Women on the Spot
I WAS walking about Regent Street during an air raid. This is not the story of an escape; the German planes were at the other side of the river. There was a single loud explosion, very close, probably a time bomb going off. A middle-aged man started to run across the street. Sauntering along past the windowless shops, and humming raucously under her breath, was one of London’s everlasting old women — my belief is that some of them are five or six hundred years old, preserved in a cocoon of garments by their natural salt. She gave him a shrewd austere glance and said, eyeing me: ‘You’d think some of ‘em had never heard a bomb before in their lives.’
Now it is impossible, unless she learned her ancient cockney in Madrid or Warsaw, that she had ever heard bombs explode until a fortnight or so earlier. It had taken her just those few days to accept sudden death as part of the taste of life — little to choose between it and rain, freezing winds, and the other enemies of her old tough body. If you must have national emblems, she, I think, is as good a one as any, more precise and biting than most.
More common — as common today as little apples. In a street near one of the South London tube stations a young woman was boiling kettles to make tea, on a brazier outside her wrecked café. In the shelter, one of the old women roused herself, pulling together a black gaping skirt, a dirty bodice. The light from a cut-out bulb fell in a single ray across the hands on her lap, knotted hands, gripping a shabby bag. Her daughter watched her slyly, not young herself, with one of those long English faces, weathered brown, as smooth as waxed timber. On the floor beside mother, the claws of a chicken stuck from a dubious bundle.
‘Taking him to me daughter-in-law in Manchester today — so’s she’ll be pleased to see us. From what’s left of our own back yard. He was alive yesterday.’
‘Like lots o’ others,’ her daughter said with a sharp smile.
Mother was struggling to hang her square black gas-mask case round her body.
‘Here — let me help you, Mother. You shouldn’t take so many photos — carrying a camera about at your age!’
Laughter wheezed up from the old shapeless body as it shuffled to the steps.
Spread through the country, an army of women in overalls is feeding an industrial machine which for months — since Dunkirk, in fact — has been set at war speed. If the war lasts only another year, this army will have been doubled or trebled. It has drawn in women who never worked outside their homes before, and girls who left school this year. In a heavy engineering works in the Midlands, women are being taken on for the first, time. ‘What age? Oh, eighteen to forty — well, forty is what some of them tell us. We put them on the trench-mortar bomb. It’s what you might call essentially a woman’s job.’
If there were any comment to make on that, it would be irrelevant to this stage of civilization. Just before war broke out, this factory began putting up a new building. It was planned with enormous windows: these have been hurriedly covered up, and steps in the centre of the shop lead down to a roomy modern dugout, fitted with a loudspeaker. From a complex and very handsome machine to the dugout the distance is a few yards and several thousand years — the distance between industrial and neolithic man. ‘ Can’t get the women to keep their hair under their caps,’ the managing director said; ‘“Wait till you’ve been scalped,” I tell them.’ Walking towards the filling shop, we touch another cross-section of history. ‘You don’t know it, but a Roman road runs through the works. I really don’t know how such a thing came into my head — but the other night I passed one of our workers doing Home Guard. He was standing just out there, and I thought, “Why, you might be one of their sentries.” But just then — a raid was on — the girls on First Aid came out of the shop and ran across to the Aid Post. Spoiled the illusion. Ha!’
The women here are drawn from a town which so likes to amuse itself that in peacetime it still holds its fivehundred-year-old Fair. They have taken the places of men on a heavy press, and are trained directly on the machine. The elderly foreman showed them off. ‘I wouldn’t object, not I, to running this whole shop with women. They’re reliable and cool, they’re fifteen per cent quicker than men on it — twenty-five per cent on some jobs.’
‘ Eh, I have to strip at night and wash th’ oil off with sandpaper and paraffine,’ a woman said, grinning.
Women munitions workers are not making the money they made in the last war, and they are working harder. The machines see to that. On a journey from one end of England to the other, I found one factory where a few of the women were drawing high wages — ‘and, take it from me, earning every penny,’ said the foreman. It takes two months to train women to do this job — the men do the training. ‘ Do they resent it?’ ‘No, they don’t. They’ve been the soul o’ patience, getting the women into the way of it. Some of the older men grumbled a bit; they said it wasn’t good for women to have money — it put them above themselves.’
