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  • Writer's pictureWendy Percival

Legacy of War

Watching the heart-breaking images of women and children fleeing the war in Ukraine over these past few days, having to leave their men behind, reminded me of a book I read a few years ago which addressed a legacy of war, uniquely faced by women.

The book was called, Singled Out, by Virginia Nicholson, and the war the author highlighted was the First World War. While there would have been many mothers with children parted from their menfolk, then as now, possibly for ever, Virginia Nicholson’s work focused on the plight of unmarried women.

Surplus Women

The loss of so many young men who'd died in the trenches completely distorted the natural balance of the sexes, confirmed by the 1921 census which revealed that for every 1,000 men of marriageable age, there were around 1,200 women. In consequence, there would be a considerable number of women who would never find a mate, an outcome considered a crisis situation in an era when society saw marriage as every woman's goal. The press of the time termed them, Surplus Women,

You would think that, given the status quo was brought about by such traumatic circumstances as a world war, allowances would be made for the women affected. But while there was sympathy and understanding by some, it seems there were others who looked down disdainfully on those women who didn't prove "good enough" in the inevitable competition to find a partner.

My great-aunt, Hilda Victoria Griffiths, was one of these “surplus women”. Here she is (left) with her sisters, my grandmother Winifred (the youngest) in the centre and Clarrie, the eldest of the three.

Mystery fiancé

By the end of the war, Hilda was 22 years old. My grandmother, Winifred, would have been 17 and Clarrie, 23. But Clarrie would be married by 1921 and by 1929 so would Winifred. By then Hilda would be 32, an age considered far too old to have any reasonable hope of attracting a husband.

There was the sniff of a story that Hilda was engaged before the war and I always imagined that her fiancé had been killed in action. For years I wondered whether a photograph of a soldier from the tank corps, identified by my aunt as “Vincent”, which was amongst the family’s effects, could have been her mystery sweetheart.

Nieces and nephews

Like many surplus ladies of her generation, Hilda was determined to make the most of her life, even if it didn't include a husband and children of her own.

I was one of her several great-nieces and great-nephews who benefited from her love of sewing. Amongst the many things she sewed, she made Rupert Bears for each of us, using patterns she drew herself by hand, so each bear had its own distinctive character. My sister and I considered our own bears to be very precious and were horrified at the way our male cousins played with them, throwing them around through the air in games of derring-do!

Hilda worked for British Rail, having first joined the railways as a clerk with the Great Western Railway in 1916. When she retired, she enjoyed travelling around the country visiting friends and family, thanks to the 'perk' of discounted fares as a former employee.

When she wasn't travelling, she lived in a caravan on a residential site in Wolverhampton which my sister and I thought was the most exciting thing in the world. When we visited, we would sit up at the bedroom end of the van at her “dining table” playing with a set of kitchen scales and weights, measuring out rice into different containers.

Hilda was a great cook, too. In her minute kitchen, she would conjure up the most amazing cakes and biscuits for tea.

Hilda beside her caravan after it was "repurposed" for family holidays

When she moved into a long-awaited council flat in the late 1960s (when she would have been around 70 years old) we couldn't understand the appeal over the "romance" of living in a caravan. The fact that she would no longer have to make do with a condensation-inducing gas fire for heating, a chemical loo in a cupboard in the kitchen or trek across the site for a bath, was completely lost on us!

Lost opportunity

Hilda died in 1975 in Codsall, Wolverhampton, aged 77. In life, she was always cheerful, kind, enthusiastic and always busy. I wonder how she felt about being one of the Surplus Women. Did she, like many who are mentioned in Virginia Nicholson's book, feel that she'd missed out, that she'd been robbed unfairly of a life she might have expected if the war had never happened? If she did, I never saw any sign of it.

And what about Hilda’s lost love? It was true that Hilda was once engaged, to a young man who was a dentist but my mum's sister declared rather unromantically, “it fell through”.

As for the soldier whose photograph I’d found, after much research I discovered he was called George James Vincent, who before the war had been a solicitor’s clerk. He survived hostilities, married a woman called Ena Edna Thorne in 1918 and went on to become a ratings officer for a local authority. I still have no idea of his connection with the family… unless, of course, he was Hilda’s first love, who went on to marry someone else? I guess I’ll probably never know.

George James Vincent, 1893-1952


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