Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Aftermath of the Great War

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A chilling look back:

One hazy morning in 1917 the senior mistress of Bournemouth High School For Girls stood up in front of the assembled sixth form and announced to her hushed audience: “I have come to tell you a terrible fact.

“Only one out of ten of you girls can ever hope to marry. This is not a guess of mine. It is a statistical fact.

“Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed. You will have to make your way in the world as best you can.

“The war has made more openings for women than there were before. But there will still be a lot of prejudice. You will have to fight. You will have to struggle.”

Single women

Long-term statistics show that 35 per cent of women
failed to marry during their ‘reproductive’ years

Sitting in the assembly hall among her shocked and silent schoolfellows was 17-year-old Rosamund Essex.

She was never to forget those chilling words, recalling: “It was one of the most fateful statements of my life.”

When Rosamund, who never married, wrote her memoirs 60 years later she accepted that her teacher’s pronouncement had been prophetic.

“How right she was,” she recalled. “Only one out of every ten of my friends has ever married. “Quite simply, there was no one available. We had to face the fact that our lives would be stunted in one direction. We should never have the kind of happy homes in which we ourselves had been brought up. There would be no husband, no children, no sexual outlet, no natural bond of man and woman. It was going to be a struggle indeed.”

Rosamund, and so many of the classmates who sat with her that morning, joined what came to be known as The Surplus Two Million – women whose dreams of marriage and children died alongside their men.

World War I deprived Britain of three-quarters-of-a-million soldiers, leaving as many more incapacitated.

In 1919 a generation of women who unquestioningly believed marriage to be their birthright discovered there were simply not enough men to go around.

The make-up of British society had changed irrevocably – as Isie Russell-Stevenson discovered to her horror.

Towards the end of the war in 1918 she received a message to say that her husband, Hamilton, would be returning home from the Front.

Wearing her prettiest dress, Isie waited eagerly at the docks for his boat to arrive.

But the dreamed-of moment turned suddenly to nightmare.  Hamilton appeared on a stretcher, mangled and clearly dying. Isie took him home and nursed him and not long afterwards he died.

Isie mourned – nevertheless she was young, and the following year she was invited to a ball in London.

She willed herself into the mood, did her hair and put on her ballgown. But when she walked into the ballroom, the party seemed to be women-only. “But if it’s a hen party,” she thought to herself, mystified, “why is every woman in full evening dress?”

At last, through the crowd, she spotted a man in tails… and again through the crowd another…and then a couple more. And gradually she realised that this pathetic clutch of males were the men who were left.

There were about ten women to every man.

She recalled: “It’s hard to explain. It was as if every man you had ever danced with was dead.”

May Jones, the daughter of a carpenter, knew – as she held a letter informing her of her fiancé’s death – that she would never marry or hold a baby in her arms.

Before the onset of war, May had fallen in love with Philip, a Cambridge scholar who read her poetry. When Philip – a stretcherbearer – was due to return home on leave, May was walking on air. But she wrote in her memoirs: “Then everything was shattered; a letter came from the War Office to say he had been killed in action.

“The shock and loss was terrible, I felt I had lost half of myself, or was it my twin soul? I knew then that I should die an old maid.”

She added sadly: “I was only 20-years-old.”

Like a generation of other women in post-war Britain, Phyllis Bentley, born in 1894 and raised on fairy tales of love and marriage, headed for the dance halls as the best place to meet and mate.

For the men, the lure of the dance was great; they could take their pick from the prettiest of the bunch. For the girls, there was the agony of waiting to be asked. Lack of men meant looks were at a premium.

Phyllis was not pretty, and the competition for partners was fierce, so all too often there were awkward gaps when she was unclaimed and would sit, in the cloakroom, reading her books.

Then one day a man who seemed different from the others asked her to dance. He was, she remembered “large and agreeably ugly. . .”

He also seemed kind, warmhearted and well-read.

Phyllis’s heart quickened.

