Elsie Gainham was born in 1908 in Manchester and died in 1999 aged 90 years. Her life appears to have been devoted to the Temperance cause and also helping others facing adversity. As you will read below her passion for sharing the temperance message, and her commitment to others spanned 65 years right from her early 20’s in 1930, and we are lucky to hold some of her correspondence and reports from across this period within our archives. With V E Day approaching on 8 May it is good to remember the willing and unselfish service that people like Elsie gave to us during the Second World War…..
After training for social and youth work, Elsie was just 20 years old when she became the Lancashire County Union Organiser for National British Women’s Total Abstinence Union in 1930, so she effectively worked for the White Ribbon and the World organisation for 65 years! She went on to serve as Organising Secretary with the Manchester and Salford WCTA Police Court Mission to Women. The Manchester and Salford Womens Christian Temperance Association was an affiliated organisation to NBWTA and was directly linked to the Police Courts Mission. PCM pursued Reformatory for Inebriate Women and Police Matrons for female prisoners in its earliest days. It was back in the late 1800’s that the Manchester and Salford WCTA and Police Court Mission petitioned for better treatment of arrested females including having female police matrons. The missionaries of the PCM tried to support these women and turn around their moral and physical health.
During the years of the Second World War, Elsie founded a service organising Canteens for men and women of the Services as well as a Mobile Canteen Service for the people in the Air Raid Shelters. The newspaper clipping here details Elsie’s work on the Manchester mobile canteen, continuing through the black outs and air raids. I discovered an extract in a ‘Century of Service 1876-1976’…’In Manchester the Air Raid shelters were crowded with frightened men, women and children. Seeing the need, and the possibility of rendering comfort, Miss Gainham went to the Lord Mayor and asked if he could help the Manchester Women’s Christian Temperance Association to obtain a van. He agreed to do this and not only did the people have soup, hot drinks and food, but little services were held in the shelters….’.
The book goes on to say ‘In another area a Coffee Cart was destroyed, The Manchester and Salford Canteen which used to be driven by Miss Elsie Gainham – now the valued WWCTU Organiser in Europe – was put out of action by incendiary bombs. At a time when all Manchester seemed to be on fire, our courageous workers went on with their duties; incendiary bombs were falling all around them, shrapnel was flying through the air, and as they had not been issued with tin helmets since they belonged to a voluntary organisation they wore saucepans on their heads’. Elsie described how the ‘Water Wagon’ toured the air raid shelters each night from 8.30 pm to 2 am and even later if there was a raid! She said ‘the gratitude of the shelterers cannot be easily expressed. They cannot forget that somebody had at last thought about them….’.
Confirmation of her ‘keep calm and carry on’ determination is evidenced in an article of the 1941 White Ribbon magazine, which describes the bomb incident; ‘Miss Gainham dealt modestly with the incident which nearly put the van out of action, but not those in charge of it. A bomb struck the Canteen and set it on fire, “but we were not leaving it to burn” she (Elsie) commented. “By a miracle we were able to start it and it continued its good work for another eight hours. It cost us more than £100 to make the damage good”.’ Elsie and her colleagues were thankfully uninjured during this time despite the ‘severe struggle the fire was got under control and extinguished’….maybe she used a saucepan for protection too!
The 1961 letter goes on to say, “Realising more than ever the tragedy and chaos of war, Miss Gainham volunteered for service in Germany with a voluntary Relief Team, and there played a valuable part for the next 6 ½ years in the bombed out cities and refugee camps…”.
We think that Elsie went to Germany around 1946 as part of Relief Section 150 – International Voluntary Service for Peace (IVSP) and we know from a card that she was in Duisberg in 1948. IVSP was the British branch of Service Civil International.
Our records contain a translated typed report ‘Distressed condition of the population in Duisberg’. It goes into a vivid description some of the dreadful living conditions suffered by those still living in a town where 50% of the centre had been destroyed by bombs and ‘at present the population is in an extremely precarious position with regard to the bare necessities of life’, with some still living overcrowded in damp, dark cellar dwellings. The food situation was desperate and ‘many children go to school without breakfast because they haven’t got any more bread’. As Elsie was working there, she must have witnessed the terrible hardship being endured by the population.
At the end of the Second World War, millions of people had been displaced from their home countries. Refugees and displaced persons included former prisoners of war, released slave labourers, concentration-camp survivors and those of German descent who were expelled out of surrounding countries into defeated Germany. Several displaced-persons camps were set up in the Oldenburg region of Germany. The immediate concern was to provide shelter, nutrition, and basic health care and a travel document discovered in our archive provides evidence that Elsie worked in the Oldenburg refugee camps.
A detailed report by Elsie of the work that was undertaken here to improve the situation, included organisation of libraries, sewing rooms, carpenter shops, wash rooms, common rooms, ‘Kinderhort’ for children of all ages, and camp committees. It provides examples of the supplies distributed in the camps including 9000 tablets of soap, 500 blankets and quilts, 2000 bars of chocolate and 1800 large packets of seeds. The report goes on to speak of Elsie’s own personal experience ‘…..I can still hear the voice of an old man saying: ‘If I did not have the responsibility for my wife, I would have put an end to it long ago’ and a young law student admitting ‘I thought I could never bring myself to beg, but when one has had nothing to eat for two days the hunger drives one to do it’.
Elsie was working under very difficult circumstances yet towards the end of the report she says of herself, when talking of the widespread distress ‘That is why I do not begrudge the large amount of time and energy I have to spend on distributing the relief supplies sent to me. In spite of the comparatively small amount available in relation to the wide area covered, it does far more good than one imagines, because of the encouragement it gives to all those who have to face this onslaught of suffering humanity…’
I have not been able to pin down the exact date that Elsie’s volunteer work ended in Germany but following her return, Elsie became the World Woman’s Christian Temperance Union Organiser for Germany, travelling to many countries in her temperance work right up to the 1980’s.
The son of Elsie’s niece shared a lovely memory of her when she returned to England to visit during this time, “…… She liked her cars and would arrive in German registered vehicles. She took us for a drive one time in this new Ford Taunus Sport and it was amazing as it was left hand drive, was fast and had a button in the floor that when she pressed it with her foot it sprayed water onto the windscreen. Nothing like it in the UK at the time. She had a robust organising character. There was this story about how she had driven through the Mersey tunnel and changed lanes several times [ which you are not supposed to do ] and the Police pulled her over. As she spoke German and her car was German registered – she never went into English and so they let her go due to thinking she was a German national who could not understand them. She told us this story with glee.” This is a lovely glimpse into her personality.
In the late 1960’s one of her reports lists the countries she has visited including Germany, England, Switzerland, Austria, Greece, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Hungary in the service and witness of Total Abstinence! One of the last reports of Elsie’s that we hold from 1982 states….”During this period I have addressed 112 groups, travelled approximately 6200 miles and written 103 letters”. Her continued energy and dedication are to be admired!
In the conclusion of her last report as European Organiser in the 1980’s she writes ‘……I am grateful that I have had the health and strength throughout the years, enabling me to do this work, but now, after 30 years’ service, I feel that the time has come for me to retire from full time service, although never from the ideals and need for White Ribbon witness, and anything I can do to serve, I will be happy to do so.’
Elsie died in October 1999 in Hertfordshire, and I think that it is fair to say that Elsie’s dedication to her temperance ideals and helping others, never wavered throughout her long life. It has been a pleasure to find out more about Elsie’s life’s work, especially during the war. She must have made such a positive impact on so many lives during those difficult war years and beyond, and we are very happy to remember and share some of her story here.