Families: Women and Children

Between 1914 and 1918, almost 6 million men joined the British Army. 4,006,158 were recruited from England, 557,618 were recruited from Scotland, 272,924 were recruited from Wales and Monmouth and 134,202 were recruited from Ireland. Women and children remained at home, but their lives were far from normal.

Miss Vera Marks – Brighton Graphic 29th July 1915 (Copyright Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove)


Pre-war, women were reduced to simply wives and mothers. Men were the breadwinners, with women caring for the house and children. In her book Singled Out, author Virginia Nicholson writes that, at the start of the twentieth century, less than 30% of women had jobs. Those who did work were generally low paid, temporary and low status. 90% of these women gave up their work upon marriage. 

Financial situations for many households changed as men left their jobs to join the military. Most men served as Private soldiers, who earned around 1 shilling and 1 pence per day. For many families, this marked a reduction in income. 

With men serving in the military, there were plenty of jobs which became open to women. Work provided an income for women, alongside a sense of greater independence which fueled the Suffragette movement.

The Borough Minute Books record life in Hove during the war. They report that in the absence of men to complete tasks in the city, women undertook labour work in their place throughout the municipal departments. Women working in Hove Cemetery earned four pence per hour, which was increased to five pence per hour in March 1918. The duties they performed included cutting the grass and cleaning the walks.

Though it is unclear how many hours the women would work, this money was helpful in topping up the household income. For many, they felt well paid in these roles, especially in comparison to those who had previously been in domestic service.

Richer families, such as the Messels, began to experience problems recruiting servants. Their household at Nymans near Haywards Heath in West Sussex relied on sixteen servants, but by 1915, Maud Messel was turning to the local children’s home to find maids.

These roles were always referred to as ‘temporary’ rather than permanent roles. In some instances where men returned from their service, women were promptly dismissed. The Borough Minute Book reports two gentlemen from the Rates Department returning from their military service, and that subsequently, the two women who had been fulfilling the duties during the war were dismissed with one month’s notice.

The Borough Minute Books also record women auxiliaries being employed to assist the Police. Women were also employed as nurses, munition factory workers and farm workers as part of the Women’s Land Army. 

Virginia Nicholson highlights that nearly a million extra women were in employment by 1918. By autumn 1919 after the war had ended, three quarters of a million of those women were let go from these roles. Those who remained in work were seen to be taking ‘men’s jobs’ and were referred to as ‘bloodsuckers and limpets.’ The independence and income from work for most women was therefore short lived, but a necessity during the wartime years.

Regarding Jewish women in work in Sussex at that time, we have a limited amount of evidence of women taking up professions during the war. Florence Oppenheimer became a nurse and continued to be registered after her marriage. Muriel Messel and Eva Mond were also involved in nursing. Hertha Ayrton was an engineer.  There was a munitions factory in Brighton which employed women workers, other people may have joined the Women’s Land Army, WAAC or made ‘comforts’ for the troops.

Florence Oppenheimer as a nurse on board a nursing ship – Copyright Jewish Museum

While an additional income was incredibly useful for women managing their households, acquiring food was no easy task in itself. In 1918, ration cards were issued and everyone had to register with a local butcher and grocer. This impacted Jewish communities who required kosher meat supplies. Archived documents in The Keep, Brighton show that kosher meat was also supplied by non-kosher butchers at 36 Lewes Road and 20 Bond Street in Brighton. [Pikes Brighton Directory 1914, p1068, SB 9P64, ESRO, The Keep, Brighton].

This was the butcher W B Spikins Ltd. The minutes of the Brighton Hebrew Congregation (BHC) show that the minister, Rev Lieberman was empowered to appear before ‘the local tribunal on behalf of the manager of the Jewish butcher shop’ (Fig 1).

Fig 1. Appearance before tribunal
Minutes of the Brighton Hebrew Congregation (BHC)

This may suggest that the Rev Lieberman was supporting the manager’s request not to be conscripted. It may also be relevant that it was the butcher’s wife, Mrs Spikins who later wrote to the BHC committee to explain that the price of kosher meat was going up as the price of meat in general was going up and that she would endeavour to continue to serve the Jewish community. By 1917, enquiries were made to hand the business over to a Jewish butcher, Mr Saloman.

1917 and 1918 were the worst years of the war on a domestic front, when rationing was introduced.  Local historian Judy Middleton provides info on rationing in Brighton as does Douglas D’Enno in his book Brighton in the Great War who says there was a strike by railway workers over food during this time.  Allowance was made for 1000 orthodox Jews so that they could eat properly.  One of Reuben Sassoon’s servants was at a meeting about rationing, possibly Ernest Waibel (Middleton).

