From Dress-Making to Sail-Making
Birmingham dressmaking apprentice Marjorie Peers was just 17 when she signed up at the Labour Exchange to help the war effort, in search of “a bit of an adventure”.
In a 1980s oral history interview, now lodged with Birmingham Archives, Marjorie explains that she joined up in 1917 because it was a “bit of an Adventure”. She was under-age and her father would never have allowed it, but when he found out he told her “You’ve made your bed, you’ve got to lie in it.”
Marjorie was drafted into the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and sent to Stonehenge Airfield, where her dressmaking skills would be put to good use making the wings – or ‘sails’ – for newly constructed light aircraft.
Months of hard graft, excitement and adventure followed as Marjorie bunked down in communal huts at Larkhill with other girls of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, travelling each day over Salisbury Plain to her work station and enjoying by night the concerts and entertainments laid on for the thousands of troops from all different regiments. Although, says Marjorie, “they were in those days very strict with us; we were sort of locked in the camp and you weren’t free to do as you liked […] the Royal Warwickshire was our nearest camp and there was really no need to leave Salisbury Plain – you could find your amusement there if you wanted it. And if a regiment was having a concert they sent an invitation to the officers on our camp and probably sent a lorry to collect us or something like that, you see. Then we used to go on the invitation and be brought back.”
The task of making sails for aeroplanes demanded the skill and dexterity of the most talented of dressmakers. They were made of “lovely Egyptian cotton” says Marjorie. “We hand sewed them and then we doped them to shrink them and painted them, and at the finish they were like metal is today.” The sails were then stitched onto the frame with industrial sewing machines and the planes would be taken out for a test flight before being declared fit for service.
In 1918, when the Women’s Royal Air Force was formed, Marjorie was re-mustered and given a new number. She was eventually demobbed and returned to Birmingham, becoming a tailoress in years to come. Her skills were to be called upon a second time around, as she stitched balloon silks during the Second World War.
These photos, Oral History recording and the transcript of an oral history interview with Marjorie Peers are shared with the Wiltshire at War project with kind permission of Birmingham Archives and Heritage.
Listen to extracts:
EXTRACT 1: Marjorie talks about how the ‘wings’ of sails were made:
EXTRACT 2: Marjorie talks about joining the WAACS and living at Larkhill Camp on Salisbury Plain:
EXTRACT 3: Marjorie talks about joining up and going up in a plane: