Margaret Koppen, secretary of the Halliwell History Society and a volunteer at Bolton, has researched and written this valuable post about the very necessary support work done by women on the home front.
The Bolton War Hospital Supply Depot
Women’s Relief Corps
In July 1915 the inaugural meeting of the Bolton Women’s Defence Relief Corps took place at the Victoria Hall, which was packed with young, middle aged and elderly women all eager to do their bit for the war effort. Mrs Dawson-Scott from London, who was the founder of the movement, wore the grey uniform of the Corps as she addressed them in an ‘inspiring and outspoken’ manner. She said “we cannot go to the trenches and I don’t think the men would allow us, but there are plenty of battles to be fought at home”. She went on to explain the work of the Corps which had branches all over the country and every branch did something different; charity work, hospital work, munition making, van driving or despatch carrying, whatever was needed in their area. Mr Alfred Pilling JP accepted the appointment of Treasurer to the local Corps and he pointed out that Bolton women had already done magnificent work in many other ways but he urged women and girls to come together to do this valuable public service. Mrs Jessop Hulton in proposing a vote of thanks to Mrs Dawson-Scott said “ …when the war was over things would not be the same and women would be necessary to help the men in readjusting…”
When the Corps was first formed in Bolton there were some who questioned what use was the drilling and training of women who would not see combat. The answer was that it instilled in them discipline, self-control and the ability to obey commands should they be called on to help with an emergency. Some of the women were already filling the place of men, something unheard of two years before. In December of 1915 Mrs Dawson-Scott gave special permission for the Bolton branch to be known as the ‘Women’s Relief Corps’. All the women were known as ‘Helpers’ and when not in uniform they wore a khaki armlet with a scarlet letter ‘H’.
Obviously there were some women who had no wish to drill but they had a few hours of leisure time to help the war effort in any way they could. Steps were taken to find premises and the Tramways Committee offered some rooms over the Tramway Offices in Bradshawgate and Salop Street, and the civil side of the Women’s Relief Corps was formed to supply the Bolton War Supply Depot. In Bradshawgate cotton and flannel garments were sewn for soldiers, sailors, prisoners of war and hospitals and this was where the office for receiving donations in money and kind was situated. Each worker initially gave a fee of one shilling and contributed weekly into a collecting box. At Salop Street bandages, swabs and other surgical necessaries were made by the ladies who wore white aprons, sleeves and caps for cleanliness whilst sat at white-topped tables in the light and airy rooms. All the items made were to standard patterns which one of the ladies of the Committee had brought back from the main Hospital Supply Depot at Kensington.
By October 1916 there were 250 members and the movement was approved by the War Office and certified by the War Charities Act 1916. Large packages and bales were sent to Gallipoli and every other front as well as hospitals in the town. From October 1915 until September 1916 the number of garments, bandages etc. made and despatched was 21,527 which included 633 garments made by other Women’s organisations in Bolton. By this time there was a junior section. They took part in drilling and other activities wearing the uniform of the Corps and when out of uniform they wore the scarlet ‘H’ badge or armband, ready to answer any call for help such as raising funds for the War Supply Depot of the Corps.
In March 1917 a shop was set up in Mealhouse Lane for one week to raise funds from the sale of donated items such as fine china, paintings, glass, and gold and silver jewellery. This was referred to as ‘The Treasure Shop’ and all the proceeds went to the ‘Comforts Fund’. Also during 1917 there was an increase in the output of papier-mâché splints, hand cradles, boots etc. and it was thought that Bolton may become a centre from which doctors would be able to obtain supplies of these much needed articles.
At the end of the war in 1919 only about 30-50 voluntary workers were left at the War Supply Depot and they were engaged in making ‘Pylons’. After leg amputation it takes some time for the stump to heal sufficiently to fit an artificial limb whereas a ‘Pylon’ could be fitted as soon as the wound had healed, so that the patient could then manage without crutches. Dozens of soldiers who passed through the Bolton hospitals during the war were fitted with them, each one being made specifically to fit the wearer. They were cone shaped and made of vulcanite fibre and were strapped to the waist or thigh; at the thin end was a wooden plug to which was screwed a rubber heel. They were light and comfortable and some of the men actually preferred them to an artificial leg. It was anticipated that there could still be a great demand for them for some time to come and it was thought it could be useful if the work could be carried on by disabled soldiers from the town.
Bolton Journal & Guardian
30.07.15: 19.11.15: 03.12.15: 24.12.15
23.03.17: 30.03.17: 26.10.17: 23.11.17
Women’s Relief Corps Annual Reports 1915-1818 Museum Collection 275.1982
Image: Bolton Museum L.H. collection Ref. 1982-0276-01