Frances B’s story

A minor member of the peerage, through both her birth and her marriage, Frances B was one of the early recruits to the Auxiliary Territorial Service at the beginning of the Second World War, and died while on active service.

Born in Bermuda, while her naval commander father was serving in the area in the 1890s, Frances was the oldest of three children. Her parents had married in Malta, and Frances had by far the most exotic of her sibling’s births – the others occurring in Kent and Oxfordshire.

Despite her father’s position in the navy, which would have required him to be at sea for long periods of time, the family settled in Portsmouth while they were in England, and had a comfortable existence supported by domestic staff – including a nursemaid for the children.

Later on, as her father’s career was winding down, Frances’ family moved permanently to a village in Kent, to a house that her parents had returned to when they were between periods of service. By 1911 she was the only child left at home – her brother was at public school, and her sister was elsewhere. Frances, having left any education she was given, was at this stage of marriageable age, and would have been expected to make a good match.

Her brother was killed on active service in France in the first half of the Great War, and both Frances and her sister married the following year – her sister to a military musician, and Frances to a naval lieutenant in active service, so the pattern of traveling she experienced as a child continued into her adulthood.

Her husband saw service on many naval vessels, and their daughter and only child was born while Frances was based on the north-east coast of England at the tail end of the first world war.

In peace time the family settled in Cheshire. Her husband retired from the Navy on medical grounds, becoming a company director, and their daughter grew up and married. Frances led a comfortable existence during the early half of the 20th century.

However, the outbreak of the second world war ended that lifestyle. Frances’ husband was recalled into the navy. Frances herself, who had always lived alongside the military, joined the fledgling Auxiliary Territorial Service. This unit for women was attached to the territorial army, and members received two thirds of the pay that a male member of the TA would be given.

At the time Frances joined the ATS, the women in the service were employed as cooks, clerks and shopkeepers, helping to keep institutions and structures running during war time when men were getting scarcer. Some became telephonists, with more than 300 women sent to France to support troops in the very earliest part of the war. Frances, with her background in the military and high social standing, became a senior commandant – an equivalent to the male rank of major – and would have been in charge of many other women volunteering to help the war effort.

Later on, the roles of ATS members expanded to include orderlies, postal workers, ammunition inspectors and drivers. However, Frances did not live to see these changes. She died while on active service at a hospital in Oxford, during the spring of 1941. The hospital does not appear to have been part of the blitz, however. She was included in the UK Army Roll of Honour.

Frances’ personal effects and her money were given to her husband – who was also awarded during World War II – and her married daughter.


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Lilian Y’s story

The railway age is often seen as a romantic one, with clouds of steam and breathless brief encounters perhaps eclipsing the reality of filthy hard work and clothes full of soot smuts. However, the community around railways could at least partly be described as romantic in that many people met their partners among the multifarious professions employed on and around the rails.

Lilian Y was one of these, as she came from a railway family, and married a railway man. However, where her tale differs is that she did not remain associated with the rails and instead became landlady of a pub.

She was born in Bristol, the second child of a railway platelayer – someone who inspected the conditions of the track – and his wife at the beginning of the 1890s. Six younger siblings followed, and the family grew up beside the harbour railway  in Bristol’s docklands, alongside boats working with tobacco, coal and other heavy industry.

In her teens her father moved to a similar role on the Strawberry Line or the Cheddar Valley Line, and the family went with him. Upon leaving school Lilian found work as a waitress in a restaurant, possibly in the station café, and boarded out of the family home.

By 1915 Lilian was in a Wiltshire market town with a strong railway industry, possibly due to her father’s next job. She married that year, to a railway guard who was more than ten years her senior.

Initially they lived behind the town’s brake and signalling works, and their first son followed later that year, with another born five years later. The gap in their children’s ages would perhaps suggest that her husband served in the first world war, but there is no evidence for this.

Things changed in early 1932 when they bought a pub – including all the fixtures, fittings and cutlery, and even including the 60 tulip bulbs in the garden – which was one of two frequented by railway workers and those employed in the next-door bacon factory. This had several rooms – a bar, smoking room, club room, drawing room, and kitchen with meat safes.

Her husband, who had long been employed on the railway, kept his job as a railway guard while being landlord at the pub. However, in practice with him employed down the road – despite gaps in trains arriving and departing the station, and the pub being only a stone’s throw away – it would have been Lilian who would have opened the bar for trade and served the beer, in addition to providing any food that the pub would serve and keeping the place clean and tidy. She was aided in her landlady’s role by her two sons, but they also had jobs elsewhere – one at the post office and the other at the bacon factory. Despite this huge amount of work, and her official role as landlady, the 1939 register tersely gives Lillian’s profession as “unpaid domestic duties at home”.

A year into World War II, her husband died – only in his late 50s – and Lilian ran the pub alone with the help of her sons. However, with pressure to join up and fight the eldest son went into the air force not long after his father’s death. He was killed in a nearby flying accident around nine months later, while awaiting his wings, leaving Lilian with two close bereavements within a year of each other.

She continued to run the pub, now landlord in name as well as action, sometimes with her remaining son, alongside a bar manager until 1957, when she retired and moved elsewhere in the town. She died around a decade later, and is buried alongside her husband and elder son in the grounds of the church in which she married.


To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.

Annie B’s story

Annie’s parents had emigrated from Russia to London during the later part of the 19th century, escaping from a part of the country that is now in modern-day Poland, and probably driven out by anti-Jewish pogroms. They resettled in the East End of London, in the heart of the Jewish community there, and Annie was perhaps the first of their nine children born in their new country.

Her father worked as a cabinet maker, which not only supported his family but enabled him to place two of his children, Annie and her brother, in a paying school in the 1890s.

Later on, Annie found work as a cigarette maker in the burgeoning tobacco industry in the early 20th century East End. Previously, cigars had been more popular, but by this time cigarettes – which were cheaper and more plentiful – were gaining in popularity.

Cigarette and cigar making was not government controlled in London, and was considered a “food industry”. Many Jewish people in the area became garment workers, boots and shoe makers, and cabinet makers – cigarette and cigar makers were initially a smaller part of Jewish industry but a significant one. At this time, tobacco smoking was still widely believed to have health benefits, a fiction that persisted until the middle of the 20th century. By 1911, East London had 76 factories manufacturing tobacco, cigars, cigarettes, snuff, but equally numerous small household manufacturers too – it’s unclear whether Annie’s work was in a factory, or as a smaller producer – however, her living circumstances point to the latter.

She lived with one of her sisters in a flat above a shop in Spitalfields, helping her sister – an embroiderer and tailoress – to run the shop, and it is likely that her cigarette making was another part of her income. This appears to have been a successful business partnership for many years, and one stable enough to accommodate the raising of two of her younger brother’s children during the Second World War, when they lost their mother.

At the tail end of the war, Annie’s sister married and their business appears to have hit hard times – they gave up the shop to a hat maker, and Annie went back to making cigarettes for a living. She eventually left their flat and moved into lodgings with another family. She kept this lifestyle going until she died in the mid-1950s.

The buildings the family occupied no longer exist, and have been replaced by modern flats.


For more information about the tobacco industry at the time, see:


To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.

Ruby G’s story

Divorced in the 1920s, as marriage dissolution became more affordable for couples – if no less stigma-laden – Ruby G kept a successful teaching career alive in a marriage-bar era and raised a daughter too.

Born into the industries surrounding and supporting the fishing trade in the North East of England, Ruby grew up in a family of daughters with a father who had political ambitions. Clearly bright, she followed her older sister into school teaching – a respected position for unmarried women to hold at the beginning of the 20th century.

Teaching at this time was a profession open to both single and married men, but only single women – the exceptions being older women married to school teachers in predominantly rural areas who might teach the infants or the girls in a small school, or widows who had previously been teachers. Like many other skilled professions at the time, unmarried teachers were expected to give up their job at marriage and be supported by their husbands. In her second proper teaching position, at the beginning of the 1920s in Wiltshire, Ruby was no exception – despite four years’ service, school log books refer to her expected resignation throughout the year, indicating that she was stepping out with a beau, and her resignation occurred as the school year closed. Sure enough, marriage records show that she married that summer.

