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Women in WW1

A typed document written by A.M. Anderson on 28th November 1916.

Women’s History Month: #WeShouldAllBeFeminists

By Collections blog

To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re taking part in a month-long celebration of women using items from our collections alongside other heritage sites/organisations across Scotland! If you want to join in, visit Go Industrial  for more info. This week we’ll be sharing items that show why #weshouldallbefeminists, inspired by the wonderful Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche.

The photo above is an extract from a report titled ‘CARLISLE PROBLEMS OF SOCIAL AND INDUSTRIAL WELFARE in connection with MUNITIONS WORKERS AND GRETNA’ which we have in our collection. It was written by an A. M. Anderson, and details concerns about the welfare and behaviour of women munition workers at H. M. Factory Gretna.

It demonstrates just how concerned the mainly male Factory management were with regulating the morals of their predominantly female workforce. The phrase ‘the most horrible creatures’ to describe some of the women staying at hostels shows just how much judgement was placed upon women wartime workers. The last line of the report states:

‘This makes it the more imperative to provide them access to the right kind of health giving recreation including exercise.”

This is an interesting conclusion. The emphasise on the ‘right kind’ suggests that the writer of this report thought there was some kinds of recreation that was ‘wrong’ for women. It demonstrates a tension between the control Factory management wanted to hold over the workers, and the wishes of the workers themselves.

This item from our collections shows why #WeShouldAllBeFeminists because women should have the freedom to choose their own recreational activities and not be judged negatively for them. The thought of an official report describing workers as ‘creatures’ is alien to us today, and rightly so! To use a very modern term, it reeks of mansplaining!



Dame Rebecca West.

Worker of the Week: Dame Rebecca West

By Collections blog

Worker of the Week is a weekly blogpost series which will highlight one of the workers at H.M. Gretna our Research Assistant, Laura Noakes, has come across during her research. Laura is working on a project to create a database of the 30,000 people that worked at Gretna during World War One.

This week’s worker is a little different, because the person I’m highlighting never actually held a job at H. M. Factory Gretna. However, as a journalist and prominent feminist Rebecca West played a critical role in establishing wartime perceptions of munitions workers at Gretna. West visited the factory and wrote an article about the cordite makers in 1916.

Rebecca West was actually born Cicely Fairfield, and was the youngest of three daughters. During her childhood her anti-socialist journalist father abandoned the family. Cecily trained to be an actress at the Academy of Dramatic Art, and it was there where she found the name Rebecca West—a heroine from an Ibsen play. However, after leaving she became a journalist.

West soon became immersed in the women’s movement. She was involved from the start in The Freewoman, a feminist journal founded by suffragettes Dora Marsden and Mary Gawthorpe. The nineteen-year-old Rebecca wrote prolifically for the publication, on topics as diverse as ‘The Position of Women in Indian Life’,[1] anti-suffrage activist Mrs Humphrey Ward,[2] and book reviews.[3] In doing so, she established a name for herself as a perceptive and cutting writer. The Freewoman, although not particularly successful (it struggled financially and only lasted eleven months), really made its mark by the open discussion of women’s sexuality and free love. Because of this, W. H. Smith refused to stock it, and Mrs Humphrey Ward (one target of Rebecca’s pen!) complained to The Times. Even feminists criticised the journal—Millicent Fawcett tore it up![4] Rebecca’s entry onto the world’s stage was thus tinged with controversy and boundary pushing, both aspects she would encounter throughout her life.

All copies of The Freewoman have been digitized in a brilliant project. See: The Modernist Journals Project (searchable database). Brown and Tulsa Universities, ongoing.

After critically reviewing one of his books, Rebecca met and became the lover of the famous novelist H. G. Wells in 1913. Wells, who was married and already notorious for his extra-marital affairs, was twenty-six West’s senior. Rebecca soon became pregnant, and gave birth to her soon Anthony just before the outbreak of war in 1914. So, not only was Rebecca a feminist with socialist leanings, but she was now an unmarried mother who was having an affair with a married man! Scandalous.

During the First World War, like many journalists, Rebecca wrote positive propaganda pieces on the war effort in order to boost morale. One of these was on cordite workers. Published as part of a series called ‘Hands that War’ for The Daily Chronicle, Rebecca detailed the work of the Gretna Girls in her trademark witty prose.[5] She wrote:


Every morning at six, when the night mist still hangs over the marshes, 250 of these girls are fetched by a light railway from their barracks on a hill two miles away. When I visited the works they had already been at work for nine hours, and would work for three more. This twelve-hour shift is longer than one would wish, but it is not possible to introduce three shifts, since the girls would find an eight-hour day too light and would complain of being debarred from the opportunity of making more money; and it is not so bad as it sounds, for in these airy and isolated huts there is neither the orchestra of rattling machines nor the sense of a confined area crowded with tired people which make the ordinary factory such a fatiguing place. Indeed, these girls, working in teams of six or seven in those clean and tidy rooms, look as if they were practising a neat domestic craft rather than a deadly domestic process.



