Remembering the important role played by Portsmouth’s women in the war effort 

Some of the Triangle Girls. Picture courtesy of Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Trust
Some of the Triangle Girls. Picture courtesy of Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Trust
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Volunteer historians keen to preserve the heritage of Portsmouth dockyard’s workers are celebrating receiving a £7,500 Heritage Lottery Fund grant which will enable them to focus on The Triangle Girls.

This was the name given to women who took up the jobs of men in the services during the First World War and enabled the dockyard to continue to support the Royal Navy. 

Cheryl Jewitt looking at her grandmother's name in the Rate Book. Picture: Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Trust

Cheryl Jewitt looking at her grandmother's name in the Rate Book. Picture: Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Trust

The women, who earned their nickname from the triangle-shaped badges they proudly wore bearing the words ‘On War Service’, took over hundreds of tasks, many of them dirty and dangerous and all of which had previously only been done by men.

One such woman was Clara Sillence.

On making the link across three generations, her granddaughter, Cheryl Jewitt, said: ‘Unfortunately, I never knew about my grandmother’s involvement in the war effort while she was still alive, no doubt she didn’t see her contribution as being as significant as we do now. How I would have loved to hear her story.

‘Clara married James Sillence on New Year’s Day, 1912, and on March 19, 1913, their daughter, Eileen, was born. James was a band sergeant who would have expected to be a stretcher bearer in wartime but, according to my cousin, his granddaughter, when the First World War broke out there were two band sergeants. 

James Sillence and Clara Eliza Jones in their wedding photograph taken on January 1, 1912. Picture courtesy of Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Trust

James Sillence and Clara Eliza Jones in their wedding photograph taken on January 1, 1912. Picture courtesy of Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Trust

‘James told the younger man to stay and he left for France. Within just a few days, on October 31, 1914, he was killed in action. This meant my grandmother had to find work to support herself and my aunt while still grieving her loss as were so many of her female colleagues.

‘Along with 1,750 other women, she found work in the dockyard where she later met my grandfather. They went on to have three sons of whom my father was the youngest.’

Cheryl, who lives in Southsea, confirmed the information about her hard-working ancestor through researches carried out by members and supporters of Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Trust (PRDHT), who are guardians of the material and artefacts accrued from more than 500 years of activity in the dockyard.

Mostly, these people, both men and women, were Portsmouth and Gosport residents and one of the main objects of PRDHT’s current project is to spread the news of The Triangle Girls, particularly to young people in and around the area.

The lottery grant, which continues until June 2020, will involve members of PRDHT, students from the University of Portsmouth and volunteers from the local community. It will use resources held by PRDHT, Portsmouth History Centre and Imperial War Museum as well census

records, Parliamentary records and newspaper archives.

The research will consider the recruitment of the women workers, the tasks they performed, their working conditions, attitudes of their male colleagues, their personal feelings and the legacy of their service.

The findings of the research will be made available to the public and will be presented in a mobile touring display. Educational materials will also be produced for schools.

Cheryl, who has helped with the project based at the trust’s headquarters in the dockyard, is extremely pleased the money will boost the project’s outreach.

She added:’I was never able to talk to my grandmother about the important role women played in the industrial life of Portsmouth, and Britain, during the First World War but I believe it’s a story which should be better known and telling it to the next generation will help it to be preserved and not forgotten.’

Chairman of PRDHT Dennis Miles said, on behalf of all the volunteers and supporters of the trust, he was delighted with the Lottery grant and was looking forward to The Triangle Girls project developing.

‘Everyone in the trust is united in wanting to preserve the outstanding heritage of the dockyard’s people and their vital contribution to the history of the defence of this country for generations.

‘We are most grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund for its grant to enable our small band of helpers to be even more effective. The money will be used in various ways to back up our research and continue our programme of talks by members, particularly to schools.

‘If anyone does have personal memories or items they could contribute to the project, contact the Triangle Girls project co-ordinator by email at: prdhtsg@outlook.com,’ said Mr Miles.