THE First World War changed almost everything for ordinary people across northern Europe and the other countries drawn into the conflict.
In Britain, the changes entered every corner of the country, from the tiniest village in south west England to the furthest north of Scotland. Factories were converted from peace-time production to munitions. A generation of young men was lost in the trenches and the battlefields, while their wives, mothers, sisters and girlfriends took on new responsibilities and jobs, in factories, mines and on the land.
At the end of the war, when the men came home, the women were expected to return to the kitchen – and for some that was not an acceptable choice .
In 1915 in Bourton, a little village on the Dorset’s northern border with Wiltshire and Somerset, ES Hindley & Sons’ Bourton Foundry was ordered to produce Mills Bombs (hand grenades), and to employ local women, while the male employees went off to the Front.
The story of the Bourton Women Engineers is told in On Them Our Lives Depend, written by Sue Ashby and Tony Benge, as part of the Bourton WWI project, and performed by the Bourton Players in the village hall.
There were two specific events which inspired the project – the first was the foundry story and the women who worked there, and the second the centenary of the breach in the bank of Gasper Lake, and the flood that ripped through Bourton, Pen Mill, Silton, Milton and down to Gillingham on the night of 29th June 1917.
The drama weaves in the true story of Private Will Candy, a serving soldier and Bourton native, who was sent to Gallipoli. But the action centres on the lives of five women – feisty Mary (Abbie Smith), who believes women should be paid the same as men for the same work, Jane Candy (Heather Ransley) preoccupied with her fears for her son, Annie Topps (Georgina Jones) who holds down two jobs as the Hindleys’ maid and at the foundry, little Evelyn (Becky Mann) whose bullying father expects her to do all the house and farmwork as well as her foundry work, and Ellen Fudge (Karen Tribe), the policeman’s wife, who juggles foundry work and home duties with a rebellious young son and a self-important husband.
Through these five different characters, the writers explore the ideas of women’s suffrage, pay, responsibilities and male attitudes. In the character of the uptight and deeply religious Miss Emily Hindley (Linda Curry), the play touches on conscientious objection, while Harold Hindley (Craig White) and his foreman Albert (Paul Curry) show the struggle that conservative men had with the new-found independence of the women.
On the tiny stage of the village hall, the writer-directors create the foundry, fields, the village policeman’s home, a riverbank and the church.
The play has live music, excellent maypole dancing, river sprites to capture the movement as the river turns into a raging torrent, and archive photos to capture the look of Bourton 100 years ago.
The capacity first night audience – some of whom were probably seeing the lives of their grandparents and great-grandparents on stage – were enthralled by the story.
Bourton Foundry – latterly Bourton Mill – is now being demolished to make way for new development, and this drama tells an important part of its story and of the history of the village in the early 20th century.
Pictured: Some of the Mills Bomb-makers at Bourton Foundry