In 1918, the Brighton and Hove Meat Advisory Committee was formed. This committee met weekly to arrange the required amount of meat, which was then sold on to individual butchers based on the number of customers registered there. This system was unique to Brighton and Hove, and was done to prevent profiteering. 

Certain diets were considered by the Brighton and Hove Meat Advisory Committee. In her book Hove and Portslade in the Great War, historian Judy Middleton notes the committee made special considerations for ‘1,800 Orthodox Jews, 1,000 invalids and 200 vegetarians.’

The war placed a large emotional toll on women, fearing for the lives of their husbands, children, relatives and friends, as well as juggling domestic duties and work. In larger families, mothers could have multiple sons at war. This was the case in the Crook family in Brighton, where three sons were serving. What was the effect on a mother of having two or three sons at war?  This was the case for the mothers of the following families we’ve researched: Barnato’s (2), Leonard Woolf (2), Arthur Marks (2), Solomon Crook (3). What was it like to lose one son while another lived as in the case of both the Barnato & Marks families.

Letters from soldiers were censored, creating uncertainty around the reality of war. Correspondence to The Times complained that news of the war was censored so that relatives didn’t know about a battle until long after it had happened. Jacob de Meza was reported as missing in action before being confirmed as killed.

How were they supported

We have evidence of widows and families (in the case of Mrs Cansino as late as 1922), writing to War Office for accessing the medals, effects, outstanding salary & pensions of her lost husband Joshua.

War pensions would be supplemented for having children but were partially or totally lost if a woman remarried.  Some said they were anyway insufficient to live on. Jewish Alderman of Hove, Barnett Marks was on the local War pensions Committee.


The war was a highly unstable time to grow up during. Leave for soldiers was often only once a year for three days, meaning children had little interaction with their fathers. Some children grew up without knowing their fathers except through photographs. This could prove difficult in the post-war period, as some children did not accept their father upon return. 

Some young children never got to meet their fathers. Joshua Haim Cansino was killed on June 2nd 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. It is reported he died while trying to save a wounded officer. Five months after Joshua’s death, his wife Beryl gave birth to their daughter Jocelyn. 

The experiences of children during the war are not extensively documented. Our research did source documents created by children during this period. Doris and Alice Engelbert were born and raised in London, where they attended the Liberal Jewish Synagogue. Here, they created artwork which gives an insight into the thoughts and feelings of children during the war.

‘Judgement Day’ by Alice Engelbert. Source www.jewsfww.uk

Like many other families, Doris and Alice moved home to flee to escape the bombings from Zeppelin raids in London. Doris and Alice moved with their brother and parents to Bexhill in Sussex. 

Letter from a child sent to live in Bognor because of German Zeppelin raids on London part 1 © Jewish Museum London
Letter from a child sent to live in Bognor because of German Zeppelin raids on London part 2 © Jewish Museum London


In her book Singled Out, Virginia Nicholson outlines that 700,000 British men died, leaving 500,000 widows and 750,000 children. The country mourned in a way which had never been seen before.

Repatriation was banned, meaning the bodies of soldiers remained wherever they died rather than being returned home, which was a costly process. As many were unable to travel to visit the grave of their loved ones, local and national memorials were erected across the country. These sites became a focus for commemorative activities, creating traditions such as annual ceremonies which continue to take place today.

The soldiers who did return from the war were often permanently impacted by their service. Soldiers returned wounded, with physical disabilities. It is estimated that around 41,000 British Soldiers became amputees. Exposure to gas in the trenches created lung conditions for many. 

Scars were both physical and mental for soldiers, who were traumatised by their experiences and what they had witnessed. This trauma was expressed in multiple ways. Some men turned distant and remained frightened, while others expressed their trauma through violence and abuse. This mental impact of the war was referred to using terms such as shell shock, combat fatigue or war neurosis, though today we would refer to it as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

At this time, several of the Jewish women researched for the Shalom Sussex project were actively lobbying for suffrage and higher education despite immense barriers to university education and the professions (Hertha Ayrton, and Edith Zangwill).  Edith Zangwill was politically active as a suffragist and also as a Zionist, as was Mrs Cansino who became involved with the Conservative party).

Undoubtedly, the First World War transformed traditional family life and impacted those involved in ways we can never imagine.