A brief history of periods

From a Roman philosopher proclaiming periods as poison to the middle ages belief they could kill men, the history of periods is one we need to discuss!

Ok, so why are we talking about the history of periods? Well, because we don’t. Which when you think about it is kind of wild. After all, periods have been a thing since erm…people. So with that in mind lets delve into the messy and myraid history of periods.

Check out the video here

header 2


Now there is way to much infomation to fit into a ten minute video (trust me I tried!) but luckily there is an amazing sqaud of academics doing research into the history of periods and thier work is definatley a must read. I’ve popped some of my favourites below (plus the works cited in the video):

The Victorian Period: Menstrual Madness in the NineteenthCentury, Kate Lister

The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America Hardcover, Lara Freidenfelds

The Doctors’ Dilemma: Sin, Salvation, and the Menstruai Cycle in Medieval Thought, Charles Wood

Impure Blood: The Menstrual Taboo in the Christian Church During the Thirteenth Century, Madeline F. Ott:

Attides towards menstruation and menstrual blood in Elizabethan England, Bethan Hinderson

The salacious middle ages, Katherine Harvey:

Handbook of Medieval Sexuality,  Vern L. Bullough, James Brundage

Victorian Women and Menstruation, Elaine Showalter and English Showalter:


Who were the Radium Girls?

The story of the girls who became the living dead

The story of the Radium Girls is possibly one of the most fascinating, tragic and yet overwhelmingly hopeful tales I have ever delved into.

This chapter of history is one hell of a rabbit hole, so to make sure we get as in depth as possible, I had to make it into a video, which you can check out on our YouTube channel. And, believe me when I say this one is a wild ride! So buckle in (brew yourself a tea) and lets get started.



The brilliant and ballsy life of Ireland’s favourite courtesan, Peg Plunkett

How a ‘fallen woman’ became not only Ireland’s most prolific courtesan but one of histories ballsiest bitches

‘Chastity I willingly acknowledge is one of the characteristic virtues of the female sex. But I may be allowed to ask—Is it the only one?’ 

This is one of the opening lines of Peg Plunkett’s 1795 memoir. An archetypal good girl, who became a fallen women and then rose to become Ireland’s premier courtesan, Peg built much of her adult life on challenging what society expected of her.

The story of her life is jam packed with scandal, sex and good times, it’s a proud middle finger up to gendered morality. But I have to tell you right now, this won’t just be a rollicking romp through Dublin’s red light district. Peg’s life was littered with tragedy, she was a victim of abuse and experienced a terrifying level of violence. But each time she somehow managed to come back, more brilliant and ballsy than before.

Peg Plunkett was one of histories greatest survivors and I cannot wait for you to meet her

Quick trigger warning this article contains mention of domestic violence, violence against women and miscarriage.
Peg Plunkett
portrait of Peg Plunkett, artist unknown

Peg was born in Killough sometime between 1727 (gaged from her last memoir) and 1742 (from modern historian findings.) If you’re thinking ‘dear god this is a ridiculous piss take of a lady never revealing her age’ then you’re right!

Peg was deliberately vague about when she was born. And not only that. A lot of what we know about Peg (especially in her early days) comes from her memoirs. However like most of us do when recounting a story, she totally omits anything she finds boring. So sure she might regale us with anecdotes of her incredible life, but she’ll do it leaving out dates, times and locations. Which works in the context of telling a great tale, but is really bloody annoying when it comes to studying her life. However, there are some facts about her childhood that we do know.

Pegs dad and mum were first cousins and had a whopping 22 children, although only eight survived. Three boys and five girls, with Peg falling somewhere in the middle.

With a family of eight in rural 18th century Ireland around the time of a mass famine, statistics wise, Peg should have grown up on the breadline, but she was one of the lucky ones.

Her dad was a wealthy landowner so could shield his family from the harsh realities that waited just outside their door. Behind the gated walls of the families country house, Peg enjoyed warmth, music, dancing and got a solid education.

She was expected to became a respectable woman, to marry well, perhaps a business man like two of her sisters already had. She’d pop out some babies, make a nice home and be a good wife. The end. Not exactly the most exciting life, but solid and dependable. Her future was set.

But then everything came crashing down when fever swept the family. Peg was quickly sent away, to live with an uncle. By the time she returned home her mother was dead, her older brother was dead and her father was broken. Unable to cope he handed over the running of the family to Pegs elder brother, Christopher.

Just like that all hopes for Pegs future were set ablaze.

Christopher was an out and out dick and as such relished his role as head of the household, ruling with an iron fist. He spent wildly, bullied those around him and basked in the endless power he now had over his sisters. He was in charge of the money that would be used to help secure them good marriages and so of course it was that of money that he spent with such gay abandon.

To get away with this finical delinquency, he decided to refuse any proposals that came his sisters way. By doing this he could carry on splashing the cash and his sisters would remain stuck at home, free for him to bully them as he pleased. A true win for Christopher, or so he thought.

You see after a while one of Pegs older sisters decided she done with this BS, packed up and moved to Dublin (Peg doesn’t give her sisters name, which isn’t super annoying at all…)

Soon the sister met a man who was happy to marry her without all the bells and whistles. And so they did. But not before she came back to publicly call out Christopher for being a total and utter ass hat. Declaring she would rather become a woman of her own making than Christopher’s servant.

Oh and as an extra middle finger to Christopher, the sister took 15 year old Peg to Dublin too.

f you
A modern depiction of Peg leaving home for Dublin (probably)

Peg fell in love with Dublin. She roamed the city, taking in all it had to offer and in return flirted up a storm with every eligible man she met. Here she flourished, her bright wit and beauty making her the centre of attention. She discovered a love for entertainment, dizzying nights out in foggy rooms and of course, the company of smart, handsome men.

By the time Christopher demanded her return home, Peg had a flock of suitors and proposals. It was a get out of jail free card that Christopher wasn’t going to bend to. He’d let one sister get away and it wasn’t going to happen again. He not only refused Peg’s dowry and rejected proposals, he actively worked to scare men away from her.

With Peg and her younger sister now successfully trapped at home, Christopher turned all his attention to extinguishing Peg’s new light (he didn’t want her getting ideas after all!). 

That’s when the beatings started. Christopher would whip Peg until her body was covered in bruises and welts. He wanted her weak. A crumpled wreck on the floor. 

Peg managed to escape for a short period to one of her married sisters houses. Here she went all in on her plan to get out from under Christopher’s thumb for good. She needed to find a husband, one who’d treat her well and wouldn’t back down to Christopher’s threats.

This was a tall order and sadly the only eligible guy who’d take her was the elderly grocer. Peg was desperate but not that desperate, so even though the grocer asked for her hand in marriage, she was for once happy knowing Christopher would scare him away.

Nope! This was the one time her dad stepped in and so Peg was now that unhappily counting down the days to her wedding. But then she met another man. An already engaged man (red flag!) who proposed to Peg and promised her a new life far away from all her troubles. Of course Peg jumped at the chance and the pair ran away to elope.

