Women’s History Month
Women’s History Month, observed every March to coincide with International Women’s Day, is a celebration of the contribution of Women to history. Click here to see how we did this in 2017.
To celebrate women’s history in 2018 we asked one of our researchers who frequents our Bury St Edmunds Branch to share some of their research.
War in Bury St Edmunds: The Women’s Auxiliary Service.
Women were conscripted to war work between 1941 and 1945.
Those women exempted on age grounds were obliged to volunteer on the home front, even in addition to paid employment. They could choose from the Air Raid Precautions, known as the ARP or wardens; fire-watching or fire-fighting; the Home Guard, or another auxiliary service.
Here in Bury St. Edmunds, a Women’s Auxiliary Service (the WAS) was run by Mayoress Muriel Lake, twin sister of Mayor E.L.D. Lake, who arranged training in January of 1943.
Bury was still being bombed in the middle of the war. With this in mind, and a prompt from Whitehall , Miss Lake then asked the WAS to set up Incident Inquiry Points, recruiting 567 Bury women by the beginning of 1944.
These Incident Inquiry Points would be the first line of information in an air raid, set up in a WAS volunteer’s own home after instruction from an Incident Officer. Along with three neighbours, these women were called upon to:-
• Handle all enquiries from the public regarding those injured, made homeless, or killed in an air raid.
• Pass to the Incident Officer information which may be of use to the civil defence services working at the site.
• Take charge of listing personal possessions, identity cards, ration books etc found at the scene.
• Be prepared to give assistance to the Incident Officer, or the wardens.
Mayoress Lake sent a guide to WAS members. She emphasised the operational nature of the work. A Point would be set up in the immediate aftermath of a serious raid, with a lit sign outside for the public, with chalk marks on walls or pavements, or a volunteer to direct people. If a Point was set up in a damaged building, women were exhorted to cover windows with blankets and use emergency hurricane lamps.
One WAS volunteer would liaise with the incident and with rest centres, first aid posts and the hospital, and would send messengers accordingly. The other Point staff would take official records of those killed, missing and wounded, and also of those survivors sent elsewhere. The WAS women were instructed not only to pass accurate information up and down the lines, but to pro-actively gather this information from Incident Officers, the police, the wardens and the public. This would have put them in a position of actively managing, rather than reactively observing or recording.
The 567 WAS volunteers were organised into 63 static Incident Inquiry Points across Bury St Edmunds and four mobile teams. All WAS volunteers were issued with armbands and their own Incident Inquiry Point sign. Mayoress Lake arranged training and test exercises for both the WAS and Rest Centre staffs.
Another voluntary organisation, the WVS , also existed in Bury. Amongst other tasks, some WVS women helped staff the Rest Centres where they gave the next stage of information to raid survivors, such as where to obtain new ration books, clothing, food, accommodation and so on . Indeed, some Bury women would have belonged to both the WAS and the WVS. Together, this short and organised chain of information and help did not happen by accident. Up and down the country, those who’d survived earlier air raids had been shabbily treated. Left to walk to up to eight unconnected offices for everything from clothing, food, medicine, missing persons reports, compensation forms, furniture or a bed for the night, it was little wonder that discontent had grown. Many people had abandoned their towns altogether, for safety. The Whitehall circular was not unusual and its response in Bury St Edmunds showed either a concern for its populace, or perhaps a degree of anxiety about elective depopulation. The latter was leading, elsewhere at least, to a drop in council rates collections and a lack of local rebuilding manpower. At worst, many local authorities feared the public would simply cease co-operation in the war effort if their immediate and not unreasonable needs weren’t met.
Since the Second World War, studies have found that efforts by local government to engage
co-operation are most effective when the public are trusted with information, given responsibility, and headed by competent personnel. Mayoress Lake’s role in leading the WAS and the Rest Centres appeared to fulfil these criteria, given the response of so many Bury townswomen to volunteer for this particular home front effort.
The Women’s Auxiliary Service file, including the roll of names and the Whitehall Circular, can be seen free of charge at the
Bury Record Office, Raingate Street, Bury St Edmunds, IP33 2AR.
Its reference is: –
D12/11/1 Papers re. Women’s Auxiliary Service Incident Inquiry Points, Bury St Edmunds, 1944-1945.
B.A. Brown, B.A. Hons.
Independent researcher (Home Front, WWII and aftermath).