Opportunities for women to serve in the First World War were limited; at the start of the war they were not able to join up, although in 1915 the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was formed to employ women in support roles.
However, many women performed essential roles both at home and abroad through involvement in Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs). In 1910, Prudential had formed six VADs for women, with classes in first aid and home nursing being held in the office.
Over the course of the war, 21 Prudential women were released for full-time war duties, including four who served overseas and one ‘land girl’; while more than 100 women were released for three or six months at a time for hospital duty.
During the war, two hospitals - Fishmongers' Hall on London Bridge and the City of London VA Hospital at 26 Finsbury Square - were staffed as far as possible by Prudential volunteers, who dealt with laundry and kitchen work as well as working in the wards. Finsbury Square Hospital was considered particularly unsafe during air raids, and directly a warning was given, patients had to be moved to the ground floor, or to the National Provincial Bank building, then under construction in Finsbury Square.
Miss J E Balfour joined the VAD in 1910, was mobilised in 1915, and served as a commandant until 1918. She was awarded an MBE for her work. She supervised 20 VAs in a Red Cross hospital, and here describes some aspects of her work:
‘Our duties were to see to the setting of tables for meals, the clearing away afterwards and the washing up… It cannot be called, nor do we consider it, menial work. Surely nothing that is done for the men who have risked their lives for the sake of our homes and our country can be considered menial work, even if it is only washing up the mugs out of which they drink!
The men… said very little about themselves. They were usually very shy until they had been in hospital for two or three weeks, and even then were more likely to talk of their homes than what they had gone through. It was most pathetic to see many of them crippled for life in some way or other, and yet generally very cheerful. One's own troubles and trials grew small by comparison.’
Many other women who remained at Prudential’s Chief Office undertook voluntary service in addition to their work – for example, attending calls with the Ambulance Column or working in canteens, arsenals or munitions factories at night and weekends. One VA paid to be trained by a barber, and visited a hospital each morning to shave and trim the patients’ hair before coming to the office.
‘Prudential women threw themselves into war work. Many of them not only did their work at the office but also spent weary vigils at stations in all weathers waiting for the arrival of hospital trains. They dressed wounds and cooked and scrubbed in the hospitals. They were not infrequently in a hospital full of wounded during an air raid.’ HE Boisseau,’ The Prudential Staff and the Great War’