A daughter was born over the following few years, and by societal expectation she would have been based caring for family and home while her husband worked and earned. However, this marriage was clearly not a happy one, and a divorce happened at some point before 1930. Divorces, although still frowned upon by general society with the generations-held belief that marriages should be made work at whatever cost, were easier to obtain at this time. A private member’s bill introduced to the UK parliament in 1923 – which passed as the Matrimonial Causes Act – helped this process by making adultery by either wife or husband the sole grounds for divorce, where previously the wife had to provide extra evidence of faults against her husband. The Summary Jurisdiction (Separation and Maintenance) Act, passed in 1925, also extended the grounds on which either partner could obtain a separation.

Whatever the grounds for Ruby’s divorce, she found herself alone with a young daughter to support. The school she had resigned from took her back on temporarily, despite the fact that she had been married, when a member of their staff was sick and indisposed for a few weeks. She was then taken back on to that school’s staff permanently the following summer. Being divorced meant that she was not married, and therefore was not subject to any restrictions under the marriage bar. Therefore, the school could employ her without a problem, and did.

She taught at the school for another six years, during which the department of education approached her twice with a view to her taking on a headship of a school elsewhere – which is more likely an indication of her skill as a teacher than any lingering stigma about employing a divorcee. On both occasions she refused, and chose to remain in position at the Wiltshire school. A couple of years before the second world war began, she chose to resign of her own accord, and moved herself and her daughter to Shropshire. They lived with her father, now a widower, and spent the duration of the second world war there.

In 1935 the marriage bar for teachers was removed by London County Council, but that only applied in their area of jurisdiction. The National Union of Women Teachers had campaigned for this change for a long time. The marriage bar was removed for all teachers in 1944, meaning that Ruby’s unmarried colleagues could now keep their jobs if they chose to marry – many female teachers were life-long spinsters, as they loved their work too much to end it.

Ruby herself never remarried. She died in Somerset in the early 1960s, leaving her possessions and money to her unmarried daughter.


To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.

Joan T’s story

Joan T faced down nazi war criminals, and then was at the forefront of changing attitudes towards disability.

Born to a shop’s head buyer and his second wife at the turn of the roaring twenties, Joan T grew up as the elder of two daughters in suburban London.

Her mother had trained as a shorthand typist in the boom of that profession in the early years of the twentieth century, before her marriage, and as Joan came to adulthood during the Second World War she was encouraged into a similar profession. She attained the role of secretary during this time, working for the North West Civil Defence Authority. Her boss was Hartley Shawcross, who was made Attorney General in 1945.

She wrote to congratulate him on this appointment, and to see if there were any employment opportunities, and he suggested that she was posted to the Nuremberg Trials.

Joan became secretary to Airey Neave as he served with the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. She travelled to the city, and lived there for the duration of the trials, writing home to her parents regularly.

One such letter, from October 1945, said:

“…The Court House is a cosmopolitan place as you can guess… Americans – both Army and civilians predominate but we see plenty of French and Russians – all services – Army Navy and Air Force. The Russian Army wear brown uniforms and they would look perfectly at home standing outside the Odeon Cinema!

Nuremburg is practically flat – London is nothing to it – and the striking thing about it is that no attempt seems to have been made to clear away the rubble. The German Civilians must be in an awful plight; there is nothing for them to do in Nuremburg at any rate unless they are working for the Allies. As we waited outside the Opera House last night there were grown ups and children waiting to pounce on the cigarette stubs thrown away.”

Neave’s role in the trials was to investigate the firm Krupp, who had been involved in the Third Reich, and Joan provided him with secretarial support in this, often attending court house sessions and seeing prominent Third Reich members at close quarters.

