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6th July 2022: Academic Fellowship Celebration – Independent Research Fellows’ Roundtable

Don’t miss the first of two seminars celebrating the Women’s History Network’s Academic Fellows! Our WHN Independent Research Fellows 2021/2022 will be speaking about their seminal work and research, ranging from the groundbreaking activism of British South Asian women in the post-World War 2 era to the politics of identity for female munition workers in World War 1.

Wednesday, 6 July 2022, 4pm BST/GMT +1

Sign up on Zoom here.

Academic Fellowship Celebration – Independent Research Fellows’ Roundtable

Laura Noakes, ‘The Professional Identity of Women Workers at HM Factory Gretna in the First World War’

During World War One, 30,000 people worked at H.M Factory Gretna, the ‘greatest munitions factory on earth.’ They made cordite, an propellent that was an essential ingredient used in bullets and shells. 12,000 of these workers were women, and many of them young, single, and away from home for the first time. In much of the historiography on the subject, these munitionettes were characterised as working class patriots, just ‘doing their bit’ for the war effort. In contrast, the 150 women police officers who worked on the factory site are portrayed in the history books as professional pioneers who were decidedly middle class and usually supported the women’s suffrage movement. However, a closer look into the archives at The Devil’s Porridge Museum reveals a more nuanced interpretation of women workers at the factory.

This paper looks at the complex relationship between gender, class, and cultural expectations that existed at HM Factory Gretna, drawing upon records from The Devil’s Porridge Museum’s archive collection as well as research conducted during the museum’s latest research project. It will argue that, for many, working at Gretna allowed women munition workers to develop a skill set that would have been unavailable to them in peacetime, providing them the opportunity to forge professional identities and careers that went far beyond patriotic war work. It will also suggest that the background of women police officers at Gretna was more complicated than has been previously argued, and that for many, policing seemed to be a wartime stopgap, rather than a stepping stone towards a career in law enforcement.

As such, this paper will examine the relationship between the ‘Gretna Girls’ and the members of the Women’s Police Service, as well as exploring their professional identities through the prism of class, gender and the context of wartime work at H.M Factory Gretna.

About Laura

Doctor Laura Noakes works as a Research Officer at The Devil’s Porridge Museum in Eastriggs, Scotland. The museum commemorates the story of HM Factory Gretna, a large munitions factory built during WW1. She completed her PhD at the Open University in 2021, her research focusing on two women, both suffrage activists and early women barristers.

Preeti Dhillon, ‘The Shoulders We Stand On: How Black and Brown People Fought for Change in the UK’

Preeti has been researching anti-racism activism by Black and Brown people in the UK from the 1960s to 1980s for a book entitled The Shoulders We Stand On: How Black and Brown People Fought for Change in the UK (Dialogue Books, 2023). As an Independent Research Fellow of the WHN she has focused on the work of the Brixton Black Women’s Group (BWG) and the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), and the groundbreaking strike at Grunwick led by Asian women from East Africa. She will be presenting a summary of her work on the BWG and OWAAD, as well as her reflections on the process of researching the history of marginalised groups within an already marginalised group.

About Preeti

Preeti is a researcher, author and historian, whose work tells stories hidden from the mainstream narrative. She works in the international development and humanitarian sector, and has a BA in History and Politics from the University of Oxford, and an MA in International Development and Public Policy. Her debut book, The Shoulders We Stand On: How Black and Brown People Fought for Change in the UK will be published by Dialogue Books in 2023.

Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Dr Susila Bonnerjee (1872-1920), Medical Pioneers and Suffragist’

This talk explores women’s difficulties in entering the medical profession in Britain at the turn of the 20th century. Dr Susila Bonnerjee was one of the first Indian women to study at Cambridge University. She joined the London School of Medicine for Women in 1895 and was attached to the Royal Free Hospital before moving back to India. But her work there and later in the UK was restricted by contemporary attitudes to women in medicine, and she found renewed purpose in the UK women’s suffrage movement, as this recently discovered photograph in the Women’s Library at LSE reveals.

Church League for Women’s Suffrage meeting in Brighton on 2 July 1913 with two Indian women, Doctor Susila Anita (Susie) Bonnerjee, who was Secretary of the Ealing Branch of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, and either her sister Nellie (Nalini) Blair or sister-in-law, Amiya (Kitty), who visited Susila in 1912-1913.

About Ann

Dr Ann Kennedy Smith is a Cambridge-based writer and researcher, with articles and reviews in the Times Literary Supplement, History Today, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the Journal of Victorian Culture. She taught at Cambridge University’s Institute of Continuing Education before gaining a Masters in Biography and Creative Nonfiction at U.E.A. in 2015. Her blog is called ‘The Cambridge Ladies’ Dining Society 1890-1914’, and she was awarded a Women’s History Network Independent Researcher fellowship for 2021-22.

Chamion Caballero, ‘‘Interesting Society Rumour’: The Marriages of the Devi Sisters to the Mander Brothers in Early Twentieth-Century Britain’

Due to migration patterns, the history of racial mixing in Britain throughout the twentieth century has tended to be between Black and Asian men and white British women from working class communities. However, this is not to say that relationships between Black and Asian women and white British men were unknown. During a recent research project, I identified several accounts of wealthy, aristocratic South Asian women marrying white Britons and making their homes in England. Among these were two daughters of the Maharajah of Cooch Behar, India – Princesses Pratibha and Sudhira Devi – who married the well-to-do Mander brothers (Lionel and Alan respectively) in 1912 and 1914.

Despite the sisters being little known to a twenty-first century audience, during the early twentieth century they appear to have received substantial public attention and commentary. In addition to the perceived novelty of the class, gender and racial combination of their unions, Princess Pratibha’s subsequent turbulent divorce from Lionel Mander seems to have attracted regular commentary in the press (born into a prominent Wolverhampton family, Lionel began a rise to cinematic fame in the 1920s under his stage name Miles Mander).

Scholarly work on interracial relationships in working class communities has demonstrated the critical roles of gender and class in shaping how mixed race marriages and family lives were framed and conceptualised by outsiders. Through focusing on the press coverage of the lives and marriages of Pratibha and Sudhira, I provide further insights into the ways in which gender and class shaped representation of women in interracial marriages outside working-class communities, and how these representations challenged or confirmed wider social depictions of those who ‘crossed the colour line’ during the first decades of the twentieth century.

About Chamion

Dr Chamion Caballero is the Director of The Mixed Museum, an digital museum that shares and preserves the history of racial mixing in Britain ( She has held academic Senior Visiting Fellow posts at the London School of Economics, and Goldsmiths, University of London, as well as a Reader post in the Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research at London South Bank University. Her research interests include race, ethnicity and qualitative methods and she has contributed to numerous journal articles and reports in this area, including for the Department for Education, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Runnymede Trust. Her historical research with Peter Aspinall on mixed race Britain formed the foundations of the 2011 BBC2 series Mixed Britannia, on which she also acted as an academic consultant.

Sign up now for a place in our Zoom webinar.

The seminar will also be livestreamed on Facebook and available for 24 hours.