“Four plucky Wetherby Postwomen” trumpets the Leeds Mercury in February 1916, in a masterstroke of propaganda. The Military Service Act had been passed a month earlier, specifying that single men aged 18-40 were liable to be called up for service unless they were widowed with children or religious ministers. Then in June that year married men were included. Articles like this served to reassure men that their jobs were being kept safe for them while they were at the front, and women that they could release their loved ones without risk of loss of income. However, it also served to empower the women’s workforce, showing that they were perfectly capable of doing many jobs that previously had been the preserve of men, and this hastened women’s suffrage in 1918.
“Four Wetherby sisters, who are acting as postwomen, and so releasing men for service,” says the article. “Two of them are soldiers’ wives, whilst a third is a soldier’s widow, her newly-married husband having fallen at Suvla Bay. The fourth is unmarried. From left to right:- Mrs Mary Adkins, whose husband is a prisoner in Germany; Mrs Grace Nicholson, whose husband is in France; Miss Emily Robinson, and Mrs Harriet Hobson, whose husband fell at Suvla. (Lamb)”
The four Robinson sisters – for that was their original surname – were in fact no strangers to post delivery. That had been their father James’ job for much of their early lives, although he had also worked as a foreman on roadbuilding works before dying young in 1900. At this point, Mary was 15, Grace was 13, Emily was 10, and Harriet was 8, and their mother Faith sent the older girls out to work, while working herself as a newsagent and shop keeper. They had brothers – Harry, Jim and Clarence – the older of whom worked as a letter carrier himself after his father’s death, and the youngest who died aged just 14.
Each of the sisters has their own tale to tell, the details of which are hinted at in the photo caption.
Mary was baptised in 1884, and was her parents’ second child. The death of her father in 1900, when she was 15, meant that the family was without a breadwinner – so as the oldest child she was expected to contribute to the family finances. She moved out of the family home and was apprenticed to a dressmaker elsewhere in Wetherby, to learn a good trade. However, she gave up work to get married to Edgar Adkin, a soldier who had served in the Boer War, at the tail end of 1905.
She had a son, also called Edgar, in the following summer. Sadly, he died aged not-quite 1. Another son, Reginald, arrived in 1908 and survived. Her husband came out of the army and into the reserves, and became a town postman in Wetherby. It’s likely that Mary, given her background in the postal service from her father, helped him out in this job.
At the outbreak of World War One in August 1914 Edgar was taken back on as a soldier, and was sent to France with his regiment. He was reported as missing in action on the 20th of September 1914, having been attacked near Reims in Northern France. Eventually Mary and Reginald were notified that he was alive and a prisoner of war in Germany – which would have been a relief, but they would not have known how long he would be held for.
At the time of the Leeds Mercury article, Mary was effectively a single parent caring for an eight-year-old son, with no other visible means of support. It’s probable that she happily took up duties as a postwoman, with her mother Faith and sisters’ help with childcare.
Definitive records for when Edgar was released aren’t publicly available, but this was probably in 1918. He would have received the war medals, gone into the reserves again in 1919, and then went back to Wetherby to work as a postman.
Mary, Edgar and Reginald moved to Bedale, where Edgar continued to work in the postal service and Reginald became a commercial traveller. Mary, according to the 1939 register, went back to unpaid duties at home. They appear not to have had any further children. Reginald married in 1930.
Edgar died in York in 1943, so did not see the end of the Second World War. Mary lived on until the early 1950s, dying in Northallerton, Yorkshire.
The second sister in the newspaper picture, Grace, was only 13 when her father died. She appears to have continued at school, and helped her mother at home and in the newsagents’ business the family ran.
She married Bertie Nicholson, a Yorkshireman who had been both a soldier and a postman, in 1909. Bertie was a Methodist, and had served eight years in the army – including some time in India – in the early years of the 20th century. They moved to Boston Spa, a village just south of Wetherby, and set up a bakery business. While Bertie did the baking, Grace was responsible for the confectionary side of the operation – so would have made sweet treats and decorated cakes. Their first child, Laura, was born in late 1909, and a son – named Bertie after his father – in 1910. Army life beckoned again for Bertie, and he returned to the military in 1912. They had a second son, Clarence (named after Grace’s recently deceased brother), in 1913, and a third in mid-December 1914, who was named Edgar after his missing uncle. This fourth child was born a month or so after Bertie had been sent to France with the army – so by the time of the Leeds Mercury photograph Grace was coping alone with her four children, and now working as a postwoman to bring in income.
