From the lives of local Suffragettes to Boy the Sticker Dog, Gallery Oldham mines its collection to tell the many stories of the home front during the First World War
The everyday lives, losses of and achievements of people on the home front during the First World War aren’t always fully understood, explored or written about as much as the experiences of the troops at the front.
And in the cotton towns of Lancashire, where the Pals Battalions have left a powerful and lasting impression of the effects the war, the focus inevitably falls on the terrible experiences of men in places like Ypres, Somme and Gallipoli.
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But the story of the home front is an equally fascinating one that takes in many elements, from loss and privation to fortitude and political change.
At Gallery Oldham they are marking the centenary of the end of the First World War by exploring its extensive collections that tell this story to reveal how the Lancashire cotton town adapted to meet the war’s needs and the legacy it created for the local area.
Co-curated by historians Alan Fowler and Terry Wyke, Peace and Plenty? Oldham and the First World War paints a fascinating picture of a town during wartime and, as social history curator Sean Baggaley explains, it particularly highlights the story of the changing role of women during a time of rapid social and political change.
“Oldham women had been really prominent in the fight for the vote so it’s really interesting to see what they did in the war and to remember that just a month after the Armistice, women over 30 were able to go into the polling booths,” he says. “The national story is that men went off to fight and women could suddenly enter the world of work, but in a mill town like Oldham, half of the textile workers in the town were already women.”
The exhibition explores how these women adapted to new patterns of work and opportunity by working for firms like the town’s biggest employer, Platt Brothers who made textile machinery for mills all around the world. With the advent of war, in common with thousands of other engineering companies across Britain, they turned production over to munitions work.
As well as shoring up the munitions industry, in Oldham women began working everywhere from the foundries to the trams – a search through the museum’s archives turned up evidence of the debate over what constituted an appropriate uniform or length of skirt for a female tram conductor to wear.
“Once women proved themselves there was a fear that men wouldn’t be able to get back in the mill”
Another barometer of popular opinion in Oldham during the war was the work of locally-born cartoonist Sam Fitton, who as well as forging a decent career with his Lancashire dialect music hall monologues and poems, had a cartoon in the textile industry’s weekly newspaper, the Cotton Factory Times.
The newspaper’s Mirth in the Mill page, into which cotton workers would send jokes and write funny letters, featured Fitton’s comic insights into the preoccupations of wartime workers and Fitton tackled everything from the potato shortage and the price of sugar to queuing for food and profiteering.
Baggaley points to a lovely cartoon with a dad and his lad chatting and the boy is saying: “Does every fairy story start with once upon a time?”And the dad says, “No, these days it starts ‘Because of the war I’ve had to put me prices up’!”
Another one, called “When the War Wanes, What?” shows a factory with a huge woman stood at the gate stopping the men coming back in.
“It articulates the fear that men would lose their jobs. Nobody questioned the fact that men were paid more than women for doing essentially the same skilled work, but once women proved themselves there was a fear that men wouldn’t be able to get back in the mill.”
The exhibition also highlights the changing attitudes of women themselves during wartime by telling the extraordinary story of local Suffragette Annie Kenney who had been imprisoned in Manchester’s Strangeways Prison in 1905 with Christabel Pankhurst.
Kenney had an astonishing career trajectory; working at age ten, half-time in a mill where she lost a finger in an accident, and like many of her fellow mill workers her education was minimal. But she found a great sense of community in the mill and became active in the trades union.
“All of this is very typical,” says Baggaley, “then she hears the Pankhursts speak and she throws her entire life into that cause.”
Kenney went on to play a prominent part in the Suffragettes’ campaign, effectively leading it between 1912 and 1914, being jailed several times and even taking part in hunger strikes. Her role in these defining times has been highlighted by the recent discovery of a letter about her Suffragette experiences in an archive in Canada, which is displayed in the exhibition. But the war marked a sea change for Kenney, as it did for many of her fellow Suffragettes from the Women’s Social and Political Union.
“This ambulance is absolutely about votes for women!”
“She starts a new chapter in her life, which takes her, as her passport shows, ultimately all over the world,” explains Baggaley. “During the war she’s writing Cotton Factory Times articles trying to calm down industrial unrest. During the notorious spinners’ strike she’s telling them that a strike would be an unpatriotic thing to do and they’ve got to think about the boys at the front.
“So she’s come a long way from being a half-timer herself to giving her opinions to the entire industry about how they should behave to help the war effort.”
Kenney became such a well-known public speaker that she was sent on government propaganda work right across the world. Her passport, displayed here, was stamped so many times they had to issue her with a new one.
Another local woman, albeit from a different end of the social scale, was Marjorie Lees, who as a wealthy woman was a leading light in the more peaceable Suffragist movement.
“Marjorie Lees donates an ambulance to the war effort, which is painted up and called The Oldham Suffragist,” says Baggaley. “She supports the war effort but she’s still sending out a message that this ambulance is absolutely about votes for women!”
The museum also holds several examples of the rolls of honour that most local companies made to honour their employees who went to war, revealing a range of organisations from mills to insurance companies that were tightly bound together by a common experience. There are also paintings and photographs of the Oldham war memorial unveiling in 1923 and a display of the original decorative bronze doors. These were removed after the Second World War in order to accommodate the names of local Oldham men who once again laid down their lives in a world war.
Another common experience on the First World War home front was fundraising for the war effort and the exhibition tells the story of Egbert the Tank that came to Oldham in 1918 to encourage local people to donate money or buy War Bonds. After the war a couple more tanks were donated to the town and stood guard in the local parks where they became climbing frames for local kids well into the 1930s.
Then there was Boy the Sticker Dog, a local pub landlord’s dog; a leaflet lists the money he raised, describing him as the war’s champion fundraiser. There were many fundraisers in the north west during the First World War and it’s left to Sam Fitton to capture the mood in one of his Cotton Factory Times cartoons.
Called ‘the Much Badged ‘Un’ it depicts a man and his dog covered in stickers and flags. Offered another flag by a little girl, he says: “Now I ask you, where can I put it?!”.
The people of cotton towns like Oldham needed that resilience and humour long after the war ended. The industry that was once at the heart of the town never recovered from the disruption caused by the First World War.
“After a very brief boom in the cotton industry in 1919/1920, competition from overseas meant the mills never returned to full work,” says Baggaley. “In fact the experience of the 1920s and 1930s is of mills starting to close.
“And that’s the start of the gradual decline – so in that way the war changes Oldham forever.”
Peace and Plenty? is at Gallery Oldham until January 12 2018.
Oldham, Greater Manchester
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