The song, ‘A Munition Dirge’, had been found in the Vickers Instruments Archive at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York. We were shown it by one of our members, Sue Raines, who was researching WW1 songs for another project.
Vickers had acquired the Bishophill based scientific instrument manufacturing business of T. Cooke & Sons in 1915, opening a new factory then. All we knew from the document was that the song was written by ‘E.D.Jefferson’ but there was no music, just the lyrics on a sheet, describing the personal experiences of a group of female munitions workers at Cooke’s.
At first it proved difficult to identify the writer, but eventually we struck lucky and discovered that the name was Ella Dunnington-Jefferson. We were able to confirm this by finding her Red Cross nursing service record on the British Red Cross Volunteers during the First World War database. Group member Anne Houson has now written about the background to her story here.
As York Explore Library & Archives were featuring the WW1 and archives in their autumn programme we decided it would be an excellent opportunity to perform this song. It paints a characterful picture of a group of women working together under difficult circumstances. (Clearly this particular group were middle/upper class women and it leads to the need for further research into the role of class in wartime work for women).
A few women in our group have experience in choral singing and dramatics and so these talents were harnessed, together with the borrowing of appropriate costumes. In the absence of music the group improvised.
Ella died at the age of 46 in 1934, unmarried. Excitingly however, we were able to trace her great niece, Annabelle, who still lives locally and came with her family to see the performance. We also heard from Ella’s niece, Nicolette, who lives in London. She was thrilled to hear about our researches and hopes to visit us early next year, when we plan to stage this again at our next event on 27 January 2017 at Clements Hall.
Interestingly the group involved in developing and staging this performance really enjoyed the process and hope to be able to perform some more WW1 stories from our researches.