Home, Politics & War – The Changing Lives of Women in the early 20th Century, North Down Museum.

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The lives of women in the western world changed dramatically between the period of 1890 to 1950. Firstly came the struggle for an education coupled with the struggle to gain the right to vote. After this women proved their worth with their contribution to the war effort in what was the first time in history that women were mobilized on nearly the same scale as men. Finally, hemlines rose in the era that heralded the flappers, namely the 1920s.

One country that was also party to this change, coupled with the struggle for a Home Rule government, was Ireland. Women in Ireland campaigned for the right to higher education for all and for the right to vote just as their European counterparts were doing. What made this struggle different was that women in Ireland also campaigned along Nationalist or Unionist lines. Thus making the change in Ireland more interesting as the political struggle continued throughout World War One and beyond. It is against this backdrop that the exhibition, ‘Home, Politics and War The changing lives of women in the early Twentieth Century’, in North Down Museum, is juxtaposed.

The exhibition was divided into sections representing the home life of women in this period, as well as sections on their social, political and working lives. Each section contained information detailing how the various sections changed as attitudes to what women could and could not do changed between 1890 and 1930. Alongside these discussions were testimonies, photographs, oral histories, ephemera etc. that predominantly belonged to women in the North Down area around Bangor, Newtownards and Holywood. Within this there was a strong sense that these women belonged to the Unionist political cause, a fact that has not changed in over a century, as North Down is still a Unionist stronghold.

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M.McRoberts, Mrs. Roberts and Son, dry cleaners,

Main Street, Bangor, c. 1900-1912.

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Linen embroidering, Loughries, Newtownards, c.1914.

The first exhibition panels discussed and explained what life was like for women in early 20th Century County Down. This was done with a discussion centred on the industrialisation of North Down and the consequent employment of many County Down women in factories and mills such as the York Street Mill, Belfast, Hazlett’s Mill and mill’s owned by Robinson and Cleaver’s. Many women also undertook embroidery and sewing work at home for agent’s at the larger Belfast firms; something which is being done by Bella and Martha McKeag in the above picture. These women only made ‘piece money’ for their ‘piece work’, and often enough they were underpaid, this is a topic which I have recently written about here.

Also pictured above is the McRoberts family of Bangor standing outside their Dry Cleaner’s and Dyer’s shop. To the right of the picture is Mrs. McRoberts, a woman who would have helped out in her family business either behind the till or operating the dry cleaning machinery. Therefore, the old adage of women being idle in the Edwardian age is redundant as we can clearly see that women did work both in and outside of the home. The exhibition panel went onto explain that even after the end of World War One, many women continued to work in the home or family business. However, after World War One there was a marked increase in the women undertaking secretarial work or continuing their education to better themselves and their families.

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Selection of Unionist political ephemera. Including

The exhibition continued to talk about the political involvement of many women in the anti-Home Rule campaign of the 1910 to 1914. As North Down was a predominantly a Unionist area the interpretation revolved around this particular political view. Objects on display, as seen in the above picture, included the Ulster Declaration (the female equivalent of the male Ulster Covenant), dinner dance’s to raise money for the anti Home-Rule cause and membership cards for the Ulster Women Unionist’s Council. To see a copy of the Ulster Declaration as signed by my Great-Great Aunt Annie Bell and Great-Grandmother Raicheal Bell Moran click here and here. 1. Text placed beside the objects explained that women who became involved in politics of the time were as passionate about Unionism or Nationalism as their male counterparts. This type of interpretation is refreshing as many Decade of Centenaries exhibitions and commemorations forget to mention or play down the role of women in this crucial period of Ireland’s history.

14Black velvet, white sequinned empire line dress

with white hand embroidered drapery and black trim.

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Straw hat with pink ribbon trim, dried lilacs and daisies and foliage. c.1920.

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Hat same as above. Cream linen or poplin dress with lace trim and

pink tasselled hand embroidered shawl with flower detail. c.1920.

Towards the back of the exhibition there was a number of garments on display that depicted the changing fashions between 1900 and 1920. The black and white Empire line dress pictured in the first picture depicts the change from restrictive corseted dresses to free-flowing gowns favoured in the late Edwardian period. The formal hat, dress and shawl are again excellent examples of this change from more formal clothing to less-formal yet smart clothing. Although hard to see in the above picture, the hand embroidery on this shawl was an exquisite example of drawn thread work and hand embroidery found in costume at this time. It is easy to imagine a woman at a summertime wedding in 1920 with appropriately cropped hair wearing this wonderful dress, shawl and hat. Another point of interpretation in regards to the dress selected for this exhibition was that each dress displayed was worn or made by a local working class or lower middle class lady. This is a rarity in fashion history as normal, every day costume does not survive as much as their upper class counterparts, making working class costumes a rarity within museum exhibitions and collections.

Previously, I mentioned that the main concentration of objects and interpretation within the exhibition was the war work undertaken by Irish women in World War One. The greatest concentration of objects were objects relating to nursing, followed shortly by objects related to women whom worked in munitions factories. The first cabinet below had a number of nursing related ephemera including letters, postcards, autographs, song sheets, armbands, medals etc. Also included in this cabinet was a brass plaque commemorating the dispensary building built at a hospital in Etaples, France built by donations from people in Belfast and County Down.

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Cabinet of nursing related ephemera.

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Ulster Volunteer Force Medical & Nursing Corps Medal and Badge, c.1912-1916.

In this cabinet, and in another cabinet, there was several objects relating to the Ulster Volunteer Force Medical and Nursing Corps from before World War One and after. As seen in the pictures above, there was a Nursing medal, pictures relating to the U.V.F. Hospital in Pau, France, a World War One nursing medal, letters, postcards etc. Being an historian of the U.V.F. Nurses it is very refreshing to find items relating to one’s subject matter, particularly the finding out of a name of a U.V.F. Nurse, in the case of Jennie Moodie Stewart.

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U.V.F. Nurses, U.V.F. Hospital, Pau France.

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U.V.F. Nursing Medal, c.1914-1918.

It is very refreshing to see items from the U.V.F. Nurses being included within an exhibition about World War One, as I have found as a researcher there has been a near omission of anything relating to the U.V.F. nurses in Northern Irish museums. Overall, the ‘Home, Politics & War’ exhibition included objects and photographs that aren’t included in generic exhibitions about World War One. Great care was taken in the interpretation of these objects to tell the true story of the women behind the nursing and munitionettes uniform. That these women are not simply being included because it is the ‘done thing’ to include women in discourses centred around World War One. That by actually concentrating on the reality of the lives of these women, North Down museum has interpreted the true meaning of ‘Home, Politics & War’ and the effect on women these subjects had. Therefore, presenting a well-rounded, exciting and interesting exhibition and display.

1.My Great-Grandmother spelt her name ‘Raicheal’ (Irish version) or Rachel intermittently throughout her life. I have yet to find her birth certificate to verify the correct spelling of her name. Although on both the 1901 and 1911 census her name is signed as Raicheal and that her first language was Irish.

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