The local girl who ‘did her bit’ on the home front

Gladys Whitney as she appeared in the BFP in May 1918
Gladys Whitney as she appeared in the BFP in May 1918
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Ian Pettit’s recollections of family life in Bury St Edmunds in the 1920s reveal how hard life was for many working people after World War One.

His mother Gladys Whitney had done her bit for the war effort in Bury St Edmunds’ munition factories, his father was in the army of occupation in Germany, probably with the Suffolk Regiment, and his uncle was gassed in France and never settled down after the war.

The Robert Boby building at the Museum of East Anglian Life

The Robert Boby building at the Museum of East Anglian Life

Ian’s whole family was from Bury, where Ian lived until he was evacuated with his private school in 1942, went to study engineering and was then called up just as World War Two ended. Now 87, he lives in Bedford with his wife Shirley.

He says Gladys’ family was ‘monied’ with her father Cecil owning shops and other properties in Bury, but that did not stop her working in munitions.

She seems to have been a local celebrity because when the Bury Free Press published a picture of her on May 18, 1918, when she left the factory, it referred to her as ‘a certain young lady, well known in Bury St Edmunds, who has been patriotically devoting her time to assisting in the output of munitions’ without reporting her name.

The story says she was popular among her workmates, in spite of playing tricks on them, and the picture shows her clutching the ‘bouquet’ of vegetables they presented her with, along with an inscribed ‘medal’ and an ‘illuminated address’.

Ian said: “Neither of them spoke about what they did. They never spoke about the seriousness of it.

“I remember there were a lot of ‘misses’ then because they were women who had lost their boyfriends and husbands in the war. My mother was one of them because her first love was killed in the war and she married my father on the rebound.”

He believes she worked for the engineering company Robert Boby, whose factory was on the site of Bury Waitrose. That seems likely because, while Boby’s were best known for agricultural machinery, they certainly made munitions during the war.

Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, after doing a votes for women deal with Lloyd George, had set up a register of working women and in 1915 Robert Boby wrote to her from his St Andrews Ironworks asking for ‘the services of 10 to 15 women’ who could work lathes and drills to make high explosive shells.

A surviving building from Boby’s factory can now be visited at the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket (pictured left).

There were other munitions manufacturers in Bury, though, including what had been the T H Nice Garage in Abbeygate Street.

Ian’s father owned Pettit’s Ice Cream in St John’s Street, which fell victim to the 1920s recession and Ian remembers the bailiffs coming in, until his grandfather came to the financial rescue.

But Ian said: “There were war veterans going through that. I can remember my father getting food for them and making them tea — there were all sorts of people who hadn’t got work. These people found it very tough.”

But his uncle Cyril Whitney faced different difficulties. Like his father, he went into the grocery business but Ian says never had a wife or a home of his own and when he retired it was to digs in Hastings.

Ian recalled: “The family put it down to his wartime experiences, which led him to lead this lonely life. I think it was the gas that affected him in some way regarding socialisation.

“He was very kind, gentlemanly.”

Shirley added: “He was very quietly spoken, but very knowledgeable.”

But it seems Cyril was never able to rid himself of the legacy of his wartime experiences.

Tell us about your relatives in World War One. Contact John Henderson on or call 01284 757821.