And yet that one foxtrot when her dream took shape was painfully fleeting. She remembered: “For the space of a dance I thought my destiny was settled.”

Minutes later, Phyllis’s partner rejoined his group. “And I perceived that he was already deeply in love with an old schoolfellow of mine, a more than pretty, intelligent, altogether delightful girl whom I greatly liked. I perceived also that she was deeply in love with him.”

And so the dream ended. Phyllis’s ugly man married the pretty schoolfriend within the year. Not long afterwards, in 1919, Phyllis had her second and final brush with romance.

It lasted a little longer; this time the man paid court to her over several months, but then abruptly got engaged to another girl.

Phyllis Bentley – who never was to marry – was one of the sober statistics of the 1921 census, which showed the imbalance of the sexes.

For those aged between 25 and 29, there were 1,209 single women for every 1,000 men. When the next census was taken ten years later, 50 per cent of those women were still single.

Long-term statistics showed that 35 per cent of them failed to marry during their reproductive years.

Botched affairs, dashed hopes, the prospect of loneliness; two million women now saw their dreams slipping away from them.

Women like Alix Kilroy, who confided sadly in her diary on her 26th birthday “I seem to want very badly to see some chance of matrimony in the future – for children and the physical side, too.”

But other women sought solace among their own sex – with an explosion of lesbian relationships.

Author Sybil Neville-Rolfe noted: “The war left behind it a generation of Eves in an Adamless Eden… Starving for love, deprived of homes and denied the joys of motherhood, many women found in friendship, one with another, some sort of substitute for these normal but lost relationships.”

Unlike male homosexuality, lesbianism was not illegal – and a Bill to outlaw it in 1921 failed because MPs considered that it was wiser to sweep the whole issue under the carpet.

In the fashionable clubs of London’s West End, women danced cheek to cheek with their female partners – unafraid of being pointed out, because the shortage of men had made this such a common sight.

The writer Esther Harding noted that more and more women seemed to be adopting “a somewhat masculinised dress and manner, as well as certain masculine characteristics”.

Marie Stopes, the campaigner for women’s rights, received many letters from single women agonising over their lesbian leanings.

In 1922, a Miss L. Redcliffe wrote to her saying: “I have a very strong tendency to be attracted by my own sex. I have made great efforts to overcome this – but the force of it is so strong that it seems to me most important that if there is anything I am ignorant of I should have advice…”

Stopes replied: “Keep your mind off the physical side of that aspect as much as possible…I think you will find this phase passes entirely away.”

For some, it was a lifesaver. Denied a husband and family by the war, Elizabeth Goudge nursed her elderly mother. When her mother died, Elizabeth was racked with loneliness.

A friend arranged a meeting with another single girl – and Elizabeth later recalled: “We looked at each other. I saw a young woman with a head of hair like a horse chestnut on fire, and the white magnolia skin that goes with such hair. She looked young enough to be my daughter…when I went to bed that night I found myself flooded with happiness. Jessie has stood by me for 21 years and has been the most wonderful event that ever happened to me.”

Many lesbians settled down with their chosen partner for a lifetime of tender intimacy.

Alice Skillicorn, principal of a teacher training college in Cambridge, met Dorothy Sergeant in the early 1930s. By week, Alice lived in college and played out her headmistressy-role to perfection. But weekends and vacations were different – the couple shared a house. They remained together for nearly 40 happy years, until Dorothy died in 1969.

Broken-hearted, Alice was finally laid to rest in the same grave, with the tombstone recording their “dear and devoted friendship”.

But other spinsters continued with their desperate search for a husband and magazine problem pages in the 1920s dealt with a barrage of letters from women desperate to fill the gap in their lives.

The following answer from the Fireside Friends page in a Woman’s Friend of 1926 was addressed to “A Lonely Girl”. “I am very sorry that I cannot put you in touch with a young man, my dear, but it is against our rules to give private addresses.”

A little further on, the article suggests women might consider emigrating to find a husband.