But like so much in Peg’s life, it wasn’t to be. Whilst staying in an inn one night, Peg was awakened by her brother in law bursting into her bedroom waving a pistol. He was quickly followed by two mates, also armed, who pointed their guns straight at the pair. In a matter of seconds Peg’s lover escaped through the window and she was dragged back home to Christopher.

I’m sorry to say it’s about to go more downhill

Life got worse for Peg. She tried to escape to Dublin a few more times but was always dragged back home. Christopher’s beatings got worse, to the point that she’d be left unable to leave her bed for days afterwards.

Pegs’ younger sister was also struggling. Trapped in her gilded cage, she’d watched Peg’s attempts at freedom and felt any escape from Christopher and captivity was impossible. She stopped eating, and retreating inside, a shadow of her former self. Peg tried to care for her sister, but there was only so much she could do. Condemned to watch on as her sister slipped away. Taking to her bed one day and never leaving. She died shortly afterwards.

Not long after her sisters death, Christopher whipped Peg until she was on her knees. Brutally beating her as she vomited blood and eventually lay unmoving on the cold floor.

Peg was bed bound for three months. Lying in bed, in constant pain she realised she had to get out. For good this time.

As soon as she could get up, she convinced her dad to give her enough cash to get to Dublin. Called a carriage and left.

map of Dublin from 1780s
Map of Dublin a few years after Peg first arrived for good

Once more Pegs sisters took her in. Slowly she shook off the shackles that had weighed her down and returned to the bright thing about town she’d been before.

Peg didn’t know what lay ahead if her but the city around her was growing more wonderful every day and she hoped she would to.

Her brother in law introduced her to one Mr Dardis. Being relatively poor he was by no means presented as a suitor for Peg, but ever the romantic, she had other ideas. The pair furtive arranged to meet after dark, away from her families prying eyes. On those breathless nighttime rendezvous Peg fell in love.

Dardis secretly proposed and just like that, Peg was not twenty and yet somehow onto engagement number 3. 

But this wouldn’t be like her other engagements because she chose to have sex with Dardis. This might seem like a perfectly normal thing to do, but in the 18th century this was a huge and potential life changing decision. To have sex with a man outside marriage could mark a woman as ‘ruined’. If the marriage didn’t go ahead, her future would be in tatters. But Peg was young and in love, so she went with her heart.

Then Peg realised she was pregnant.

To make matters she couldn’t let her family know, for fear it would ruin her. Worse still, Dardis decided that actually, he didn’t want to marry her now. Which definitely did threaten to ruin her. Terrified of the repercussions she ran away.

She was alone, penniless and pregnant, But then Dardis came to her rescue. Well sort of. He found her somewhere to live – a brothel, before moving Peg to the country to quietly have the baby. After which Peg and her new born daughter moved back to Dublin to live with Dardis.

This wasn’t a happy ending though.

Peg was spiralling down. She constantly beat herself up for yet again falling in love with the wrong guy. She was struggling for money, selling off her possessions for food. She couldn’t count on her family in Dublin, who had found out that she not only had a child out of wedlock but she’d lived in a brothel and as such they didn’t want this harlot in their lives. And then there was the baby, who she saw as nothing more than another sign of her failings.

Peg didn’t know what to do, but she thought she knew would she deserved.

Peg arrived alone at her family house. Crying she begged Christopher to take her back. But he refused. Even her abuser didn’t want her now.

She went back to Dublin to beg her sisters for help. They too turned her away saying

‘If a morsel of bread would save me from death and destruction, I would refuse it to you’

Peg was now truly alone in the world. Left to count pennies for a tiny room and survive on watered down broth. Gone was the sparkling beauty who’d once taken Dublin by storm. In her place a fallen women hidden behind tattered clothes.

Whilst working out what to do next, Peg met one Thomas Caulfield in a Dublin tea house. A wealthy wine seller, he took a shine to Peg. Walking her home that night he dropped two guineas into her cleavage and promised that if she would go home with him he would take care of her.

Peg took this illicit invitation incredibly well. She didn’t bulk or run, instead she saw it as a sort of come to Jesus moment. Peg later said it helped her she see a new future for herself

‘Then all was distress, doubt and uncertainty. Now my mind was tranquil and I looked forward in hope’

And just like that, she decided to become a courtesan. As you do. 

whats his type
Because Peg can make it work

Caulfield put Peg up in her own place and showered her with gifts. She received a steady income and was back on her feet. Then Peg fell pregnant again. But this time she knew the position she was in. She arranged for Caulfield to continue giving her and their new son enough money to live off, even after he left her to marry another woman.

With her new cash and freedom Peg spent her days and nights out in Dublin’s music halls and taverns. She made friends with other women, whose tarnished reputations had taken them down more alternative career routes. She was in her early twenties and loved it, drinking, dancing and enjoying the moment.

But then once more, tragedy. Peg’s son died. Devastated, the situation was made worse when Caulfield used their child’s death as an excuse to cut her off.

But Peg bounced back. After all, being a courtesan was her job now, so she went off to find a new man. This cycle continued until she met one Mr Leeson (Peg never gives us his true name, but it’s likely he was Jospeh Leeson, the son of an English Earl who became a member of Irish Parliament)

Joseph Leeson 2nd Earl of Milltown by Pompeo Batoni in 1751
Joseph Leeson 2nd Earl of Milltown (fancy!) pictured in 1751

Lesson moved Peg in with him and she happily basked in the riches that came with her new role. She still loved to party and also have the odd affair but tried to play this down a least a little for her new gig.

Eventually Leeson and Peg moved to his country pile in Kildare. There she lived the life she was once promised, the lady of a country estate. It was fine enough, but soon the call of city was to much. Though for safety, Leeson moved Peg to the outskirts of Dublin, in the hopes it would stop her from having affairs and living it up with her old friends.

It didn’t work.

The thing was, to Peg, this was a business relationship. She didn’t love Leeson, he paid her to be his mistress. So she believed she should be allowed to have sex with other people. To go out with her friends and to live the life she wanted. She’d been constrained and punished in the name of gendered morality for so long and she was over it. After all, if a man was in her position, wouldn’t he do the same?

Leeson demanded that Peg be monogamous to him. She claimed he actually proposed to her, but she wouldn’t accept, later saying:

‘I looked upon marriage merely as a human institution, calculated chiefly to fix the legitimisation of children and oblige parents to bring them up and provide for them. To ascertain the decent of property and also to bind two persons together, even if they might be disgusted and heartily tired of one another.’

That my friends is what we call a HOT 18th century take.

Peg was by no means a woman of her time. She was a fallen woman who had gone against the morality that once beat her down and was now becoming her own person. She would not abide by what was expected if her anymore.

Modern adaptation of Peg leaving Leeson (I mean…she’s called Peggy so lets say this loosely works OK)

And so a newly empowered Peg took up with another rich gentleman, Buck Lawless (great name, sadly *spoiler alert* not a great guy). Together they had several children, though none would survive childhood.