Rebecca had to wear ‘rubber over shoes’ to enter the factory, because of the danger of explosions. Like Arthur Conan Doyle, who also visited the factory during War, she likened the cordite paste to a food! She said ‘it might turn into very pleasant honey-cakes; an inviting appearance that has brought gastritis to more than one unwise worker.’ This quote made me smile for a number of reasons. Firstly, it implies that some workers actually ate cordite, and were ill because of it. Secondly, The Devil’s Porridge Museum was named after Arthur Conan Doyle’s phrase, could it have easily as been named the Honey-Cake Museum after Rebecca’s?

Above all, Rebecca’s article emphasises the ‘extraordinary’ nature of the work being done and how ‘pretty’ the girls are who are doing it. Rebecca’s emphasis on both the femininity of the workers and their work ethic belies her feminist sympathies—she is refuting the idea that women working strips them of their womanly identities whilst also emphasising their wartime contribution. West also doesn’t shy away from the danger inherent in the work; she describes an accident that happened just days before her visit: ‘Two huts were instantly gutted, and the girls had to walk out through the flame. In spite of the uniform one girl lost a hand.’

The reason why I think Rebecca’s article is so interesting is because it gives us a contemporary glimpse into the lives of munition workers at Gretna, from the mundane (being so tired that they spend the whole day in bed—I can relate) to the extraordinary (‘this cordite factory has been able to increase its output since the beginning of the war by something over 1500%’). The article has Rebecca’s point of view firmly planted on it, but it doesn’t completely depersonalise the Gretna Girls, unlike the many documents and reports written by factory higher ups do. It also shows the inter-connectivity between journalism and wartime propaganda, the importance of munitions production, and the notability of the women who were making munitions. Plus, I still can’t get over Rebecca’s suggestion that some women actually ate cordite!

If you want to learn more about Rebecca’s life, I really recommend the book Rebecca West: The Modern Sibyl by Carl Rollyson.

[1] Marsden, Dora (Ed), The Freewoman, Vol 1, No. 2, 30 November 1911, p. 39. Available:

[2] Marsden, Dora (Ed), The Freewoman, Vol 1, No. 13, 15 February 1912, p. 249. Available:

[3] Marsden, Dora (Ed), The Freewoman, Vol 1, No. 17, 14 March 1912, p. 334. Available: ;

[4] Lorna Gibb, West’s World: The Extraordinary Life of Dame Rebecca West (Pan Macmillan, 2013); Ray Strachey, Millicent Garrett Fawcett (John Murray, 1931), p. 236.

[5] For more on this series, and the discovery of a brand new article recently found in the archives, see: Kielty, D (2017) “Hands That War: In the Midlands”: Rebecca West’s Rediscovered Article on First World War Munitions Workers. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 36 (1). pp. 211-217.

Doctor Flora Murray.

LGBTQ+ History Month | Doctor Flora Murray: Suffragette, Doctor and Local Heroine

By Collections blog

LGBTQ+ History Month is celebrate every year in February, and aims to bring awareness to often neglected areas of history through increasing the visibility of queer folk throughout history. 2021’s theme is “Body, Mind, Spirit”, so it’s only right that The Devil’s Porridge Museum that the Devil’s Porridge Museum celebrates a woman local to Gretna.

 Flora Murray was born in 1869 and grew up in Dumfriesshire. She the daughter of a retired naval commander, the fourth of six children, and part of a prominent local family. Flora’s middle-class upbringing allowed her to take advantages of the improvements in girls’ education: she attended schools in both London and Germany.

Flora’s love of learning didn’t end there. In 1890, at the age of 21, she undertook six months training as a nurse probationer at the London Hospital. Deciding on a career in medicine, she then enrolled at the London School of Medicine for Women—the first medical school in Britain to train women doctors. Like many women doctors, Flora then worked in a low-paid and low-status job as a medical assistant in an asylum in Dumfriesshire. Women medical professionals were often never even considered for roles in mainstream hospitals because of the male dominated appointment boards.[1] Flora then completed her education at Durham University, getting her Bachelor of Medicine in 1903 and her Doctor of Medicine in 1905.


Doctor and Suffragette

After graduating Flora worked as a medical officer at the Belgrave Hospital for Children before getting a job as an anaesthetist at the Chelsea Hospital for Women. In 1912, she co-founded, with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the Women’s Hospital for Children. The hospital’s purpose was to care for the working-class children of the local community, and its motto was “deeds, not words.”—which might give you a slight clue to the two co-founders’ women’s suffrage leanings.

