Armistice 100. Women who won war for a better life


Before the outbreak of the First World War, women had been fighting for years to achieve equality and cement their place in society.

The Suffrage movement was stepping out of the shadows as the country’s women took to the streets as they campaigned for the right to a voice and the right to vote.

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Dressed in their purple and green sashes, these bold women sacrificed their liberty in their quest for justice and change.

Emmeline Pankhurst.

Leeds-born Leonora Cohen gained public notoriety in 1913 after she smashed a display cabinet at the Tower of London.

She managed to escape jail after being acquitted on a technicality owing to the value of the glass smashed. When Prime Minister Herbert Asquith came to speak in Leeds in 1913, Mrs Cohen hurled a brick through a window and was imprisoned at Armley Jail, where she went on a hunger and thirst strike before being released under licence to prevent her death. However, the onset of war split the famous Pankhurst family; Emmeline and Christabel immediately ceased their campaign, supported the recruitment of soldiers and urged women to join the war effort, while Sylvia and Adela remained pacifists.

The outbreak of the conflict was a bittersweet moment for women across Yorkshire. Many faced the heartache of not knowing whether their husbands, sons and brothers would return unscathed.

Yet it was their responsibility to keep the home fires burning and ensure they kept the war effort moving on the home front.

In Sheffield, women were working as tram drivers for the first time and across Yorkshire they were working as bus conductors, window cleaners and helping plough the fields. Women in Leeds were involved in the manufacture of aeroplanes at the Blackburn plant in Roundhay; they also worked at the shell making factory in Goodman Street, in Hunslet, and at the huge Barnbow Munitions factory at Cross Gates.

However, their efforts on the home front were not without their own dangers.

An explosion at Barnbow munitions factory on the evening of December 5, 1916, left 35 women and girls dead. Most of the workers were women, drawn from a 20-mile radius. The majority came from Leeds, but others came from York, Selby, Harrogate, Wakefield, Tadcaster and Wetherby. There were two further explosions at the factory, the first in March 1917, which killed two girl workers and the second in May 1918, which killed three men.

Due to a press blackout during the war, it was not until six years later that the full extent of the tragedy was made public.

When war broke out, the Tetley Brewery, like factories all over the country, faced huge changes. As men rushed to sign up many of the jobs they left behind were filled by women. Most of the women worked in the maltings and the offices, while some were given jobs in the mash room or worked as painters. They quickly showed they could do the work just as well as the men had done.

And as the soldiers returned from the battlefields at the end of the war a new era dawned for those women who made sure that Britain’s war machine did not grind to a halt.