Archives: The Problem Of VD WW1

Innocent men in trenches cold and wet fighting for freedom, women working in factories manufacturing to protect their innocent boys, these images of the First World War leave little room in the British popular memory for sex and the serious problem of venereal disease (VD) during 1914-1918. However it was a serious problem by 1918, some 60,000 British and colonial troops were receiving treatment for VD. [1] It is no wonder then that tucked in the archive is a reference to VD, during an Education Committee meeting at Woolwich Polytechnic on 15th March 1916 the following was noted in the minutes:

 ‘A Letter dated 14th March 1916, was read from the medical Office of Health (Dr Sidney Davies) asking for the use of a room for a course of four lectures on behalf of the National Council for the combating of venereal disease.’

Every solider heading off to war left with Kitchener’s message in his pocket, stating that they would find ‘temptation in both wine and women’ and that they needed to ‘entirely resist both’[2]. This however was not enough to prevent the spread of VD. It was however not the men who were thought to spread the disease but ‘illicit’ women who lured ‘innocent’ young men with their ‘loose’ ways. Cleaning campaigns were started and in 1916 there was a Royal Commission on Venereal Disease, along with lectures like that held requested to be held at Woolwich Polytechnic, however this was not enough and finally the Defence of the Realm Act was passed to tackle the problem of these women and VD.

Despite these government policies and public awareness of the problem, the committee’s response to the request is not surprising:

 ‘That the use of a room in the polytechnic be granted, providing that no other accommodation can be obtained, and on condition there be no public announcement of the lectures’

The matter of VD was a controversial one which many did not want to discuss, from the above statement it is clear that the polytechnic wished to prevent its reputation as an upstanding institution from being tarnished.

There were many successive amendments to the Defence of the Realm act, however the problem of VD was never really solved. This is obvious with the start of the Second World War, when once again the problem arose. The difference being this time a more public propaganda campaign was started to target VD.

[1] George Robb, British Culture and the First World War, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), p.54

[2] Susan R. Grayzel, Women and the First World War, (Pearson Education Ltd, 2002), p.70

Explore Your Archive

Join us in celebrating National Archives Week from 8th to 14th November with a bespoke ‘Explore Your Archives’ poster for your office or notice board.

Available in all sizes from A5 to AO with an historic image remembering your location or department from the past 124 years. Example below:

explore-your-archives- east galleryContact for a poster or more information.

What will you say ARCHI’VE EXPLORED?


Archive: In Memoriam

James ATKINS, 22nd September 1914

James Atkins was the first of the University’s Alumni to lose his life in the First World War.

Able Seaman Atkins was aboard HMS Hogue on the morning of September 22nd 1914 on patrol in the North Sea with HMS Aboukir and HMS Cressy, all old Cressy Class Armoured Cruisers. An explosion caused Aboukir to sink and assuming it was a mine Hogue stopped to lower its boats. Too late it was realised that it was a torpedo attack by the German U-boat U9 which then fired two further torpedoes sinking Hogue, and a further three sinking Cressy. 1,459 crew lost their lives before Dutch and British merchant ships and trawlers arrived saving the remaining 837.

James, who was a student from September 1912 to April 1914 is remembered in the first edition of the Woolwich Polytechnic Magazine January 1916 pages 2 & 7, and on the Woolwich War Memorial. Link: Woolwich Polytechnic Magazine Jan 1916

As with all the University’s fallen, over the next four years we hope to build up a fuller picture of our former student James Atkins in order to preserve his memory in our Archive, where James’ student record can also be found.



Archives: WW1 Staffing

The next Archival record regarding the war comes in Reports to Governors and Committees February 1915 to July 1915. The Index lists under the entry War:-

Additional payment to certain members of staff

Billetting in Gymnasium

Enlistment of members of staff

Manufacture of munitions of war

Under the first heading, after the establishment of a staff subcommittee, the following decisions were agreed:

(a) That in the case of the men staff no action be taken at present

(b) That during the continuance of the war

1. Mrs. E. Shipston – the Refreshment Room Matron – receive an additional weekly payment of 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence/12.5p), making her total weekly payment of £1. 5. 0  (one pound an five shillings/£1.25).

2. Mrs. P. Staynes – House Matron – receive an additional weekly payment of 2/6, making her total weekly payment £1. 4. 6 (one pound four shillings and sixpence/£1.22.5)

3. The Charwomen engaged for cleaning to be paid at the rate of 6d per hour insted of 5d as at present



World War I: Pro Patria

The next war related record from the Archive appears in the Principal’s Report to the Education Committee, Wednesday, 2nd December, 1914 in Principal’s Reports  – 1914 -15.

