Monday, 29 July 2013


1915 was a turbulent year for Elizabeth (Bess) Blaney and Harry Lewis Welch during which they were faced with some difficult decisions and experienced life changing events.

Firstly, a new baby was welcomed into the Blaney family and since it had been nine years since the last addition to the family this event likely caused some drama. A daughter, Martha Louise was born on February 28, 1915. At the time, Bess was about eighteen years of age and likely living at home helping to care for her new sister. She may or may not have been still working as a baby nurse as well but by the end of the year she would be working in a munitions factory. 

Many manufacturers in Birmingham, as elsewhere, converted their operations to produce items for the war effort and many of their employees were women. One such was the Mills Munitions Factory which supplied the 'Mills Bomb' hand grenade to the British and Allied armies throughout the war. The factory was located at Bridge St. W, Birmingham, less than five miles from Sherbourn Road, Balsall Heath where Bess was living, so perhaps this was where she was working. She laughingly told of it being so hot from the heat of the furnaces and the wearing of a heavy leather apron that the women wished to remove their upper garments while on the job. Not an easy job, working 7am until 7pm for about £l pound a week but Bess was strong and she continued to do physically difficult work most of her life.

While Bess left the family home when Martha Louise (Lou) was less than one year old, she did live nearby for the next seven years before emigrating. Bess left England in 1923 and she would not see her only sister again until 1929 in Canada. Martha Louise (Lou) was age fourteen and Bess was thirty-two and married with three children. They did not see each other again for many more years. Lou lived in Birmingham, married there and had three children before emigrating to Canada with her own family in 1956. This photo was taken on the beach in Toronto.With eighteen years between the sisters, Lou was only one year older than Bess’s son. It is hard to say how much the distance in geography and age affected their relationship but it was somewhat rocky over the years.

Unfortunately by late-summer of 1915, Bess discovered she was pregnant. There was of course no pregnancy test at the local pharmacy but likely she knew the symptoms. I can only imagine her mixed emotions; uncertainty, joy, fear, anxiety, embarrassment, shame? She was in love with Harry but I don’t know how he felt at the time, whether or not there had been talk of marriage and a future together. They had likely known each other less than a year. Family lore has it that Harry’s family was not pleased and I don’t suppose Bess’s family was either.

To be unmarried and pregnant was to be a social outcast. Girls would often be ostracized by their friends, families and employers. Certainly it was a less open time; sex education did not exist and even though Bess’s mother had several full term pregnancies and miscarriages it is unlikely they talked of such things. Her relationship with her mother was not a close one and she probably didn’t know that her oldest brother had been born six months after the marriage of their parents.

About nine years later Bess wrote in response to a letter to the editor of the Montreal Star:

How many people criticize the fallen girl and condemn her. They do not know that maybe there is a heart perhaps a better and cleaner than their own in that body, but one who has possibly had no sunshine in her young life and when she comes out to her own she may likewise meet one of their own sons or sons of their kind who take her around and she thinks surely a fellow who would be good enough to interest himself in her could be only doing so for good.

Alas, many a girl who has had no pleasures as a youngster ………….and of all things a mother’s love and care - thinks she has struck heaven itself. But to her sorrow, she pays and pays dear. She’s never been told the things that careful mothers tell. She’s never had the things she has now and on she goes blindly. How many realize that many a bad girl is good inside, better than the mother’s darling that led her astray The boy his mother idolized is sometimes far worse than the boy who has suffered (I wonder why?).”

She wrote this at age twenty-seven, married with two children, living thousands of miles away from her family in England.

And there was a war on. 

Bess’s older brother William (Bill) had been serving in the Navy since 1911 when he was 15 ½ and in 1915 he was stationed at the HMS Excellent in Portsmouth Harbour. This was a shore establishment known as the home of the Royal Navy gunnery, located in the County of Hampshire on the south coast of England. In January 1920 Bill was awarded an RHS Bronze medal for saving a life in Portsmouth Harbour. He was twenty-four years old and serving as an Able Seaman on the HMS Terror. 

Also, there was the looming threat of mandatory conscription for men such as Harry; those who were young and single. 

England had declared war on Germany August 4, 1914 and by the spring of 1915 the flow of recruits was slowing. While the government was reluctant to mandate compulsory military service, they began by raising the upper age of eligibility from 38 to 40 then passing the National Registration Act to stimulate recruitment. Under the Act all those not in the military and between the age of 15 and 64 were obliged to register and give the details of their employment. 

In October 1915 a program called the Derby Scheme gave men two choices; volunteer or attest with the obligation to come if called up. Those who registered were classified as married or single and grouped by age then placed in Section B of the Reserves They were sent back to their homes and jobs until they were called up for military service. 

To Harry, with fatherhood quickly approaching, it likely seemed a good idea to attest under the Scheme. It would delay active war service and allow him to continue to work close to home until he was actually called up. Then there were options - to appeal the date, perhaps some choice of regiment in which to serve and some men with occupations that were needed in the war effort were placed further down the list and thus called to service later than others.

The last day of registration under the Derby Scheme was to be Saturday, December 11, 1915 and that was the day Harry signed up for the army.