A Mother in Wartime

Being a mother has its difficulties, no matter how peaceful and comfortable the environment -but what was life like for mothers during the Second World War?

In 1941, Minister of Labour Ernest Bevin called for 100,000 women to take over all kinds of jobs to free men for active service. Married women with children were supported by a huge expansion in nurseries, although many still preferred to rely on help from their relatives and neighbours.

By mid-1943 nearly three million married women and widows were employed. It was difficult for a women under 40 to avoid war work unless family commitments made this almost impossible.

As the war progressed the problems were compounded by the disintegration of the community as people either went off to fight or to work in other parts of the country

Mothers were known to turn to older children for help with domestic duties, even looking after their younger siblings, and this in turn led to a serious rise in school absenteeism. Where there were no older children, mothers working on night shifts often kept their children in bed with them while they tried to sleep during the day.

A difficult decision many mothers living in cities had to make was whether to evacuate their children to safer areas in the countryside, often to places previously unheard of. Some found the separation too difficult and preferred to risk keeping their children at home.

By 1943 most women under 40 were engaged in some form of war work, only those with heavy family commitments being classified as ‘immobile women’ and therefore exempt.

Even jobs requiring sheer physical strength were taken on by women, who by then were working in many industries including explosives, chemicals and engineering. There were female porters, welders and factory workers.
A woman worker had no time to queue for rationed goods, though, and this led to increased rates of absenteeism. Shops generally kept to peacetime hours, and unless a woman shopped during her lunch hour, or joined the vast queues on a Saturday afternoon, she had no alternative than to take time off work. At one time it was suggested that war workers would be entitled to special passes, enabling them to jump queues, but this initiative inevitably failed.

All housewives were required to register for rations, and although rationing was often fraught with problems of distribution most women considered it a necessary evil, at least ensuring an element of fairness. Local Food Offices dealt with the administration of ration books and identity cards, and also supplied the free orange juice and cod liver oil entitlement for younger children.

Clothing rationing was yet another test on a mother’s time and ingenuity. Clothes for growing children were bartered at clothing exchanges which were set up by the WVS, and jumble sales often generated huge interest. ‘Make Do and Mend’ was the phrase of the time.

Although permits were available to buy furniture for those with priority needs, usually newly-weds and expectant mothers, there was a shortage of equipment such as prams, baby baths, cots and fireguards. Toys were generally over-priced and no birthday and Christmas party balloons, paper hats and crackers were available. Again, it was a case of improvisation and alteration.

The fuel shortage resulted in plimsoll lines being introduced for levels of water in the bath. Fewer baths were taken, and soap was also rationed. While mothers struggled to keep their children fed and clothed, their own appearance was continually compromised by a lack of goods. Although a small supply of cosmetics was maintained by the Board of Trade in an effort to preserve morale, women resorted to using cooked beetroot juice for lip-
stick and soot for eye make-up. Stockings were substituted by gravy browning, with pencilled-in seams. Clothing was utility, offering little choice in shapes, styles and frills, thus enabling long and economic runs in production.

Ida, whose husband sent home pieces of lace from abroad, remembers the excitement when she received the tiny parcels: “I managed to put together enough material to edge my knickers for when he came home! Those letters, although heavily censored, kept us all going – just knowing they were alive and hopefully coming back soon!”

Added to the daily problems of feeding and clothing the family were the ongoing threats of bombing during the blitz, and the many nights of disturbed sleep, worry and discomfort.

Betty remembers the Anderson shelter in her mother’s garden. “I was staying with my mother because she looked after my son Peter, who was six months old, while I worked at the hairdresser’s. Her shelter was nicely decorated and almost a pleasure to sit in. Peter slept in his own little drawer, which we took with us each time. If there was a raid during the day, people with their hair in curlers would be hiding under the counter…often a funny sight!”

But many mothers, and their children if they were not evacuated, huddled on crowded Underground platforms or sat in dark, cold shelters, waiting for dawn and the ‘all clear’ to sound. They would emerge, stiff and cold, not knowing whether they still had homes to go to.

The dreary scenes to greet them made it all the more difficult to keep up their spirits – sandbags piled at doorways, shattered windows, shops empty of goods and futile “Business as Usual” signs on assaulted buildings.

Terry was a young boy during the war, and remembers the events that followed the night his home was bombed.

“One night our house was completely destroyed and one of my sisters was killed. The remaining five children were sent to three hospitals, and mum spent the next few days trying to visit us all. The Red Cross provided sacks of clothes and shoes for when we left hospital, and neighbours found beds for us until we were eventually rehoused. Friends and family gathered together odd pieces of furniture and utensils to start us off, and a horse and cart was borrowed to walk the pitiful, pathetic belongings to our new home.

“I don’t know how mum managed during that time. She had to present herself weekly to claim for money to feed and clothe us. She had been able to salvage nothing from her home – not even a photograph. But as she said, everyone was in the same boat, and you just had to get on with it.”

Betty recalls the day after Buckingham Palace was bombed. “The present Queen Mother went to visit the East End, saying she now felt able to face the people who had suffered so much.”

In December 1944, during the speech at Westminister’s County Hall, the Queen paid tribute to the ‘magnificent’ efforts of the women of Britain. A special tribute was paid to the three million women of the Civil Defence. ‘You have inscribed your names indelibly on the national role of honour.”

Yet as mothers watched their children’s joy at seeing street lights for the first time, they were already working on plans for the country’s largest-ever street parties which were to take place the following summer..

Toni Folwell