The Women’s Work Collection at IWMRecording and commemorating the female experience of the First World War
1917 was the year in which the Imperial War Museum was established. It also happened to be the year in which women were utilised for the military effort in the widest possible way. IWM sought to be a place of record and commemoration of every type of wartime activity or experience, and therefore the female contribution had to be included.
The Women of the Sub-Committee
The Women’s Work Sub-Committee (WWSC) was set up in April 1917 as an integral part of the Museum. Its task was to acquire material that would show the full range of female activities during the war.
The Committee members had all worked during the war, and put their experience and contacts to good use. Agnes Ethel Conway, the daughter of Sir Martin Conway (the first Director-General of the Museum) was its Secretary. She had worked with wounded Belgian soldiers when they flooded into the country from 1914. Lady Priscilla Norman, who chaired the Committee, went on to become the longest-serving IWM trustee, and the women’s gallery would be later named after her. She and her husband had crossed to France in the early months of the war and set up a Red Cross hospital outside Boulogne. Both women were decorated for their war work, with Agnes Conway receiving an MBE and Lady Norman a CBE. The other members of the Committee were Lady Mond, Lady Askwith and Lady Haig, Mrs Carey Evans, Miss Durham and Miss Monkhouse.
The Sub-Commitee sought out iconic objects that would display well and catch the public imagination. The steel door from the Dressing Station in Pervyse staffed by Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker (which fell victim to the Second World War drive for metals), and George Frampton’s bust of Edith Cavell were such items. Uniforms were collected with 69 being acquired during the initial period of collecting.
The Committee was anxious to acquire images of women working, and appointed Victoria Monkhouse the first British female official war artist. She began her mission of drawing women in substitution labour roles in 1918. Norfolk woman Olive Edis, a member of the Royal Photographic Society, was commissioned in October 1918 to take photographs of women in France and Belgium.
Men were also employed by the WWSC, for example, the famous society artist Sir John Lavery, who was persuaded to work for half his usual fee, produced several paintings depicting women in different roles. Horace Nicholls, in his capacity as an official photographer of the Home Front, took many photographs of women in their uniforms and in different work scenarios.
Scale models were a favoured device for showing scenarios in a three-dimensional, colourful way. These were made by women sculptors usually under the guidance of those who had worked in the capacities depicted.
The first Women’s Work Exhibition, 1918
A successful Women’s Work exhibition was held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in November 1918. Over 82,000 visitors came through the doors, and the Shrine to women who had died in the war was a special highlight. People were used to the high casualty figures for fighting men, but women dying or being killed in conflict was a shock to the British public.The WWSC had appealed for photographs of women who had died as a result of war service, and more were donated as a result of people seeing these and realising that some relative of their own was not included. The portrait of Betty Stevenson, a YMCA driver who was killed in an air raid at Etaples in 1918, and the memorial book published by her family in 1920, came to IWM because of her aunt’s visit to this exhibition
The photographs of the women who died, and also a larger collection of images of women who were decorated, form an important part of the women’s Work Collection. They add a human face to the effort and sacrifice made by women during this period. These have now been digitised and form part of the Lives of the First World War project, www.livesofthefirstworldwar.org