Postcards, Woolwich Arsenal, 1917

Many years ago, I found a box in the attic of my auntie’s house. She had just passed away and I was clearing the place. It was odd, as the whole of the attic was empty apart from this one box in the centre of it. The box was full of postcards, photographs, a piece of shrapnel and a bullet lighter from the First Word War. It all dated from the Edwardian period, going through to the early 1920s. Much of it was alien to me. I didn’t recognise many of the people in the photographs or know where the First World War ephemera came from.

The postcards are great. In the early 20th century, there were several posts a day and postcards became the main means of communication, in the same way we use text or message applications now. The messages on these postcards include, “sorry I missed you earlier, I’ll come around about 2.30pm.” and “I’ll see you in the pub for 6pm”. You could write a postcard, send it and it would be delivered within a few hours. The images depict towns from all over the country, which makes me think that postcards were regularly bought, or bought in bulk, so that you would have a ready supply in your house. There are many of Margate and Spalding, the areas where my family descended from.

Whilst going through them again this year, a group of postcards caught my eye. Perhaps it was because this year is the centenary of the end of the First World War and the first parliamentary vote for (some) women, so these subjects were at the forefront of my mind. This group were together in the same book. The main card is a photograph of my great (or great-great) Aunt Lily, with her munitions team in the Woolwich Arsenal, 1917. They produced armaments during the First World War. I wasn’t sure if they were munitions workers at first, but printed on the back the postcard is “Lennard’s Studio”, which was not far from the Woolwich factories. I looked online for similar photographs and the overalls are the same as in other images of First World War munitions workers at the Woolwich Arsenal.

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The photograph is staged and looks to be outside, perhaps in the back yard of the photographer’s premises. The overalls are clean and freshly pressed, and the two young lads are well presented and clean, going by their collars. Everyone is looking directly at the camera, some more relaxed than others. Written on the back is “Lily, 1917. D49”. Lil, let’s call her, as that is what she was known as in my family, worked in the munitions factory when she was a young woman, commuting from Chislehurst, which is not that far away.

Another card is very similar, showing a group of people at the Woolwich Arsenal, this time posing inside, wearing better uniforms, along with older men who look more “responsible” and a woman who looks matriarchal. On the back, written pen is “No. 62 Shop, 1917”. Interestingly, the quality of the postcard is not as good a Lil’s. Was it mass produced to give out to the workers in the factories, as opposed to producing a few for a team of ten?

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The next one is of three young women posing in naval officers’ uniforms, complete with cigarettes in their hands. Behind is another woman is dressed as a “gypsy”. It is very much of the time and I have no idea what is going on. Maybe it is a music hall image.

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The final card made me think “hello”. It is the infamous postcard, “I want my Vote!”. The image is an illustration of a cute kitten, showing its little pointy teeth, mewing, with the colours of the Suffrage movement behind him. To me, it is a piece of anti-suffrage propaganda. A petulant kitten mewing for its vote. Not a lion roaring, not an eagle swooping through the air, or even a dragon. The symbolism of the kitten represents the “establishment’s” contempt of to the suffrage movement. It is condescending, patronising, but at the same time displays the underlying seriousness of the anti-suffragette movement. I imagine this was pertinent to this traditional “establishment” towards the end of the Frist World War. They may well have been feeling threatened by the surge of change in society, and trying to keep their reigns on power. Keeping women away from the right to vote.

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I have discussed this postcard with colleagues and historians, and been told that I can’t make that assumption, which is true. The postcard is from 100 years ago. This is not my specialist area, and I have limited knowledge of the broader historical landscape of that time. It is a time from which I am culturally detached. I have grown up in a world that, whilst being not wholly democratic, is a world away from the British Edwardian Empire. My values are different. Propaganda to one person, is belief for another.

Looking into it and reading articles online, others concur with my line of thinking. The blog, Suffrage Postcards, looks at this postcard in more detail and has examples with text upon the back of the postcards that supports this idea. Suffrage Postcards has also found that the image of the kitten has been adapted from an earlier postcard, where the kitten is saying “I want my Ma!”, with no colours behind it. https://suffragepostcards.wordpress.com/tag/i-want-my-vote/

The Museum of London has a piece about it online, accompanied by a similar postcard and an anti-suffrage poster. Apparently, a version of this postcard was sent to Christabel Pankhurst in 1908. The Museum dates the postcards from 1908 – 1912. The context of my postcard is 1917. It is possible that this postcard was still being circulated in 1917. https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/cats-in-museums-feline-history-london

My questions are not about the postcard itself, but the connection with Aunt Lil’s photograph at the Woolwich Arsenal in 1917. I found them in the same book, making me wonder if there is a relationship between them. Were they both owned by Lil? Was this postcard given to her at work in the workshop and she kept the postcards of her time in Woolwich together? Were the postcards being distributed by the owners, managers, politicians, influencers, or even by an infiltration of the anti-suffrage movement? Were these postcards handed out to women en mass, to rally against the cause of votes for women, keeping power to a select few?

Postcards were an excellent medium for propaganda. You could hand them out as we receive leaflets today. They were designed to be posted, so post workers and well as the recipients and their household would get sight of the image. In fact, in this respect, postcards are more of a social media than a simply messaging system, something akin to Twitter, with a key message and an impacting image.

The postcards may well not be related. They could easily have been put into the box at separate times and came from separate places. I am sticking with my theory though. They have been together for the past 100 years and came into the possession of my great aunt Lil at the Woolwich Arsenal, during a time of political and social unrest. At some point Aunt Lil put them in a book, which was put in a box and finally put in the attic. Then I found them. I keep them on my bookshelves, in that same box along with the other postcards, shrapnel and bullet lighter.

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September 2019

Since I wrote this article, I have found Hut D49, where Lil’ worked. It was quite large hut used as Empty Shell Inspection. It has of course been pulled down and the whole are has been built over. The location of it was between two present day roads, Pier Way and Carronade Place.

I discovered al this by looking at the website, Royal Arsenal History (http://www.royal-arsenal-history.com/) which is an amazing accessible archive of the the Woolwich Arsenal. It is worth taking a look.

4 thoughts on “Postcards, Woolwich Arsenal, 1917

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