“Our Excess Girls”: women after the First World War

After the First World War, the government, with strong support from the media, encouraged thousands of women to quit Britain for a new life in the colonies. Lucy Noakes explains why so many were deemed surplus to requirements

Hard labour: a woman tarring and flinting in Oxford Street, central London, 1919. (Getty Images) 

This article was first published in the March 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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In 1923 the Australian Farmers and Grazers Association sponsored a leaflet calling for the emigration of “large numbers of girls from Great Britain” to Australia where, after spending the voyage out learning “the making of beds, cleaning of glassware and polishing of silver,” they would be placed in “well chosen homes” in the rural districts of New South Wales.

The proposed emigration of large numbers of single women to the empire in the aftermath of the First World War is one of the lesser known ways in which the conflict impacted on British and colonial society. Thousands of women were willing to quit Britain for new lives in Canada, Australia and New Zealand in the immediate aftermath of the war – and certain elements of the establishment couldn’t wait to see the back of them. But why? The answer lies on the battlefields of the western front.

At the end of the war, over 700,000 British men lay dead. Perhaps as many as 182,000 more had officially ‘disappeared’, their bodies blown to pieces or lost in the mud. For many people, the armistice of 1918 promised the opportunity to restore a ‘normal’ society following the carnage. Yet there was one highly visible impediment to a return to the natural order of things: women. What was to be done with the thousands of females who had stepped into ‘masculine’ roles while the men had been away fighting? The answer was to export them to the empire.

During the war, women had moved into a wide range of new work roles – perhaps most controversially of all, replacing men in auxiliary services of the military. Women’s branches of the armed services were founded between 1917 and 1918, allowing armies of mainly young, single women to “free men for the front” by cooking, cleaning, driving and administering to the men of the armed forces.

By the end of the war, tens of thousands had served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), the largest of the women’s services. This was all well and good while the war was on – and the WAAC was proving an important cog in the war machine – yet it was always going to cause problems in peacetime because it challenged deeply ingrained gender stereotypes.

These problems came to a head at the end of the war, when the military disbanded the women’s services in the hope that their members would return to more ‘traditional’ areas of work, like domestic service.

Women who refused employment of this kind were vilified in the press. Some were described as “ruthless self seekers depriving men and their dependants of their livelihood”; others as  “leeches” and “parasites”, determined to “have the time of their lives” at the expense of the returning men and of wider society.

Those who had served in uniform were often depicted with particular venom. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph was so troubled by their conduct that it felt moved to argue that: “In some cases Army life… has not been an unmixed blessing… they show a tendency to avoid the home and sever their home ties; the efforts they make to appear ‘bold’ and masculine, whether it be… in excessive cigarette smoking or the thrusting of their hands deep into their side pockets, all go to indicate the loss of grace and charm which in the old days caused their fathers to espouse their mothers.”

This demonisation formed part of wider concerns about women in postwar Britain – in particular the fear that there were simply too many of them. The National Archives are full of concerned memos comparing population numbers following the war. The War Office estimated that there were 796,000 fewer young men in 1918 than when hostilities began. In contrast, the female population, already outnumbering men before 1914, had remained stable, giving an estimated ‘surplus’ female population of over one million.

These figures were understood to pose at least two problems for the stability of postwar society. Firstly, as a Ministry of Labour memorandum claimed: “The existence of so great a mass of women”, for whom marriage was statistically unlikely, was “obviously unwholesome”.

Secondly, if these women were not able to find satisfaction through marriage and motherhood, they would be more likely to seek paid work, threatening the employment of returning ex-servicemen. Many of these men had no secure employment to return to, and the 1917 Russian revolution cast a long shadow over the desks of Whitehall, one memo noting that “in the event of rioting, for the first time in history the rioters will be better trained than the troops”. Ensuring that women made way for men was one means of guaranteeing that this did not come to pass.

Emigration for ‘surplus’ women would provide a means of rebalancing the population while avoiding “the spectacle of some hundreds of thousands of young women drawing the unemployment dole”. It would also ensure the continued white domination of the empire, where settler men vastly outnumbered women.

Newspapers took up the story with alacrity, and in 1919 the Daily Mail ran a story with the headline ‘Our Excess Girls’, which recommended the emigration of unmarried women. Meanwhile, The Times argued that “it was in the interest of all concerned” that the country divest itself of its “enormous excess” of women. Emigration would not only provide women with opportunities for employment, it would also furnish them with opportunities for marriage.

Free passage

It was to this backdrop that the government unveiled the Free Passage Scheme in 1919. Running until 1922 and operated by the Oversea Settlement Committee, the scheme provided free travel to the empire for ex-service personnel and their dependants.

