4 – Gladys’s dreams evaporate


At tea-time on a day in March, Gladys’s father read in the Liverpool Echo that Government had introduced conscription. 

“Will they call you up, Father?” Gladys asked.

“No, I’m too old for the army. They only want single, young men, between 18 and 40. They need a postman like me to deliver the letters from the men at the front and their families in Liverpool. I’m not worried about my job,” Father assured.

“I’m going to miss more male artist students and teachers. It’s so sad they can’t do what they are best at,” Gladys sighed.

Liverpool was the second city of the empire, with the port playing a pivotal role in the war, as did its citizens. The docks and ships were the source of their livelihood. Liverpudlians built vessels, worked on them, loaded them and delivered supplies. They were proud of their association with the port. 

The Grime family was proud of the city and its central role in supporting the British war effort. John Grime, Gladys’s father, had the painful role of bringing sad news when he delivered telegrams to families of those who had lost their lives in the fighting. The person opening the door turned pale on seeing him holding a telegram. Most quickly took the envelope and closed the door. Others, standing in the doorway, read “Deeply regret to inform you …. killed in action …”, and Mr Grime gave his condolences before leaving. 

He was always well-dressed. At the post office they nicknamed him ‘Dandy’ because he was so immaculate. Before starting his rounds he looked at his reflection in the window, rectified anything out of order, and made sure his cap was on straight. With his satchel over his shoulder, he rode off with bags of post on his bike.

Mother kept the tobacconist and sweet shop going despite the war. Although there were fewer men in the city to buy cigarettes, those still around smoked more because of the stress of living through the war and loosing loved ones. Supplies for Grime’s Tobacco Stores were irregular and even stopped completely for a while. Gladys and her mother had to contend with unhappy customers who couldn’t buy their favourite cigarettes. One advantage was they could sell old stock which hadn’t been selling well. Sweets were in good demand, although supply was slow because of the shortage of sugar.

As the war progressed, there was an increased need for ammunition, ships and weapons. With fewer men around, women took their place in factories to boost production. It was dangerous work and women died from workplace injuries, including poisoning from the chemicals used to make weaponry. Mother not only visited friends who had lost husbands and sons, but also women injured or ill from working in the factories. Being sympathetic to the movement for more rights for women, she was pleased to see women now at jobs previously only done by men.

With less young men around, Gladys realised she would be unlikely to meet her true love and start a family until the war was over. Luckily her best friends, Christina and the Cubbin sisters, were still at art school with her, and in the same predicament. Times were boring for these young women. They came together for her 26th birthday in August, for a picnic in Newsham Park. Gladys had prepared a hamper of food and drink. Sandwiches made with her mother’s freshly baked bread, hard-boiled eggs, plums, and a bottle of Pimm’s. Christina carried rugs, and Ivy Cubbin held a brightly coloured gift box. 

Gladys took them to her favourite spot, a shady place under the elms with a view over the lake. They looked attractive in their summer dress. Gladys wore a light dress with a flower pattern and a straw hat with a broad rim and ribbon, with an added feather to mark her birthday. Christina had chosen a sporty blouse and skirt with a cumber band, no hat and pumps. Ivy and Eileen wore the latest cigar shaped dresses and smaller hats, and both carried a parasol. They laid out the rugs and Gladys opened the hamper. 

“That looks delicious,” Ivy said, looking at the tidily filled hamper, “but before we eat, we’d like to give you a birthday present.”

Ivy passed the box the Gladys. “There was no need to bring a present,” she said, carefully undoing the yellow ribbon and full of expectation. She opened the box, exclaiming, “That’s just what I need, water-colour brushes. Thank you all.”

“You’d said you wanted to try your hand at water-colour, so we thought we’d encourage you to start,” Christina said.

“How thoughtful of you,” Gladys said, and give her friends a kiss. “There’s even a fan brush. I see they’re made of camel hair, that’s the best there is. Thanks a lot. I’m going to try them later this week.”

They enjoyed their picnic and were slightly giddy after finishing the Pimm’s. Gladys suggested playing a game.

“Now there aren’t men around to court us, let’s imagine some handsome young fellows,” Gladys said. “We’re all suffragette supporters, so let’s think which traits we like to see in men of our time. Shall we take turns to reveal what we’ve never expressed to each other before?”

 Christina responded first, “What a good idea. Who’s going to start first?”

Ivy Cubbin was still wondering whether she wanted to do this, “I think Gladys should start, it’s her idea.”

“Alright, I’ll start. Let’s begin with the traits we think are most important,” Gladys broached. “I’ll start by submitting the most important trait my future husband should have: he should treat me as an equal.”