The others of the five thousand women in this factory are minding heavy machines, side by side with men. Hotel workers, shopgirls, housewives, out-ofwork show girls. These last, said the woman supervisor, are independent and deft. A big blowzy young woman is the captain of a works hockey team and runs a motorcycle. A young wife has not heard from her husband since Dunkirk. An old wife who worked in the last war is out again for this, her mouth folded sharply over her thoughts. She had three sons, all in the Air Force; in June the youngest was killed; she turned up on the night shift, saying nothing.
‘We haven’t had any air-raid babies born yet. One of the nurses is a trained midwife, so we shall be all right,’ the woman supervisor said, smiling.
‘Why have pregnant women in factories?’
‘They’ must live.’
The dry-spoken young foreman said: ‘You’ll have to meet our three old ladies. I can’t disappoint ‘em.’ Three sisters — the eldest has worked in the factory fifty years. They draw the government old-age pension — ‘told me off good and proper last wreck, one of ‘em did; said she was independent now.’
‘Why does the firm keep them on?’
The eldest looked at me with a sly confidence. ‘I was here making bullets for the Chinese war that was before the South African — four wars. I make for them all, all their wars. But they have me on baby work now.’
Going north, the air changes. Smoke or no smoke, the air in a North Country mill town, on a day of sun, wind, cloud, has the sweetness, dry and piercing, of moor air. This is not my side of England, but here suddenly I feel at ease. Bracken, soot-blackened stone walls, cold slate roofs, deep valleys, green rounded heights, steep streets, broad, unhurried voices. Indescribable in words, familiar to every Northerner, the smoky sunlight clings to the blackened houses and sootgrimed trees. The factory is outside the town, a further steep climb up narrow lanes between hedges, the map of my childhood.
There are women here doing highly skilled work on aeroplane instruments — operations more delicate and complicated than watchmaking.
‘We work to a thousandth of an inch, see? Mind you, it takes a girl two years to become really expert at a couple of jobs. Give me a good girl, — young, mind you, — I can train her to do seven or eight. I’d take on all women if they’d let me. I won’t take one unless I can see she’s been well brought up. They have to have good eyes and hands. Look at that pair of hands!’
They were beautiful, remarkably so, the nails long and painted. The foreman’s ironical little eyes, sunk in the flattened planes of his head, twinkled with pride.
The machine-minding women are the usual mixed lot — mill girls swamping the rest. Machines are in the pulses of the women up here. So is a lavish generosity which collects money to pay train fares for the wives of wounded soldiers, take convalescent men for a day’s outing, buy Spitfires. So is something more disquieting, a nervousness which is surely the inevitable result of being the fourth generation in the mill. Is it possible that heavy machinery, the vibration, has an effect on women’s bodies it does not have on men’s? These girls can’t leave the mill. They come back to it after marriage; they leave their children at home, as they were left themselves. And they complain of their nerves.
This generation, indeed, is not having children. A look of mulish contempt came into the face of the young woman who said, ‘My husband won’t hear of me having a child while this war’s on; he agrees with me about it. I know all about the trouble of having a family, thank you.’ Statistics go some way to prove that she was speaking for the rest. They are setting their faces against what? Poverty, loss of freedom, insecurity? The problem is so grave that the war itself becomes a minor issue. Walk down the hill into the small mill town. Every man and almost every woman is on war work, and it is as empty as a French village in the middle of the afternoon, and with the same air of hardness and strength. It is difficult to believe that this could collapse. But a country which is ceasing to have children is not safe.
At night I was standing in one of these cobbled streets of small houses running across the face of the hill. The flashes and the heavy noise of gunfire over a not so distant port seemed close. What up here they call the sireen had gone. Two women, going on night shift, stopped in the darkness to listen. ‘Why, let him!’ one of them exhorted an invisible Hitler. ‘Let him bomb himself silly. We’ve gotten him this time.’
From this town of smoke and air to London is two hundred odd miles — you forget how small England is — and fifty or sixty years. I arrived at an hour when Londoners have begun their strange night, in basements, in shelters, in tube stations. For some time we had been sitting in the train in complete darkness. I came out into a street where the only light, was in the upper sky, from slowly descending flares. The air seemed to grow lighter as I walked, keeping under the walls of houses; I looked over my shoulder to see the sky reddening somewhere east. There were bombs dropping — near, I thought, or was it all gunfire? I waited a minute beside a coffee stall to watch the flashes, and for company. A solitary bus came past, very slowly, and the woman conductor leaned out to grab my suitcase and pull me on. ‘ Been away?’ she asked in a cheerful cockney voice. ‘Whadja come back for?’
The bus had two other passengers, an A. R. P. girl going late on duty and a canteen worker going to sleep the night in Selfridge’s basement. We sat in darkness, and the conductor told us, in a nostalgic voice, that she used to serve fish and chips in the Mile End Road — ‘and yesterday when I went back to say “howjado” to the boss there was only a heap of rubbish, and believe me or not it smelled o’ fish. Whu-u-umps-a-dearie! That lot wasn’t half near, or was it?’
We rocked into the curb. An air-raid warden hurrying about his business advised us in the voice of a stage diplomat to take to the nearest shelter. Instead we got out and stood a few minutes in the shadow of an old small church. ‘Wanter go on?’ the conductor asked. ‘’E’s willing, ‘e wants to get ‘ome.’ We were all willing. ‘House full if I don’t get there soon,’ the canteen girl said, ‘and I’m used to the place — can’t get to sleep anywhere else.’
‘Were you always in the canteen business?’ the conductor wondered.
‘I was a mannequin.’
‘Spoil y’r hands.’
A placid laugh. ‘If that was all Hitler could spoil . . .’
The bus stopped. A house had been crumped ahead of us; the demolition squad was at work. We should have to turn back and go an endless way round. I got out and took to the Underground. There are no lifts during a raid, and as I walked down and down the sense of walking open-eyed into a nightmare deepened. The men, women, and children lying close together on the stairs and passages and the platforms were dismembered by the poor light: there were hands, old bony hands, a young woman’s hand lying in a young man’s, a plump hand with four or five rings, the small dirty lost hands of children; there were bodies as rigid as though frozen, and sunken abandoned bodies, misshapen bodies, slender bodies — some, even in this place, confiding.
A woman was walking about, and I recognized her in the same moment that I saw the ‘Shelter Marshal’ on her arm. She is a doctor with a large practice, who spends three quarters of her night down here. Her duties while I was there ranged from helping an old woman to reach the latrine and making her comfortable afterwards, soothing a child, — his mother, exhausted, scarcely roused when he cried, — and finding a place for a workman who came down and stood about with an ashamed smile, clutching a thin blanket. She was used, she said, to the smell — which was abominable. All that worried her was her helplessness to save the children down here from the risk of disease. She and the other voluntary helper who patrols this station have bought packets of antiseptic lozenges they give the children — ‘almost as much use as a hare’s foot,’ she said wryly. A young girl came on the platform; she smiled and nodded to the doctor, and stepped delicately across a line of bodies to reach a girl who turned sleepily on to her side to make room. She wriggled herself in beside her friend, and, opening her handbag, began deftly to put her yellow hair in curlers.
‘Rose Smith, seventeen. Works ten hours in an aeroplane factory. I like Rose,’ the shelter marshal said. Her momentary depression had gone. ‘ Someone should tell Göring about her.’
The history of bombed London will never be written, because it is the acts of anonymous men and women, a myriad of them. In the first weeks of the assault on London, when the initial failure of higher authority was cruelly brought home to the East End, the people who did not fail were the A. R. P. workers, the staffs of first-aid posts, the voluntary ambulance units, the Auxiliary Fire Service, the churches, missions, settlements, of all denominations. Without these and their indomitable energy, what was and is a tragedy might well have been an unendurable and unmanageable horror.
There was — it has been bombed in the last few days — a first-aid post consisting of five rooms in a dock quarter which has suffered horribly. The staff included three V. A. D.’s, two girls and a veteran of the last war. Not anxious to be a spectator, I took service in the kitchen. The bombers came over the docks and dropped their bombs, one, two, three, four, — an interval, — five. The first wounded began coming in at ten o’clock. At one time the place was quite full, and a woman with a bandaged head was sitting in a corner of the kitchen. Some of the injured were dazed and very wretched; none was hysterical. ‘The people down here are magnificent,’ the Scots doctor had said; ‘we haven’t had a whisper of panic.’ The elder of the two V. A. D. girls — she was nineteen — kept a curiously ironical smile on her face. Perhaps some edge of her mind was thinking of her Yorkshire home and of her dogs and the pony. The other child had been a shopgirl; she hurried about with a little anxiety, her lips moving. I found she was counting the bombs. But she was perfectly steady.
A Salvation Army woman came in for a cup of tea. She was one of a section that had been working night and day for eight days, snatching sleep in odd moments. With the help of an Anglican clergyman and his wife and a Jewish shopkeeper, the Army women were finding shelter for the old and infirm, clothes for the almost naked, meals for the starving homeless. She was comically bitter about a ‘rest centre’ in the district — two bare rooms, unprotected, where exhausted terrified mothers sat crouched over their children, as if flesh and bone were a protection from the bomber. ‘ Eh, there’d have been a Judgment Day in Whitehall if old Lansbury had been alive,’ she laughed. ‘ But things will be better now — we’ve had some of the Government down looking round. They didn’t think so well of themselves when they went back. There’s a woman doctor goes round the railway arches at night, and she told ‘em a thing or two. I’ll say for them they didn’t need telling once they’d seen. There’s been miracles wrought this past week. There’ll be more. I believe in God and God’s Londoners. I’m willing, do you know, to believe in Herbert Morrison.’
The ‘all clear’ went about five o’clock. With the elderly V. A. D. I went to the door and stood to breathe the cold air. The sky was neither dark nor light. It made me remember the end of the Inferno — coming out from that place we saw the stars again.
A munitions factory on the outskirts of London has taken in women for the first time. The work, though semiskilled, calls for a high degree of deftness. The women, all Londoners, have settled into the work and the factory without raising a wrinkle on its oddly placid surface. The place is efficient, shabby, almost domestic. The sprawledout buildings are half surrounded by water: ‘A stretch of the old river. We have beavers, moles, water rats, kingfishers. They’re never disturbed — it’s a regular sanctuary.’ Not for human beings. When the workers, including the women, were asked whether they would be willing to work through air-raid alarms, no one refused.
Understand what it will be like. A woman on night shift will sit at her bench, doing a job which requires steady hands and a high degree of mental coordination, knowing that somewhere in the darkness outside the German bombers are at their work. She is trusting her life to the skill of two men who stand listening on the roof of a building in the centre of the works. If they make a mistake she may be buried in the mess of smashed machinery. Yet the women, said a foreman, are keener than the men, more exasperated by the delay when they have to take to the shelters. ‘I found a woman still at her bench after the alarm. I told her she must go with the rest, and I heard very straight what she thought of me!’
A smiling girl with a wide handsome face, operating a capstan and soaking herself in oil. (Hasn’t she been warned yet about oil dermatitis?) ‘I’ve always wanted to be a mechanic, and now I am. Mr. Randall came round yesterday and said to me, “Eh, you are in a mess, but it’s no use saying anything to you — you like it.” I hope I never have to go back to trimming hats.’ The cloakroom attendant, a tall bosomy woman, had been lying in wait for the Labor Officer. ‘When am I going to get a machine? I’ve asked you again and again, and you promised me. I’ve as much right to a machine as any woman — you know my husband’s in the Air Force and both the children are going to Canada with the government scheme, and I’ve your word.’
The foreman pointed out ‘three feminine touches, as you might say’: flowers stuck in a milk bottle on one of the benches; wedding rings on oily fingers; superb gas-decontamination rooms — ‘Women this side, men the other.’
A subwarden’s post in Mayfair may not actually be safer in a night raid than this (or any other factory), but there is a delusive air of elegance about Caro Neall’s basement, which she occupies with her assistants — including an elderly ex-singer and the lively young daughter of a local florist. The barrage makes a persistent dull noise, sharpened by the clatter of mobile guns. Caro’s own flat at the top of this modest Georgian house has sometimes put me up for the night; the last time I was there she woke me up to tell me that Hitler had invaded Holland
Towards midnight a single heavy bomb fell very close, shaking the floor and sending a wave of air through the room, Caro, who had just come in, went out again. While she was away there were more bombs; I hung about uselessly in the doorway, deluding myself with the idea that I could see the German plane between clouds.
After a long time I heard her voice, loud, gay, confident, at the end of the street. She had brought in two slightly hurt women to be given tea and first aid. The telephone on her desk was ringing, and she answered questions in the same ruthlessly clear voice, clipped and precise. A disciplinarian might think she spoiled the effect by adding, ‘And is that all you want to know, my sweet?’
‘Quite the nicest old boy,’ she said to me. ‘Sort of clerk of the works. He rushes out and looks for time bombs, things I wouldn’t touch with a feather. . . . They got those small houses. My dear, you never saw a more disastrous wreck. A policeman said everybody was in the shelter under What’s-its-name House, but another man piped up and said the man in Number 3 always stayed in his cellar during raids, so the demolition fairies began digging, and when they’d made an inadequate sort of hole I poked my head in and shouted. And, my dear, you should have heard the languid man-milliner voice that came floating up. It said, “Take care how you come down those stairs! There’s a lot of broken glass.’”
This display covered efficiency, steadiness, complete disregard of risks. In the West as in the East End the responsibility and risks of a warden are heavy. They are shared with stretcher bearers, ambulance drivers, auxiliary firemen and women, rescue and demolition squads. ‘Come in any night you want a spot of excitement. We’re open for the duration. All I hope is that you’re not still writing in the newspapers about a just peace. My dear girl, what I want is something strikingly and permanently unjust.’
There are still parts of this island that have never heard a German plane. South Wales is not one of them. The workers in a large engineering works spoke with affection about ‘our bombs’ — most of them buried harmlessly in the mud of the river. Four thousand women here are on war work; 30 per cent of them had never before been in a factory. Buses fetch them in from scattered Welsh valleys, and — an odd turnabout — girls who left mining villages during the slump to become domestic servants in London are coming back now that London is the devastated area. ‘Parlormaid to the Honorable Mrs. X’ appears on any number of application forms. It is almost a new thing for Welsh miners’ wives and daughters to go into factories, — ‘The women here have no nerves; they are very strong, see?’ — and more than one says cheerfully, ‘I have not seen so much money in my hand since Dada was put from work.’ Surprising how many of them coming off the first shift are beautiful, straight as a bolt, neat, dark-eyed. They are well dressed and they walk easily.
This is an admirable factory as to the care taken of the workers. They need it — the work is not easy, the conveyor belt runs through the shops, and an eight-hour shift is well long enough. Women cutters and trimmers in one shop were handling a big cartridge case so lightly that I said, ‘Let me lift it.’ It almost pulled my arms out.
A nurse patrols each of the shops day and night, and the heavy presses — normally handled by men — are well guarded. ‘Not like the last war,’ the dark-eyed pretty Welsh nurse says; ‘they’re not brought in now with their fingers taken clean off. This is a fine machine, see? A ray cuts it out — do you see that, now? — if her hands are still in the way.’
The women, a foreman says, are steadier during raids than the men. ‘And how they sing in the shelters! The other night it was, a girl was singing alone, the others listening. She had such a clear high voice, it was like a stream running at night, do you know? Everywhere silence, the aeroplanes a long way off still, and the voice rising out of the darkness.’
