AS the First World War raged and millions of men were drafted into the British Army, women up and down the country played vital roles as workers.

Here we take a look at a few of those who made a huge difference.

Emmeline Pankhurst


On June 24, 1915, nine months into the First World War, suffragette and leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Emmeline Pankhurst delivered a speech at the London Polytechnic in which she demanded that “the government recruit the women of the country for war service”.

She declared: “We here and now, this afternoon, offer our services... whether that is the making of munitions or the replacing of men who have been called up.”

It galvanised the government into action. Within days, the WSPU had received a £2,000 grant to finance a parade asserting “Women’s Right to Serve”. It caused a schism in the unionwhich never healed, and anger from the Trades Union leaders who feared for their members’ jobs.

Placated by government assurances that men’s jobs would be safe, the unions reluctantly acquiesced.

In reality, Pankhurst and her war-cry had been pre-empted. Her friend, the Honourable Evelina Haverfield, suffragette and freemason, had formed the Women’s Volunteer Reserve ten months earlier but her focus had been on middle and upper-class women.

Pankhurst, for once, embraced all social classes. She and the country were rewarded with mass recruitment of women eager to work. Initially, not everyone had been so welcoming.

In Southampton, a reluctance to employ women on the Southampton Corporation Tramways had seen the recruitment of boys – it proved disastrous.

In spite of this, the chairman of the Tramways Committee, Alderman FA Dunsford, remained unconvinced.

Persuaded to accompany Mr WT Robson, the general manager, to witness Portsmouth women conductors at work, Dunsford relented.

On his return to Southampton, women were invited to apply for 50 conductor posts.

Three hundred applied. In the October 1915 issue of The Tramway and Railway World, Dunsford wrote that “across the south-coast, the employment of women conductors has met with very great success”. A success repeated in the Southampton Shipyards of John I Thornycroft – which later became Vosper’s.

Helen Challen


The Rolling Mills, Woolston

Also in Britain’s newest and largest munitions factory The Rolling Mills, Woolston – now the site of the Redrow Housing Estate – women like 19-year-old Helen Challen were to prove men’s equal.

Employed as a gantry-crane driver after two short training sessions, Challen worked 65 hours over a seven-day week, high above the factory floor. It was dangerous work and accidents were common.

Challen herself narrowly escaped death when the wheels of her crane became derailed by a sliver of wood.

Being forced to employ a women crane-driver caused the management to rethink the mandatory uniform supplied to the whole of the women workforce. Challen was issued with a revolutionary item of clothing – trousers.

But she was under no illusion “that this was done to preserve my modesty”. It was to ensure that the men were not distracted from their work.

Hilda Moore


While an army of women kept Britain’s war effort on track to eventual victory, individual women, like the actress and film-star Hilda Moore, who lived in Bannister Park, Southampton, made a similar contribution.

Having joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry in 1914, Moore served in France rescuing and giving first aid to wounded soldiers. In all probability, it was her experience in France, which made her empathise with one of the 822,160 horses transported to the Front from Southampton, the main departure point.

Wounded in the Battle of Mons, Warrior, a magnificent grey, was purchased by Moore, and presented at the end of the war to a grateful Southampton police force.

Gratitude was in short supply for the women workers. The whole female workforce of the Rolling Mills was sacked, without compensation, within five minutes of the war’s end. It was replicated across the country.

But the government had badly calculated women’s compliance. Used to financial independence, and having found their political voice prior to 1914, women had no intention of being silenced again.

Jean Cook is a Women’s Historian and Member of See Southampton, Dr Sandra Lochhead is a tour guide with