Sunday, July 19, 2015

Shell Shock and Surplus Women


A while back I purchased, read and even blogged about Virginia Nicolson's two books, The Great Silence and the Perfect Summer  but I have yet to purchase Singled Out, Nicolson's book about all the 'surplus' English women after WWI.

Luckily, there's an Oxford Podcast about WWI by Rosemary Wall which includes a lecture on the same topic.

Wall says that in Singled Out, Nicholson claims that after the the Great War there were 1.7 million surplus women.


By the 1921 British Census reveals there were about 1,580,000  unmarried women and 919,000 unmarried men in the 25-34 age group in England.  Wall claims that a lot of these unmarried women were from the middle class, she says.

Now, it's only 2 to 1, but if you consider that about EVERY male in that age group had gone to war, and if you consider the injury statistics of that war, it is likely few of these 800, 000 men were 'unharmed, either physically or mentally.

And if the man hadn't gone to war.....you know.

Many many books and movies attest to this sad fact.

There is  Parade's End where Benedict Cumberbatch's noble lead character comes back a little less than he was, mentally - which for him is a good thing. (He had brains to spare anyway.)

And in A Month in the Country, Kenneth Branagh's character tells Colin Firth's character (or is it the other way around) how guilty he feels about being in one piece. (Of course, he's got mental problems as does Firth's character.)

And Mrs. Dalloway.

(In my Nicholson family letters, I have two hints of shell-shock. Chester, the American boy who lives near Boston, Massachusetts and who visits Marion and the girls in Montreal in 1913, probably at the behest of his mother, the desperate Mrs Coy,  who wants him to marry one of them, goes 'crazy' in the 1920's.

I have a letter from his father informing everyone that Mrs. Mrs. Coy has died and Mr Coy says his son is in a mental hospital and so demented he cannot recognize the sad situation.

I also have a letter from Sophia Nicholson, a cousin out in Edmonton, who talks about her brother John, how he is in hospital and how she is hoping for a cure in California, a cure for the nerve gas.)

Throughout history, being an unmarried women wasn't a good thing. It usually meant terrible poverty.

It could be said that  the witchcraft frenzy in England was, in part,  in response to all the poor unconnected older women out there, begging and making wealthier citizens uneasy.

I am especially interested in this because my British grandmother, Dorothy Nixon, was one of those  surplus English woman.

She was born in 1895 in County Durham, the daughter of a Methodist Minister, and worked as a land girl in forestry during the war.

After the war she went to Malaya to marry. (My father was born in Kuala Lumpur in October 1922, so she left England at least 10 months before that.)

I had assumed that this all unfolded in the usual way: That my grandfather went out to Malaya and that after a few years he was TOLD by his company to go home and find a British wife, as a civilizing tool.

(He likely did this somewhat reluctantly had an Asian mistress and kept her even after being married.)


Edith Nicholson  of Threshold Girl never married, despite her family's HUGE circle of contacts. No dowry!


This 'corporate wife' thing isn't so unusual. I recently learned that in the US in the middle of this century, if a man was applying for a managerial position at a big firm, it is very likely they interviewed the applicant's wife as well, to see is she would fit in. Imagine!

The Oxford Podcast about Surplus Woman reveals that my grandmother had other options.

There had been surplus women in England, even before the  Great War  (a reason for the suffragette movement) and the government had set up  organizations to help these unmarried women emigrate to the colonies.

They actively recruited the educated and feisty ones for the colonies, the 'energetic, quick-learners'. (Again, according to Wall

Canada and Australia insisted.

This amazes me, because I always assumed that the English immigrants to Canada in 1910 were from the working class.



Kathleen Neil from England was the Cleveland's domestic. She was 21 and had emigrated in 1906.


Our 1911 Canadian census reveals that there are quite a few English women working as domestics in Montreal in the 1910 era. Indeed, English maids were preferred over all else.  The Clevelands of Lorne Street employed one of them, Kathleen Neil, 21.

Now, I wonder if the City School Boards were hiring English teachers...as they did in the 1960's.

Digression: My own sixth grade teacher was a Brit, just arrived.  Mrs. Bryant.

I remember she seemed strange to us Montrealer students, so old fashioned in her dress style. You see, she wore long, long skirts.  We assumed she was very very poor.

It was the maxi-skirt, a trend that hadn't reached us yet in 1967! We were the ones behind the times.



1919 Society for the Overseas Settlement of British Women was established. It was charitable, collecting money to pay the way for worthy young women.


School girls even got a 'sneak peek' visiting Canada and Australia early on.

But there was a financial motive too for these post-war organizations. Some British women who had to give up their jobs upon the return of the soldiers, were receiving unemployment benefits.


The problem was that many British men took advantage of the program, further depleting the stocks of potential life-mates in England. Not only that, but in Canada and Australia, there was no longer a surplus of men to marry, not in the Middle Class.

That was Edith Nicholson's Problem.

Read Not Bonne Over Here: the WWI letters of the Nicholson Family