War Widows and the Unknown Warrior: 11th November 1920

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon, The Times, September 1914

No recipe today I’m afraid. Instead let’s talk about a tomb in Westminster Abbey that holds the body of a man with no known identity. Carved on the grave are the words:

“Beneath this stone rests the body
Of a British warrior
Unknown by name or rank
Brought from France to lie among
The most illustrious of the land…”

Tomb to the Unknown Warrior – a fallen WW1 soldier – was the idea of Rev. David Railton. Whilst serving as Army Chaplain on the Western Front, he noticed a grave marked with a rough cross on which a pencilled note “An Unknown Soldier of the Black Watch” was written. Using this experience, and taking inspiration from a similar idea that had been proposed in France in late 1916, he suggested that in order to commemorate the thousands who died across the British Empire, an unidentified deceased British soldier should be picked from a battlefield and buried “amongst the kings”. His idea was strongly supported by Prime Minister David Lloyd George and preparations took place.

On 11th November 1920, the casket containing the body of the soldier – picked at random from a selection of 4 possible men from a range of battlefields – was placed on a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery and made its way through vast and silent crowds lining the streets of Westminster.

At this time of year, every year, I think back to what it must have been like to stand inside Westminster Abbey 100 years ago and watch the grave finally being capped with its black marble stone. I wonder what it must have been like for the servicemen who stood guard – most of whom had also fought in the war that claimed the life of the Unknown Warrior only a few years ago. I wonder what it was like for children who were too young to remember World War One and yet still had their entire childhoods shaped by the collective memory and trauma of it.

But mostly I wonder what it was like for the women. Specifically the wives and mothers who were left behind by a war that took everything from them and – it must have seemed by the end – gave precious little back.

The price of victory?

Sure, talk of triumph, freedom and liberty was all well and good for politicians and historians with distance from the fighting, but for the real people who had to experience the horror of reading the words ‘Regret To Inform You…’, of telling children their fathers wouldn’t be returning home, of folding and putting away clothes that would never be worn again…? Well, I can’t stop thinking about those people.

Perhaps it’s because it’s 100 years to the day that the Unknown Warrior was interred in his tomb, or maybe I’m just getting softer as I get older, but the thought of all those lives shattered into pieces – physically and emotionally – seems especially poignant this year. Because as well as the king and politicians and sombre crowd, the casket was also flanked by approximately 100 guests of honour: women who had suffered the heartbreaking experience of losing their husbands and all their sons in the war – “every woman so bereft, who applied for a place got it“. What must have been going through their heads as they watched the final journey of this casket, which represented so much to so many?

It’s important to note that it’s easy to get overly sentimental here. Interviews with widows, children and mothers, diary extracts and articles all show a deep sense of loss and desperation, but the grief of these women is not my grief; their loss was not my loss. We can’t imagine what emotions they felt at the time, nor imagine that they all experienced the same ones. All we can do is look at the records that history has left us and try to piece together what the short term reality for some may have been.

The life of a war widow.

Most women of the early 20th century, including many among the 100 at the interment of the Unknown Warrior, relied on their husbands to provide an income for the family. When the men went to war, many women began work in the factories and fields to fill the workplace spaces left behind. The number of women in the Civil Service rose from 33,000 in 1911, to 102,000 by 1921, though women’s wages were, on average, half those of their male counterparts.

When the war ended and the men returned back to work many women had to return home to a life of domesticity again. This was fine (except not really) if you had a returning husband who could pull in his pre-war wages, but if you’d lost your main earner and the job you’d been doing for the past 4 years was given back to a man, what were you supposed to do? Many widows had to continue to work, but for some – especially women with young children – that was impossible.

Fights broke out among employed women – some of whom were widowed – over who should be allowed to keep the jobs that were left. In October 1919, Isobel M Pazzey wrote in the Daily Herald: “No decent man would allow his wife to work, and no decent woman would do it if she knew the harm she was doing to the widows and single girls who are looking for work… Put the married women out, send them home to clean their houses and look after the man they married and give a mother’s care to their children. Give the single women and widows the work.” I imagine she wasn’t someone you’d spend too much time chatting with at the water cooler.

Charity…of a sort.

In 1916, Kitty Eckersley‘s husband Percy was killed in the Battle of the Somme. She was seven months pregnant at the time. “I felt I didn’t want to live. I had no wish to live at all because the world had come to an end for me. I had lost all that I loved.”

Women like Kitty were entitled to a state-funded pension and a dependents’ allowance, which helped support children under the age of 16. Charities like the British Legion also helped with further support for families that were really struggling following the wartime death of the man of the house. Pensions for widows were a relatively new concept, first used during the Boer War of 1881, and their use was ramped up during WW1.