“Equal in what way?” Eileen asked, wondering about what to say herself.

“I want an equal say in decisions affecting me and our household,” Gladys explained. “Who’s next?”

“Let me go next,” Christina said. “I’m perhaps more conservative. I still want a handsome man,” she added with a sparkle in her eyes. They all laughed.

“Of course, we all do. Good-looking is a pre-requisite,” Gladys said while pulling her shoulders back and raising her head. 

“Well, let me conjure up a picture in your mind’s eye. The man in my dreams is tall, has broad shoulders, a clean-shaven face, no moustache or beard. His dark hair is short, combed to one side with a parting on the left. He’s well-proportioned,” Christina added, and they all chuckled.

“Ivy, what you are thinking,” Gladys asked.

“I’m envisaging Christina’s well-proportioned man,” Ivy said, and they all giggled on. 

When the chortling stopped, she continued. “I want a man who will respect my opinions and let me be an independent thinker. I’d hate a husband who keeps telling me what to believe. I want to have my own political view and feel free to choose my own clothes. I want to wear a one-piece bathing-suit!” Ivy said to bring back more giggles. “Why can men just wear bathing trunks while we have to swim nearly fully clothed?”

Eileen finally brought her thoughts out on a serious note. “I want my husband to be a father who attends to his children’s upbringing. Not a father who is only there to punish but who will take an interest in them and treat daughters and boys equally.”

“That’s a good point, Eileen,” Gladys said. “I hadn’t thought of a husband as a father. I want a major say in the number of children we have. Have you any more thoughts, Christina?”

“In the end, it’s important he has a stable job and a secure income. And, not unimportant, I want him to let me have time for art!” Christina added.

“It’s getting late, shall we make our way back home?” Gladys asked, and they gathered their things and walked back to the shop. It was a lovely birthday, a day to remember and a day without the worries of the war.

By Autumn, they needed coal to keep the home warm, but it was difficult to get. The Government enforced coal rationing; the amount depending on the number of rooms in a property. The Grimes managed by only lighting fires when absolutely necessary and by supplementing the coal with packaging that came with supplies to the shop.

Gladys and Christina found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on their art studies. The cold at home and school didn’t help, the dark autumn weather didn’t help, and bad news about the war was a constant distraction and worry. Their exam results reflected their lack of concentration. Gladys failed for Industrial Design and Linen Weaving, while Christina failed Lithography. Luckily, their moods bucked during the annual students’ social evening in December. For the occasion, students wrote and enacted their own play.


Liverpool Art School held an annual art exhibition in March each year. This time, only women entered. Gladys entered her Design work for the municipal scholarship competition. She had done water-colours of industrial, geometrical shapes in monotonic greys. The jury admired her work, and judged it ‘high quality’, resulting in her being awarded the scholarship.

The war moved into a new phase with unrestricted submarine warfare. Food became more scarce. Wednesday was a meatless and potato-less day, but, in general, they had enough to eat. In April the US entered the war. On Saturday June 9th at tea-time,  Mr Grime read in the paper that General Pershing and his staff had arrived in the Mersey on an ocean liner escorted by cruisers.

“They were welcomed by the Lord Mayor,” he read out loud to Gladys and Mother. “‘The vessel arrived overnight and in the morning sunlight the small crowd at Pierhead saw the black mass of a hull with a flag of the White Star flying at the masthead.’ It says that the Americans travelled to London by train. ‘After alighting, the party was driven to the Savoy in motor-cars.’ Our lot has certainly put them in the best hotel! The best is still to come,” he said while still reading. “‘Within an hour of his arrival in London, General Pershing was out shopping in the West End.’ It sounds more like a holiday outing than a war!” he concluded.

“Well, let’s hope the Americans will help us finish the war, even if we have to pamper them a little,” Mother remarked.

“They’ve drafted an enormous amount of men. I expect we’ll see them arriving here in Liverpool on their way to the front,” Father added.

At art school, young men were more seen, although it wasn’t a pretty sight. The female students felt sorry for the wounded soldiers who arrived for afternoon classes during their hours of leave from hospital. The city council had asked the school to take them in, ‘better than having them loafing about the streets’ they said. The school board agreed that lessons would help the ex-servicemen recuperate by giving them something useful to do. They could learn new skills and hope to find work despite having lost an arm or a leg, or worse. Some did Furniture Making classes, others did Metal Work or Lettering.

Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the sinking of a pilot boat that was patrolling the entrance to the River Mersey shocked Liverpool. A German submarine had laid mines to hamper shipping to and from the port. The Liverpudlian crew had ‘no grave but the sea’.

Next chapter

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