With many men away from Westmorland for the duration of the Second World War, only those too old, not fit enough to serve or excused from doing so by being in reserved occupations were left behind. Single women were also called up, though they had the choice of doing war work or serving in the forces, and it was the married women, mothers and grandmothers who organised voluntary war work, kept the home fires burning and headed growing families in the absence of their men. This week, The Way We Were recalls how busy life was at home on the domestic front, where versatility was just about the only commodity not rationed; and even women used to being at work outside the home were faced with difficult wartime disruptions and inconveniences. This teacher was left little time for running her school in Garsdale:
"I had to do a lot of work during the war with the ARP. I had to be the ARP warden, and I was the WVS and nearly every other organisation that came in there, and I'd also to be on duty at the school for Red Cross and at the same time be at the police station half a mile away to answer the telephone. And all the men had tin hats, but not me - until somebody came from Bradford and said, 'Why is there one person who's answering the telephone and doing first aid, the only one that hasn't got a tin hat and she's the one most likely to need it, dashing from one place to another?' So I got a tin hat!"
The school in Ambleside adopted a shift system to provide space for a big party of evacuee children:
"When the war came that made a lot of difference because there were so many evacuees and we were only in the school half a day, and then we had to clear out and go into the Conservative Club and let the evacuees have the school for half a day. It was very hard going, very hard."
For this young shop assistant, the War brought a complete change from her pleasant retail work to a clerical job at Shorts, where the Sunderland flying boats were built. A tribunal at Kendal gave her the choice of war work or the forces and she happily chose war work:
"...we were attached to Stores where we kept a record of all that went into an aircraft, and at first when we went there we were in quite a nice office that had windows, quite nice and pleasant, but then they decided to move us down into stores, and its a wonder we didn't all catch something..."
The prefab building had no roof at first, then a ceiling was built which made the space airless; nearby was the cutting shop where men cut bakelite and metals, and what with the noise from the rivetters too, the stores feared for their health and requested an inspection from the local doctor. His guided tour was craftily planned to take him to every office except that one. It was no wonder the management thought it important to provide a good canteen and lunchtime entertainment to keep staff morale high:
"We'd a wonderful canteen and quite decent food, too and there was a staff canteen and a larger one for the workers and we used to have concerts and they used to have George and his records most dinnertimes so that we could dance or sing if we wanted to.
Voluntary war work was a full time occupation for older ladies with time to spare:
"When the second war started, we decided to start a War Comforts fund... and I had the depot at my house, and we used to send comforts until coupons came in, and then we sent them postal orders. I was the secretary for that. And I was the representative for the Soldiers, Sailor and Airmens' Families Association, and I also started the WVS in Ambleside, and we had quite a lot of self-evacuated people and I got them roped in. The Council always used to ask me if they had an appeal sent to them, like Aid to Russia, Aid to China and the Spitfire Fund, and St Dunstan's and Salvation Army Huts for Troops, and I organised all these appeals.
"And we had a waste paper depot in Millans Park, it was Jackson's Builders' Yard, it was a big building and we had this as a waste paper depot. One day the telephone rang, and said, 'Your waste paper depot's on fire!'... there was no hope, and we had a marvellous load, just ready for off which was most disappointing. And we started school meals, the YMCA Womens Auxiliary and we did the reception of evacuees."
Much welfare work was also done by volunteers. If a serviceman abroad was worried that his wife was being unfaithful, the Welfare Officer might contact a volunteer member of the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmens' Families Association to investigate:
"I used to have some horrible cases where men in France thought their wives were going off the rails with the prisoners at Grizedale Camp;...I had to send a report. Of course, these women would tell such tales you didn't believe half of what they said. And then I would start asking questions. But I didn't like that, I felt it was prying. And I would write to them and say I wished to see them, and I would be available at such and such a time on such a day, and if they didn't come I was afraid that I would have to come and see them. Well, of course that brought them, because they didn't want the neighbours to see me going in. And they used to come and tell me these lovely stories. But there weren't many of them, I think I only had one divorce."
Not everybody understood the role of the WVS. One day a chauffeur driven car arrived at the home of the local organiser:
"The lady was asked to come in. She said, 'I understand you are the head of the Womens' Voluntary Service, well, I want some staff, I want somebody to come and work for me.' But I said, the WVS is not for that.But she said, 'They've taken all my staff, what can I do?'. I said, you can shut off a good many of your rooms and cut down and live in a smaller space. That's all you can do. 'But', she said, 'I've always been used to staff.' And I said, yes, a lot of people have been used to staff but they haven't got them now. And I said quite definitely the Womens Voluntary Service is not for that. So you can imagine the attitude!"
War work brought women far higher wages than they had been used to; one Land Army girl walked miles every day on a milk round, working from early morning to evening seven days a week, helped only by Italian and German prisoners. But far from complaining, she enjoyed the daily slog and was delighted at her new pay packet:
"When I went up to the Land Army I got thirty shillings a week and I thought I was a millionaire!"