How girl power got Cambridge through the war years: The 100th anniversary of the First World War continues to yield many stories of the life and death struggle of men in the trenches – but it was pretty tough for women too, trying to keep everything going back home. With thousands of men fighting at the front, women were left to do not only their own work, but the men's work too.
|Window cleaners set off to work in Piccadilly, London during World War I.|
Females already made up a large part of the general workforce, although they were employed mostly in the textile industry, and in schools and hospitals. When war came, many worked in munitions factories. Some also joined the Women's Patrols, a female police force that went on the beat in public areas such as railway stations, streets, parks and public houses.
|Note the women window cleaners in the centre image - click to enlarge.|
And they became part of the armed forces as well. The War Office realised many of the tasks undertaken by soldiers in France could easily be done by women, so the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps was established in December 1916. A year later, the Women's Royal Naval Service was formed, and a year after that, the Women's Royal Air Force (later the Women's Auxiliary Air Force) was set up. In total, more than 100,000 women joined Britain's armed forces during the war.
In Cambridge, as in London and other cities, two very obvious jobs once done only by men became the preserve of women. One was street sweeping. The women cleaners were known as 'scavengers' and went into action in 1918, although as our photo here of women working in Cambridge in 1918 shows, their clothing wasn't initially very suitable. Dustcarts were generally pulled by horses, but since many of them had been sent off to war too, Cambridge's corporation spent £3,000 on what the News reported were “two large electric motor vehicles and two small petrol motor vehicles for the collection of household refuse."
|Click to enlarge.|
Another task was window-cleaning. The News reported in 1916: “The Cambridge Window Cleaning Company, owing to a shortage of male labour, have instituted a service of lady cleaners. And jolly smart they look too in their khaki uniform, high gaiters and caps, relieved by red wrist and cap bands. Ladder climbing causes them no qualms and they are quite expert at the work. They are causing no small amount of interest not to say admiration."
|A female worker of the Mayfair Window Cleaning Company, London. Circa 1916.|