And yet, despite this tragedy and the fact this was initially a business transaction, the pair fell in love.

To say it was a surprise for Peg would be an understatement. She hadn’t intended to fall in love again, but it had happened. And this time she wanted it to work, hell, she even managed to stay monogamous!

At first the relationship was bliss. All loving looks and halcyon days. But then jealousy set in. Lawless struggled with the fact that Peg was a known courtesan. If she smiled at another man, it would provoke a massive argument. Then he’d flirt with other women to make Peg jealous and then once more, the pair would be in a shouting match.

Then their arguments started to turn physical. During one fight, Lawless pinned a pregnant Peg down in the bed, beating her so badly a doctor had to be called. Peg would lose the baby.

Once more Peg was living with an abuser. But like many victims of abuse, she blamed herself and chose to stay with Lawless.

However, in what would prove ultimately lucky for Peg, Lawless was running out of cash. He’d heard about people striking it rich in America and decided to try his luck there. This would of course mean leaving Peg, who by the way, was once again pregnant!

Peg was devastated at the idea of her lover leaving her, but Lawless promised it wouldn’t be for long and in the meantime he’d send money back for her and the baby….

Why are you like this Buck? WHY?!?

Peg gave birth to their daughter and waited to hear from Lawless. They weren’t married, but they were in love. They had a baby together, that had to mean something, right?

For months, Peg faithfully waited. She turned down offers for courtesan work and read up on American affairs, hoping to get glimpse of what Lawless might be up to. But he never appeared. He never wrote to her and he never sent back money.

Peg realised that she’d not only been dumped. but ghosted, 18th century style. 

She allowed herself to be devastated for a bit, but then then picked herself back up. Peg was resolute that she would not depend on a man to build her life, but instead use them as a means to create her own.

And so Peg set herself back up as a courtesan. Her first serious client was a clergyman (of course it was…), the pair had a child before she was back to the cycle of one man in, one man out. But courtesan work only paid so much and then there was the penniless periods between gigs.

Peg decided she wanted something more stable so in the mid 1770’s she joined forces with her friend Sally Hayes and set up a brothel.

Situated in an upscale area of Dublin, Peg wanted her brothel to be as swanky as possible. Each sex worker was hand picked by her, dressed in sophisticated fashions and were able to hold their own in political conversations. Champagne flowed, entertainment was dazzling and soon Peg and Sally were the talk of Dublin.

Of course her new found fame was of the infamous kind, but Peg didn’t really care. When someone shouted at her:

‘Oy Peg! Who slept with you last night, Peg?’

She just rolled her eyes and called back

‘Manners you dogs!’

Things were going great and the money Peg was earning wasn’t bad either. So what else do you do when you’re newly flush with cash? Hire a musician to follow you around constantly of course!

Ok, well maybe that’s not what most people would do, but it’s what Peg did. She wasn’t exactly the best at making good finical decisions (something which as we know by now, constantly bit her on the arse). She was of the mindset that while she had cash she’d spend the hell out of it! And oh boy did she. Out out every night in more glamorous frocks than the last, popping bottles and generally painting the town red with her business partner and best friend, Sally.

But you know how it goes when you’re living your best life. Someone has to try and ruin it. And 9 times out of 10 that someone is your ex.

That’s right! Buck Lawless is back!

eye roll
This fucker. The literal turd that will not flush

After going MIA for several years he popped up out of the blue to tell Peg he was back in Ireland and asked her to come visit him in Cork. Peg wasn’t keen, but Sally knew that her friend was still hung up on Lawless and so convinced Peg to go see him.

The two women rocked up to Cork determined to:

  • A) party
  • B) do it all on Lawless dime

And they did. For a month! Unfortunately it wasn’t just drinking and dancing. Peg and Lawless started a relationship again. By the time Peg and Sally went back to their Dublin brothel, Peg was pregnant (it’s her ninth for those counting). Unfortunately Buck Lawless and his love child weren’t the only things Peg had to worry about.

In November 1779 tragedy turned Peg’s world on its head once more. A gang with the frankly terrible name, the Pinking Dindies, broke into her house. They smashed up the place and then beat Peg until she was unconscious. Peg’s two year old daughter watched on as the young men beat her unresponsive pregnant mother. Peg would lose her baby and her daughter also died (Peg claimed of shock)

Furious and unbowed, Peg wanted retribution.

But unlike her attackers, she took the high road. She filed a suit against seven of the youths, who were all Trinity College students. The case was not in Pegs favour. After all, she was a ‘whore’ and unlikely to be taken seriously in court. Not to mention that her attackers threatened to kill her if she didn’t drop the case. But she stood tall, casually mentioning that she carried a pistol she was all to happy to use should the men come near her again.

Peg won the day in court. She received finical compensation and ensured her attackers left Dublin for good.

However the loss of her children left Peg bereft. Of her nine children, eight of whom she’d actually raised, those were the only ones who’d survived and now they too were gone.

Depressed and still in constant pain from her injuries, Peg longed for a change.

You know whose coming back to fuck this horrible situation up further don’t you? That’s right! Buck Lawless! Although he’d now moved to London, he pleaded that with Peg to come live with him. He wrote her sweet love letters and promised her a fresh start in London. Peg figured at this point she had nothing to lose. So she sold up and moved to London.

hello darkness
No good can come of this…

Aaaaand of course it turned out that Buck Lawless, being Buck Lawless, was shacked up with another woman. This time Peg was done. Refusing to see him and rejecting his oh so remorseful advances.

Peg tried to make a new life for herself in London, but she just couldn’t get along with the city. Though she managed to stay long enough to insult the Prince Regent not once but twice (that’s our girl) first by ordering the same waistcoats as him for her shoemaker and then by riding down the road next to him.

With ridiculous royal protocol well and truly smashed, Peg made her way back to Dublin.

On arriving she was greeted by her best girl Sally Hayes and another friend Moll Hall. Together the trio made it a point to go out on the town whenever they could.

And then they were banned from doing so.

The celebrated musician Signor Carnavalli was the hottest ticket in town, however he expressly forbidden, as Peg put it, ‘every lady of my description’ from attending. Of course Peg totally ignored this and rocked up anyway. However as the most famous courtesan in Dublin, she was quickly spotted and chucked out. Told in no uncertain terms that her kind of woman was not wanted here.

Peg was not having this. She returned to the theatre the next day with a warrant against Signor Carnavalli, for throwing her out despite her having paid for a ticket.

Peg was accompanied by four hulking bailiffs who proceeded to haul the musician off to prison. Dusting herself off, Peg then matched into the theatre and apologised to the waiting audience, explaining that Mr Carnavalli was no in prison thanks to his conduct towards her.

Peg’s defiance made headlines. All of Dublin knew Peg Plunkett was back in business and this time she wasn’t letting anyone’s bullshit slide.