Pregnant women are not allowed to stay in this factory. ‘Mr. Gwynfa said, “I will not have women hurt themselves and their children in my works. They may do it in England — please themselves — but not here.” He is a fair man, too. When a raid starts and the women are on their way to work, they are paid, see, if they come in an hour after the raid stops. Paid for the whole shift. There is a child here from the Rhondda, — eighteen years old, she is, — and instead of coming into the works when the raid started she went up to the town and was out all night, only walking in the next morning to draw her money. Some older women complained. I called her up and said, “I am going now to stand you down, for your own sake,” and she said, with tears, “Miss Morgan, never will I do such a thing again.” I gave her another chance. Yesterday I had my report on her. She comes early, to be here before the raid begins, and takes a book to the shelter. Eighteen years. It would give us a bad name in the villages, and the fathers would forbid girls to come here.’
It is a mistake to think that only the women in the factories and the air-raid and military services are at war. Every woman in this island is at war.
The train making its slow way to what the BBC calls ‘a southwestern port’ halts at every station, even the smallest and most lost. For a long way my only companion is a captain’s wife, traveling back home from seeing her husband off in his ship. At one small village a countrywoman climbs in to go to the next and smaller. I ask about the raids over the estuary; in a soft, uncomplaining voice she replies slowly, ‘They dropped bombs on us last week. We have not a shelter in our village, and I say there should be something. It’s not for us, — we’re not afraid, — it’s for the children.’
It is growing dark when the captain’s wife and I change to another train. There is already a woman with a little lively boy in the carriage, which is unlit. We can only see her very indistinctly, and there is something curious — what? — in her high and very resolute voice. The little boy has a voice like a bird. Fretted because there are no names on the stations, she explains that she is traveling to see her daughter, evacuated last year with her school from a garrison town at the other side of England. ‘I suppose you have had raids there.’ ‘Oh,’ — the stiff lilting voice rises,— ‘we have them. George and I don’t mind, do we, George?’ When she leaves the train at a small station, a little light from a darkened lamp falls on her face. She is a half-caste Indian. George, very English, has the lightest of foreign thumbmarks on his small candid face.
It was now fully dark. There were no lights in any part of the level country. How slowly the night flows! Staring into the darkness, I could make out the colorless fields, and the wide dove-gray water of the estuary. At another station an old man climbed stiffly into the carriage and settled himself in a corner. Friendly and inquisitive, the captain’s wife very soon got from him that he was a pilot, going down to meet a boat. He is the oldest pilot in this part of England. ‘If there was any light I would show you two ladies what they wrote about me in the newspaper. You know, Harry Morgan — Morgan the pirate — was an ancestor of mine. They put it all in the paper. My father was a pilot, and his father. But my boy chose to be an air pilot. . . . The other day seventy-six German planes passed over the ship when I was taking her up to London. You’ve seen wild geese? They were just like that. In three flights.’
I heard him make a light gesture with his hands.
The captain’s wife began to talk about her husband again: ‘ He’s the commodore of the convoy; the destroyer megaphones orders to him and he passes them on to the others. They follow him.’ She was silent for a few minutes. Her rough light voice came suddenly out of her corner.
‘Our ship will be stealing quietly down the river now to the sea.’
‘Yes, she will,’ I said. And glad I was — no one will ever know how glad — to be able to talk to her about the things I know without having had to learn them.
‘I have three boys, d’y’know, and they’re at sea, too. Four men at sea in wartime. I can’t help thinking about the mines.’
‘You shouldn’t marry a sailor,’ the pilot said in his old, very quiet voice.
Whether it was the happiness of remembering familiar things, or whether it came from the estuary, widening now to the invisible horizon, I don’t know — the sense of living on an island possessed my mind suddenly and strongly. The estuary was blotted out behind houses. ‘This is my home village,’ the captain’s wife said. ‘Home — but there’ll only be me there.’
The train crawled into the station, and we groped about in the dark for our suitcases. ‘Raid on. All down to the subway.’ A little bewildered — I have never known a blacker black-out — we followed the porter. The subway was crowded. I looked at the captain’s wife and she at me. ‘Isn’t there a taxi will go?’ I asked. He took us out again and left us in pitch-darkness against the wall of the station, and after a time we found a taxi and drove off, I to a hotel and she to her empty house.