The Free Passage Scheme wasn’t designed purely with single women in mind – in fact, of the 82,196 people who migrated under the scheme, only 4,500 were single ex-servicewomen.

Yet the War Office thought that ex-servicewomen would make particularly good colonists because of their wartime training in “hygiene, discipline, self control and self reliance”, while their experience of “close contact with large numbers of men” meant they would be unlikely to “contract undesirable friendships” once abroad.

And men weren’t the only ones championing the scheme. The imperially minded feminist the Marchioness of Londonderry wrote to the Colonial Office asking for details of openings in the empire for women as “mechanical engineers, aeroplane makers, wireless apparatus fitters, general engineering workers, dairy farmers [and] market gardeners”. Women, she reminded them, “were anxious to continue” in the “numerous occupations” in which they had been employed in wartime.

By 1919 up to six women a day were enquiring about emigration; women like “Mrs S., Woman of superior education, age 40–45… now employed as a housekeeper, says she cannot remain in this work as it is too constricted”.

Yet the Dominions were less keen on receiving the likes of Mrs S than she was on quitting Britain. In the harsh postwar economic climate, Dominions governments were struggling to find employment for ex-servicemen, let alone British women seeking independence. New Zealand and Canada insisted the only kind of female migrant they wanted were trained domestic workers. Australia was willing to extend this category to include “women who possess a knowledge of plain cooking” and “inexperienced, domesticated women, provided they can be shown to have some knowledge of and capability for housework”. The gap between women’s hopes for greater freedom, and the domestic work on offer was significant – and it was to help doom the Free Passage Scheme to failure before it had begun.

Letters to the magazine The Imperial Colonist soon began to reflect the lack of opportunities for migrating women. Claims in 1918 that “life in the overseas Dominions offers perhaps the widest scope for [women’s] usefulness” were replaced in 1919 by reminders that “a practical knowledge of domestic science is of the greatest value to a woman wherever she may go”. A letter from Canada warned of “hundreds of thousands of young women drawing the unemployment dole”. A female migrant to New South Wales wrote in 1920 that “things are just as unsettled in this country”, while a missive from a settler in Western Australia told readers “there is no demand for typists or girl clerks, very little for women as agricultural labourers… there is an endless need for women who can cook, wash, and bake”.

In order to assess what openings did exist, the Oversea Settlement Committee sent female delegates to Canada, New Zealand and Australia, the three most popular destinations for migrants.

The delegates unanimously concluded that domestic service was the only area where female employment could be guaranteed.

The Free Passage Scheme ultimately has to be judged a failure. It attracted nothing like the numbers of emigrants  envisaged, and fewer women than men migrated. As a result, it did nothing to address the gender imbalance in Britain or the empire. Ex-servicewomen, applying for free passage to escape the pressures on them to take up domestic service at home, found exactly the same pressures awaiting them at their destination. The scheme offered little to women who had “a feeling against crossing the world to scrub floors”.

In their attempt to transform wartime service into domestic service, the Free Passage Scheme’s creators failed to recognise the ways that the war had raised expectations among many women for independence and even adventure. Life in the Dominions, like life in postwar Britain, was, for most, devoid of such possibilities.

Where did the women go?

The majority of the ex-servicewomen who migrated under the Free Passage Scheme chose to travel to Canada, widely understood in early 20th-century Britain as the Dominion which felt the most like ‘home’. Fewer travelled to the more remote Dominions of Australia and New Zealand, while a small minority opted to settle in Africa or India.

The three most popular destinations all sought to represent themselves as an improved version of home – one New Zealand publication was entitled New Zealand: The Better Britain. Australian authorities described domestic service there as a place where “life is free and easy and there are no distinctions between classes”.

Canada, Australia and New Zealand, like Britain, were concerned by an apparent shortfall in domestic servants, and did their best to alleviate this by ensuring migrant women would be able to fill these posts. Canada opened a ‘khaki university’ in London to teach war brides the domestic skills thought necessary for the Canadian home. Australia and New Zealand did likewise, providing domestic training in Market Harborough for women prior to embarkation.

Concern for the ‘moral welfare’ of female migrants meant that in all three countries voluntary women’s organisations such as the YWCA worked to supervise and find suitable employment for the women, providing hostel accommodation, putting them in touch with potential employers and offering supervised social activities.

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Lucy Noakes lectures in history in the School of Humanities, University of Brighton. She is the author of War and the British (IB Tauris, 1998) and Women in the British Army (Routledge, 2006)