Newbury Branch meeting 10th February 2021, conducted on Zoom
Speaker: Dan Allen
The Victorian army regarded women as an inconvenient distraction and a liability, and tried to discourage them. Marriage required the commanding officer’s permission. As such, women were then “on the strength”, entitled to rations, transport, and passage home on the death of their husbands. They were categorised according to their husbands’ status: officers had ladies, sergeants had wives, soldiers had women.
Some set up as sutlers (a prototype NAAFI operation supplying drink, newspapers, clothing). Mary Seacole went to the Crimea as a sutler before turning to nursing.
Women and children were expected to keep up on the march: 15 miles a day. Soldiers’ families lived in the barracks in a curtained-off space in the corner for many decades until married quarters were created in the 1850s and 60s. There was still much sharing of facilities and little privacy. Terraced houses came by 1870, no worse than aglab’s housing.
Children were seen as potential recruits: boys into the ranks, girls as domestic servants for officers’ families. There was provision for orphans: a Miss Berkeley died in 1969 aged 97, having drawn the longest-lasting military pension.
Queen Victoria was proud of her origins as an army child, and when she died, was given the military funeral to which she considered herself entitled. The tradition for monarch’s deaths has continued.
Only one in five or six families might accompany the regiment on an overseas tour (which could last for many years). The decisions were made by ballot at the point of departure. Those who boarded the troopship lived quite well for the journey, although had no contact with their segregated husbands other than for two hours after Sunday church parade.
Until the Suez Canal opened, journeys east could be hazardous around the Cape and there were many shipwrecks. In such cases the principle of women and children first was established.
Widows were sent home on the next troopship, and given a gratuity at Portsmouth. Return to civilian life was not easy, as marrying into the military was not considered respectable.
A regiment returning home brought only legally married wives. It often transpired that some women had been deceived into believing that they were married when they were not, and they were left behind.
Women were not supposed to be near the front line, but photos from the Crimean War show this rule to have been ignored.
Women endured severe privations in the Indian Mutiny of 1857. One was recommended for the VC, for her work during a cholera epidemic, but it was not granted. The officers awarded her a replica in gold and pearl, now in the Imperial War Museum.