The role of women at Moss Side Military Hospital

The role of women at Moss Side Military Hospital

Using the Minute Books of Moss Side Military Hospital, I explored the different roles that women undertook in the hospital during World War One.

The obvious starting point was nurses. However, the employment records within the Minute Books demonstrated that there were also several other roles that women increasingly undertook, reflecting the nationwide experiences of many women during the Great War. This blog post outlines some of the roles available to women at Moss Side, and the women who filled them.

Professional Nurses

Daisy Ellen Robbins was born in 1892 in Warwickshire. Her father was a shoemaker. Daisy started work at the hospital age 23 and worked there for about six months. She was not a “VAD” – a voluntary worker – but was a professional nurse before the war. She worked as an asylum nurse, which meant that her experience was ideal at Moss Side, given the nature of the problems many soldiers suffered with.  Daisy appears to have married in 1915 and eventually moved to the US.

Mary Ida Raban also nursed at an asylum before the war. Mary was born on 18 January 1893 in Northampton and in 1911 was an “asylum nurse” at St Andrews Hospital for the Mentally Ill in Northampton. Mary joined the hospital staff in December 1917 and left when she married in March 1919. After war was declared in September 1939, a National Registration Act received royal assent and forms were issued to more than 41 million people, the enumerators being charged with the task of visiting every household in Great Britain and Northern Ireland to collect the names, addresses, martial statuses and other key details of every civilian in the country, issuing identity cards on the spot.  Enumerators also made a note of any skills that could be made of use of in the upcoming war. Mary was noted as having joined the WRVS- no doubt her nursing and organisational skills becoming useful once more. Mary’s husband – Herbert William Allcock – died in 1971 and Mary in 1975, aged 82.

Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurses (“ VADs”)

County branches of the Red Cross had their own volunteers called Voluntary Aid Detachments (often abbreviated to VAD). Voluntary Aid Detachment members themselves came to be known simply as ‘VADs’. Made up of men and women, the VADs carried out a range of voluntary positions including nursing, transport duties, and the organisation of rest stations, working parties and auxiliary hospitals.

At the outbreak of the war, many were inspired to train to help the sick and wounded. Women VADs took classes in cookery and learned about first aid, home nursing and hygiene from approved medical practitioners. Men were trained in first aid in-the-field and stretcher bearing. Many talented VADs could take specialist classes to become a masseuse or use an x-ray machine and had to pass exams to receive their first aid and home nursing certificates.

Winifred Esther Withers was a VAD who worked at the hospital from 27 January 1917 until 30 September 1918. She was 22 when she joined the staff as a maid, the census return of 1911 stating that she was a dressmaker. She was promoted “from maid to nurse” in March – perhaps having passed her nursing exams. Winifred married Harold Iball in September 1919. Harold was a private in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (Service number 340479) having enlisted on 9 November 1914. He was discharged as medically unfit in March 1918.


Many women undertook training for jobs that might have been undertaken by men before the war, including that of a dispenser of medicines.

Frances Lilian Neave whose father was Lt Col Charles Alexander Neave was born in Somerset in 1893. Lilian’s family travelled abroad frequently between her birth and the start of the war – presumably related to her father’s military service. Frances joined the Moss Side staff on 10 February 1915 and worked there for six months, some correspondence from her appears in the committee books regarding her salary and her accommodation. Her occupation in the committee books is noted as “dispenser”.

In June 1911, the “Chemist and druggist” trade journal carried photographs of women pharmacists marching for The Vote. The Association of Women Pharmacists held its first public meeting on 17 October 1905. The Association was established to discuss questions relating to women’s employment, to establish a locum register and a register of all qualified women, and for the “furtherance of social intercourse”.

The impact of the First World War provided opportunities for women to fulfil their potential, if only temporarily. As Dr David Hodges, President of the British Pharmaceutical Conference in 1916 put it “Present conditions have given women an opportunity of which they are evidently availing themselves to the full.” But Dr Hodges also said that “For physical and other reasons they [women] are not fitted for employment…where long hours are kept.”  Although many women did return to their domestic roles at the end of the war, clearly changes were underway here as in other spheres.

Frances left the hospital at the end of 1915 but a UK shipping passenger list in 1922 shows that she has given her occupation as “dispenser”. This is an example of a woman who entered the profession of a trade that was dominated by men before the war, continuing with her profession for some time after the War. Frances married Major Arthur Roy Bingley – probably in Mombasa and died there in 1923 at the age of 30.

The number and proportion of women working as pharmacists grew through the 20th century to today’s position where pharmacy is a predominantly female profession; since 2001 there have been more women than men on their Register.


At least two cooks are mentioned in the committee books. Florence Ethel White was aged 23 in 1911 and working as a servant in Harrogate. She joined the hospital on 27th October 1916, was promoted to Assistant cook in January 1917 and is Head Cook by March 1919. She worked at the hospital for three years, leaving on 14th November 1919 to marry John Fell – an attendant at the hospital. Florence died in 1975.

Lucy Ann Yates who was born in Skelmersdale in 1890 is listed as “housekeeper” on the 1911 census – but as she was living with her father (a miner) it is likely that this referred to her domestic duties. However Lucy worked as a cook at the hospital for several months in 1915. She married Samuel Welding in 1917 and died in Ormskirk in 1950.

The Minute Books reminds us that it was not only medical staff who suffered from the strain of work during the war: “Cook has been almost broken down, body and temper”. This statement may have referred to Florence or Lucy Ann.

Other occupations

The number of occupations that women undertook as mentioned in the committee books reflect the ever growing number of women who were entering employment during the War – both as paid workers and as volunteers. I found 20 different occupations, some such as Matron, Nurse, Sister, Charge Nurse, VAD nurses and dispensers are the more obvious ones, but the number of other jobs that were undertaken by women in hospitals is very often overlooked. I have found mention of a masseuse, “Lady clerks”, laundry maids, kitchen maids, general maids, mess maids, farm workers, seamstresses, sewing maids and scullery maids. These are only the occupations noted in some of the committee books, there must have been many other roles. From medical professionals such as Matrons and masseuses, to farm workers and maids, women of all classes and professions were employed during the war, to help the hospital run smoothly and to care for men who had suffered on the battlefield. Indeed many women working in other hospitals and in factories up and down the country and abroad rose to the challenge magnificently and should be commemorated and celebrated for stepping outside of accepted “norms” of the time to help the service men who were fighting on behalf of “King and Country”. They also served their Country and the men who fought for it, some of whom we will learn about in upcoming blog posts.

Written by Debbie Cameron
Edited by Amy Walling, Manchester Metropolitan University

Caption: Nurses in the gardens c.1914-1918
Copyright: Image courtesy of Dr Rowlands

Posted on 20 July 2018 under Moss Side Military Hospital

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