onto the window for a brand of Margarine and “Phosferine” (a tonic that promises relief from indigestion, maternity weakness, sciatica, neuralgia, loss of appetite, exhaustion, hysteria, rheumatism, decay, neuritis, headache, influenza, nervous debility)

Safety messages are also displayed on the bus reminding people to “Cross Near a Lamp” and asking “Is It Safe” Public messages displayed to warn the masses of danger and ask people to stay alert. Today we see warnings regarding COVID 19 asking us to Stay Safe and Alert!  

A selection of the images are from rural settings and interestingly portray The Women’s Land Army.  Reavil’s camera captures women working on farms hay baling, feeding calves, milking, picking crops and working as foresters; using heavyweight equipment. They are photographed wearing heavy boots and unflattering trousers covered by oversized aprons worn to fulfil the roles that men would usual do.  

Tram Repairers

In more urban surroundings Reavil’s photographs depict women driving a variety of vehicles; mechanical and horse drawn. Some are repairing roads using oversized pick-axes, observed by curious onlookers. Other photographs show women with their hair tied in headscarves or hairnets to keep safe from dangerous looking machinery. Munitions factory workers are pictured gauging fuses in neat rows while other women are photographed next to heavy machinery working as drilling operators and welders.

Many of these opportunities were closed to women after the war as servicemen returned to their jobs.

1 comment on “Album of Women’s Work in Wartime. (1914-1919)

  1. Stella Halkyard

    I love this fantastic blog about a great photo album from the Rylands collections which has so many resonances with the times we are living through today.

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