Women on the Home Front

Women in Newfoundland and Labrador played an active role on the home front during the First World War. They made and shipped clothes, medical supplies and other goods to troops overseas, raised funds to support the war effort, visited relatives of soldiers fighting overseas, and worked in local hospitals to care for returned military personnel and other patients.

WPA members at Government House, ca. 1914-1916
The Women’s Patriotic Association (WPA) was at the forefront of a large civilian volunteer movement in Newfoundland and Labrador during the First World War.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL B-5-173), St. John’s, NL.
Larger Version with more information (69 kb).

Spearheading much of these efforts was the Women’s Patriotic Association (WPA), which mobilized thousands of women from virtually all classes and denominations across the country. The group also coordinated with the Red Cross, St. John Ambulance Association, and other organizations. While much of the WPA’s work remained in the traditionally female spheres of care giving, domestic work, and fundraising, the group’s prolific contributions to the war effort showed that women’s work was of great economic value and social significance.

Women’s Patriotic Association

Lady Margaret Davidson, wife of Newfoundland and Labrador Governor Sir Walter Davidson, formed the WPA in the summer of 1914 to provide for the social and physical welfare of troops serving overseas and their dependants at home. Approximately 700 women attended the group’s inaugural meeting in downtown St. John’s on 31 August 1914; in the coming weeks, dozens of branches formed in communities across the island. By the end of the war, the WPA’s membership exceeded 15,000 women working in more than 200 branches.

Lady Margaret Davidson, n.d.
Lady Margaret Davidson, wife of Newfoundland and Labrador Governor Sir Walter Davidson, formed the Women’s Patriotic Association (WPA) in the summer of 1914 to provide for the social and physical welfare of troops serving overseas and their dependants at home.
Image reproduced from The Distaff 1916, p. 2.
Larger Version (54 kb).
Lady Margaret Davidson, n.d.

Unlike other groups and charities operating in Newfoundland and Labrador at the time, the WPA’s volunteers came from virtually all classes and denominations across the country; they also lived in both rural and urban areas. In contrast were the group’s executive members, who belonged to middle and upper-class families. Although all women aged 16 or older could join the WPA, only the wife of the current governor could become its president. If the governor was unmarried, he would appoint a president. Branch presidents, meanwhile, were typically school teachers or the wives of doctors, merchants, ministers, and other prominent figures.

When the WPA formed, its primary role was to provide Newfoundland and Labrador soldiers with necessities and comforts from home. To this end, volunteers spent much time and energy knitting socks, cuffs (a mitten with a free index finger), scarves, and other woolens, or sewing flannel shirts, pajamas, and other clothes for shipment overseas. Their work was prolific; by 1916 the association had produced 62,685 pairs of socks, 8,984 shirts, 6,080 pairs of gloves, and 2,422 scarves.

All finished goods passed through WPA headquarters at St. John’s before reaching the front lines. After inspectors ensured the garments passed the War Office’s standards for quality, volunteers counted, catalogued, and packed every item into crates for shipment to London. Once there, the War Office distributed goods among members of the Newfoundland Regiment; it also gave any surplus supplies to various British forces. To help defray the cost of shipping such large quantities of goods overseas, the Newfoundland and Labrador government paid for any postage, while local shipping companies, like the Reid Newfoundland Company and Furness, Withey and Company, transported goods for free.

For Newfoundland and Labrador soldiers fighting on the front lines, WPA supplies were a welcome taste of home in a hostile environment. Many men wrote letters thanking volunteers for their work. “The Newfoundland sock,” wrote Private Frank Lind from his posting in France on 22 April 1916, “is the best in the world and it is prized by every soldier. How many times at the peninsula and before we ever saw Egypt have regiment soldiers asked if we had a pair of Newfoundland socks to give or sell them?”

Other Roles

Besides providing comforts for troops overseas, the WPA engaged in a variety of other activities. Volunteers with the WPA’s Visiting Committee, for example, maintained regular contact with families of servicemen fighting overseas, while its Reception Branch welcomed any troops arriving on the island. On 19 June 1916, the WPA and Newfoundland Patriotic Association opened the Soldiers and Sailors Club in downtown St. John’s to entertain returning and departing troops. Two years later, the WPA established another military club at St. John’s known as the Caribou Hut.

The association also gained much recognition for its many fundraising efforts during the war. Volunteers sold WPA calendars, Christmas stamps, flowers, and other goods; the group sponsored various concerts, hockey games, and other events; and passersby could drop donations into the numerous WPA boxes located throughout St. John’s. By the end of the war, the WPA had collected more than $500,000 – worth about $6.5 million today. While most donations went towards the war effort, the association also supported victims of the 1917 Halifax Explosion and established the Belgian Refugee Fund and the Alliance Francaise Belgian Fund to aid Belgian and French refugees.

Red Cross and Social Work

The WPA was also heavily involved in the promotion of health-care services throughout the war. Volunteers with the association’s many Red Cross branches made bandages, surgical dressings, swabs, and other medical supplies for shipment overseas. Eventually, the group expanded its mandate to include the production of pajamas, cardigans, pillows, and other hospital comforts. Volunteers across the country had produced more than 250,000 medical supplies by 1916.

The Red Cross branches also sent money and equipment to European hospitals to help outfit medical wards there. The WPA Cot Fund, for example, helped provide beds for war hospitals in the United Kingdom and France. Veteran Private Philip Jensen, who returned to Newfoundland after suffering wounds at the battle of Ypres, helped raise more than $4,000 for both the Cot Fund and the WPA Red Cross Branch by travelling around the island telling war stories.

The Red Cross Branch used some of this money to open Jensen Camp, a 17-bed hospital in St. John’s that treated servicemen suffering from tuberculosis. In 1917, the WPA also opened a Naval and Military Convalescent Hospital at Waterford Hall in St. John’s; during the three years of its existence, the hospital treated more than 350 men.

Wartime Nurses

Many women in Newfoundland and Labrador volunteered as nurses during the First World War to treat returning soldiers and ill civilians. While the WPA encouraged single women to serve as nurses overseas, it asked married women and retired nurses to volunteer at local hospitals for at least half a day, seven days a week. The group suggested that women who lacked nursing experience could take classes with the St. John Ambulance Association.

Wartime nurses in Newfoundland and Labrador worked in a variety of hospitals, most of which were overcrowded with civilian and military patients. These included the General Hospital, the Donovan’s Military Hospital, which treated victims of the 1916 measles epidemic, and the Military Infectious Diseases Hospital.

Some women also became members of the paid labour force during the war, but they were of much smaller numbers than those who joined the WPA or became wartime nurses. Although a temporary rise occurred in the number of female workers at offices and some factories, virtually no women became waterfront labourers or joined other traditionally male occupations.

War’s End

By the end of the war, many women had witnessed great suffering and hardship. Their contributions to the war effort demonstrated that their traditional work in the domestic sphere – such as knitting and care giving – had tremendous economic and social value on the public stage. Many women who assumed leadership roles in the WPA later participated in the Women’s Franchise League – an organization that was instrumental in winning women the right to vote in 1925.

Following the war, the WPA focused its energies on child and maternal health care. Its efforts resulted, among other things, in the formation of the Child Welfare Committee, which provided free milk to all infants and helped lower the national child death rate. Although depleted funds forced the WPA to dissolve in 1921, the group re-emerged in 1939 to coordinate volunteer work during the Second World War.

Article by Jenny Higgins with additional research from Luke Callanan. ©2007, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.

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