Sail Away: Post-War Migration and the Escape from Poverty

Posted on August 11, 2021

by Siân Evans

Siân Evans’s new book Maiden Voyages is an engaging and anecdotal social history, exploring how women’s lives were transformed by the Golden Age of ocean liner travel between Europe and North America. Read an excerpt below!

In the immediate aftermath of the Great War there was a considerable demand for all forms of travel, and people on both sides of the Atlantic were desperate to take to the seas again now that the only perils they faced would be natural ones – storms, mountainous waves, icebergs and seasickness – not enemy torpedoes or floating mines. Naturally, there had been passengers who for a variety of reasons had braved the Atlantic on Allied vessels, despite the risks from lurking U-boats, but the numbers had slowed to a trickle, particularly after the sinking of the Lusitania. There had also been wartime limits on movement for British civilians under the Defence of the Realm Act, combined with the strictures of rationing, but now would-be passengers could venture overseas once again. Many felt the need to escape the all-pervasive sense of gloom that seemed to hang over the British Isles like a pall, and those who could afford a ticket grabbed the first opportunity to book a transatlantic trip on one of the recently demobbed, hastily converted or newly requisitioned great liners. 

To meet the surge in demand, the shipping companies hurried to locate and sign up their pre-war female workforce, and to replace those who had left the industry to pursue other opportunities when they had been laid off. Experienced stewardesses were particularly highly valued, especially if they had gained nursing qualifications in the interim, as many had. Perhaps surprisingly, considering her harrowing experiences, Violet Jessop gave up nursing and chose to return to the seaborne life as a stewardess in 1920, when the opportunity presented itself, and she was not alone. Fannie Jane Morecroft, survivor of the sinking of the Lusitania, resumed her career with Cunard in 1919, and went on to become the chief stewardess of the Lancastria, a position that brought her the considerable honour of a stateroom to herself and a further decade of lucrative employment at sea.

Violet Constance Jessop in her Voluntary Aid Detachment uniform while assigned to HMHS Britannic.
This image is in the public domain via Wikicommons.

Violet and Fannie, like most female employees, had been made redundant by the shipping companies as the danger to Allied shipping increased, but a very small number of seafaring women had continued to sail throughout the hostilities, and they had accumulated war service stories of their own. Cunard publicly celebrated those who had been employed on its ships throughout the war years. One was a veteran stewardess called Miss J.S. Cole, who was torpedoed three times during the Great War. A profile of her appeared in Cunard Line in May 1921:

Miss J.S. Cole, stewardess, RMS Caronia, whose photograph is reproduced on this page, had the unpleasant experience of being torpedoed three times during the hostilities. She was in the Alaunia when the ship, having landed her passengers and mails at Falmouth, after a voyage from New York, was torpedoed on her way to London, near the Royal Sovereign Lightship, on 4th October 1916. Miss Cole escaped the further attentions of the enemy until 4th February 1918 when she was one of the complement of the Aurania, which was torpedoed off the north coast of Ireland. In the following July Miss Cole had her third baptism of fire, being stewardess in the Carpathia, which fell victim to a U-boat some 120 miles west of the Fastnet. 

Two stewardesses on the Saxonia, Mrs. Agnes Stevens and Mrs. Emily Dawkins, were similarly featured in Cunard Line. Agnes was originally from the Isle of Man, had two sons and one grandchild, and had worked as a stewardess for eighteen years. She had been born on a ship owned by her father, and had spent most of her life afloat. Emily had seven sons and six grandchildren and had been a stewardess for sixteen years. Although it wasn’t stated directly, as both women were styled ‘Mrs’, it was likely that both were widows left with children, hence their need to work on ships. They had served together as nurses at sea during the Great War, and proudly wore service ribbons on their uniforms. The inseparable cabin-mates recalled being torpedoed while working on the Ausonia, off Queenstown in Ireland, close to the site where the Lusitania was sunk:

We were down below in our room, knitting. We heard the alarm, we climbed up and looked through the port, and we saw the thing – the torpedo – coming towards us. It struck us but we discharged a depth bomb and got the submarine. Of course, we passed through the submarine zone time after time, but we were never on a ship that sank. We used to tell the soldiers not to worry, that we were mascots, and that as long as we were on a ship it wouldn’t go down [. . .] 

We were on the Saxonia when she took over the first detachment of American troops and we came back with her at Christmas time, just after the Armistice, when she brought back the first load of wounded Americans. We have travelled when we were the only women on a ship full of soldiers. We punched their meal tickets three times a day, we mended their stockings, we served in the canteen.

The stewardesses were keen to stress that they enjoyed their jobs. ‘There’s the air and there’s the water, and you don’t have to worry about the high cost of living as you’re afloat,’ said Agnes, though she admitted she still suffered occasionally from sea-sickness.

Newly recruited stewardesses were needed to cater for the booming numbers of female travellers from all backgrounds. On many west-bound transatlantic crossings, women outnumbered men two to one in all three categories of accommodation. There were complex social and economic reasons why European women of all classes were now taking to the seas, but fundamentally it was due to their need for economic security, coupled with a biological imperative to strike out in a bigger gene pool.

Copyright © 2021 by Siân Evans.

Credit: Libi Pedder

Siân Evans is the author of several books, including Queen Bees: Six Brilliant and Extraordinary Society Hostesses between the Wars (Hachette UK). Her articles have appeared in many publications, including the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, BBC Antiques Roadshow Magazine, Coast Magazine, National Trust Members’ Magazine, and The Lady. A freelance film consultant for the National Trust, she has an MA in Cultural History from the Royal College of Art, London.

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