Flora was a committed suffragette. Although she was never arrested or force-fed in prison like many of her suffragette sisters-in-arms, she played a critical role in the militancy of the Women’s Social and Political Union. She treated suffragettes who were force-fed in prison, caring for them until they had recovered. After the Cat-and-Mouse-Act came into force, she was even put under surveillance by Scotland Yard because officers suspected she was helping suffragettes evade recapture.[2] She was also a vocal opponent of force-feeding, arguing that it irretrievably harmed some women’s health.[3]


World War One

The Staff of Flora and Louisa’s WW1 hospital in Paris.

By the outbreak of war in August 1914, Flora was an experienced doctor. But WW1 changed everything. Teaming up with Louisa Garrett Anderson (more on her later!) again, they formed the Women’s Hospital Corps. Knowing that the British Government were not particularly fond of women doctor’s (they’d already told fellow medical woman Elsie Inglis to “go home and sit still” when she approached them about opening a hospital unit), Flora and Louisa instead went to France.[4] There they opened up a hospital in a hotel in Paris. The injuries and illnesses treated during war were world’s away from their pre-1914 work. Flora’s practice went from being mainly focused on women and children to working on men with horrific wounds. Medicine had to adapt and develop quickly. Despite these obstacles, Flora and Louisa’s hospital was such a success with patients that by 1915 they were invited by the British Government to run a large hospital in London. During the war, the Endell Street Military Hospital, which was often referred to as the ‘Suffragette Hospital’, treated almost 50,000 soldiers.[5]

Flora working at Endell Street Military Hospital

Gay Icons: Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson

Louisa has been mentioned frequently in this blog so far, because she worked closely with Flora over many years. Louisa was also a doctor, and came from a VERY prominent family. Her mother was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a physician in Britain, and her aunt was Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the constitutional suffragists. The two women shared many interests—feminism, medicine and a commitment to the suffragettes—Louisa had even spent time in prison for the cause!

Flora and Louisa after receiving CBEs in 1917.

But not only were the two partners-in-work, they were also partners-in-love. Much has been written about the invisibility of lesbians in history, and many historians have commented on the blurred lines between close friendship and women who love women.[6] However, in the case of Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson, I believe they were clearly romantic partners. Here’s my evidence:

  1. Flora had past relationships with women. She’d lived with Dr Elsie Inglis in Scotland for many years and Rebecca Jennings posits that they were in a relationship.[7]

  2. Flora dedicated her book, Women as Army Surgeons, to Louisa. It read: ‘To Louisa Garrett Anderson | Bold, Cautious, True and my Loving Companion.’ If that isn’t a declaration of love, I don’t know what is.

  3. Flora referred to Louisa as “my loving comrade” and Louisa told her sister-in-law that the women hated being apart.[8]

  4. They also wore matching diamond rings![9]

  5. Finally, the two women even share a grave with the words “we have been gloriously happy” written upon it.


Flora’s Gretna Connection

So now we’ve learnt all about Flora’s incredible war-work and her loving relationship with Louisa, how was she connected to H.M. Factory Gretna? Well, apart from being a local girl, Flora also paid a visit to the Factory in 1918. Her brother, Major Murray, was standing as a parliamentary candidate for Dumfriesshire, and Flora addressed meetings of women electors to express her sister-ly support.

We’re very proud of Flora’s connection to H.M Factory Gretna and we’re also proud to celebrate her the LGBTQ+ History Month!

For more information on Flora and her WW1 work, I really recommend Wendy Moore’s book Endell Street: The Women Who Ran Britain’s Trailblazing Military Hospital.


[1] Wendy Moore, Endell Street: The Women Who Ran Britain’s Trailblazing Military Hospital (Atlantic Books, 2020) p. 13.

[2] The 1913 Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act, more commonly known as the Cat and Mouse Act, was a piece of legislation that allowed for the early release of hunger striking prisoners who were ill, and also allowed for their recall to prison once they’d recovered. Wendy Moore, Endell Street: The Women Who Ran Britain’s Trailblazing Military Hospital (Atlantic Books, 2020) p. 24.

[3] Cowman, Krista, Women of the Right Spirit: Paid Organisers of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) 1904-18 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), p. 178.

[4] Read more about Elsie Inglis’ wartime experiences in Eileen Crofton’s The Women of Royaumont A Scottish Women’s Hospital on the Western Front, (Birlinn, 1999)

[5] Geddes, Jennian F. “Deeds and words in the suffrage military hospital in Endell Street.” Medical history vol. 51,1 (2007): 79-98.

[6] See Sharon Marcus, Between Women Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England, (Princeton University Press, 2009) and Martha Vicinus, Intimate Friends Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928, (Chicago University Press, 2004).

[7] See Rebecca Jennings, A Lesbian History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Women Since 1500, (Greenwood World Publishing, 2007)

[8] Wendy Moore, Endell Street: The Women Who Ran Britain’s Trailblazing Military Hospital (Atlantic Books, 2020) p. 27.

[9] Wendy Moore, Endell Street: The Women Who Ran Britain’s Trailblazing Military Hospital (Atlantic Books, 2020) p. 27.

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