Meeting a Swynnerton Rose

“I walked through the door into a beautifully kept flat, filled with photographs of family, paintings and pot plants. Eve greeted us with a huge smile and politely offered to take our coats. It seemed unimaginable that she would only 20 minutes later be enthralling us with incredible stories from her time in World War Two as “a bomb girl”.

Let’s start from the beginning. Eve was in service when the war broke out, working for “Lady Max” near to where she was brought up in the Sussex countryside. Eve was a parlour maid which meant she was responsible for the sons of the household.

Although her job looking after officers made her potentially exempt from war work, Eve’s husband, Henry, was in the army and she was keen to “do her bit”. Eve and Henry were engaged at 21 and after Eve had managed to gain permission to visit Henry before embarkation to say goodbye, they were granted a special licence to get married on16th January 1942. Two corporals from the street outside acted as witnesses and the wedding breakfast was fish and chips.

Henry’s family worked for the same family as Eve and they were not best pleased about the engagement. Their wedding gift of cutlery was not the full canteen, only the knives and forks. Eve still uses this cutlery every day.

Photo: The cutlery that is still used every day.
Photo: The cutlery that is still used every day.

After spending only a few weekends together as a married couple, Henry left to serve in the army and Henry and Eve didn’t see each other again until 4 years later.

Eve’s call up papers arrived through the post, as she was a married woman, she could not go into the forces, but she was allowed to do war work at Swynnerton in Staffordshire. Eve lodged in Longton with a miner’s family, although they did not really have time to develop a relationship as they all worked so hard. Eve remembers that on Sundays the miners’ wives would walk up the street with their joints of meat for the baker to cook in his ovens and in the evenings families would sit on the front steps and chat. It was a very unfamiliar and strange place for her to be, very different from her country childhood. Eve’s fellow lodger was also a country girl and one evening they opened their bedroom window as they would have done at home and in the morning everything was black!

Eve worked at the Swynnerton munitions factory which was a two hour journey each way and involved walking into the middle of Longton, then taking a bus and a train, queuing all the while. The shifts were typically 6am-2pm, 2pm-10pm and 10pm -6am.

When Eve first arrived at Swynnerton, she underwent a series of tests, which tested her dexterity. She proved herself to be very quick with her hands which she puts down to working as a parlour maid and handling precious glassware. It was not until after the tests that another girl told her she should not have tried so hard. This girl had deliberately failed as she knew that if she did well, she would be put to the more dangerous work. As Eve then found herself!

Eve’s job involved filling tiny fuses, with shiny white powder that sparkled- “it was beautiful”. Eve worked in a box with two holes for her hands. The work was incredibly dangerous. However Eve does not remember feeling anxious or frightened “you just got on with it”. The materials she was working with were highly explosive and there were strict regulations about wearing hairnets – no hairclips or jewellery were allowed. Wedding rings were permitted but had to be covered with a plaster. The environment they were working in was extremely dangerous. Eve spoke briefly of one particular occasion where the girl working next to her was sadly blown up. The other girls were only given a short break and an aspirin and then sent back to work.

Eve then got mercury poisoning in her eyes which she puts down to being “my own fault”. She has suffered with severe hay fever her whole life. Swynnerton was surrounded by grassy mounds, triggering her symptoms and causing her to rub her eyes.

After leaving Swynnerton (with no medical), Eve returned to Sussex but continued her war work with munitions boxes in Billingshurst and then at a refreshment stall at Horsham train station. Whilst working at the station, she recalled making up a large jug of tea and pouring it into the mugs of the wounded soldiers as they passed through on the train after D Day. Her boss was not best pleased as she did not charge any money! Eve also encouraged customers to donate cigarettes which she took to the wounded soldiers in the hospital in Roffey – again, she fell foul of regulations and received a friendly caution from the police.

After the return of her husband, Eve and Henry raised a family together. She thinks of herself as being lucky and leading a very happy life. As she told us her stories, it seemed like another world. I cannot imagine how frightening it must have been for the thousands of young women being sent off to do such challenging work away from their families. This particular work was also extremely important for women’s position in society today and the gradual progress towards equality. The bravery of the bomb girls must not be forgotten and it was truly inspiring hearing about it from a Swynnerton Rose herself.”

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