British Women Go To War by J.B. Priestley / P.G. Hennell

For my first post I’m looking at this example of Second World War British propaganda published by Collins in about 1942-43 (there’s no date in the book but from the comments in the text I would estimate that it was around this time). There’s nothing like a big war to bring out the propaganda book makers and this publication is interesting for 2 reasons; firstly it covers the little talked about contribution made by women to the war effort in Britain and secondly, it uses some remarkable colour images taken by P.G. Hennell to illustrate the various roles women undertook during the war.

There are 49 colour photographs, mostly full page, with a mixture of posed portraits and apparently unposed (!) images of women busily engaged in the usual activities of wartime; fixing planes, driving lorries, hammering bits of metal, sorting cans and caring for the wounded.

The use of colour photography in publications was something that the public was not particularly used to at this time (particularly in wartime) and Hennell makes the most of the medium in a couple of striking images that are saturated with bright primary colours. The bright red and yellow steel tubes being cut by the woman on the lathe in an otherwise dull industial setting and the enormous mound of discarded tins with their brightly coloured labels that dwarf the two women recycling them.

Khaki uniforms, dimly lit factories and military settings mean that other images are more muted in their tones.

Turning to Priestley’s text, which is shockingly patronising and sexist in places although he does indicate that the days of the dutiful pre-war housewife were over, he attempts to engage the reader by providing snippets of human-interest background about the women photographed by Hennell. For a publication produced in the middle of a war which was far from over, this book is of remarkable quality and the proliferation of colour throughout, from it’s striped dust jacket to the images inside, make it a very interesting example of British war time propaganda.


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