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Features

Women in WW1

60% of women and 53% of men think women did not contribute as industrial workers in WW1, when in fact women played an essential role in keeping factories (and the country!) running during the war.

This is what research from Ancestry, the world’s largest family history site, found recently.

We want to help change that stereotype and raise awareness of the inspiring stories about women that carried out remarkable duties on the home front

Our story is about Irma Schoepen, a woman who worked as a munitionette during WW1, creating the much-needed ammunition needed for the British troops on the home front.

Irma and her husband, Georges Heinen, were both from Belgium originally and immigrated to England during World War One. Although both Irma and Georges were Belgian, they actually met in the UK in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, which was at the time a flourishing little Belgian community. While in Letchworth, Irma worked in a local Belgian-owned ammunitions factory, a job which played a significant part in World War One. Making munitions was highly dangerous work, with munitionettes earning the name “Canary Girls” as a result of the toxic yellow chemicals which stained their skin. Irma and Georges went on to get married in Letchworth at St Hugh Roman Catholic Church in the town. After World War One the married couple went back to Antwerp and ran a small grocery shop in Berchem, which was frequented by Royal Engineers who were based near the town.

Carol is Irma’s granddaughter. She lives in Coventry, has two sisters, Anne and Kate. She’s a keen family historian herself and has been researching her Belgian family for over 10 years now and has some articles about Letchworth also a book by Mervyn Miller which talks about the city and there connections to the Belgian Community. Carol had a wonderful relationship with her Nanna (Irma).

As part of their project, Ancestry took Carol back to the site of the munitions factory where her grandmother used to work and where she got married.

We got to interview Carol about her experience, which you can read below

What kind of woman was your grandmother?

My grandmother (Nanna to the family) was a very loving and gentle person. I was born when Nanna was 49 years old, so my memories are of her are in later life. She was very tall and cuddly as I remember.

My Mum and Dad visited her and Bompa as often as possible in those early years of their marriage. I remember travelling to Oostende with my brother Francis where we would be welcomed by all the family and very spoilt during our stay. My memory of Nanna is of a loving, gentle person, but she was definitely the one in charge.

Did she talk much about her experience working in the munitions factory?

Nanna did not talk about her experiences to me, I found out a lot from my mother, who told me many stories of what Nanna did in the war.

Do you know what kind of munitions your grandmother helped to make? What was the work like?

It must have been very hard, dirty work making munitions, especially with all of the toxic chemicals and heavy lifting involved. I have photos of Nanna in her working outfit but unfortunately I don’t know exactly what part of the process she was involved in.

We know that making munitions was highly dangerous work, did Irma find the working conditions difficult, or was it something everyone was used to?

As far as I can remember, Nanna luckily had no lasting health problems from making munitions. I think working as a munitionette with fellow Belgians helped Nanna to get used to the work. Nanna was only 16 years old when they were evacuated from Belgium, but I am sure she was strong-minded even then, and that would have helped her to get through the tough working conditions.

After the War your grandparents decided to go back to Antwerp to open a grocery shop, frequented by Royal Engineers, did Irma ever share any stories or experiences from this time?

The stories about The Royal Engineers were told to me by my great aunt, Leontine (Bompa’s sister) as she lived with them and helped to run the shop.

How did Irma settle back down after the war, did she find it easy to return to everyday life?

I am sure her experiences left their mark but she was the sort of person who overcame things and got on with life.

What is your fondest memory of your grandmother?

I just remember feeling very safe and loved. I was allowed to help in the shop and weighed out potatoes for the customers.

Did she ever impart any wise words that have stuck with you?

Not that I can remember but her character and gentleness were enough for me. She did try and teach me some Flemish which I remember to this day.

How did you feel when ancestry.co.uk contacted you about their project?

When Ancestry contacted me I was very proud that my Belgian family were to be celebrated. We’ve always felt proud of Nanna’s involvement in the war, and it’s great that other people can now hear about her story through the film that we made. My cousins in Belgium are eager to hear all about the experience.

Returning to the site where your grandmother worked, was it a moving experience? What struck you the most?

It was really quite moving- the size of the whole site was enormous and it brought home to me what an experience it must have been for Irma and her mother, sisters and brother. I do think there are many people who have no idea what women did during the 1st World War. I am sure that all the commemorations that are taking place this year will have opened some peoples’ eyes to what work was done by women.

What do you think about the fact that 60% of women and 53% of men don’t think that women contributed to industrial work in WW1?

Publicity of the commemorations and of what people went through will help, Also the growth in researching family trees has sparked a lot of interest. All will help women who worked in both World Wars and between wars to become recognised.

How do you think this attitude could be changed?

It was a very overwhelming experience and one I will never forget. I shall make sure my children and grandchildren and all my Belgian relatives know where it is and the importance that Letchworth has been to our family.

Irma has recently had a Poppy plaque unveiled in her honour. Can you describe what that has meant to you?

She would have loved it, although she would have said “I was only one of many”. I know she was watching us as we made our way around Letchworth looking at various sites. We will be back to Letchworth, as the family are all keen to visit to commemorative plaque Ancestry and the Royal British Legion unveiled to honour my grandmother as one of the Home Front Heroes of WWI.

What has it been like to be involved in this project? How do you think your grandmother would feel about it?

My family is very grateful for the hospitality shown by everyone concerned. My sisters and I had never been to Letchworth before, so to have Ancestry bring to life our family history, has been really powerful.

CREDIT: To mark the Centenary of WWI, Ancestry – the global leader in family history and consumer genomics – together with the Royal British Legion, is unveiling a series of commemorative plaques to remember the millions of often forgotten Home Front Heroes. As part of the campaign, Ancestry will reveal a poppy decorated plaque at Broadway Gardens at Letchworth in Hertfordshire this week to remember the munitionettes who contributed enormously to the war effort.

To find out whether your ancestors worked as munitionettes, or what their role was in the war, visit Ancestry for free access between 8 November and 12 November

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