Business boomed with Pegs clients including some of Ireland’s most prolific men of the day. Her wealth and notoriety  soared for the next few years. Peg using this as a platform to cement her place in society by throwing huge parties and masquerades (despite them being banned).

Is she blowing all her money once again? Yes. But at least she is doing it in style

Throughout the 1780’s Peg discovered she had somewhat of a soft spot for a man in military uniform. With thousands of soldiers stationed in Ireland, both serving and waiting to hear if they were to shipped out to fight in the British Empires colonies, soldiers were staple in Peg’s brothel clientele.

Of course it wasn’t long before Peg was starting affairs of the books. Sally Hayes and Peg started a string of relationships. They burnt hot and fierce, but as soon as the soldier in question was posted abroad, things quickly cooled off.

Though Peg describes falling in love a few times with some of these men, things never got serious. She wouldn’t let them. When one Captain Cunynghame begged Peg to go with him, she declined as:

‘…though he was a fine showy fellow, I had much rather remain in Dublin, where I knew every wish could be gratified’

After all, why would she leave the empire she built? By now Peg was known as ‘the reigning vice queen’. She set up another high end brothel and was enjoying life as an unlikely member of Dublin’s high society. No longer were people ashamed to be seen with Peg, she was an established part of the elite.

She started an affair with Ireland’s Lieutenant, The Duke of Rutland that made the cities front pages. This created a media whirlwind around her. Even simple trip to the theatre became a point of gossip and scandal. Soon every move Peg made was discussed and poured over.

And then Peg did something truly shocking – she got married

…well only after she made it clear to her new spouse that she didn’t love him, actually she hated him and was in it purely because he was getting a title.

Her intended was Barry Yelverton, son to a baron and by all acccounts, the worst. But, Peg loved the idea of being an infamous courtesan with the title ‘the right honourable.’ Oh also, his family were really rich, which Peg was also a fan of.

The pair were married by a former minister and almost immediately broke up. When Yelverton’s Dad offered Peg a ton of money to dissolve the marriage she happily accepted and ditched her husband.

Peg wasn’t proud of what she’d done. After all it wasn’t like she needed the money or the title. She’d just done it because she could. It was cruel and unnecessary but it was also an F you to how the morality of marriage had screwed her over in the past. No longer was she the girl who was thrown out like rubbish when men’s feelings changed. She was Peg Plunkett, Queen of Vice, she could turn the tables and make men disposable. She was untouchable.

Peg and sally
Peg and Sally out to take men for everything they can get

Then after thirty plus years in the courtesan business, Peg decided she was done. She’d worked hard and now she could just bask in the spoils of her success.

After doing some maths, Peg calculated that once all her clients paid in their I.O.U’s she’d have enough to retire on. Feeling safe in the knowledge that all good gentlemen paid their debts, Peg didn’t wait for the men to actually pay, instead buying a house in Blackrock, a town just outside of Dublin..

The bliss of retirement didn’t last long. Peg being Peg and crap with money she hadn’t done her sums rights. Her bank accounts were haemorrhaging money and if she didn’t do something fast, it wouldn’t be her new home in Blackrock she’d be living in, but debtors prison.

Peg called on those I.O.U’s she was counting. But surprise surprise, the men weren’t planning on ever paying up. 

Once more, it looked like Peg was screwed. But she was determined that although she might be down, she wasn’t out.

Fine, her clients weren’t going to pay up. That was ok. Because she knew another way to get them to pay and earn a tidy sum at the same time. She’d write her memoirs. After all, who wouldn’t want to buy the juicy story of Ireland’s leading courtesan. Obviously she’d have to name names, including those of her most high profile clients…unless they paid up.

In 1795 Peg released her first memoir. It was a hit and closely followed by a second. 

She penned a third, however by the time it was released in 1797, Peg had died. 

She was remembered for her role as the nations leading courtesan, but also for her unwillingness to bend to what was expected of her. Still at the very end of life, refusing to let the cards life dealt her keep her down.

This was interesting! Where can I find out more?

Well you can read Pegs memoirs (for free!!) here I’d also suggest checking out Julie Peakman’s book, Peg Plunkett, Memoirs of a Whore, which is currently a steal on kindle for a little over £3.

Franceska Mann and the myth of The Dancer of Auschwitz

Ballerina Franceska Mann became legend when she killed an SS guard on the way to the gas chamber. But who was she? And what does her mythologising truly tell us about life as a woman during the Holocaust

On October 23 1943, 26 year old ballerina, Franceska Mann, transformed. Overnight she became the stuff of legend. Not through her deft pointe work or an ovation worthy performance, but because of her death.

That dark October day, Franceska, along with 1,700 over Polish Jewish people was dragged off a transit train and pushed through the gates of Auschwitz. You don’t need me to tell you what a death sentence that was. Franceska knew the odds, knew her time was up and she refused to go quietly into the night.

Franceska Mann
Franceska Mann

Franceska Mann was exceptional. A dancer at a night club in Warsaw, she was known for her talent and beauty. It was this that caught the attention of two of Auschwitz’s SS guards, Josef Schillinger and Wilhelm Emmerich.

Along with a large group of women, Franceska was led to the undressing room next to the gas chamber and told to strip. As the women undressed, the SS Guards, including Schillinger and Emmerich watched, their gaze soon honing in on Franceska. She noticed them watching and looked them directly in the eye.

She lent down to take off her shoe and the men started to approach. Then quick as a flash, Franceska attacked, using her high heel to beat a guard down. Seizing his gun, she shot. Killing Josef Schillinger and wounding Wilhelm Emmerich.

As the other SS guards bore down on the vulnerable women, they followed Franceska’s lead and fought back with everything they had. One woman reportedly bit off a guard’s nose, as machine gun fire tore through the room.

It lasted minutes. If that.

Most of the women lay dead, those that weren’t were taken outside and shot.

But their story lived on.

Artists interpretation of Franceska Mann shooting Josef Schillinger
Artists interpretation of the shooting – not exactly accurate but you get the gist

Becoming a legend

The tale of Franceska Mann and the women that resisted spread like fire through the camp. It bought hope; the guards now knew there was the threat, however small, that the next time they struck, the prisoners might hit back. It was a grain of resistance and in this veritable hellscape, that was so needed!

Which is why Franceska’s story become mythologised. Feverishly passed around the prisoners, its details becoming blurrier and blurrier.

Soon enough, the story was that Franceska had performed a strip tease. Luring Schillinger and Emmerich towards her with a flash of thigh and seductively pulling her blouse away. Only when the two men were lulled into a sense of lusty security did she strike. Turning the tables on her abusers.

It’s this version of events that has prevailed. Through accounts of Auschwitz survivors and even those that were at camps miles away, yet had still heard the tale.

Though popular, many historians have agreed that this version is incredibly unlikely. Yes, there was an attack of Schillinger and Emmerich, but it’s highly unlikely it was precursor’d with some light stripping. It’s an embellishment and one we continue to glean onto.

