Tuesday, December 20, 2016

No larking or slacking

‘The work consists of the following duties: Searching incoming workers for matches, cigarettes spirits etc. in pockets, baskets etc.; Searching outgoing workers for stolen property; Keeping guard at the gate and allowing no one to enter without a pass [. . .] Patrolling to see that no one is larking or slacking.’ Written exactly 100 years ago today, this extract is from the diaries of Gabrielle West, employed as a cook and then as a policewoman on the Home Front during the First World War. The diaries have been edited by her great niece, Avalon Weston (also in the photograph), and are newly published by Pen & Sword Books, as Menus, Munitions & Keeping the Peace.

West was born in 1890, the youngest of five children, at a boys school in Bournemouth, England. The school had originally been set up by her grandfather, and was than managed by her father, Reverend George West. She remained there until the age of 17, until the family moved to Selsley where her father became the vicar. While her elder siblings all established careers, she remained at the vicarage, helping her mother with the Sunday school and by visiting the sick, and assisting her father with his parish work. She and her mother were members of the Red Cross in Cheltenham, and it was through the Red Cross that Gabrielle (known as Bobby) became involved in the war effort.

West found paid positions in the canteens of the Farnborough Royal Aircraft Factory and then at the Woolwich Arsenal. She failed a mental arithmetic test required to drive a horse-drawn bread van for J. Lyons, but was among the first women enrolled in the police, and spent the rest of the war looking after the girls in various munitions factories. After the war, she tended to work as a carer for one relative or another. She never married, and lived to be 100.

In 1979, West donated diaries she had kept during the Great War to the Imperial War Museum (IWM). In 2005, Alexander Street Press, an electronic academic database publisher, produced World War I Diary of Miss G. West, as part of an e-book series - British and Irish women’s letters and diaries. A decade later, the BBC and a co-producer, having trawled through a 1,000 or more journals and collections of letters, chose West to be one of 14 main characters in its Great War Diaries series, broadcast during 2014 (in eight episodes).

The airing of the series on the BBC brought West to the attention of Avalon Weston, West’s oldest living descendant and thus owner of the diaries’ copyright. Weston discovered that, 
on donating the diaries, her great-aunt (aged 89 at the time) had given two interviews to the IWM. Weston proceeded to produce a typescript, and discovered that the diaries were, in fact, copies of long letters, posted at regular intervals, to her brother, who had gone to work in the Indian Education Service in Bengal, and who she much missed.

Weston went on to produce a book, just published by Pen & Sword Books as Menus, Munitions and Keeping the Peace: The Home Front Diaries of Gabrielle West 1914 - 1917. As well as the diaries/letters it includes a generous collection of photographs that Weston found stored with various relatives, a number of sketches by West taken from the diaries, and a foreword by IWM’s Antony Richards. Here are several extracts - with thanks to Pen & Sword Books.

8 January 1916
‘Not a very cheerful outlook when I first arrived. Miss B. was to have met me at the station, but was not there, and by some mistake I eventually got out at North Camp instead of South Famborough, so that was a nice 2 miles to bicycle to our lodgings. I had with me a despatch case, fibre trunk, camp bed, mattress and a hamper, also Rip [her dog]. I had to leave all except Rip and the despatch case and arrange for the rest to be returned to South Famborough. Did a melancholy 3 miles peddling through the mud, with Rip tailing disconsolately behind. Several airplanes flew low across the road, and each time Rip squatted flat in the road petrified and refused to come on. As the road was full of traffic, it gave me several bad spasms.

At last I arrived at ‘Ye Olde Farm House’, as it is called, and was told Miss B. had not been able to meet me, but would I go down to the factory to see her. So I splashed back to the factory. Here I was met at the gates by an armed sentry who refused flatly to let me in. I went round to the other gate and was held up by a policeman. Returned to first gate and found a baker’s cart also trying frantically to get to ‘the new canteen’. We were told there was no new canteen, and we ought to have passes and he wasn’t going to let strange people into the factory etc. However, by the simple process of just ‘remaining’ until he got tired of the look of us, we were let in.

Then I had to find the canteen. No one had ever heard of it and it was rather like hunting a needle in a haystack - you are told it is near the head office and you find they are talking of the men’s canteen. Then you are told to turn left when you get to the oil store and you have to find out which is the oil store. Then you are told, ‘It’s no good going that way, the mud is too deep, you’d better go round by V department and then do the sleeper road till you get to the machine shop etc. Well, after a bit I arrived at the end of a long series of planks, which led across a huge morass to a wee little wooden hut, but there was no Miss Buckpitt, so I had to go away and come back later.

