Girl Power During the First World War

April 17th, 2015

You may have already heard of the Gell‘s. The family were prominent historical figures in Derbyshire and can be traced back as far as the reign of Elizabeth I. The current descendants still own Hopton Hall near Wirksworth. They played a number of important roles during the War. The daughter, Edith Lyttelton Gell, was very active; she was president of the local Soldiers & Sailors Families Association and engineered a campaign to get women to work on farms.

Edith was largely a woman of traditional, conservative values. However, in 1915 she became aware of the possibility of a serious food shortage because so many male farm labourers had left to go to war. To remedy this situation she took it upon herself to call women to take their place in the fields. She wrote a number of pamphlets including Mobilised Maidens (you can see this at the Record Office). In this, she encourages women from all over Britain to volunteer to assist with the harvest to support the troops. At the time women were not considered capable of “men’s” work so farmers were reluctant to hire women for fear that they would ruin their produce.

Although she believed that a woman’s proper role was as a provider of care and children she argued that women could work just as well as men once given the training. Furthermore, she claimed that the roles women were being given on farms was essentially women’s work and would increase their child-bearing potential:

‘milking, rearing calves, and the care of chickens, ducks and turkeys, not to speak of lambs, are essentially woman’s work. They build up such a constitution as England needs for the future of her sons’

Her campaign to get women onto the land appears to have been successful. The Record Office has several bundles of letters to and from Edith Gell regarding women who have begun work on farms. There is also an article in our newspaper archives which talks about the Women’s Land Army during the First World War:

‘the girls, who had only four weeks’ training, proved themselves very fair milkers considering the time they had been engaged, and they were able to look after the horses and work them in the fields.’

Despite their hard work it had been made clear that once the war was over, women would be replaced by the returning men.