But it’s not just the strip tease that’s been added on. There are arguments that it may not have been Franceska Mann, but another woman. In different tellings Francesca morphs into everything from a Greek dancer, to an actress and even a whole mob of women taking the guards down as a unit.

Though it’s now agreed it was most likely Franceska Mann who shot down Schillinger and Emmerich, it’s undoubtable that this incident took on a life of it’s own, becoming more fiction than fact.

BUT WHY?!? What’s with all this twisting and mythologising?

Well, the answer is simple and very bleak (this is the Holocaust after all).

Women in Auschwitz II, 1944
Women in Auschwitz II, 1944

Surviving sexual abuse

To understand the root of this ever twisting tale we need to talk about the sexual treatment of women during the Holocaust.

The Nazi’s kept virtually no records of the rape and sexual abuse that went on inside concentration camps, however we now know that it happened. And it did so with horrifying frequency.

To be in a concentration camp meant you were immediately stripped of your human rights, made more vulnerable than you could ever have believed. For women, this also meant they were vulnerable to sexual attack and abuse.

One of the most notorious abusers was Josef Schillinger. 

Schillenger was by all accounts sadistic beyond even SS standards. Teaming up with his mate Wilhelm Emmerich, to wreak all kinds of horror on the prisoners under his watch.

And if you were in any doubt whether or not both men were the literal worst, here’s a quote from Wieslaw Kielar (a polish resistance fighter also imprisoned at Auswitchz) about what led the pair to Franceska Mann and the other women on that fateful October night:

‘Both of them slightly drunk, accompanied the transport to the crematorium. They even entered the changing room, guided either by thoughts of a little stealing or in anticipation of the sadistic enjoyment of watching the timid, defenceless, undressed women, who moments later were to die a painful death in the gas chamber.’

So it’s understandable then that the news of Schillinger’s death was met with celebration, especially when prisoners found out a woman had killed him.

The vulnerable had become ferocious. They’d bitten back and shown that there was a price to pay for the abuse dealt out to them. To women living not only with the constant threat of death, but of sexual assault too, this was hope beyond hope.

It’s no wonder, that in the subsequent game of Auschwitz whispers, the tale of Francesca Mann was not only embellished, but tailored into countless shapes that could be clung onto by each woman. She was hero when one was needed most.

Which is why it’s so important that this is all remembered when we tell the story of Francesca Mann and her resistance. Because what made her a legend wasn’t just her act of bravery, but the desperate hopes of thousands of others. And none of those women should ever be forgotten.

Further reading: Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust, by Sonja M. Hedgepeth and Rochelle G. Saidel. This book is incredible and really worth a read. Shedding light on this too often undiscussed chapter of history.


More like this: 




Ellen Terry and Edith Craig: Sex, Suffrage and Shakespeare

The incredible story of a mother and daughter who broke all the rules of their era. From trailblazing suffragettes to scandalous love lives

Here at F Yeah History we love women who boss at everything.

Be it literature, politics, art, employment, activism – the two women you’re going to read about next had it ALL.

Ellen Terry, star of the stage, and her thespian daughter Edith Craig, were two of the jazziest, energetic, and engaging characters of the early 20th century. From defying social norms to sticking it to theatre censorship laws, Ellen and Edith shook up the world they lived in, and everybody they met along the way.

Hooked? Good. Let’s start with the mother…

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, you’ll know he wrote some cracking leading ladies. Portia, Katherine, Viola, Sylvia, and who could forget Beatrice, queen of wit and sass?

They’ve been portrayed on stage and screen over the past five hundred years, but never with quite as much wow factor as when Britain’s best loved stage actress, Ellen Terry performed them.

D-R-A-M-A: Ellen as a stonkingly scary Lady Macbeth, painted by John Singer Sargent

And if you want a quick summary of how much Britain loved Ellen Terry, then here it is in a little poem written for her:

‘Britain’s pride,

The genius of the stage personified,

Queen-like, pathetic, tragic, contemporary, merry,

O rare, O sweet, O Wondrous Ellen Terry.’

Ellen Terry lived a dramatic life on and off the stage. Born to a family of performers, she became a child actress and grew up on the stage, before joining the Theatre Royal at Bristol and became famous for her depiction of Shakespearean heroines.

BUT it all went a bit wobbly when Ellen turned sixteen, and married George Fredric Watts, a renowned artist, for whom she had once modelled for. Watts was 46 at the time – 30 years her senior! – and the marriage was doomed (again…she was 16!), lasting less than a year.

Ellen returned to the stage, often alongside Henry Irving (who apparently inspired the looks for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, don’t you know). Henry and Ellen’s  relationship was intense, and passionate; they partnered in productions for decades.

Ellen was also close to George Bernard Shaw, exchanging letters with him for most of her life. There was even a play written about their letters! Shaw referred to their relationship as a courtship by letters, and wrote to her, in one:

‘Do you read these jogged scrawls, I wonder. I think of your poor eyes, and resolve to tear what I have written up: then I look out at the ghostly country and the beautiful night, and I cannot bring myself to read a miserable book…Yes, as you guess, Ellen, I am having a bad attack of you just at present. I am restless; and a man’s restlessness always means a woman; and my restlessness means Ellen.’

I’d say I felt sorry for his wife, but their relationship was pretty weird already…

But enough about the men. Ellen loved a romance, yes, but her career remained extraordinary.

She was unable to resist stage life, though this was sometimes for financial reasons.

Even after giving birth to her two children with Edward Godwin (who she had eloped with but didn’t actually marry) she returned to acting and slayed across theatres in the UK, USA, and Australia.

The Terry/Craig/Godwin fam: Terry and her children, Edward and Edith

Ellen was adored by legions of fans, and became the muse to many directors and playwrights. Her performance of Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was world renowned, and in her later years, she successfully toured the US, delivering lectures on the Bard himself.

Ellen’s children travelled with her as she toured the world, and as she grew older, her daughter Edith managed her career.

Born Edith Godwin, she was keen to distance herself from her illegitimacy…and thus, Edith Craig was born! 

Meet Edith

Ellen’s star may have eclipsed all others, but her daughter lived an colourful, unique, and inspiring life equal if not greater than her mother.

The ultimate stage parent!

Starting on the stage at a young age, Edith acted, like her mother, with Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre, and in the plays of her mum’s pen pal, George Bernard Shaw.

But she wasn’t going to be an actress, oh no! Edith took a very different theatrical direction. Inspired by the radical movers and shakers that surrounded her, Edith set up a new theatre company, the Pioneer Players.

In a move to end censorship in performing arts, Edith and the Pioneer Players, well, did what it said on the tin. They put on plays that had been previously banned – plays about social reform, humanists; and, unsurprisingly, feminism.

Because what cause was flourishing at the time of the Pioneer Players? Women’s suffrage, of course!

