Monday, 17 November 2014

Knitting and New Zealand women in WW1

dovegreyreader scribbles  latest post is about about knitting in World War One and how everyone was encouraged to knit all the time.  I immediately thought of how both my grandmothers were expert knitters.  In my early childhood at the end of the 1940s both of them were always knitting.  I particularly remember my paternal grandmother knitting socks - there was always a four-needle piece of knitting sitting by her chair.  My maternal grandmother also knitted socks but she lived in a different town so I did not see her regularly.  I do remember her talking about knitting socks for soldiers in World War Two, though, so I began to wonder what they had both done in the first war.

My paternal grandmother was married and had two babies during World War One.  She was 31 when the war broke out.  My maternal grandmother was four years younger.  Her father never allowed her to work: she was very much the unmarried daughter who was expected to 'look after' her four brothers.  At the beginning of the war she got engaged to my grandfather but he then went off to fight and did not return until December 1918.  We knew all about Gallipoli because he was wounded there and then he went on to the Western Front and fought in the Battle of the Somme amongst other things. Having lived in Britain for over forty years I know a lot about what women here did from nursing on the Western Front to working in munitions or taking over work on farms,  but I knew very little about women in New Zealand.  So I spent an interesting afternoon doing some internet research by searching for 'New Zealand women knitting World War One' and thought I would share my findings.  I must, however, apologise for a lack of photos as all the sites I went to had copyright issues and I could not use them.  If you want to find out more or see some of the photos, I would recommend a website called

New Zealand is very proud of the contribution it made to the First World War.  It was the first colony to declare war and sent a higher percentage of its population to fight than any other colony.   Mention of the fact that fifty per cent of the state funded schools were one teacher schools is interesting because so many of the teachers went off to war.  At one point my maternal grandmother taught for a short time in a school at Lake Coleridge where a large dam was under construction.  She was completely untrained and had left school at fourteen so I think there was a real problem finding teachers.  The population of New Zealand was only just over one million. One thing I noticed from old newspapers was the number of trained nurses who left and went to France or Britain.  Nursing has always had high status in NZ and I am sure they were well trained.  These were not VADs although I know people who were VADs in the Second World War.  New Zealand, like Australia, recognises that it 'grew up' as a result of the war and these days Gallipoli has huge significance although I do not remember this being nearly as marked in my childhood.  Perhaps this was because we were still recovering from the Second World War.  Most of us had fathers who had fought in that but not that many people I knew had grandfathers who had served in 1914-1918.

Within the first two to three days of the outbreak of war, Lady Liverpool, the wife of the Governor General, established a fund to assist the soldiers overseas and encouraged women and children to knit socks, sew shirts and contribute money to the cause. Lady Pomare, who was a high status Maori, also had a fund to raise money for Maori soldiers.  There are accounts of the committee meetings for these two funds and it is apparent that being on committees is what the 'establishment' people did.  However, much of the work was done by sewing and knitting bees.  Women who were not in paid employment made clothes for Belgian children, as well as socks and shirts for soldiers.   Children also contributed to this 'textile' work. Virtually all women were used to making their own clothes so it probably seemed a natural thing to do.  I had assumed that there would not have been a problem with access to wool such as there was here but then I found a letter to the paper in which the writer complained about a shortage of wool and being expected to pay for the wool herself.  When wool ran short in Australia, people in Melbourne and Sydney bought spinning wheels.

The advertisements in these old newspapers are fascinating.  There is one for a knitting machine and Kirkcaldie and Stains department store in Wellington advertised Patons wool 'specially woven for Soldiers' Comforts'.  Lady Liverpool produced 'Her Excellency's Knitting Book'.  It was felt that work like this helped women to feel closer to the men on the other side of the world.  Of course, some women worked and I found a wonderful photo of a course teaching women how to grade fleeces.  There was even a 'knitting song' which originated in Britain and reached NZ via Australia.  The main music shop in Wellington advertised the sheet music.  I expect it was the same in NZ.

There are regular pieces in the newspapers listing the articles people had made and donated: socks, balaclavas, scarves cholera belts, mittens, pyjamas and day shirts.  The names of donors are given and from this distance it is easy to see it may all have become very competitive.  Old clothing was also recycled, e.g. old (I assume leather) gloves were sent to England to line waistcoats.

Women were also heavily involved in fund-raising through garden fetes and market stalls.  And they sent food parcels.  My maternal grandmother had a brother serving on the Western Front and she used to talk about sending fruit (i.e. Christmas cake recipe) cakes and Russian toffee.  As a child I always used to wonder how the food survived the journey which would have taken at least six to eight weeks.  My sister tells me that this grandmother used to talk about knitting socks for soldiers so there you have it.  Unfortunately I know almost nothing about what my paternal grandmother did as she lived in a more rural area.

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