Thursday, March 8, 2012

Celebrating International Women's Day: Miss Elizabeth Brooks, a Woman of the Home Guard

Today is International Women’s Day, so I thought both an object of the week and a celebration of a young woman, who was one of the first women recruited into the Home Guard during the Second World War would be something well connected to blog about. It is not really widely known, but women were accepted as members of the Home Guard. 

Elizabeth Brooks Home Guard badge from c.1942 - 1945, made from bakelite by A Stanley and Sons, Walsall, BEDFM 2009.14.1
This Home Guard badge belonged to Miss Elizabeth Brooks and was given to the collection by her sister, Dorothy in her memory. Elizabeth was born on 31st December 1923 in South Yorkshire. In 1936, during the depression years, her father acquired work at London Brick Company, Stewartby. At that time it entitled him to a house in the growing village of Stewartby, then a new development for families of workers at the London Brick Works.
Metal and enamel Home Guard badge issued in the early part of the war, before metal became economised,
 BEDFM 2003.350

Elizabeth continued her education at Bedford Modern School for Girls and was still a pupil there when war started in 1939. When she left school in 1940, she worked for in the office of Bedford County Council’s Highways Department. While working there she volunteered to assist with Civil Defence duties and received training for Air Raid Precautions being able to act in “Report and Communication Measures”, her Certificate was issued in November 1940.

Elizabeth's ARP Certificate awarded to her in November 1940
We do not know exactly when Elizabeth applied to become a member officially of the Home Guard, but it is likely to have been during 1942. The Home Guard was formed to resist an enemy invasion and, in line with government and military policy, women were not allowed in 'front-line' or 'combat' units. Initially it was felt that there were enough voluntary organisations that women could join, including the Womens' Voluntary Service and Civil Defence and so they were not officially admitted into the Home Guard. Even though they were not technically allowed to do so, some units decided to allow women to do administrative or other 'non-combat' duties within their unit. Then later in 1942 it was agreed that if needed women could be taken on to do administrative and non-combatant duties within their unit, but were know as Woman Home Guard Auxiliaries. They were issued with a Home Guard badge with the initials HG. By 1942, due to economies required in the use of metal these badges were made of bakelite, an early plastic to save on materials. This particular badge was made by A Stanley and Sons, Walsall.

Back of Elizabeth's badge, showing manufacturers name.
 Women were conscripted for wartime work from 1941 onwards between the ages of 20 and 30. When Elizabeth reached calling up age in 1943 she failed on health grounds for acceptance into the forces, but was instead seconded into working for the Post Office telephones (now BT) in the Bedford Telephone Exchange doing repair work and setting lines up, but not outside work. Elizabeth remembered there was one line that had to be kept open whatever might happen and thought that perhaps it was a secret line for Churchill and his cabinet to safely getaway from London, but as it transpired, she later realised it was to the Bletchley Park decoding Centre. She continued her role as a member of the Home Guard until the end of the Second World War.

Letter thanking Elizabeth Brooks for her service in the Home Guard
We have a letter sent from Elizabeth’s Commanding Officer (signature unfortunately illegible) in the “E” Company, 5th Bedfordshire Battalion. He thanks her for her contribution and far from being a standard response, comments; “I cannot help feeling proud that we were the First Unit to introduce women to the Home Guard, and that later this procedure was adopted universally. Please accept my thanks for the very real work you did, and for the splendid way you gave up your spare time.”

Woman Home Guard Auxiliary Certificate
Certainly there were many women, with whom the Country relied upon during the Second World War to keep the nation running, whilst such large numbers of men were at the front. It did help women become more independent and prove, both to themselves and others, that they were just as capable as the men in fulfilling roles in the work place, which eventually led to a fight for equality. Allowing women into the Home Guard, even though regarded as a separate department, was one small step toward a more equal society for women.

Lydia Saul
Keeper of Social History

Thanks to Dorothy Brooks for donating her sister's badge and correspondence.

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