Now, Edith was already pretty indoctrinated into the women’s suffrage movement, having attended a forward-thinking school with a pro-suffrage teaching staff, as she said:

‘When I was at school I lived in a house of Suffrage workers, and at regular periods the task of organising Suffrage petitions kept everybody busy. Perhaps I didn’t think very deeply about it, and my first ideas of Suffrage duties were concerned with the interminable addressing of envelopes; but I certainly grew up quite firmly certain that no self-respecting woman could be other than a Suffragist.”

Edith was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, but soon left in protest at the Pankhursts’ autocratic rule and joined the Women’s Freedom League with other suffrage bigwigs, including Teresa Billington-Greig and Charlotte Despard.

As theatre became even more prolific in the suffrage world, with plays by Ciecly Hamilton and Elizabeth Robins depicting pro-suffrage and feminist narratives, in 1908 Edith became instrumental, along with her fellow actresses, artists and playwrights, in forming the Actresses’ Franchise League.

Apart from bearing one of the most gorgeous suffrage banners of all time (don’t @ me), the AFL didn’t use tradition campaigning tactics, but used performance as propaganda. The organization grew and got stronger, thanks to Edith’s strong, organizational mad skills.

Edith dedicated her life to challenging, questioning, and fighting social norms. With the drama and passion that her mother applied on-stage, Edith applied it to fighting injustice and inequality.

She openly lived in a ménage-a-trois with playwright Christabel Marshall (known as Christopher St John) and aritst Clare Atwood, to which her brother said was a result of her ‘hatred of men’ (really original, Edward, round of applause to you).

Edith was a wee bit of a battle-axe; she was hard-faced and uncharismatic, unlike her mother, who once said she was too afraid to kiss her own daughter, she hated affection so much.

Despite this revulsion for PDA and hugs, Edith was absolutely dedicated to her mother. 

She lived next door to Smallhythe, Ellen’s country house – although out of hatred for Ellen’s third husband, she built a hedge between their houses so she never had to see him, quite literally.  

When Ellen died, she transformed the house into a museum so that her mother’s memory would be preserved forever, and the story of her stardom would shine on. Though she was estranged from her brother (who was the father of Isadora Duncan’s daughter…), she continued to share the story their family’s life, dominated by their  mother, by going into partnership with an organization dedicated to saving stories of then nation…the National Trust. She died in 1947. Right up to her death, she flaunted social conventions, and lived life the way she wanted to.

Just like her mother.

How show girls bolstered the blitz

In September 1940, when bombs first fell on London, there were forty two theatres in the city’s West End. But as the dust settled, only one remained, its lights on, the show still going.

The Windmill Theatre, known for its show girls, fan dances and naked tableaux, was the capitals unlikely Blitz stalwart. But what made this little strip show that could even more incredible was that it not only positioned itself as London’s go to wartime theatre, but actively worked to make itself a key player in the allied fight to win WW2.

Press photo of The Windmill Theatre and its infamous ‘We Never Closed’ signage

In the early 1930’s, Laura Henderson (more commonly known as ‘Mrs Henderson’) bought The Windmill Theatre. Previously a cinema, she had it totally pulled apart and transformed into a tiny theatre that she hoped would celebrate Britain’s many storied variety acts.

Sadly for Mrs Henderson, variety was on its last legs. The audience were nowhere to be found, and down and out variety performers far outnumbered those in work.

So Mrs Henderson roped in entertainment maestro, Vivian Van Damm (more commonly known as VD) to think up a way of making her variety theatre a sell-able form of entertainment.

VD re-branded the theatre as an all British home for a truly British art form and its homegrown British acts (can you see a theme here?). Alongside the patriotic love fest, The Windmill was also sold as a sort of charity, after all, Mrs Henderson was giving previously unemployed performers work, which if you squint hard enough, could technically be counted as charity.

But all of this wasn’t enough to put the theatre in the black. You see, no matter how much you re-branded it, at its core The Windmill just wasn’t doing anything different. It was still just another theatrical revue.

So, with rival revues running all over London, ones that offered tons of acts and ran all day long, why pick the Windmill over anything else?

Answer: Naked Tableaux

A 1934 tableaux, entitled, My Pearls

The brainchild of VD, the idea of naked women on a London stage was at once, new, taboo and a must see ticket.

Sure the idea of half dressed women creating a picture on stage, had clear roots in regency era theatre, BUT it hadn’t been done to the level that The Windmill was offering.

Which is exactly why The Lord Chamberlain took such an interest in The Windmill girls.

The Lord Chamberlain was the censor for all theatrical pursuits and thus the person who could license The Windmill’s use of nudity to this level. But, a stiff upper-class Lord, licensing erotic theatre in the 1930s? Doesn’t seem likely right?

Enter Mrs Henderson… who just happened to know Lord Cromer, the current Lord Chamberlain. Mrs Henderson hounded Cromer, showing him how The Windmill ran and that everything was above board, crucially arguing that her show wouldn’t be titillating audiences, but would in fact be a true artistic endeavour.

After all, you wouldn’t argue that the Venus Dimilo put her boobs away. So much like a statue, if the naked windmill girls didn’t move, they couldn’t possibly be considered ‘vulgar’ public pornography.

And so, The Windmill not only got their license, but censorship backing that prevented morality groups from forcing them into closure.

Programme from a 1930s-production at the Hammermsith Lyric direct from the Windmill Theatre

Throughout the 1930’s, The Windmill ran under the banner:

‘Naughty specialities, gorgeous girls and comics who are destined to go places’

Female dancers, singers and show girls, were sandwiched between male comedians sets, with the highlight of each show being the multiple nude tableaux’s, offering depictions of art, historical events and fiction all told by nude female live statues.

Suddenly The Windmill ticket office was buzzing! But if you thought that audience inside the theatre would be the same, you’d be wrong.

Audiences to the show were often deathly quiet. And as one former Windmill Girl, Doris Barry remembered, much of the audience were:

‘Men with raincoats over their knees, half of them playing with themselves’

It was far from a good experience for the girls on stage. Many of whom were young and wanted to perform, not be openly masturbated at.

Then WW2 hit and everything changed.

Staged photo of Windmill dancers performing in gas masks

After the blitz truly started in 1940, The Windmill found fame as one of the only theatres not to close up shop. Dubbed the ‘Great little windmill’ by press.

But just staying open when there was no bomb insight, wasn’t good enough for VD. He wanted The Windmill Theatre to never close.

The theatre’s layout meant that -hypothetically- bombs could be raining right outside it’s doors, but those in its theatre would still be safe.

The way VD saw it, The Windmill could and should be the one place in London that could keep its lights on during those hellish nights and do it with laughter and a healthy dose of nudity – it was a hell of a way to give Hitler the middle finger!

And so, VD militarised The Windmills workforce. Staff were put on bomb and fire watching rotas and they strengthened the theatre exterior with sandbags.

Most of the company moved into the theatre itself, both to be able to take on extra shows and for safety, with an emergency bunker being installed.

Shows were altered to include wartime themed numbers and tableauxs. With VD ensuring around 500 free tickets per week were given to soldiers. Soon the brigade of creepy mac wearers were gone and The Windmills audience were allied soldiers from all over the world.

The girls became pin ups, not only during performances but in the everyday. With staged pictures of their ‘daily lives’ in their new underground dorms being released to the public. Catipulted into a strange type of duel celebrity, the Windmill Girls became postcard pin ups for soldiers a long way from home. But they also served as a type of propaganda on the home front, providing Britain with a much needed reminder that life, laughter and fun could still go on.

Staged photo of Windmill performers sleeping

And this really cannot be overstated: The Windmill girls, were risking their lives to do their jobs.

They were working right in the middle of the blitz, in a target area. Members of The Windmill’s staff died whilst working there.

A bomb actually landed on the doorstep of The Windmill and though it did not explode, it lay there, a ticking time bomb. Upon seeing the bomb, VD purportedly proclaimed:

‘Get this bloody bomb off my doorstep! I’ve got a show to put on’

Often the girls on stage could hear the bombs falling right outside. Yet only a few times did a girl make any movement whilst in their tableaux. Once when a bomb dislodged a dead rat from the rafter and it fell at her (who wouldn’t have moved for that, to be fair)

On another occasion, a bomb hit a hotel in the same street. At the sound of the enormous impact, one of the women performing supposedly turned her head ever so slightly in the direction of the bomb and thumbed her nose at it.

Windmill girl, Sonia Stacpoole walks the corridors of the windmill with both her costume and helmet

An example of just some of the immense bravery shown by these women, is the story of Margaret McGrath. Who was one of the Windmill’s most beloved performers (in 1942, she was actually named The Windmills no1 girl, by Life magazine!)

In addition to her work on stage, Margaret took turns on fire watch, looking out from the theatres rooftop to ensure that no spreading blaze was coming close. Then in October 1940, Margaret was thrown into action when a bomb hit a cafe, which sat just opposite the theatre.

Bodies and debris were strewn across the street. Worse still, The Windmill staff quickly realised that someone was missing, a teenage electrician who’d been by the cafe at the time of the explosion. He was also the brother of one of Margaret’s fellow showgirls.

Someone needed to go out into the street, walk amongst the pile of bloodied and mangled bodies and identify if their boy was one of them. Margaret stepped up.

Almost immediately after, she was back at work. Which was fortunate for those around her, as pretty soon after, a fire bomb hit some stables right by the theatre.

Margaret put on her metal helmet and rushed to the blaze, along with fellow Windmill girl, Annie Singer.

The fire was ferocious, killing several people. None the less, Margaret and Annie managed to rescue six horses.

They then led the panicking horses through Piccadilly Circus, singing the whole time to calm both themselves and the horses. Until another bomb hit. The horses bolted, but Margaret and Annie stayed firm, despite the very obvious continuing danger. Going after the terrified animals and eventually leading them to safety.

All this and still, when she was aged 97, Margaret told the Daily Mail:

‘The war years at The Windmill were the best of my life. And boy, have I had a life!’

Pin up postcard of Margaret McGrath

Margaret was not a rare case! All The Windmill girls stepped up and risked a lot, many being only being in their late teens or early twenties.

They witnessed horrors right outside their front door and went on stage minutes later. They met and fell in love with soldiers by the stage door, who were killed just days later. And yet no matter what, these women acted as the positive, cheerful, sexy, fun face of the war effort.

And of course, they did all this whilst being publicly put on trial by the morality police.

And still, STILL, they got up every day and did it all again. That is bravery.

This was interesting! Where can I find out more? – check out Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London, by Judith R Walkowitz. It’s a fantastic read and contains so much more info on The Windmill

Natasha Tidd is 1/3 of F Yeah History. She’s worked at museums and heritage sites across the UK. A huge history nerd, she will happily talk your ear off about women’s history, over several glasses (be real, bottles) of wine

Mary Ellis: The Fierce Female Flyer of WWII

Mary Ellis lived an extraordinary life. She was an active flyer and British ferry pilot during the second world war. Later flying jet engines for the RAF, a claim only a handful of women would ever proudly hold.

Mary would put her life on the line to do what she loved. Completely fearless she knocked down whatever barriers faced her. Refusing to let anything, be that sexism or enemy fire, stop her from getting in her plane cockpit:

“I am passionate for anything fast and furious. I always have been since the age of three and I always knew I would fly.”

Pilot Mary Ellis in her cockpit.

Born Mary Wilkins, in February 1917, to a farming family in rural Oxfordshire, Mary’s passion for aviation was clear from the get go. Growing up close to Royal Air Force bases in Bicester and Port Meadow. She never missed a flying demonstration and her father, keen to fuel her dream, took her to as many shows as he could.

When Mary was 11 years old a flying circus came to town and her father paid for her to have a ride on a biplane (a thing you could totally let children do then…oh and if you were wondering, the plane was a de Havilland DH.60 Moth)

Like that, she was hooked. Mary was determined to become a pilot and spend the rest of her life in these magnificent flying machines. 

So, when she was 16 she started flying lessons and pretty quickly had her very own pilots license.

Hardly out of puberty AND already owning the skies – nice work Mary

In 1941 a call went out from the UKs ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) for pilots to help transport planes across the Chanel to the WWII front line. Naturally, Mary wanted to help the war effort in any way she could, so signed up and with 167 other brave female pilots who flew aircraft from Britain over to the front line flying squadrons. As well as transporting planes from factories to airfields over the UK too.

During the war Mary flew an estimated 1000 planes made up of 76 different types of aircraft, including 400 Spitfires, which were Mary’s favourite. She said of them:

“I love it, it’s everybody’s favourite, I think it’s a symbol of freedom.”

But, no matter her flying prowess, Mary didn’t always get the respect from others around her – sexism was a daily part of her life. 

Once when she flew a Wellington bomber to an airbase, the crew there refused to believe she’d been the one who flew the plane. They even searched the cockpit for the ‘real’ pilot. Mary remembered:

“Girls flying aeroplanes was almost a sin at that time.”

And it wasn’t just the troops. The press were very against the idea of women pilots seeing it as unbecoming and ‘unfitting of their sex’.

Mary’s mother also had her reservations about her daughter flying these monster machines. BUT, Mary refused to let anyone’s opinions stop her.

She loved being in the air. She loved to serve her country. And nothing could stop her from doing what she loved. 

Get it girl!

The job Mary, and the dozens of other women just like her, were doing was a dangerous one. Often the women had to fly a plane new to them, with no chance for test flights. They just had to rely on pilot’s notes to get the landings right.

And if they were taking a plane to the front line, the risks of getting shot down were high. In all 15 female pilots were killed while working for the ATA during WWII.

After the war Mary continued working with the RAF becoming one of the first female pilots to fly a Gloster Meteor Jet Engine, which had speeds of up to 616 miles per hour (991km/h)! They were absolute BEASTS!

In 1950 Mary moved to the Isle of Wight so she could take over running Sandown airport, she became the first woman air commandant, in charge of an airport in Great Britain!

