“All fares please!”

A First World War sing-a-long at Westminster Public Library.

A First World War sing-a-long at Westminster Public Library.

Last Thursday, the staff of Westminster Music Library marked one hundred years of women in transport with a commemorative First World War-themed sing-along. In partnership with London Transport Museum and their Battle Bus project, we sang our way through a variety of songs from the Great War era, setting the scene for a fascinating insight into women’s rôles during The First World War.

London Transport Museum’s A Driving Force: 100 Years of Women in Transport is an engaging exhibition exploring the one hundred-year history of women in public transport, and Westminster Music Library has been proud to play ‘host’ to it for the past two weeks. Standing at the Library’s entrance, it was a draw for many of our customers, who, like us, found these seldom-told tales of drivers, instructors, and the fondly-named “clippies” to be an intriguing topic. Steering its way from 1915 (the date of the first female omnibus conductor) right up to the present day, the exhibition includes interviews, stories and anecdotes from female bus workers past and present.

Learning about the women at the heart of London Transport.

Learning about the women at the heart of London Transport.

Our WW1 sing-along to mark the anniversary was interspersed with accounts of women ‘on the buses’:

On the buses the skirt question occasionally arose, with objections to conductresses going on the top deck; however, this seems to have been combined with the pre-war convention that ‘ladies rode inside’ and therefore things were a bit rowdier upstairs. The buses were crowded at all times – the small number of private motorists, combined with a shortage of petrol, meant that bus and tube travel was democratized. The prevalence of shift-work, the curtailed shop opening hours and the number of soldiers passing through London on leave disrupted the more rigid patterns of travel before the war: ladies who had the leisure to shop mid-mornings found themselves squashed alongside factory girls and troops. Several conductresses found themselves getting a hard time from such ladies, and agreed among themselves that they were getting a dose of resentment from women who had lost their maids!

Ruth leading the singing.

Ruth leading the singing.

It was a privilege to hear such fascinating reports from a time so far removed from our own. Our event was organised by Ruth Walters, Music Services Co-ordinator, who not only brought these stories to life through her engaging reading, but also expertly led all the singing.

Westminster Music Library drew an enthusiastic crowd with their vocal chords at the ready, and it was a pleasure to welcome back pianist Hélène Favre-Bulle, whose playing perfectly complemented the singing. Friends of Westminster Music Library will recognise Hélène as the accompanist for our Joint Force Singers choral project. Also ‘aboard’ on “backing vocals” were Miriam, Andrew and Jon, all members of the Music Library team, and we were delighted to welcome London Transport Museum’s Battle Bus Learning Officer – Kathryn Palmer-Skillings. Her extensive knowledge was much appreciated as she answered our audience’s questions and gave further information on the topic during our tea break.

Ruth With Kathryn Palmer-Skillings - Battle Bus Learning OfficerWe’ve really enjoyed hosting this fascinating exhibition and running the event at the Music Library, and we are especially grateful to London Transport Museum for the loan and their time spent ensuring that both were successful. Our audience loved it, too, with comments particularly highlighting the uniqueness of the theme.  Coincidentally our event was held on National Poetry Day, and Ruth couldn’t miss an opportunity to mark it with a few lines of very appropriate verse:

There’s the girl who clips your ticket for the train,
And the girl who speeds the lift from floor to floor,
There’s the girl who does a milk-round in the rain,
And a girl who calls for orders at your door.
Strong, sensible, and fit,
They’re out to show their grit,
And tackle jobs with energy and knack,
No longer caged and penned up,
They’re going to keep their end up,
Till the khaki soldier boys come marching back.

There’s the motor girl who drives a heavy van,
There’s the butcher girl who brings your joint of meat,
There’s the girl who cries ‘all fares please!’ like a man,
And the girl who whistles taxis down the street,
Beneath each uniform,
Beats a heart that’s soft and warm,
Though of canny mother-wit they show no lack;
But a solemn statement this is,
They’ve no time for love and kisses
‘Till the khaki soldier boys come marching back.

War girls by Jessie Pope

Although Westminster Music Library’s hosting of the mobile exhibition has now ‘reached the end of the line’, if you missed it and would like to catch it, its next temporary home is Westbourne Park Bus Garage.

Westminster Music Library enjoys sharing all things interesting, and we love to add a musical twist, we’re delighted that our partnership with London Transport Museum made this possible.

Jon Frank (Westminster Music Library)

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About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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