Parliament & World War I

In partnership with the Parliamentary Archives alongside their current exhibition on Parliament and the First World War, we recently held events in Parliament exploring the institution during the war years…

Parliament and the First World War exhibition, Westminster Hall

The Parliamentary Archives exhibition on Parliament and the First World War, still open in Westminster Hall, proved an excellent opportunity for us to gather together historians and discuss the impact of the First World War on Parliament.

Firstly, Dr Mari Takayanagi (Vote 100) spoke on ‘The Girl Porters and the Court Twins: Women Staff in Parliament in the First World War.’ Dr Takayanagi’s research had uncovered several women who had, because of the shortage of labour, had the opportunity to work in occupations within Parliament that had previously been closed to them because of their gender. She spoke of two examples: firstly the ‘girl porters’ who took messages around the estate, of which four – Elsie and Mabel Clark, Vera Goldsmith and Dorothy Hart – were employed between April 1917 and May 1919. Secondly, the women who joined the House of Lords accountancy department; one (May Court) eventually became head of the Accounts and Copying department in the Lords. Despite the difference in status in these positions they did share common experiences: firstly, the women involved appeared to get the job through family links, sometimes because their direct relations had left to fight in the war; and secondly, they were employed with great reluctance by parliament but proved themselves to their bosses, either keeping their positions after the war or earning excellent references.

Dr Kathryn Rix at Parliament’s WWI memorial

Secondly, our own Dr Kathryn Rix gave an overview of MPs who died fighting in the First World War, drawn from her excellent and very popular series on this blog. She noted that 40% of MPs served in some form during the First World War on many fronts, at home and abroad. Those who died were from across the political spectrum. In her talk she highlighted the youngest MP to die, Charles Thomas Mills at 28, and the oldest, Willie Redmond, brother of Irish nationalist leader John. She discussed two MP brothers to die – Harold Cawley at Gallipoli and his brother Oswald in 1918. Their father, Sir Frederick Cawley (1850-1937) who was also Liberal MP for Prestwich, sat on the Dardanelles commission. Dr Rix finished by focussing on Francis McLaren. McLaren was a close friend of Josiah Wedgwood, the founder of the History of Parliament and subject of a later talk, as well as the early wartime Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. You can read all of Dr Rix’s series about the MPs who died fighting in the First World War to date here.

Thirdly, Chloe Bowerbank spoke on her thesis research: ‘No Treating: the state management of public houses during world war one’. She described how, under the auspices of the Defence of the Realm Act [DORA], the government took a much greater interest in the drinking habits of the workforce and particularly the management of pubs. Whilst across the country this led to changes in opening hours and bans on buying rounds, in certain areas the government simply took over the pubs themselves. She focused on the largest area – Carlisle – where industrial workers from the town and its surroundings were known to indulge at the end of the day: 4-500 glasses of whisky were waiting in certain pubs at the end of shifts! Bowerbank discussed the motivations for this policy, which ranged from the practical (an attempt to increase production), moral (the Liberal agenda to reduce drinking) and financial (the pubs were extremely profitable, and they remained in public ownership until the 1970s). This was one of the lesser-known legacies of DORA.

Finally, our own Priscilla Baines discussed the History of Parliament’s founder, Josiah Wedgwood, and his ‘memorial for fallen parliamentarians’. A campaigning Liberal, and then Labour MP, Wedgwood had previous military experience in the Boer war and volunteered in 1914. He returned to Parliament at the end of 1916, and after the war he embarked on a dictionary of parliamentary biography that was to become the History of Parliament. This was, in his words, in part to record ‘how well parliament shone’ during the war years. Wedgwood invited members of the wartime parliament to respond to a questionnaire about their political experiences, and pestered the war office to gather the service records of all MPs who fought. However, these records contained little information about the war, and Baines concluded most of Wedgwood’s draft biographies that included war service must have been constructed from other sources. You can read more about Wedgwood’s questionnaires in these blogs written by Baines and of course see the ongoing results of Wedgwood’s project over on our website!


We hope a recording will be available on the parliamentary website shortly. If it is so we will add it here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s