While working there she met her future husband Don Ellis, a fellow pilot and they married in 1961, living in a house next to the Sandown runway. Now, Mary never needed to be away from her planes.

She managed Sandown for 20 years and founded the Isle of Wight Aero Club during that time too.

Mary with one of her beloved Spitfires

When Mary turned 100 (!) she was recognised for her contribution to aviation by RAF base at Brize Norton by a plaque celebrating her achievements.

Then in 2018 the Isle of Wight gave her their highest honour, the Freedom of the Isle of Wight.

Mary Ellis passed away this year on July 24th at the amazing age of 101, she was remembered by her family as being an amazing, warm and driven woman. Her story shows that courage and determination can get you so very far.

That was interesting, where can i find out more? Well there’s a magnificent biography on Mary: A Spitfire Girl: One of the World’s Greatest Female ATA Ferry Pilots Tells Her Story by Mary and Melody Foreman

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

The time the Red Cross tried to fix WW2 with doughnuts & dames

Meet The Clubmobile and the badass women who risked life and limb to travel to the front line…and deliver coffee and doughnuts to homesick troops. It might sound daft, but this scheme was crucial in boosting morale and keeping soldiers going during WW2.

Taking part in any active duty during a war is tough, but when you’re hundreds of miles from home in a totally different country hounded by the constant threat of death, it’s gonna make you miss home comforts. Which is why during WW2, The American Red Cross came up with, erm… a truly innovative way to give their boys overseas a taste of back home (and by innovative, we of course mean batshit)

America joined the war effort in December of 1941. And pretty soon, The good old US of A was getting reports back that their overseas troops were miserable. Unsurprising, considering war is an utter horror!

So the American Red Cross decided to try and bring US home comforts to Europe. They set up clubs and lounges in a blitz torn London and at some surrounding army barracks, where there were dances, coffee, food and good times all round. But what about the boys about to be shipped off to France? After all, they were feeling the fear most of all!

The Army asked The Red Cross to step in again and help. New York banker Harvey. D Gibson, happened to be the American Red Cross Commissioner to Great Britain and he had an idea! What if they could give the American’s the same home comforts, but on wheels! Thus, the Clubmobile was born.

A hot cup of coffee would be easy enough to serve up. But what about classic American food? Now obviously, they couldn’t serve up hamburgers from a tiny wagon on wheels that was parked next to a battlefield. So they came up with a close second, something that would surely bring a tear of joy to every traumatised soldier – doughnuts.

Me too… 🍩

A prototype Clubmobile was quickly pulled together, from an adapted Ford truck with a 10 horsepower engine that was dubbed the ‘St Louis’. Inside the truck was a little kitchen complete with doughnut maker and a hob to boil up water for coffee. 

Next they had to staff it. So a call was sent out across America for Clubmobile Girls. You had to be between the ages of 25 to 35 (so, hardly a girl then) and have some college education or work experience. You also needed to be ‘healthy, physically hardy, sociable and attractive.’

They were inundated with applications from women who wanted to help with the war effort and have an adventure overseas. These girls were quickly recruited and trained up on how to use the doughnut machine and make coffee by the bucketload…I guess they hoped that dodging bullets would hopefully just come naturally. 

A trainee Clubmobile girl Rosemary Norwalk  wrote to her family in 1943 that

“The biggest surprise to me has been the girls – almost without exception they‘re a cut above, and for some reason I hadn‘t expected that. There‘s not a dull one in the bunch.”

Group K Clubmobile girls in Leicester, England 1944

The initial pilot Clubmobile was a roaring success! So the Red Cross adapted a handful of London Green Line Buses to become Clubmobiles. These ones even had a small lounge, complete with a victrola, records, and paperback books!

The ‘girls’ also fought to get more useful items added to their clubmobiles, asking for gum, cigarettes, candy and (of course!) first aid kits for the soldiers. These women were looking out for their boys.

But these women were about to need A LOT more than first aid kits, because the Allied Army was cooking up something big: The Normandy Invasion of 1944. And, of course, for such a big fight, they wanted the Clubmobiles along to follow the army and keep troops morale up.

These brave women didn’t hesitate to say yes. But they couldn’t take the buses overseas. So the super hardy armoured Clubmobile was born. Made from converted 2 and a half ton GMC trucks. They had the kitchen and the lounge room (that doubled as bunks if the women couldn’t get to the base) and they even adapted one as a mobile cinema.

The Clubmobile girls would be driving these trucks and were trained on how to maintain them throughout their time overseas. Suddenly these women were learning new skills and being given responsibilities some of them never dreamed they could have.

Advert for Clubmobiles. Because of segregation there were seperate ones for white & black troops.

100 Clubmobiles were made, and then after the Normandy Invasion, 10 groups of Clubmobile girls and 8 Clubmobiles were initially sent over to follow the Army through their retaking of allied territory.

These women were in the thick of war and experienced the hardships and horrific injuries the soldiers faced every day. They took their role as relief from the fighting seriously.

Most of the women were single, with a few exceptions. Eleanor Stevenson, worked as a Clubmobile girl so she could follow her new husband, soldier William Edward Stevenson, through enemy territory and keep involved in the war effort.

That right there, is true love

It was hard work operating the Clubmobiles, shifts started at all hours and women did regular shifts from 8pm to 7am. The conditions were hellish and they were expected to stay open through all weather. Not all of the women could do it.

Mary McLeod from Oregon lasted 6 months on the Clubmobiles before ill health had her request to be sent back to a land club, she was in her early 30’s during her stint as a Clubmobile girl. She wrote home in 1944 that working took a:

“―terrific toll… you have to be the Amazon type and on the young side, and I am neither.”

Mary Metcalfe Texford was in the first group of women to land on Utah beach after the invasion and she wrote about her experiences following the Army. The devastation they saw and even on one occasion having to stay up all night because the threat of Nazi’s launching an attack was a very real possibility. They witnessed horrors too, with Mary recalling she saw a:

“boy get blown up by a mine while eating his doughnut and coffee.”

But Mary had to continue serving and got on with her work.

And it wasn’t just the boys they served who lost their lives. Clubmobile girl, Elizabeth Richardson lost her life in 1945, whilst transferring to join the troops in Germany, when her Red Cross plane crashed.

Elizabeth Richardson with her clubmobile, just a few months before her death

The Clubmobiles and the women who ran them, stayed with the Allied Army Forces through until the end of WWII on the 2nd of September 1945. A small number of Clubmobiles stayed behind in occupied Germany and some in London to keep the American troops who stayed behind in doughnuts and coffee.

In fact, the Clubmobile was such a success that a variation was used during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

That was interesting, where can I find out more? Well some of the Club Girls have memoirs! Mary Metcalfe Rexfords’ Battlestars & Doughnuts and Slinging Doughnuts for the Boys by historian James H Madison on the experiences of Rosemary Norwalk are both a look back at life as Clubmobile Girls.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

%d bloggers like this: