Posts Tagged ‘women’s lives’

Current reading is THE HEAT OF THE DAY, by Elizabeth Bowen,


a story set in World War 2 London. This line arrested me:

She was lucky … in being left with Chilcombe Street: few wives of men called up remained placed as they were before.(p16, 20th edition, 1998, Vintage Books)

It was one of those moments when it was as if something had suddenly become very clear. And the drop from where my ignorance had been to where the reality lay was giddying.
I searched around and found evidence:

The mortgage still had to be paid, war or no war, so the house in Whitton was rented out in order to keep up the payments, and my mother moved back in with my grandmother, who was by then very elderly and infirm and living alone.(by Edith Lambourne,

How on earth did they manage, on a woman’s wages? Their wages were a fraction of a man’s wage, and still the mortgage companies had to be paid. Oh yes, the money-men still expected the full amount no matter what; no special rates for Servicemen’s wives and families.
The first quote begins:

… they had taken out a 25-year mortgage, but before they could move in the War broke out and Dad had to return to the Army. As an older, experienced NCO he was kept back from active service, and spent his war training new recruits 

Her father died early, in 1955. There was still ten years probably more on the mortgage to pay as a single mother.

Those who had to give up their homes and move into rented accommodation, the book makes clear, put what furnishings they owned into storage. Storage rent then, also had to be paid.

A further source states that women called into war work had to

cope with children AND a job when the husband is away on active service.

  • try to do the shopping AFTER finishing work at 5pm when all the shops had closed.
  • manage on much less than the men were being paid for the same job – AND suffer the hostility of the men who thought they were taking away men’s jobs and helping to depress men’s wages.(

Women were inducted into factories and industries to keep the fabric of the economy ongoing. This was not always such a straight-forward hand-over: workers waiting to be called-up were often resentful of the women inducted in to take their places. There were instances of refusal to train the women, or train so poorly it only covered the description and contributed little to the skills needed.

We need to consider this:

By 1942 more men, women and children had been killed at home than soldiers in action.
(Caroline Lang, Keep Smiling Through: Women in the Second World War (1989))


And this:

I was seriously concerned myself as our factory is an old shabby place and its sanitary arrangements of a very low standard.   Our canteen is not good.  Lavatory accommodation such as most factory hands use without a qualm will revolt these girls.
(Comment of a factory manager to Mass Observation)

Going off at a tangent here, this comment reminded me of a conversation years ago with a S American management student on a work placement. He complained loud and long at the laziness and lack of care of the workers. I asked about the factory; he replied It was old, filthy; a mess. I drew his attention to the effect of working conditions on work morale.

The men are assumed to put up with shocking conditions. There have been many occasions where women have moved into once male-only work; the men have been shocked to realise just what conditions they had put up with all that time, when the women brought it to their notice.

One off-shoot of the women-in-men’s jobs was a subsequent radicalisation of Unionism. I am a staunch Union member but readily admit that Union attitudes to women have been utterly deplorable in the past; with the embattled work position has gone a supposedly threatened gender position. Male chauvinism in Unions has been poisonous, rife and deeply embedded.

To continue: for the women not in industry or the often lethal munitions work, there was always the Women’s Land Army:


for someone in the WLA over the age of 18 was £1 12 pence a week after deductions had been made for lodgings and food. There was an agreed maximum working week – 50 hours in the summer and 48 hours in the winter

The work was relentless, hard, physical labour. The women were usually billeted where they worked. The one’s in hostels fared better – companionship eased a lot of the pain of being away and amongst strangers.
These strangers were not always honest or understanding:

there is evidence that WLA members were paid less than the accepted rate by some farmers who tended to overcharge for accommodation and food. Also during harvest time, many WLA members worked from dawn to dusk and easily eclipsed their 50 hour week.

The ongoing distrust of farmers and farming, and likewise farming people of town people was even more exacerbated by this.

The mortgage still had to be paid, in full. Just after the War the economy of course was in ruins; exports had been hugely disrupted, and rationing was rife. Returning servicemen had priority on what work there was. What did they return to? Rented accommodation of poor quality, rationing, and ruined superstructure to services.
The European market was ruined, and overseas markets the same.
Then the American loan fell through.

Large-scale loss of life of skilled workers, as well as bad training (above) led to:
Recruitment and training of workers was disrupted – there were long-term bad effects on the quality of British workmanship and management.

One major outcome of all this was the Beveridge Committee Report and its contribution to the setting up of the Welfare State, a breakthrough in terms of modern social issues.

Going back to the book, THE HEAT OF THE DAY.
It is a slow read; the writer qualifies nearly every point. But as a writer aiming for psychological and historical accuracy, as well as artistically. This approach sets the reader up for insights and angles on time and place it would have been difficult to glean any other way. Her writing allows a richness of phrase that lifts the book into something quite distinct, and uniquely Elizabeth Bowen:

from hesitating to feel came the moment when you no longer could. Was that the war’s doing? By every day, every night, existence was being further drained — you, yourself, made conscious of what was happening only by some moment, some meeting such as tonight’s.

(page 55, ibid).

Elizabeth Bowen: