PUBLISHED: 11:58 10 May 2015 | UPDATED: 13:05 30 August 2017



Women in Cornwall during World War 1 took on all kinds of jobs and put themselves in grave danger

The First World War was unparalleled; its sheer scale, the numbers of men joining the fight, had never before been seen. As Cornishmen signed up to do their bit’ and left for distant battlefields in the autumn of 1914, on the home front the Duchy’s women came forward. PETER LONDON tells their story...

Before the war, one of the few women’s careers had been nursing. During the conflict, to help with casualties Cornish hospitals swelled; so did the numbers of women caring for wounded servicemen. In Truro, the Royal Naval Auxiliary Hospital took over the old workhouse on Tregolls Road. With so many men away, as well as their usual jobs Truro’s nurses took up stretcher-bearing; their hard work was publicly recognised in the British Journal of Nursing.

Often, nurses who weren’t on duty turned in anyway to keep patients’ spirits up, chatting or playing cards with them. At Liskeard Cottage Hospital one nurse played the violin, another the piano; the two girls put on musical evenings for the soldiers. Many Cornish nurses received commendations for their work, including 27-year-old Winifred Whitworth of Truro, acknowledged in 1918 by the London Gazette for 'valuable service in connection with the war'.

As more men joined up, women took jobs previously denied them. In 1915 the Cornwall War Agricultural Committee campaigned to bring more girls into farming work. Female speakers arrived at Truro from up-country and meetings were held in the town hall; outside the city, demonstrations were given by women of ploughing and other agricultural jobs.

That year, 25 women classified as moveable’, that’s to say able to work anywhere in Cornwall, came forward in Truro and Falmouth, together with nearly 100 other volunteers. For long hours they toiled at the harvest, milked cows, cleaned out pigs. By the war’s end hundreds of girls grafted on Cornwall’s land.

At the Duchy’s grand country houses too, women sometimes replaced men. By 1918, softwood from Lanhydrock’s estate was being used in local mines. Cornish women worked at cross-cutting and faggoting, as well as making wooden parts for building trusses, tough manual tasks which would have tired experienced male estate workers.

Some of Cornwall’s mines also recruited girls, latter-day bal maidens, among them Wheal Mary Anne at Menheniot. Camborne’s mighty Dolcoath and Levant in West Penwith took women, mostly toiling at the ore-crushing stamps, or roasting tin ore in calciners to extract arsenic.

During 1917 Polpuff Glass Mine at St Dennis reopened and maids hammered at great blocks of granite, to isolate the feldspar content used in electrical porcelain. In the clay industry too women found jobs, gruelling shifts washing out clay from pit bottoms at the Rocks site at Bugle, and Gothers China Clay Works near St Dennis. At Little Treviscoe, close to St Stephens, they bagged up ground china clay.

The First World War introduced Cornwall’s women to many different jobs, though sometimes in the face of resentment from the remaining men. Two of National’s workers, Miss Morley and Miss Crowle, were trained at the Camborne School of Mines and employed in senior posts at the company’s quality control laboratories: truly a case of breaking down doors protecting male preserves.

As the war dragged on, Cornish engineering companies took on more and more women. Often factories offered better conditions, more interesting work and greater freedom than, say, domestic service. Time and again though, women were paid maybe half the men’s wages, though their hours were just as long and the jobs sometimes hazardous.

Holmans of Camborne built depth-charge throwers for the Royal Navy, machine-gun parts and later, tank engines. As male employees left, women began working in the offices and on the shop-floor; some became shell-girls’ making munitions. In all Holman employed around 200 women, some staff labouring in three shifts.

Cornwall’s fuse manufacturers, which had grown around the mining industry, became inundated with war work. Factories at Tuckingmill and Roskear made ingredients for shell fuses, while new premises were opened near Redruth’s brewery. The fuses’ explosives were stored in buildings put up on Camborne’s cricket ground. Fuse factories took scores of local women; their jobs were dangerous, the workers toiling separately and in silence.

Cornish explosives manufacturers had also stemmed from the mining industry. During the war Perranporth’s Nobel factory made grenade ingredients and again, fuses. Near Liskeard, Marpal Ltd at Trago Mills produced explosives for land-mines, while the 500-acre National Explosives Company, set among the Hayle’s banks of sand-dunes, turned out cordite for the Royal Navy. Hayle metalworking company J&F Pool also turned to munitions.

Cornishwomen worked at all the explosives sites, often making dynamite or gelignite in remote cabins; at J&F Pool, more than 150 munitionettes’ were employed. As well as the strain of their hazardous tasks, they endured sickness and skin discolouration caused by chemicals in the explosives. Each morning before work, the girls were searched by a matron for any object that might cause a fatal spark; carrying matches was a grievous crime for which dismissal was instant and even metal hair-grips were forbidden. Women working in dangerous areas had to wear soft slippers or rubber boots.

Despite the safety measures a handful of accidents took place, one severe. In December 1916 two men and two women died in an explosion at National’s site. Cissie Rogers and May Stoneman, aged 20 and 21, were laid to rest in Phillack churchyard, their war service acknowledged; Cissie was buried on Christmas Eve.

The First World War introduced Cornwall’s women to many different jobs, though sometimes in the face of resentment from the remaining men. Two of National’s workers, Miss Morley and Miss Crowle, were trained at the Camborne School of Mines and employed in senior posts at the company’s quality control laboratories: truly a case of breaking down doors protecting male preserves.

Cornwall’s Military Women

Cornish maids served with the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps and the Women's Royal Naval Service. Their duties included clerical, domestic and catering work but as the war continued servicewomen became more involved with so-called 'men's jobs'.

With male conscription stepped up, women worked in the army camps which mushroomed across Cornwall, feeding the mustered soldiers before they travelled up-country for training. At the old Victorian forts on the Duchy’s south-east coastline, pressed into war service as look-out, stores and training bases, women ran the domestic side ensuring food, linen and stores were adequate for the troops.

During the war, naval aircraft bases appeared at Newlyn, Padstow and Tresco, and some servicewomen worked as aircraft maintainers. For jobs like engine servicing, requiring their uniforms be protected, the girls were given loose cotton overalls. Their vital work helped keep the Navy’s aeroplanes fit for patrols over the Channel and Western Approaches, in search of marauding German U-boat submarines.

Truro’s Heroine: Cora Ball

Truro’s First World War memorial on Boscawen Street honours just one woman: Miss Cora Cornish Ball. Born in 1896 to a large family, for a time Cora lived in Kenwyn village near the city. Her father had various jobs and the family moved around the local area. Despite that, Cora kept up her schooling until she was 14 or so, and in 1917 the slim young girl volunteered for service with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

As Corps No.2717, Cora travelled to France; she served near Calais. Her WAAC uniform consisted of a khaki cap atop her short dark bob, with a matching jacket and skirt; regulations stipulated the skirt must be no more than 12 inches from the ground. During her war service, perhaps because she’d stayed on at school Cora reached the rank of Forewoman, equivalent to an army sergeant.

The young Truro girl received two medals recognising her war service: the Victory Medal, and the British War Medal. Sadly though, only 11 days following the Armistice she died, perhaps a victim of the terrible flu pandemic sweeping Europe at the time. Cora was laid to rest in Les Baraques Military Cemetery at Sangatte, near Calais; she was just 22. Today, as well as being remembered by Truro’s monument Cora Ball is honoured on the war memorial in her home village.

Steadfast Louisa McGrigor

At Newlyn today, on the hill overlooking the harbour is an elegant memorial to Louisa McGrigor. Its panelled inscription tells us she was Commandant of the Cornwall 22 Voluntary Aid Detachment, nursing war-wounded troops sent to the area. Local groups and friends clubbed together to erect the granite monument to Miss McGrigor, “in loving memory.”

Louisa lived at Newlyn, near Paul Hill; she came from a military family and before the war had worked with the local Red Cross branch. A cheerful and generous woman, during the war years she helped run the Penzance Voluntary Aid Detachment hospital for wounded servicemen, based in Morrab Road. As war continued, the hospital became ever busier.

Somehow Louisa also found time to organise groups of Sea Scouts and Girl Guides, while on the Sabbath she taught at St Peter’s Church Sunday School, near her home. Perhaps overwork damaged her health; in March 1917 she developed appendicitis and was rushed to Penzance West Cornwall Hospital. On 31 March she died, mourned by her community.

Louisa’s remembrance service at St Mary’s Church, Penzance was attended by members of the prominent local Bolitho family, nursing staff and patients, and representatives from Newlyn’s naval and air bases, as well as her family and friends. Her memorial was unveiled in 1921. Today, outside the area Louisa isn’t widely-known, but locally her memory is maintained by the fine monument.

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