We were pleased to meet with local Brighton resident Mary Funnell recently through The Orange Lilies – Brighton & Hove in the Somme project, and through her discovered a treasure trove of Brighton and Hove in WWI memories.
Mary’s paternal family had the surname Bamber and moved to first Portslade and then Brighton in around 1905 from London, when Alice Bamber (Mary’s paternal aunt) was five.
Mary remembers many of this side of her family and knew them well, many of them living to a ripe old age in the 1980s and 1990s, with Mary’s father being the youngest of the Bamber children.
Alice Bamber was born in 1900 in Clapton (Hackney), London to William Eccleston Bamber and Emma Bamber (nee Robinson).
When the family moved to Brighton to be closer to other members of the family, Mary remembers that her grandmother Emma ran a little shop on the Elm Grove and the family lived nearby. Two further Bamber children were born in Portslade in 1905 (Evelyn) and Ralph in Brighton in 1907 (Mary’s father).
William (Mary’s grandfather) worked as an orderly at the Royal Pavilion when it operated as a hospital for Indian Soldiers in 1915 and later on until the end of WWI, and used to take son Ralph Bamber as a small boy, who remembered meeting Indian men for the first time and talking to them.
The Bamber children attended Elm Grove School in Brighton. These school images were taken in 1910 and 1915.
From the private collection of Dennis Parrett
In 1916 when the Somme was starting, Alice Bamber turned 16, she found a job in one of the four munitions factories in the city (although we’re not certain which) and helped to support the war effort as a result. Here’s a photo of her at the time in her munitions uniform.
Although we don’t know which factory she was based in, the closest one at the time to Elm Grove where she lived, was the Light & Co Munition Works based at Circus Street, Brighton so perhaps she worked there.
There are no photos to be found of this factory, but what has materialised is a song written by ‘the girls’ who worked at the factory called ‘Never Mind’ (See left) and the song sheet sales were used to helped raise funds to support wounded British soldiers in local Brighton hospitals.
It is likely that the song was a re-working of a popular classic during the war called “Never Mind”. The munition girls may have been inspired by the original. Music hall resources say that the chorus was sung to the tune of “If You’re Happy And You Know It, Clap Your Hands”. It fits quite nicely!
Another related factory was an ‘aircraft factory’ on St. James’s Street where workers used to make the ‘dope’ as they called it to treat the fabric of the wings and body of planes.
Brighton Aircraft Factory in WWI: From the family collection of Dave Cresdee
It was a dangerous job in these factories albeit well paid, and better work with more freedom than working in domestic service, but many women worked with trinitrotoluene (TNT), and suffered prolonged exposure to the nitric acid that turned the women’s skin a yellow colour. The women whose skin was turned yellow were popularly called canary girls.
Munitions workers handled highly flammable and explosive materials and, despite regulations banning matches and hair pins from factories, there were accidents. Like soldiers, factory workers wore tags, so that their bodies could be identified after an explosion.
Another local munitions factory Allen West was a big employer for young women too. Another young Brighton lady worked there:
“My mother, Amy Lee, who later became Amy Jones … had many jobs including being a cook at Divalls, Smiths in Lewes Road, a greengrocer in Lewes Road and Cooks the Jam Factory. When war broke out she went to Allen West to work on munitions and said that while she was there one of the floors collapsed. It was said that the weight of the munitions was too great.”
Alice had 8 siblings. One sister – Evelyn May who was a school teacher in London but who was tragically killed during a bombing raid in London when the house he lived in suffered a direct hit in 1944.
Ralph, Mary’s father was too young to serve in WWI lived until 1993.
During WWII, Ralph drove buses in Brighton and on the day of the bombing on Rock Street and Chesham Place on 14th September 1940, he was driving a bus going along Eastern Road towards the gas containers, with a conductor on board and an empty bus.
Approaching Chesham Place one bomb dropped in front of the bus and another behind it somewhere. Both he and the conductor were knocked out for a little while and came to uninjured. They carried on driving to the terminus and back to Pool Valley, where they were reprimanded by the inspector for being a half hour late.
At one time he lived with Mary his daughter (Funnell born in 1953) and family on Springfield Road, Brighton from 1953 to 1964. Ralph used to go to the Springfield pub, was in the local darts team and played Old Father Time at New Year.
Alice Bamber married in 1922 to George Woolf Jepson, a blind piano tuner. They lived for a long time in Brading Road, Brighton.
They went on to have a daughter (and possibly other children. Her daughter (Doris) Marie became a long serving midwife in the city.
Alice died in 1990, at the ripe old age of 90, living at the time in 14 Gordon Road, Brighton.
Her great niece Mary still lies in the city and has many happy memories of her family and the history of Brighton & Hove. Mary was born in the workhouse, which later became Brighton General Hospital and educated in the Industrial School for waifs and strays, as it used to be known originally by the locals.
The official title for this was the Warren Farm Industrial School, Woodingdean, which was designed by the Brighton Board of Guardians as an industrial school for poor children whom it was not considered appropriate to keep in the workhouse with adults. This later changed its name to the Fitzherbert R.C. School in Woodingdean, (now the Nuffield hospital) in the early 1960s.