The Girl Porters, or Girl Messengers, were employed in the House of Commons by the Serjeant-at-Arms department to deliver mail between offices during labour shortages in the First World War. Their names were Elsie and Mabel Clark (aged 16 & 14), Dorothy Hart (age 18) and Vera Goldsmith (age 16). They were the first women employed by the House of Commons who were not either cleaning or kitchen staff, and an excellent example of women substituting for men in wartime.
The Assistant Serjeant at Arms, Walter H Erskine, was responsible for their employment at the House of Commons from April 1917. He described their work:
'Their duties would be to deliver letters etc from the various Offices in the House of Commons, and their hours of duty would be from 10 am to 6 pm week days on week days, except Saturdays, with a reasonable time off for meals. The wages would be 9/s per week for a girl of 14–16 years of age, and 12/s per week for one of 16–18, with 1/s per week War Bonus in addition in both cases, and these would be paid during the Session and adjournment of Parliament but not during such time as it is prorogued. Uniform would also be supplied.'
Two of the Girl Porters he employed were sisters with a family connection to Parliament, as 'Nieces of Porter Clark'. Elsie Rose Clark and Mabel Edith Clark were daughters of John, a police constable, and Olive Clark, who had seven children. Their uncle Samuel, younger brother of John, was employed by the Serjeant from 1898 and promoted to Porter in 1912. He volunteered for war service but told to return home because he was a widower with a child. The other two Girl Porters came to Parliament from the War Office. Dorothy Gladys Hart was the daughter of a munitions worker, and Veronica (known as Vera) Agnes Goldsmith the daughter of a gas fitter. Both worked in dressmaking before coming to work as a girl messenger at the War Office in 1916, and were then recommended for work in the House of Commons.
Before the Girl Porters were due to start work, Erskine clearly had very serious reservations about employing them, and was doubtful about how well they would be able to carry out their work. He wrote to the Speaker, James Lowther, to warn him, 'As it is an innovation.'
But by the end of their employment, Erskine's doubts and fears had been completely allayed. Sadly, Mabel Clark died on 19 November 1918 from influenza and double pneumonia, aged just 15, but the other three girls continued in post until male staff began to return from the armed forces to their previous posts in 1919, and Erskine had to dispense with their services. He gave them excellent references, and wrote to the War Office:
'It is impossible for me to speak too highly of the way these 3 girls have done their work while at the House of Commons, and their conduct has been exemplary throughout.'
Elsie Clark, Dorothy Hart and Vera Goldsmith did go to work at the War Office for a short period immediately afterwards, but then sought work elsewhere. It is not known what happened to Elsie Clark, although her Uncle Samuel continued to work for the Serjeant for the rest of his career. Dorothy Hart returned to dressmaking, then had a family, and lived to the ripe old age of 82. Vera Goldsmith pursued office work, and Erskine wrote a reference for the Food Control Office in Croydon in August 1919, saying she was 'Quick, intelligent, gave complete satisfaction.' She died aged 49, described on her death certificate as a 'Butcher's Cashier'.
Further reading: Mari Takayanagi, 'Parliament and Women c1900–1945', PhD thesis, King's College London, 2012, pp248–255.
Image copyright: Imperial War Museum
Women's War Work During the First World War, A group portrait of three War Office workers: (left to right) and outdoor messenger, an indoor messenger and a supervisor, circa 1916.