There were caveats to the pensions, though. Women who married ex-soldiers who had been discharged and then died afterwards from wounds weren’t entitled to anything. In around 1920, Ellen Bambrough wrote to the government asking for support following her husband’s death the year before. Her husband had served in the war and had left her with two children to raise. The government, however, initially responded that his death was “not attributable” to the war – he had been struck down by the influenza epidemic of 1919 – and that therefore Ellen was not entitled to any financial support.

Similarly, women could have their pension withdrawn if it was felt they weren’t living morally – for example if they were regularly drunk, had an illegitimate child or dared to live out of wedlock with another man following the death of their husband. Neighbours could report widows to local authorities who had to the power to turn up, unannounced, at a woman’s house to investigate accusations of immorality.

In 1915, 25 year old Mabel Beadsworth‘s husband was killed in action, leaving her with two children under 5. Following the birth of an illegitimate child in 1916, her pension was stopped. After her boyfriend left her destitute in 1930, Mabel ended up in a workhouse. Desperate, she petitioned the government to reinstate her pension and her case was reopened (unsuccessfully), with much probing of her private life and public discussion of her “immorality” and “misconduct.” Reports from witnesses described her as a “disgrace to the name of woman” (that particular witness was her charming mother-in-law, by the way.)

The examples above highlight that post war widowhood wasn’t just a box to be ticked on official forms. In echoes of the Victorian notion of the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’, the status ‘widow’ was a tool by which the government could monitor and control women who were no longer under the control of men.

“Is the modern woman a hussy?”

In 1917 Rosamund Essex’s teacher told her female students: “I have come to tell you a terrible fact. Only one out of ten of you girls can ever hope to marry. This is not a guess of mine. It is a statistical fact. Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed. You will have to make your way in the world as best you can. The war has made more openings for women than there were before. But there will still be a lot of prejudice. You will have to fight. You will have to struggle.

Rosamund’s teacher might have been exaggerating a bit, but her point still stood. Fewer men meant fewer marriages and fewer marriages meant that more women would have to fend for themselves in later life. For some this was a good thing, a chance for women to take control of their own lives. For others it signalled the end of society.

By the end of the war there was, if anything, a preoccupation among some conservative thinkers that some women might be moving on a little too fast. The word “flapper” began to be used to describe young women of the 1920’s who drank, danced and generally had fun with or without a husband.

In fact, some people at the time were worried that women were enjoying life without men so much so that in 1919 the Illustrated Sunday Herald ran the headline “Is the Modern Woman a Hussy?”

“Yes!” came the response from Dr. R. Murray-Leslie. Or at least it probably did, going by a lecture he delivered in 1920 criticising “the social butterfly type… the frivolous, scantily-clad, jazzing flapper, irresponsible and undisciplined, to whom a dance, a new hat, or a man with a car, were of more importance than the fate of nations.” I don’t know about you but it sounds to me like he’d just been stood up and was feeling pretty bitter about it all.

Admittedly, most of the accusations of frivolity and “loose morals” were aimed at younger women – though widows of any age who didn’t conform to social mourning expectations of the time were also accused of getting over their husbands a little too quickly. There was a real fear among conservative thinkers of the time that the huge numbers of men who had died in WW1 meant that young women, who previously would have married and had children, would now be allowed to run wild.

Final thoughts.

It’s obvious that only thinking about women who experienced the loss of their husbands in WW1 through a lens of permanent bereavement is dangerous, even if it does fit neatly into a patriotic package of remembrance. For many women who had experienced it, widowhood was a defining feature of their post-war lives and many never fully recovered from the trauma of their earlier loss. However, failing to think of the lives of widows beyond their widowhood threatens to romanticise women’s grief and labels them entirely in relation to the men they lost, even if they then went on to remarry. As seen, the process of applying for a widow’s pension was anything but romantic and women had to fight hard to acquire what was legally theirs.

WW1 heralded the start (and end) of many things. As more women moved into the workforce and women gradually became more and more enfranchised throughout the first half of the 20th century, traditional expectations very slowly ebbed away. Widow’s pensions were blunt instruments that were, in some senses, designed to embrace both changes.

On the one hand, there was a genuine intention behind the pensions issued to widows of WW1 to provide relief and support. This was born of an awareness of the scale of suffering and a sense of duty; as their husbands had died fighting for their country, the least their country could do was take care of the widows.

On the other hand, the pensions were still rooted in old Victorian ideals of morality and social order. At a time when many were worrying about the rise of the flapper, there was limited empathy among traditionalists for people who were seen to fall short of the old standards, and little to no understanding of how some socio-economic factors would impact on certain individuals’ ability to maintain a ‘moral’ lifestyle.