This time I found a very forlorn looking figure sitting on a box in the empty canteen, no table, no chairs, pots or pans, no cupboards or shelves only three tiny gas stoves, Miss Buckpitt and the box, and at the far end two men slowly and solemnly washing the floor. They had only bucket, one piece of soap and one flannel between them so their progress was not exactly rapid. The equipment was supposed to be on the road, so we sat and waited for its arrival. It turned up at about 7.30 and we worked like slaves the rest of the evening till nearly ten, unpacking and putting it in order. As the canteen was to open on Monday, there wasn’t much time to waste.’

20 December 1916
‘Here we are in Chester. Very nice rooms, very nice landlady, very nice place and very nice work.

There are three shifts: 5.30 am to 2.00 pm, 2.00 pm to 11.00 pm and 10.00 pm to 6.00 am. We do afternoon and morning alternately, with an occasional night, but night work doesn’t come very often as only two people do that at a time, whereas there are eight or nine by day. The factory is about 5 miles from Chester and you go by train. On the morning shift you have to rise at 4.00 am. Horrid! Still, you get the afternoon to yourself, and as the work is not too hard you aren’t too exhausted to enjoy yourself, as at Woolwich.

The work consists of the following duties:
Searching incoming workers for matches, cigarettes spirits etc. in pockets, baskets etc.
Searching outgoing workers for stolen property.
Keeping guard at the gate and allowing no one to enter without a pass.
Conducting stray visitors round and dealing with new workers, lost passes, lost clock cards etc.
Keeping order in the clocking shed. Locking and unlocking it.
Keeping the office where clerks etc. sign on and off, enquiries are made, visitors passes visa’d and entered etc.
Patrolling to see that no one is larking or slacking.

We take turns at all these various jobs, none of which were taught us during training. We have two hours off for meals, so life is not too strenuous.

Chester is a lovely old town of half-timbered houses, a fine cathedral, a very interesting old church and also a complete city wall you can walk all the way round, about 3 miles. The river is good for boating, so in the summer I shall try and learn how to row properly. Do you remember how Joan and I used to splash round at Tewksbury and Evesham, and how you scandalized the neighbourhood by paddling a canoe a la the university with its head in the air?’

5 January 1917
‘Marching orders again! This time, instead of giving or getting notice, we have been promoted. Buckie to sub-inspector and me to sergeant. We both go to Pembrey in South Wales in three days’ time.

But I must say a little more about this place. The factory is occupied making the following: Sulphuric acid, Nitric acid, Oleum, Guncotton, TNT. The result is the most terrific collection of stinks, or ‘fumes’, to put it less baldly, that you could possibly imagine. For patrolling purposes it is divided into four areas:
1. The Grills, consisting of five sulphur burners, acid coolers, platinizing plant etc. The burners each have forty furnaces, twenty doors on either side. Occasionally for cleaning purposes, ‘the blowers are taken off’. Exactly what that means, I don’t know, but the result is most fascinating. [. . . ]
2. Guncotton. The first few times you go round you think. ‘What an interesting place’, and are just brimming over with questions. Then one joyous day you are taken round by the sergeant and told exactly what everything is for and how everything is done. The next time or two, you are quite happy trotting round new constables and airing all your recently acquired knowledge. After a bit, they know as much as you do, or they think they do. After that, the guncotton ceases to interest you and the evil smell from the guncotton retorts becomes more noticeable.
3. The TNT stinks; no other word describes it - an evil, sickly chokey smell that makes you cough until you feel sick. But even the TNT is not so absolutely suffocating and overwhelming as the:
4. Middle Section. Here sulphuric is turned into nitric, and nitric into oleum. The air is filled with white fumes and yellow fumes and brown fumes. The particles of acid land on your face and make you nearly mad with a feeling like pins and needles, only more so, and they land on your clothes and make brown spots all over them, and they rot your hankies so that they come back from the laundry in rags, and they get up your nose and down your throat and into your eyes so that you are blind and speechless by the time you escape.

All over the place, there are, to cheer you on your way, notices telling you what to do if anyone swallows brown fumes: If concerned, give an emetic; If blue in the face, apply artificial respiration, and if necessary, oxygen.

Being quite sure you have swallowed numberless brown fumes, this is distinctly cheering. Each time you leave Middle Section, you feel like Dante returning from Hell.’

Gabrielle West’s diaries also figure in the National Archives online exhibition - Women and the First World War - with photos of pages from the diaries and transcripts.

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