Ruth, a volunteer with The Royal Parks in the First World War, unravels the story of a young woman captured in an image in the archives:
A relaxed young woman smiles at us across the years, a vivid, fresh, image yet from a century ago. Who was she? What can she tell us?
There’s a clue in the picture. She wears the distinctive uniform of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), a British Army organisation set up in 1917 after initial resistance to women in military roles. She would have met stringent entry requirements.
Our next clue is where we find the image: in a fascinating photograph album of the personnel and activities of the Camouflage School in Kensington Gardens. The album belonged to our young woman: Winifred Mottershead. It was donated by her sister, Florence, after Winifred’s death in the 1960s. She had kept it all those years.
In a letter accompanying the donation, Florence writes that Winifred was Assistant to Captain Wilson in the Camouflage School’s Photographic Section and that an artist friend had mounted and bound the album for her.
We know no more about Winifred’s duties. Did they extend to taking photographs herself? Records about the Camouflage School mention only names and ranks of senior men and many WAAC records were destroyed in WW2.
We do know that Winifred, born in Kent in 1892, came from a modest background. Her family had moved to Brighton where her father was a bookshop manager and dealer. She never married. The 1939 Register shows her living with her elderly parents in Brighton doing “unpaid domestic duties” - presumably caring for them.
We can only speculate about what happened in between.
- Was Winifred one of the 750,000 women made redundant at the end of the War to make way for returning troops?
- Had she loved a soldier who didn’t make it back?
- Maybe Winifred wanted to be single, in order to work? After the War, marriage bars were introduced for many roles despite legislation banning such discrimination for public roles.
- Or did the post-War gender imbalance affect Winifred’s marriage prospects? Commentators refer to so-called “Surplus Women” (though the War may not have been the sole cause).
Perhaps one day we’ll learn more from records still to be made public, or even from you, the reader.
We can say that, for a while, Winifred stepped out of prevailing norms for her gender and class. She was one of many who supported the war effort on the home front, a part of the Royal Parks’ story, and one of the few for whom we have such an expressive image.