The sex psychologist Walter Gallichan – a popular voice of the day – urged single women to check the local population statistics when deciding where to go husband-hunting: Sussex and Leicester, he pointed out, were particularly unpromising areas to look for spare men, as they already had a disproportion of married men or surplus women.

Many placed advertisements in the Press in their hope of finding any man – like the following heartfelt plea published during the war: “Lady, fiancè killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the War.”

By 1921 publications like the Matrimonial Times were carrying columns of advertisements placed by spinsters and widows.

They included:

MATRIMONY – Spinster, 38, loving disposition, fond of children, entertaining and country life, is anxious to correspond with a wounded officer of cultured tastes, with view to a matrimonial alliance; one with some means.

LADY, aged 49, spinster, cultured, bright temperament, small capital… would like to meet officer or civilian age 45-60… could be very happy with disabled officer needing a cheerful companion and pal.

The stigma of being a spinster was so fearful that many women succumbed to sex, believing they’d get a husband that way. So much so that after the war some wag suggested fixing a plaque to the wall of a famous London hotel, “To the women who fell here during the Great War”

Men could take their pick and were often ruthless. Betty Milton, who was a kitchen maid, felt that at 26 her marriage prospects were receding. Life in service didn’t offer many opportunities for meeting men, apart from the boy who delivered the groceries.

She wasn’t very keen on him, but started seeing him and eventually agreed to have sex because he promised to marry her. “I began to consider myself left on the shelf, an ‘old maid’. . . I hated it but at 26 I was dead scared of losing him.” Betty got caught by the man’s mother, and her suitor fled.

She was lucky not to get pregnant – society did not tolerate extramarital sex and many unmarried mothers were condemned to asylums, while their babies were put out for adoption or sent to reformatories.

But with headlines like “A Million Women Too Many – 1920 Husband Hunt” from the Daily Mail, many eligible young men became afraid that every woman who approached them, however innocently, was trying to hijack them into marriage.

After her brother Edward was killed in June 1918, the writer Vera Brittain was desperate to learn the particulars of his fate, and relentlessly pursued his injured colonel, who had not only been awarded a VC but was also tall and good-looking.

Despite this, Vera had no interest in him but for his knowledge of Edward’s last hours; to this end she haunted his hospital bedside and took every opportunity to get him to talk. But the young colonel was vain, cold and reluctant.

He seemed, she wrote: “Nervously afraid that every young woman he met might want to marry him.” The more she pursued him, the more he avoided her. She was never able to get him to divulge what he knew, and finally “lost sight of him altogether”.

Whatever became of this selfobsessed young man, we will never know. Suffice to say, his life post-war was probably far happier than the fates of those two million young women for whom love, family and a home of their own had been shot away for ever.

• Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After The First World War by Virginia Nicholson (Viking, £20).

Written by Leisureguy

15 September 2007 at 11:09 am

Posted in Books, Daily life

One Response

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  1. In HK, where I live, there are a large number of ‘domestic helpers’ i.e. maids, overwhelmingly from the Philipinnes and Indonesia. About 200 000 or so (probably more now – a long time since I looked at the stats). (Of course they are all female, do I even need to mention that?) From a population of less than 7 million. (Put it another way, in HK 97.5 per cent of the people are Chinese, and the other 2.5 per cent are ‘expatriates’ … but in fact most of those are the domestic helpers alrealy mentioned, with a few being white bankers and lawyers, and then a few people like me, and so on … )

    At one point, the local media began to go crazy about ‘lesbianism’ amongst the maids … which is, in fact, exactly what you should expect, given the sex/class/nationality imbalance. (200 K Philipinno women, and maybe a couple of dozen Philipinno men, and Chinese men completely uninterested in women who are not from HK or from Mainland China, and only so many drunk fifty-year-old British expatriates to go around in the sex and money stakes …)

    Take away all the men, and what do the women have left?

    HK provides a modern paradigm. As WWI provides something from the past.

    Feeling rather embittered tonight, I will close with ‘Who the hell cares anyway?’



    16 September 2007 at 9:13 am

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