Special Collections: Women's history

Women's History in Special Collections

Special Collections is home to a vast array of resources, many of which are of interest to researchers of women's history or feminism. They are outlined here.

Servants - inter-war years

There are many accounts of the lives of servants in the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography. Highlighted here are the lives of four women who all worked as servants between the two world wars.

  • Katherine Henderson (Burnett 2:384)
  • Grace Martin (Burnett 2:515)
  • Winifred Relph (2:657)
  • Lilian Westall (1:746)


Find out more about accessing the Burnett Archive


Women's History on the Special Collections blog

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Mary A.M. Rainer - child in wartime, witness to a Zeppelin raid, ANZAC troops

Typescript account of a child during wartime

"The men began to return to their homes, most of them unsung heroes as usual, suffering from all kinds of health troubles, most of them without prospect of work and long queues at the Labour Exchanges"

  • Education during wartime: outdated Victorian school buildings
  • Cultural traditions: Christmas family gathering, traditional music playing and singing. Absence of particular foods due to expense and rationing
  • Wartime fashions: gradual disappearance of long skirts from everyday wear due to increasing participation of women in public life and activities
  • Attitude of the public towards the declaration of war: overwhelming excitement, enlistment treated as an adventure
  • Attitude of the public towards non-serving eligible men: relative given a white feather despite being wounded in first weeks of war
  • Observed wartime incidents, including witnessing a Zeppelin crash (Potters Bar, 1916) and various air raids
  • Experience of arrival of colonial troops: influx of Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) troops (Salisbury, 1915) citing their kindness, sociability and gift-giving
  • Acitivities of the often older, non-serving men on the home-front: managing chicken and egg production, working in institutions such as hospitals. Woken by the "knocker-up" who patrolled houses at 6am tapping windows with a cane
  • Food shortages, particularly towards the end of the war. Scarce products included potatoes and fats. Children were sent to shops to buy whatever was permitted, then repeated the process after returning home from school and changing their clothes
  • Observance of the end of the war: most returning men were 'unsung heroes' with various health issues and few job prospects

Her autobiography is part of the Burnett Archive (2:644). Find out more about accessing this collection

Rare books & periodicals

The rare books and periodicals collection includes the Ladies Home Journal, documenting changing attitudes towards women. Our holdings cover the years 1940 to 1961.You can read more about the Ladies Home Journal on our blog.

Further information about accessing rare books and periodicals.

Nancy Day - village life in WWI

Born in 1912, her mother died when she was a baby so she (and five brothers and sisters) was raised by an aunt and uncle who already had five children of their own. She recounts memories of a rural childhood in the 1920s and the impact of WWI on her village.

Her autobiography is part of the Burnett Archive (2:220). Find out more about accessing this collection

Mabel Lethbridge - WWI munitions factory girl

A factory girl working during WWI. She volunteered to work in the Danger Zone filling shells, and the 'monkey' machine. She faced a major explosion and TNT poisoning. She was later awarded the OBE.

Her typescript account of her experience of munitions factory work, includes:

  • Working with TNT
  • Architectural structure of factory and grounds including security measures
  • General staff of the factory (including military guard)
  • Significant presence of working women (10,000 employed in total)
  • Camaraderie of factory life
  • Accounts of injury and death eg body parts crushed by machines. Author severely injured by shell explosion, causing blindness and leg injury.

Her autobiography is part of the Burnett Archive (part 4). Find out more about accessing this collection

Mary Denison - child in wartime

Typescript account with images of a child during wartime.

  • References to child wartime culture: 'Punch' magazine featured propaganda cartoons. Well known songs (eg Long way to Tipperary)
  • Experience of war: heard about war from adult conversations. Recounts memories of neighbours informing family of deaths of local soldiers
  • Experience of Belgian refugees in her village
  • Accounts of returning soldiers. Villagers cheer wounded soldiers residing in military hospital. Shell-shocked soldiers are treated as 'pathetic figures' and subject to laughter.
  • Changes in diet: certain types of food become scarce and others are substituted, eg margarine instead of butter
  • Radical shift in domestic service sector: maids left the vicarage to go to munitions factory work and shops. Women of the household forced into homemaking
  • Observations of the end of the war: jubilation, processions and flags

Her autobiography is part of the Burnett Archive (part 4). Find out more about accessing this collection



Eva Holland - farming life on the Home Front

Written in 1986-7, Eva was born in 1908. She reflects on her memories of World War Two, where her husband, Bert, worked in the home guard when  war broke out, watching for bombs whenever there was a raid.

"One night there was a lot dropped on Haughly and they lit the sky up"

Bert's work as a private gardener wasn't regarded as essential, so he went back to farming and he and Eva moved to live in a shared farmhouse with another family. She relates the struggles of adjusting to life in a country at war.

Her autobiography is part of the Burnett Archive (part 4). Find out more about accessing this collection

Transport History Collection

The Transport History Collection includes material from the Travellers' Aid Society, which assisted women travelling on their own.

Further information about the Transport History Collection.

Lorna Kite - Second World War nursing

Lorna Kite's autobiography traces her experience as a nurse during the Second World War. She qualified a year before war broke out, and initially worked as a theatre sister at Millbank Military Hospital before going to France and working in casualty clearing stations, then joining hospital ships and going to Egypt. She describes medical procedures, such as removing a live shell from a Prisoner of War's heart muscle and, in 1944, was a member of one of the first units to use penicillin.

Her autobiography is part of the Burnett Archive (part 4). Find out more about accessing this collection


Susan Frith - nurse and midwife

Susan Frith was a nurse and midwife whose career spanned thirty years, between 1912 and 1942. Her personal diary covers both of the World Wars and leads up to the foundation of the NHS. She went to people’s homes and stayed with them, assisting at the births of babies and caring for those with long term health conditions or who were terminally ill.

Her autobiography is part of the Burnett Archive (part 4). Find out more about accessing this collection.

Ellyse Finnie - life on the Home Front

Ellyse's typescript manuscript reflects on memories of World War One and gives an account of her experiences during World War Two.

"I wondered how it could be that the world was still going on"

When WWII broke out, she was living with her husband and children in Leicester. They later moved to Oswestry when her husband was stationed there with the RAF, and her son also went to war. 

She carried on with her life regardless of war, happy with her house as it was great for the kids and her husband was able to visit.

"We drew the blackout curtains to shut out both the weather and any menace from Hitler, and we sat round the table, happy, warm and thankful."‚Äč

She reflects on the joy of VE day, and refers to the war as a “rewarding and happy interlude.” She then moved back to Leicester, with happy memories of wartime Oswestry now with her.

Her autobiography is part of the Burnett Archive (part 4). Find out more about accessing this collection

Mary Turner - rationing

Mary Turner recounts her experiences of rationing, and how people used to help each other out by reporting when food had appeared in the shops.

this time of our lives make a lot of my generation still reluctant to be wasteful or to ditch something not wanted, and I think we tend to be careful though indulgent about food

During World War II she  worked as a civilian with the Manchester Police Force. Her account also provides frank descriptions of her family relations and married life.

Her autobiography is part of the Burnett Archive (2:777). Find out more about accessing this collection.

Neglected Voices

Neglected Voices documents the experience of disabled people, including several women. Based on interviews conducted by Allan Sutherland, who then composed related transcription  poetry.

Further information about Neglected Voices.