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Masculinities Challenged - Reserved Occupations in Britain, 1939-1945

In the Second World War, young and able-bodied men went off to battle, whilst women took over traditionally male roles in factories and on the land – or so the popular version goes. But the reality of wartime society was much more complex, as an AHRC-funded research project has been demonstrating.

Masculinities Challenged? Reserved Occupations in Britain, 1939-1945, a two-year study which was completed in December 2014, focused on a sector of the population that had been largely ignored: the many men who were unable to join up because their trades and professional skills were needed at home. “There’s a popular conception that the home front was a feminised space occupied solely by women and elderly men. But that’s not the case at all,” says project lead Dr Juliette Pattinson, a Reader in History at the University of Kent. “Double the number of men of conscription age remained on the home front as went into the forces, but that’s been written out of both popular memory and academic scholarship.”

Until now, there has been no single academic study that has looked exclusively at this group. And, with men who were in reserved occupations now in their late 80s and 90s, the project funding came just in time, adds Dr Pattinson. “It was the last opportunity to get their personal testimony of what it felt like to be prevented from enlisting.”

Lessons had been learned from the First World War, when mass conscription and the unexpectedly protracted hostilities meant that there was a serious shortage of skills and manpower on the home front. The 1938 Schedule of Reserved Occupations, drawn up by the government in conjunction with industry and the armed forces, covered a wide variety of jobs. These ranged from work in munitions factories, shipyards and heavy industry, to agriculture, medicine and accountancy.

The researchers tracked down and interviewed 55 men who were in reserved occupations, as well as drawing on autobiographies and archived testimonies. They also looked at visual sources, such as the films, cartoons and propaganda posters of the time. Unsurprisingly, most of these glorified the soldier hero and the courageous young fighter pilot, something that made many men who were not in uniform feel that their status was diminished. Despite being prevented by law from entering the military, thirty of the fifty-five men interviewed for the project had continually tried to enlist throughout the war, only six successfully.

Many men in reserved occupations also had to contend with the negative opinions of society. There is record of a ‘Bevin boy’, one of the young men who were forced to work in the mines rather than join the military, being given a white feather, traditionally a symbol of cowardice. And in an interview transcript held at the National Library of Wales, one man says: “We did feel like outsiders…some people thought we were either deserters, draft dodgers…or even conscientious objectors, and of course local police would often challenge you because you weren’t in uniform.”

One of the things that struck co-researcher Dr Linsey Robb of Strathclyde University, who oversaw the project interviews, was the surprise of many of the men that anyone was interested in their story after they had been ignored for so many years. She recalls going to speak to one man who had worked in a subterranean aircraft factory made up of three disused London underground stations. “The first thing he said to me was: ‘I don’t know why you’re interviewing me. I didn’t do anything interesting.’

“Some were quite heartbreaking,” she adds. “We interviewed a man who told us one brother had worked in bomb disposal and another was in the ‘Desert Rats’ but, he said, ‘I was at home and I was a nobody’. It obviously still rankled 70 years later.”

However, adds Dr Pattinson, the research also found that other men had a far more positive view of their wartime contribution. “Historians often dismiss civilian men as being emasculated because of the focus on the soldier hero, but actually our research showed that it wasn’t always the case. Despite the fact that so many tried to get into the forces, actually many didn’t feel that their masculinity was challenged.’ Rather, as Co-I Professor Arthur McIvor of the University of Strathclyde asserts, many reserved men derived a sense of masculine worth through working incredibly long hours, earning lots of money and contributing to the war effort.

One of the interviewees, Alexander Davidson, said: “It was a job that had to be done during the war. It was no good having sailors if you’d got nothing to sail them in. We were part of the war effort… same as making guns. You weren’t actually firing them but you were making them.”

Indeed, during the war there were attempts to boost the status and morale of men working on the home front. In his capacity as an official war artist, the high profile artist Stanley Spencer produced a series of paintings celebrating the work of shipbuilders on the Clyde. There were a number of documentary films that put a positive spin on reserved occupations, and several poster campaigns which equated the contribution of, for example, the munitions factory worker with the soldier. These provided a visual representation of Churchill’s 1940 statement that “The front line runs through the factories. The workmen are soldiers with different weapons but the same courage.”

This much more positive view was particularly evident in traditional working class areas dominated by heavy industry, where being a ‘big earner’ was a badge of manly status. In contrast to the Depression years that preceded it, the Second World War was a period when there was full employment and ample opportunity for well-paid overtime. In these communities, there was also much more understanding of the importance of their men’s work to the war effort.

The main output of the project is a book, co-written by the three  researchers, which is due to be published in 2016. They hope that it will bring about a better understanding among the academic community of the sociological forces at work at the time, as well as greater public recognition of the contribution made by men in reserved occupations. The attention was certainly appreciated by the men interviewed for the project, says Dr Robb. “Sometimes during the course of the interview they would say, ‘I’m really glad that you’re here because we seem to have been forgotten’. It’s just a shame it’s come so late.”

Image credits:

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 13980)

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 14363)

Article by Caroline Roberts

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