The widows of WW1 deserve to be remembered just as the soldiers do. Their stories are often cut short at the moment of their husband’s death, and yet their own lives didn’t end; they couldn’t end. Not when there was work to be found, children to be fed, letters and petitions to be written. The lives of these women continued for years afterwards and so, as I think about the Unknown Warrior and all he represents, I also think about the 100 women who accompanied him to his tomb, and I wonder what became of them afterwards.

E x

Credit here.

Lollipop Apples (A.K.A. Toffee Apples): 1924

“Remember, remember, the 5th November: gunpowder, treason and plot” is about the only thing people recall from key stage 3 history lessons. Well, that and “Richard of York gave battle in vain”, which doesn’t really count now that I think of it.

Ask any child in year 8 around this time of year and they’ll tell you that bonfire night commemorates the date that Guy Fawkes – an aggrieved Catholic intent on overthrowing the anti-Catholic James I – was caught under the houses of parliament holding a lit match atop a mountain of gunpowder, practicing his best ‘wasn’t me, guv!’ expression. Luckily for the king, he was caught in the nick of time and marched off to the Tower of London to be, er, questioned.

It’s often the torture – sorry, questioning – part that’s the most memorable (for 12 year olds, at least.) All that stuff with the rack and deformed signatures on forced confessions just really seems to focus year 8’s. Illegal methodology aside, Guy Fawkes was found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered on 31st January 1606.

Guy Fawkes’ confession signature. The top was written straight after his torture and the second 8 days afterwards. Credit here.

The end.

Well… no. For a start, it wasn’t Guy Fawkes who came up with the plot to blow up the king and houses of parliament. That was the brainchild of Robert Catesby – an influential and wealthy man from a Catholic family who had watched his father and brother in law imprisoned for their faith.

Enraged by years of persecution (and perhaps harbouring a desire for more power), Catesby scouted out a band of like minded rebels and managed to rent out the cellar directly under the houses of parliament. Convenient, right? They spent the next few months gradually filling the space with 36 barrels of premium grade gunpowder and then waited patiently for the right time.

Of course, this situation raises questions about the competency of James’ security; for a notoriously paranoid king, it seems crazy to think that his guards didn’t perform regular checks on the contents of the cellars underneath the most important building in England.

Anyway, poor Guy Fawkes was given the job of lighting the fuse and then legging it like crazy to Europe, safe in the knowledge of a job well done. Meanwhile another plotter, Sir Everard Digby, was due to abduct the king’s daughter at the time of the explosion and install her as puppet queen who the Catholics could control. Unfortunately for Guy Fawkes et al, the plot was uncovered at the last minute and the plotters were exposed, eventually captured and executed.

But is that the truth?

As I said, it seems crazy to assume the government didn’t know about 36 barrels of gunpowder quietly festering just feet below the nobs and nobesses of the land (but not really the nobesses, thanks to a no ladies rule). And in fact, it’s just that: crazy. Sure, James I might not have known about it himself but there are strong arguments to suggest his first minister Robert Cecil did and was keeping a close eye. In fact, an anonymous letter warning one MP to stay away from parliament on the fated night ended up in the hands of Cecil as early as 26th October, yet he chose not to act straight away. Perhaps he was waiting for the plot to continue until he could gather enough evidence to be certain of executions or, for the cynical observer, to catch the plotters at the eleventh hour to make himself and the government appear even more heroic to the public.

And so we gather by every year to remember Guy Fawke’s ill-fated foray into arson by watching a human shaped sack of hay burn on a giant bonfire while children sit on their parents’ shoulders, whining for hot dogs and toffee apples.

Nice segue.

It was, wasn’t it?

The term ‘toffee’ traditionally just referred to boiled sugar rather than the creamy, individually wrapped sweets grandmas keep in their pockets. Toffee apples’ simplicity and cheapness makes them a decent money spinner for food vendors on bonfire night, but also a family friendly treat; children can replenish the ebbing sugar rush of Halloween, and parents can soothe their own guilt with the knowledge that somewhere underneath the sugar and syrup is a lump of fruit. The trouble with this bargain, of course, is that most kids throw their toffee apples away once the hard sugary layer has been nibbled off to reveal a disconcertingly mushy apple on a stick.

The idea of preserving fruit in syrup or sugar is as old as time; the ancient Egyptians used honey to preserve all manner of things from food to, er, dead bodies. Toffee apples, while not quite as old as ancient Egypt, made use of that great tradition in a cheap and useful way by ensuring that the final few apple harvests of late October wouldn’t go to waste.

The Oxford Companion to Food suggests the phrase ‘toffee apple’ first crops up in a food context when the BEF Times mentioned them in its 1917 Christmas edition. However, as author Alan Davidson points out, the invention of the 2 inch medium mortar, nicknamed ‘the toffee apple’ in 1915 suggests the sweet treat was already well established in Britain.

What about the recipes?

Popular theory suggests that candy apples (please note the careful wording there!) were the invention of American sweet manufacturer William Kolb who – like Isaac Newton himself – was struck by inspiration when an apple accidentally dropped into a vat of boiling sugar syrup. Okay, maybe not exactly like Isaac Newton. Regardless, Kolb immediately saw the potential to make cash and rot teeth and lo, the toffee apple was born.

Kolb’s invention may have come in 1908, but the first printed recipe for anything resembling a toffee apple wasn’t published until around 1919 (if you have an earlier one please let me know!) It appeared in American book Rigby’s Reliable Candy Teacher under the less crowd pleasing name ‘Apples on a stick’.

Take small apples and stick in each one at the top, a small wooden skewer, such as butchers use to pin roasts. Now cook a batch of Molasses Taffy to 280 degress F. Then dip the apple in the hot batch so as to cover it completely. Let the surplus syrup drip off, then stand them on a slab until cold.

Rigby’s Reliable Candy Teacher, W.O. Rigby, 1919.

A 1908 recipe for molasses taffy read thusly:

…for molasses taffy boil to the soft ball 1 quart of New Orleans molasses, 1 tablespoonful of granulated sugar. Now stir in 2 tablespoonfuls of vinegar, ¼ pound of butter, and boil until it becomes hard and brittle in cold water.  Just before removing from the fire stir in ¼ teaspoonful of soda dissolved in hot water and pull.

Household discoveries: an encyclopaedia of practical recipes and processes, Sidney Morse, 1908.

My attempt(s)…

First I began by making my molasses taffy – an American term for a chewy toffee. I scaled down the sizes and boiled molasses with sugar until it hit 116 degrees Celsius: soft ball stage. Once that had been achieved I threw in some vinegar and butter and boiled it to 146 degrees Celsius: hard crack stage. Then, I dipped a green apple into the mixture and coated it well.

The apples looked impressively sleek and dark. True, they did also look a little like the poisoned apple in Snow White – kind of black and oozing – but even so, still quite magnificent.

You can keep any comparisons between me and the witch to yourself.

Unfortunately though they didn’t taste or feel anything like what I thought of when I thought of toffee apples. I had wanted a satisfying crack to the shell but these were still slightly chewy (though I think that was down to my dodgy thermometer reading.) I’d also hoped for a sweet tangy flavour, whereas these were decidedly more bitter in a treacly kind of way.

So I tried again, this time with a recipe from 1924 for ‘Lollipop Apples‘.

Select very small red apples, wash and dry them, put a stick or skewer in each, and dip them in the glace.
[To make glace] 1 pound sugar, 1/8 pound cream of tartar, 2/3 cupful water. Place all the ingredients in a small saucepan, stir only until the sugar has dissolved, then cook to 320 degrees.

Mrs. Allen on Cooking, Menus, Service, Ida C. Baley Allen, 1924.

This was more like it. I selected the reddest apples I could find and once my sugar had reached the hard crack stage, dipped the fruit in carefully.

They certainly looked the part as I hung them from a tray to harden: red, glossy, and with a very satisfying tap when I knocked my knuckle against one. They tasted much better too, exactly as I remembered them from my childhood: first a sugary, caramelised sweetness as I bit into the shell and then a slightly sour type of sweetness from the apple. Unlike my childhood self, though, I found I actually wanted to finish my apple even after the sugar had been eaten. Hooray for personal growth!

I know that this year’s bonfire night is different to the bonfire night we might have hoped for but for those of us staying in tonight, I recommend giving these a go; they were truly delicious and comfortingly nostalgic. And hey, maybe if enough of us make them then next year when I ask year 8 what they know about bonfire night they’ll surprise me with a comprehensive historiography of toffee apples instead of the usual!

E x

Lollipop Apples

450g granulated sugar
56g cream of tartar
155 ml water
4-6 apples

  1. Place the sugar, cream of tartar and water in a pan and heat until it is boiling. Swill, don’t stir the pan.
  2. While the sugar is melting, skewer the apples from top to bottom with wooden skewers. Make sure the skewer goes through the full length of the apple.
  3. When the temperature reaches 146 degrees C, turn the heat off.
  4. Quickly dip the apples, one at a time, into the sugar until they are evenly coated all over.
  5. Place the apples on greaseproof paper and allow to harden for several minutes.