Event, Politics, Women's History

GRANTHAM: Moral Panic in the First World War

On 8 September, 1914, the Lincolnshire, Boston & Spalding Free Press announced that the 11th Northern Division of the new force of Kitchener’s 100,000 men were to be stationed at Belton Park near Grantham and from then on about twelve different regiments were quartered at Belton at any one timeThis began one of the episodes described as ‘khaki fever.’



In the early months of the war, troops were dependent on civilians for clothes, blankets, kit bags and food; the 11th Northern Division also relied on them for their laundry.  ‘Men’ who did not ‘get into the war literature’ such as ‘cleaners, launderers and the like’ were, in fact, usually women.  The Grantham Labour Exchange worked out a scheme for washing garments by collecting them on Mondays and returning them on Fridays.    Each woman was expected to take about twenty-four sets of washing per week, a set comprising four garments from each man; for this she would be paid 3½d per set which would entitle her to 7s per week.  It was thought that the plan would benefit local washerwomen by a total of £218 per week.  Three voluntary Committees of ladies promised to undertake the marking and mending of the garments and see that the articles were properly distributed.  A supply of transports was needed to complete the scheme for washing.  Those who could help were asked to communicate with Miss E.J. Beardsley, Labour Exchange, Grantham, which was acting in conjunction with the Medical Officer of Health at Grantham and the Medical Officer of Health at the Camp.  They intended to begin operations on Monday 21 September.  At that date there were 325 women in the scheme, but 500 were required.

The war had been predicated in sexual terms on the ‘rape of Belgium’; normal social taboos had been ruptured with killing now an aim, and war was acknowledged to be sexually arousing for men.  Grantham became busy and more cosmopolitan; bakers, shops, pubs and taxi drivers did a roaring trade. However, the establishment of military camps gave rise to social problems and crime increased, so the General Officer Commanding, Major General F. Hammersley, CB, placed the borough out of bounds.  Pickets were stationed at all points, only those with special passes were supposed to be admitted.  This situation could not continue as the men needed to get out of camp.



Grantham’s problems were discussed at a meeting in Nottingham in mid-December, where Captain Fitzgerald, responsible for Belton, said that there was at first an appalling amount of drunkenness which was difficult to deal with as the military police were themselves new.  There was no martial law but pubs now closed after 8.00 p.m.  Drunkenness had decreased.  However, changes in sexual behaviour were occurring and Captain Fitzgerald said intemperance and immorality went arm in arm, the latter was very bad and on the increase.

‘The British soldier who satisfies his sexual desires by visiting a prostitute is assumed to be merely acting in a natural way’ but what was acceptable in India or France with foreign women could not be countenanced at Home with British girls.   Unchaperoned women, or those without a male escort, were liable to be described as prostitutes during this period.  Prostitution was reported to be ‘rife’ with train loads of ladies of ‘easy virtue’ coming into Grantham from different cities, especially Nottingham.  Under Regulation 40D of the Defence of the Realm Act, (DORA) the authorities could inspect and punish ‘infected women’ who ‘had sexual intercourse with any member of His Majesty’s troops.’

The Bishop of Southwell said they needed firstly, to create temperance in the Army and to make the men happy in camp.  Secondly, women must help them.  The Church must influence the ‘defence of camps from the careless behaviour of girls and women and people must guard their daughters against these dangers.  Homes were being established to guard some of the saddest cases of girls.’   Behind this concern for women’s morals, there was alarm about soldiers contracting venereal diseases for which women were thought to be responsible, making the army weak and ailing, unable to march or fight.  General Hammersley had soldiers and police entering houses to see who was in bed with whom, and elsewhere DORA was used to forbid women to approach within a prescribed distance of military camps and to impose curfews, banning women from pubs after 6.00 p.m.  General Hammersley was entitled to place restrictions on civilians.  A notice was published prohibiting women from going into Grantham, but this caused a storm of protest.  Captain Fitzgerald explained it was issued as a preventative measure and did not refer to respectable girls but that it had had a beneficial effect.  Mrs Maud Tutt of East Street, who appeared at Grantham Police Court in December with two black eyes, was charged with being drunk and incapable in Beacon Lane the previous Saturday. She pleaded guilty. Her husband was employed at Belton Park, but had left her and she had been turned out of the place where she was living and had nowhere to go.  She was reported as being ‘in the habit of going about with soldiers’.  Mr Casburn, the magistrate, said this was a case when General Hammersley ought to serve a notice compelling the accused to remain indoors from 7.00 at night till 8.00 a.m.  Where ‘indoors’ was expected to be in her homeless circumstances was not specified.  This was deeply gendered, women were easier targets.  How she got the black eyes was not recorded.  She was fined 10s or given 14 days’ imprisonment.



The first company of the Machine Gun Corps was raised in Grantham by Army Order 413 of 22 October 1915;  120,000 machine gunners passed through Harrowby, the second army camp in Grantham.  This was the reason that Grantham became the first town north of London to appoint policewomen to patrol its streets.  Miss Allen and Miss Harburn appeared on 16 December, provoking considerable interest.  The Corps of Women Police Volunteers, from which these two officers had been drawn, was enrolled in London to provide a body of trained women for the service of the public.  Instruction was given in drill, signalling, first aid, self defence, procedure at Police courts, and the method of collecting accurate information.  The duties were about identical with those of police constables.  All women police wore a smart uniform of navy blue when on duty, with a felt hat somewhat similar to a bowler.  Strict discipline was maintained, and authority vested in a Chief and Assistant Chiefs.  The Chief of the Corps, Miss Damer Dawson, supervised the officers’ preliminary work in Grantham.  She informed the Grantham Journal that the organisation was started ‘in a spirit of earnest and responsible endeavour and not with a view to sensational effect or amateur effort’.  The paper responded:  ‘In her endeavour to carry out the local work successfully, Miss Dawson is assured of the cooperation of the Borough and Military Police.’  In 1915, Grantham magistrates swore in Mrs Edith Smith, making her the first policewoman in Britain with full powers of arrest.  Whether female police were there to protect women from men, or vice versa, was a moot point.



Katherine Storr (c) November 2013

Dr Katherine Storr  is a social and cultural historian specialising in women’s history, especially in connection with the First World War and the inter-war period.  Her publications include Excluded from the Record:  Women, Refugees and Relief, 1914 – 1929 (Peter Lang, 2009) and Belgian Refugees in Lincolnshire and Hull, 1914 – 1919  (Yourpod, 2010), and she contributed a chapter to Women, Education and Agency, 1600-2000, eds Aiston, Spence  & Meikle  (Routledge, 2009).  Taking early retirement from her post of Head of Business Studies at Horley Comprehensive School in 1986, since living in Lincolnshire Dr Storr has been researching the impact of the Great War on civilians in the eastern counties of England as well as giving talks to local groups.

During her teaching career, Dr Storr taught children in primary and secondary schools and worked in adult education. She began studying at the University of Sussex in January 1994, and in May 2004 gained her D.Phil in Contemporary History.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,