UGA/WP/ 1/3/1914-1915/22


Several of the staff, many old boys and very many of the Evening Students and of the other members of the Polytechnic, are serving their country at the front or in other performances of military duty. It appears desirable that some permanent record should be made of this service. If the suggestion were considered favourably and due notice given it would enable us soon to secure as complete a list as possible. The method of making the record would be a matter for the General Purposes and Finance Committee and it therefore appears that for the present it would be sufficient to recommend to the Finance and General Purposes Committee and to the Governors –

That it is desirable that arrangements should be made to fix in some suitable position within the polytechnic a record of the names and service of those members of staff and of the students and members who are serving their country in other than a civil capacity during the present war.

Currently these records cannot be digitised, but are exhibited in the foyer of the Dreadnought Library.

World War One Centenary: Woolwich Polytechnic’s first response.

When Britain and the Empire declared war on Germany at 11pm on August 4th 1914, for violating Belgium’s neutrality, The Woolwich Polytechnic, forerunner of the University of Greenwich, was closed for the summer.

On re-openning in September the impact was not initially felt since most of the evening students worked at the Royal Arsenal and so were classed as a reserve profession, and the days school boys were too young to serve.

The first action by the Polytechnic was to set up special classes for those affected by the War, and a relief fund:

Transciption from ‘Reports to Governors and Committees August 1914  to January 1915′.




(a) That the opening of suitable separate classes/ in Trade Dressmaking and in Commercial subjects,/ exclusively  for those thrown out of employment/ by reason of the War, be approved, and that the/ Principal be empowered to admit eligible persons/ to these classes without payment of fees.

(b) That the Principal be empowered to admit Belgian/ refugees in to the ordinary classes without payment/ of fees.

(c) That a class be formed for former scholars of the/ Girls’ Trade Schools, who are discharged by reason/of the War.

(d) That Mr. E. C. Hulin be engaged to conduct this/ class at a salary of 10/6 per evening.



That the Governors raise no objection to the/ formation of a Polytechnic fund for the relief of/ persons distressed by the War, on condition that donations are not canvassed.



Don’t Digitise the Dirt?

Sorry to all those of you who were hoping to see the McMillan Sisters’ Lantern Slides which I promised last week. We’ve discovered that they need cleaning or we’ll ‘digitise the dirt’.

If we’re right in our assumption that these were the slides used by Margaret McMillan on her lecture tours, then  it could be argued that the ‘dirt’ is archival if we could identify the finger prints as Margaret’s. Yes, archive science is often forensic.

So the question is, do we ‘digitise the dirt’, then clean and digitise again. Twice the work, and twice the digital storage space.

Here’s a picture of Margaret to be going on with. If you search on Google Images, you will see that there might be a problem with this image. Its something we often face when digitising old glass slides.





Rachel McMillan

Rachel McMillan was born in New York on 25th March, 1859, and her sister Margaret the following year on 20th July, 1860. Their parents, James and Jean McMillan, had originally come from Inverness but had emigrated to America in 1840. In 1865 James and his other daughter Elizabeth died. Mrs. McMillan took her two young daughters back to Scotland, but died in 1877. Rachel remained in Inverness to nurse her grandmother, while Margaret went to train as a governess.

After Rachel’s grandmother died in July 1888 she joined Margaret in London and the two remained together for most of the rest of their lives. Margaret, who was employed as a junior superintendent in a home for young girls, found Rachel a similar job in Bloomsbury.

Rachel and Margaret attended socialist meetings where they met William Morris. They also began contributing to the magazine Christian Socialist and gave free evening lessons to working class girls in London. It was at this time that they became aware of the connection between physical environment and intellectual development.

In 1908 they opened the country’s first school clinic in Bow. This was followed by the Deptford Clinic in 1910 serving schools in the area. The clinic provided dental help, surgical aid and lessons in breathing and posture. The sisters also established a Night Camp where slum children could wash and wear clean nightclothes.

In 1914 the sisters opened a Nursery School Deptford, with classrooms opening on to a garden. The Rachel McMillan Nursery still operates on its original site in many of its original buildings and this year celebrates its centenary. Rachel, who had suffered from poor health for a long time, died on 25th March, 1917. In 1930 Margaret opened a training college for nursery teachers next to the nursery and named it after her, and this eventually became part of Thames Polytechnics. The University owns a substantial and often used archive from the College, and in preparation for the centenary celebrations we are digitising a collection of lantern slides which we believe Margaret used on her many lecture tours. We have chosen these to open the University Archive Blog, the first on-line presence for the University’s archival treasures.