New exhibition reveals Doncaster women’s role in First World War

Home front territorials at Cusworth Hall.

Home front territorials at Cusworth Hall.

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A new exhibition has been launched which will reveal how the women of Doncaster’s country houses played a crucial part in the First World War.

Entitled ‘Estate of War: Doncaster’s Country Houses 1914-18’ at Cusworth Hall, it will lift the lid on how the town’s wealthy women turned their grand residences into home front battlegrounds while heirs and workers of the great estates fought on the front line.

The free exhibition has involved volunteers putting in more than 156 hours of research and project leaders say it takes a major step forward in understanding Doncaster’s home front.

Jude Holland, project manager for Doncaster 1914-18, said: “It’s difficult to imagine how important country estates were in the early 20th century as so few survive today.

“Country houses were the lifeblood of their local areas, and thousands of people relied on them for employment, education - and even entertainment. During the First World War, they continued to play a pivotal role, thanks to their home front heroes – the women who made a significant contribution to the war effort.”

The exhibition tells the forgotten stories of families and workers on the region’s country estates, bringing together treasured letters, photographs and souvenirs for the first time.

Students from Doncaster University College have also developed a ‘listening post’ in the exhibition, recreating extraordinarily personal moments from wartime letters, both humorous and horrific.

The exhibition shows how some turned their entire homes into hospitals, like Julia Warde-Aldam of Hooton Pagnell Hall and Sophia Flora Skipwith of Loversal Hall. Julia and Sophia helped hundreds of soldiers, kept in touch with many of them when they returned to the front line, and won an MBE and OBE respectively.

One anonymous soldier-poet wrote of Loversal Hall: “The stately homes of Britain… Where many a high-born beauty her gracious warfare raged, Men at the call of duty, lie broken, maimed and aged, And many a man is living, Who for his death has prayed, Thanks to his maker giving that he the woman made.”

Lynsey Slater, project researcher for Doncaster 1914-18, said: “Many women signed up to be nurses and treated thousands of soldiers from all over the world in these home front hospitals. Others took on traditional male roles, working on the land. And as gender boundaries were being broken down by the war, so were age-old class boundaries. Workers and masters fought alongside each other at the front, and mistresses and their nurses served alongside each other on the home front.”

The exhibition is one of a series of events planned as part of the wider four-year Heritage Lottery funded Doncaster 1914-18 project.