Over one hundred years have passed since the First World War was declared. Much of the coverage is often focused on the courage and bravery of the men who fought for King and country. The following is the second in a three-piece research piece based on research I a few years ago for the Wool Week Journal. It highlights the knitting that Shetland women did to aid the war effort. This essay will consider the organised requests for knitwear from the frontline to women in Shetland. If you missed part one, you can read that in last week's blog.
Shetland women, as we discovered last week, made comfort packages containing non-perishable food items, tobacco, and clothing – especially knitted garments such as socks, scarves, balaclavas, cardigans and gloves.
Thomas Manson, the editor of the Shetland News, said that 'in this work, the women of Shetland set a magnificent example' determined 'to do all they could to make the lot of the sailors and soldiers more comfortable.'
An organised campaign
Photo: David Gifford
Organisations such as the Queen Mary's Needlework Guild (QMNG) and the Emergency Helpers Society were formed at the outbreak of war in 1914 and continued to work tirelessly throughout to ensure that comfort packages were sent to those serving on the front line. These two organisations had similar aims and objectives but were formed very differently. They were national organisations with regional and local branches throughout Britain, including Shetland. In the first ten months of the campaign, nationally, the Guild had received well over one million garments for the frontline and beyond.
The Lerwick based Emergency Helpers were established by members of the Women's Suffrage Society; their campaign was based in Lerwick, although appeals were sent out to rural communities. The group had a committee of 17 members and a further 50 helpers – all based in Lerwick. Rising to the challenges of war, it was hoped that the suffrage movement would gain popularity and momentum as these women became 'indispensable' to the cause. Generally, a very 'urban' campaign, the Emergency Helper's driving forces were undoubtedly politically entrenched within the greater suffrage movement.
The Guild, on the other hand, had branches in almost every district throughout Shetland and had no political motivators driving their campaign. Engagement with rural communities ensured that every parish played an essential role in the success of the Guild, despite the commonly held idea that they were run by the 'ladies' of Lerwick, the Guild indeed were, as they declared, 'representing both town and country'. Under the presidency of Mrs Bruce of Sumburgh and Lady Nicolson of Brough Lodge, Fetlar, the Guild enjoyed the support of thousands of women across Shetland.
Photo: David Gifford
An appeal from the Queen Mary's Needlework Guild for garments stated that 'funds to enable them to carry on their work of providing comforts for the troops' were needed. It also said that 'demands for comforts for the men in the trenches are overwhelming', and that they are confident that 'this appeal to provide comforts for our brave and gallant soldiers in the trenches throughout the long and trying winter months will not fall on deaf ears'.
This appeal did not fall on deaf ears, the challenge was met head-on and a variety of garments, including one-legged trousers and one-armed shirts were made for those wounded in the war.
The vast majority of items sent were knitwear; socks, gloves, scarves, cardigans, etc., and over the war's duration, more than 15,000 articles of clothing were sent from Shetland alone.
Primarily focused on sending knitwear to the front and demonstrating organisation and keen discipline to the cause, the Guild outlined their key objectives in a Shetland News report, stating that garments were to be distributed to:
The Guild also held fundraising campaigns which raised over £406. (£60 of which was put towards the construction of the War Memorial at the Hillhead to commemorate those Shetlanders lost).
Lerwick's War memorial.
The aim of the Emergency Helpers was broader, with a less focused approach to knitting comforts. The knitting campaign was an additional side-shoot to their other concerns – a highly successful aspect nonetheless.
The main overriding objective of the society was to provide nursing assistance, if called on, in the event of naval engagement around Shetland waters. The organisation held first aid classes, collected linen, cotton and underclothes, offered their homes for the sick, prepared surgical dressings and bandages as well as knitting comforts.
Despite this extensive remit, they appealed for knitwear too, asking for 'men's knitted socks as well as woollen vests, drawers and cardigans'. Although knitwear was not the main objective of the Emergency Helpers, 1,100 articles were forwarded to soldiers and sailors and a further 1,332 to local hospitals and organisations.
