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Shropshire Archives is open in a phased way from 21 April 2021.
Red Cross Heroines

Women’s role in WWI

The position of women in society in 1914 was very different than it is today. Though women from poorer families had worked for generations, middle class women did not work outside the home, and would often pay someone else to do household chores. Even if women did have an occupation, such as teaching or secretarial work, when they married this had to be given up.

Many women had a very strong wish to do something which would help the war effort. Some were used to running large households, and turned this skill to organising other people to undertake war work. Many helped with fundraising or planted vegetables and knitting clothes for soldiers.

These extracts from the local newspapers give some idea of the help they were asked to give. Note how careful they were to say that the men would have their jobs back when they returned – a women’s place was expected to be in the home, except during this national emergency.

Wellington Journal 12/09/1914 pg4

Wellington Journal 12/09/1914 pg4

Wellington Journal 5 Sept 1914 [p5]

The Woman’s Part
Mrs Harley of Condover House, Shrewsbury writes: Two things British women are required to do in these perilous and awful times. 1st give willingly of their men for military service. 2nd come forward and fill gaps in employment created. German and French women are doing men’s work. We must follow unless we have home duties to perform such as care of children, aged parents or sick folk. Offer ourselves for public service for example women who have become expert drivers for their own pleasure can now do splendid work in driving public motors.

She wrote a similar article in the following weeks news (left): Wellington Journal 12 Sept 1914 [p4]

Mrs Katherine Harley, a Shropshire heroine.

Mrs Harley lived in Condover Grange near Shrewsbury. After the death of her husband in 1907, she became an active campaigner for women’s suffrage. Her sister, Charlotte, was also a notable suffragette. In 1913 she had suggested that The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies organise a march of women from across the country to London. It is estimated that 50,000 women took part in this “Suffragist Pilgrimage”.

At the outbreak of war many suffragists put their campaigning on hold and devoted their energies to the war effort. Katherine’s brother was Field Marshall Sir John French, who was the commander of the British Expeditionary Force and she was quick to offer her support.

On 17th Oct 1914 she advertised in the Wellington Journal
MORE MOTOR AMBULNCES ARE URGENTLY NEEDED for our Expeditionary Force and, as many lives are being lost for want of quicker transport, it is thought that some of the LADIES OF SHROPSHIRE might like to EQUIP AND SEND ONE OUT. MRS.HARLEY, wife of MR .P.D .HARLEY, The Grange, Condover, will Gladly receive and acknowledge any sum, large or small, that any Lady is good enough to send THE MATTER IS VERY URGENT.

She headed what she called a Flying Column to evacuate wounded soldiers from France. She served in France, and then Serbia where she led a group of forty British nurses. She was awarded the Legion of Honour for her work at the French hospital in Salonica.

On 7th March 1917, having spent the morning distributing food to starving Serbians in Monastir, the small town in which she had been stationed, she was hit by a fragment of shrapnel from a shell which burst near the house. She was killed instantly, and a memorial was erected over her grave in Thessalonika. A plaque to her memory was erected in the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, and her name is inscribed alongside soldiers on the stone of remembrance WWI memorial at St Mary’s church in Shrewsbury.

Write a short article for a news blog describing Katherine Harley’s contribution to the war effort.

Would your description be any different if she was a man?

Katherine’s grave, which towers above all the others in the cemetery, was erected in 1917 by the Serbian Army, and is inscribed in two languages with the following inscription;

The generous English lady and great benefactress of the Serbian people, Madame Harley a great lady. On your tomb instead of flowers the gratitude of the Serbs shall blossom there for your wonderful acts. Your name shall be known from generation to generation.