Diaries reveal one Gateshead woman's First World War experiences

Gateshead's Little Theatre founder Ruth Dodds wrote of life working in a Tyneside munitions factory during the First World War

Gateshead Libraries Ruth Dodds, forground, at the opening of Redheugh library in Gateshead
Ruth Dodds, forground, at the opening of Redheugh library in Gateshead

The 1943 propaganda film Millions Like Us features a young upper middle class woman assigned to a job in an aircraft factory and having to adjust to a new working class world and some rough and ready characters.

The message for Second World War audiences – which shows it’s nothing new – was that we are all in this together

During the First World War on Tyneside, the experiences of Ruth Dodds foreshadowed the later film plot.

Coincidentally, in 1943, it was author and playwright Ruth with her sisters Hope and Sylvia who founded the Little Theatre in Gateshead. It was the only theatre to open in Britain during the Second World War.

The sisters were the daughters of businessman and amateur historian Edwin Dodds.

Ruth attended Gateshead High School for Girls up to the age of 15, after which she was a boarding pupil at Clapham High School, London.

Eventually, she returned to live with her family at Home House in Kells Lane in Low Fell in Gateshead.

Ruth enjoyed writing fairy tales but, with her sister Hope, she also wrote a definitive church history titled The Pilgrimage of Grace, 1536-1537.

This historical account of the risings against Henry VIII was published in 1915, during the war years, when Ruth found herself as one of thousands of North East women who worked long shifts in the region’s munitions factories.

In her diaries she records observations on her working life at Armstrong’s armaments factory in Newcastle, and also her feelings about the war.

The 29 diaries and two notebooks, which also contain her poetry and stories, were placed with Tyne Wear Archives 10 years ago, covering the years from 1905-74, with a gap from 1932-37.

They came to the attention of Newcastle musician and composer Phil Begg, one of seven artists who have drawn inspiration from the collections of Tyne Wear Archives and Museums (TWAM) to produce audio-visual works based on the war and its impact on people in the area.

The result is Decoded 1914-18, a joint venture of art installations between TWAM and Newcastle University Institute for Creative Arts Practice, which run at venues in Newcastle and Gateshead until February 28.

Phil Begg has created a sound installation of music and the spoken word, based on Ruth’s diaries and other writing, using one of her lines – Shiver the Flowers Like Fear – as the title.

“It’s a really beautiful line from one of her poems,” says Phil.

“After I signed up for the project, I looked through a lot of material in the archives, and the diaries jumped out.

“I wanted to home in on individual experiences and her accounts are beautifully written.

“She wasn’t unpatriotic, but she is constantly questioning things, such as the anti-German sentiment towards Germans who had been living in England and those of German descent.”

Archivist Alan Hayward says: “The Ruth Dodds material is a fascinating insight into a remarkable woman.

“She clearly thinks for herself and she feels the same for German families who have lost men as British families who have lost soldiers.

“There is something of the pacifist in her yet she is helping to make shells at Armstrong’s factory which will kill people and, in the diaries, she is working out how she can justify this.

“I think working at Armstrong’s was an eye-opener and an education for her, and made a big impression. But she coped with the work and carried on with it.”

In her diary, Ruth writes: “I hate war and I hate killing and yet I am right to make munitions. I thought once that I could not, but since then I have changed my mind. And our men write saying that every shell helps to save their lives.

“I admire the German women who are working day and night for their men, and shall I not imitate what I admire? I cannot stop the war by holding back, but I and my like may shorten this war by working.

“And I cannot escape blood-guiltiness by sitting at home idle. Thank goodness I have no time for thinking these things when I am actually at work.”

Ruth was secretary of the Gateshead branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and, during the First World War, she also worked for the Soldiers and Sailors Families’ Association.

There is now a commemorative blue plaque on the wall of Home House to the sisters, who put up the money to buy the Little Theatre site and construct the building.

The sisters were members of the Progressive Players company, formed by Gateshead Independent Labour Party Amateur Dramatic Club, and they took an active part in the production of plays. Ruth had adapted a version of Thomas Wilson’s The Pitman’s Pay about Thomas Hepburn, the miners’ union pioneer, which successfully toured the North East during the 1920s.

Ruth, who with sister Hope had joined the Newcastle Quakers, became a prominent Labour politician in Gateshead during the 1930s and was present at the opening of both the Redheugh and Sunderland Road libraries.

In 1925, she took over as editor of the monthly newspaper, Gateshead Labour News, and in 1929 she was elected as a Labour councillor .

In 1966, Ruth became the first woman to be made a Freeman of Gateshead. She died in 1976.

Phil Begg’s installation is at Shipley Art Gallery Lounge, Gateshead from today until February 28.

The diaries are also an influence on actress and writer Tracy Gillman’s installation The Handmaidens of Death, based on munitions workers, at Tyne Wear Archives from Friday until February 23.

Entries from Ruth Dodds’s diaries:

Aug 5th, 1914

So war is actually declared against Germany. I am so glad Father keeps urging us not to show panic & be frightened; or alter our plans…

Father went to Durham today in a carriage full of the 8th Durham Territorials. Pit hinnies all who have never obeyed any man’s order, rowdy lads, with the pitman’s low-legged slouch to serve for marching, strong & short & ignorant but all in the highest spirits.

Father can’t think how the pitmen are ever to be drilled into shape.”

On working in Armstrong’s armaments factory:

When I was at work in shop 40 on Saturday last this commonplace, vulgar music-hall like song came into my head & I nearly wept over it.

On Sunday when I thought of it I felt too much ashamed to write it down. But today I got a book of poetry out of the Lit & Phil & the preface is all about writing poetry out of emotions roused by the things you are really in touch with & see & feel every day, even if they are of necessity in vulgar language. So I wrote it down after all.

Nov 6, 1915:

I had a good day at Armstrong’s yesterday & did 108 fuses.

It’s a curious thing I can’t pray so much now. I should like to pray for victory, but somehow it seems a contradiction to expect God to interfere in a war. God is God of all the world, & how can he fight for Germany or England?

The Holmes’s are taking in a Belgian baby. I cant help thinking that we ought to. Of course it would be horrid if it was a nasty child, but if one got it small enough that would hardly show.

I’m proud of our war motto “Business as usual”. It is worthy of a nation of shopkeepers; that is a finer thing to be than a nation of soldiers.

Nov 28th, 1915:

We had rather a nice time at Armstrong’s last night & I made great friends with Billy the foreman. He saw the first girls taken on over 16 years ago, & saw them all sent away after the south African war. “So I know all their ways,“ he said. “I’ve had some experience of women – I’ve studied them.”

“I wonder what the result is?”, I asked

“The result is I got married“, he said triumphantly

How I hate the times with no sympathy for any but the well-to-do! Men are so apt to be like that: to think that if you’re comfortable you’re worthy, & the poorer you are the worse you must be.

And no relief is to be given to women who are found to drink! What about their children? And would I (for one) drink if I lived in one of those holes? I should think so! “

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