The Emergency Helpers, like the Guild, also held fundraising drives money to help in the war effort and a total of £424 was raised during the war years.
It's also worth noting that one of the most popular and successful women's voluntary groups was born as a direct result of the First World War. The Women's Institute (WI) and the Scottish Women's Rural Institute (SWRI) were established in 1915 (1917 in Scotland) as a response to wartime food shortages.
Their formation enabled many women the opportunity to learn skills such as knitting which could be put to good use to aid the war effort. Their popularity continued to grow in the post-war years, and today members of the WI/SWRI are responsible for much of the beautiful knitwear produced in Shetland. Their annual show in the Town Hall providing a glimpse of the incredible talent still harboured within the isles.
This continuation and promotion of knitwear is reflected in the second aim of the SWRI - to 'promote the preservation and development of Scotland's traditions, rural heritage and culture'.
These organisations were widely praised for the work they carried out; the Emergency Helpers received a glowing report in the paper which stated that 'under the excellent management and executive ability of those ladies… a great deal of work has been got through… the making of these articles (underclothing, knitted helmets, sox and other woollen goods) has involved an immense amount of knitting, sewing and other work, but it has been done cheerfully and willingly, and the result forms a monument to the industry and sacrifice of the ladies who compose the Lerwick Emergency Helpers'.
In recognition of the work done by the Needlework Guild, Queen Mary invited members to a garden party in London and Mrs Margaret Hunter, who was a prominent member of the committee, was awarded an OBE for her war work within the Guild.
Both organisations made a tremendous effort to rally people, encouraging women and girls to knit garments for the soldiers and sailors. During the early years of the war, there were weekly updates, appeals and coverage published in the Shetland News. Browsing these publications give an eye-opening narrative of how much work was being carried out by the women of Shetland. It is only when you sit down with the papers and go through them week by week that you really get a feel for the scale of this operation – it was indeed an astounding achievement.
Parish News reports show that communities from Eshaness in the North, Sandness in the West, Whalsay in the East and Sandwick in the South were all participating. The Eshaness Notes give a very telling report of how frustrated and helpless the community felt not to be able to donate more money due to a poor fishing season. As a result, the community rallied together to knit, as this was all they could afford to do to make a difference. Where the cash to help the troops was unavailable, the women still had their wires!
The generosity of those at home was noted in numerous letters from the front. Sergeant David Gray, writing to his parents in 1915 explains how every effort is taken to keep the division clean; bath-houses serving 800 men had facilities to trade in dirty shirts and socks for clean ones. He said: 'The scheme is not without its faults, but this will give you an idea of how much is being attempted for the comfort of the men'.
Gratitude and thanks were conveyed in the popular Camp Magazine with one prisoner of war stating that the women sending the comfort packages 'must have a good head to know exactly what a prisoner needs'.
Calls from the pulpit
Appeals for knitwear did not just come from these organisations; calls were also made from the church, often with the result being that a branch of the QMNG was established. In October 1914 the minister from Eshaness made a plea from the pulpit stating that 'our beloved minister, Mr Gunn, of the U. F. Church (United Free) has started a knitting class among the women on behalf of our wounded soldiers. A committee of young women has been formed, and they will go from house to house and ask every woman and girl to knit an article of some kind…'
A press report said that ministers should 'make an effort to get the women in their parishes to knit articles to be forwarded to our wounded soldiers. These men are out fighting to protect us, and it is the least we can do for them'. This telling appeal gives an indication of the feeling within the community, a feeling that these men were laying their lives on the line for those at home and that every effort must be made to support them, by whatever means available.
A week after the appeal to parish ministers it was reported that, as a result of calls from the pulpit, around 300 pairs of socks etc. were knitted by the women of Whalsay. Following this appeal, a branch of the Queen Mary's Needlework Guild was formed.
I couldn't help but wonder, after reading these pleas, whether or not these vocal parish ministers allowed such 'knitting activity' to be carried out on the Sabbath?
This was the second in a three-part series; the next part will be published on 9th October, and you can read Part One here.
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