Bertie suffered injuries in the war – prominently a gunshot wound in his left shoulder, and an amputated finger – and was allowed home on leave occasionally. Grace gave birth to their fifth child – a daughter also named Grace – in the spring of 1918. Bertie was released from the army in 1919, and drew a pension from 1920.
Grace and Bertie and their family continued to live in Wetherby, and it’s likely that Grace returned to unpaid domestic life during peacetime, while Bertie worked as either a postman or a baker. However, this return to family life did not last as Bertie was taken ill and died in hospital in Leeds in February 1929, aged only 46. He left Grace just over £48 – which was not a considerable amount of money at that time – and she would have been left on her own with at least two dependent children.
It is perhaps no surprise, given the economic climate of 1929, that Grace married again quickly. This took place in the November of 1929 when she married George – who at that point was a widower insurance agent in Wetherby. By 1939 they had moved to Harrogate, where Grace was undertaking unpaid domestic work and George had found work as a kitchen porter in a hotel – a considerable step down the economic ladder from insurance work.
Both Grace and George died in 1956, in their late 60s.
The unmarried sister from the 1916 Leeds Mercury photograph was born in 1890 and grew up on North Street in Wetherby. Only nine when her father died, she would have continued at school and helping her mother in the newsagents business that she ran.
By the time she was 20, however, she had gone out to work as a charwoman – cleaning and skivvying in other people’s houses to help the family finances. Working as a postwoman in the First World War would have been a step up from this sort of employment, and it was this opportunity that the Military Service Act encouraged and ultimately was instrumental in achieving women’s suffrage.
Emily remained unmarried until well after the end of World War One. Aged 30 she married Fred – a former WW1 soldier turned chauffeur – in Wetherby. They had a daughter, Mona, a year later. Fred later became a newsagent, taking over Emily’s mother’s business, as she had died in 1918.
In 1936 Emily died, aged 46. This took place at Knaresborough, a few miles north of Wetherby – where they were still living. This indicates that she most likely had tuberculosis, as the local sanatorium – Scotton Banks – was located there.
Fred continued to run the newsagents that had previously belonged to Emily’s mother. He married again, and had a son who was brought up alongside Emily’s daughter Mona. Fred died in 1951.
The fourth sister in the photograph, Harriet, is the youngest of them. And possibly the unluckiest in the story as it is given.
She’d also gone to work as a charwoman to support the family after her father’s death – which occurred when she was just 8. She undoubtedly would also have helped her mother in the newsagents business, and appears to have been involved in the postal service in some way too – indicated by her take up of the postwoman job in 1916.
She married Arthur, a soldier seven years her senior, in the May of 1915. As a lance corporal, this would have been while he was on leave. He entered the war again in the Balkans on 11th July 1915, and was killed in action at Suvla Bay (now in modern-day Turkey) – as part of the Gallipoli campaign – slightly less than a month later. Harriet was paid his effects.
When the Leeds Mercury picture was taken, Harriet had been a widow longer than she had been married, and it is very unlikely that she spent much of that married life with her husband, and there was no child from the marriage. It’s probable that she helped her sisters with childcare while their husbands were away, alongside being a postwoman.
Two years later, however, she married again. This time her husband was Edward, a soldier three years her junior, who also had been serving in the war. In peacetime he had worked as a farmer, and it was to that profession he returned once the war was over. Harriet became a farmer’s wife, and would have had her own duties on the land.
Soon after the end of the war Harriet and Edward emigrated to Canada, intending to farm land and settle in the country. Their three children – Robert, Reginald and Faith – who were all born in Wetherby in very quick succession after the war, went with them. The British government paid their passage across the Atlantic. They settled in Saskatchewan, traveling there by the Canadian Pacific Railway, and farming there for many years.
Harriet died in 1945, aged only 53. Her husband Edward continued with the farm until he died in the early 1980s.
And as for the brothers, Harry married Maggie in 1903 and had five children. He had various jobs – a grocer, a horsekeeper, and a railway porter. He also fought in World War 1 while his sisters were working as postwomen. Jim, the youngest surviving brother, became a baker. He married Elsie, and had several children.