In November 1945 she writes:

“It was worth going just to get a look at the Criminals. Unfortunately I had gone without my chart of where the Criminals were sitting so I could only pick out the obvious ones. Goering, of course, was quite unmistakable; he looked very interested in the proceedings and at the end, after the adjournment, was laughing and chatting with three American Guards as though they were the best of buddies. (Actually I thought it was very slack on the part of the guards the way they were ‘fratting’ with him.) Hess really looks quite potty and sits with his nose in a book most of the time. Streicher looked very well turned out in a navy blue suit.”

The trials concluded in the early autumn of 1946, and Joan returned to life in England.

She remarked:

“I feel I have made up a bit for the dreariness of the war years… You learn a lot about human nature living in a cosmopolitan atmosphere like this and you come out of it all with a tremendous respect for British people and the British way of life; I have realized what a tremendous advantage it is to be born an Englishman.”

She had several other secretarial jobs in the years that followed, but none as high profile as Nuremberg. In the late 1950s, at the age of 37, Joan married a man who worked for the Ferodo brakes firm, and settled in the north Midlands. Like much of society at the time, his family regarded her previous work as “just secretarial”.

Their first child followed in the summer of 1958. He was born with spina bifida, and until around this time most babies born with a disability were considered not to have a good quality of life and were killed soon after birth. However, her son’s birth occurring in the summer meant that she was attended by a younger locum rather than the family doctor – who was on holiday at the time – and traditional attitudes towards disability were starting to change. The locum did not hold these traditional views, and alongside Joan determined that her son would live.

Whereas now people born with spina bifida or any number of other differences are fully part of society, in the late 1950s and early 1960s most disability would have been as a result of injury – and Joan and her son were at the forefront of gradual changing attitudes, both positive and negative.

Despite having waited to start a family, a daughter followed less than 18 months later, and her husband was involved in setting up the Ferodo factory at Port Dinorwic near Caernarfon, so the family moved to the coast of North Wales.

Later on, Joan and her husband ran a shop together. She was known for her diplomatic skills in the family.

Widowed at the beginning of the 1990s, she enjoyed a long retirement, and was deeply involved in the community. She died in the early 2000s, in her eighties.


To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.

Elsie W’s story

Born in rural Devon, Elsie W was the eldest of three children born to a former bootmaker who had taken to agricultural labouring.

In the 1880s, in her early teens, she lost her mother and her father remarried twice, producing more siblings. She spent a little time as a domestic servant in Devon, working for a naval engineer. She then followed her father and newest stepmother to the Bristol area, where he had established a shoemaking business.

At the age of 25 she married a man nearly fifty years her senior, who had been widowed by his first wife only two years previously. He was a Chelsea pensioner, and had run coffee shops among other professions in Bristol throughout the 19th century, but with a wife to support and a new clutch of children appearing, he took to working in a ropemaking establishment to provide money for his family.

Elsie’s first child, a daughter, followed well over a year after their wedding. The next, a boy, died within six months of birth. And a third, a daughter, was born a couple of years later, when her husband had reached the age of 79.

She was widowed at 36, with two daughters to support, and took to running a pub in central Bristol – with a boarder in the house to make ends meet. Her daughters helped run the pub. This pub also operated as an off licence, and she ran it until 1931, when her youngest daughter took over the business.

She died in 1941, at the height of the Bristol Blitz, but was not a victim of any of the bombing raids that destroyed the city at that time.

Mabel M’s story

Mabel M worked in a stamp factory before World War I, a fact that she always credited for the early loss of her teeth – possibly due to the sugar in the gum on the back of the stamps. She ran away from home to marry an older man, who hopped aboard a boat to Australia two days after the wedding and didn’t return for nearly four years, leaving Mabel to face the wrath of her mother alone. He wrote occasionally, calling her “Kiddie”. Her mother, who was a staunch Church of England attender, objected to her new son-in-law for his Catholicism as well as having taken her daughter away, and ripped up the marriage certificate – thus enabling Mabel to keep working. Her husband returned in 1916, and a new certificate was issued. They went on to have five children.

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