Nora Pennington

Nora Pennington

The story of Nora Pennington and her contribution to the war effort is a prime example of oral history of the First World War. David Gleason, a school friend of Pennington, is quoted in Jacqueline Kent’s work In the Half Light as saying,

We began hearing a lot about “the war effort” and people stopped saying the war would be over in six months, or even a year. Whenever I came home from school, the house was full of women clicking knitting needles and manipulating dark wool, and making huge quantities of socks, vests, mittens and mufflers, as well as sewing pyjamas and shirts. Mum ran Red Cross with first aid and bandage rolling…Mum, who was in a leading light in the CWA (Country Women’s Association) as well as the Red Cross, spent more and more of her time on the war effort.” Nora Pennington, the good little girl who had written the composition about Gallipoli was the school’s sock knitter.

Nora Pennington would spend her lunchtimes and breaks in school sat with her ankles neatly crossed and her boots buttoned, turning the heels of the socks very prettily. She was a “Champion knitter”who won the district record for the number of socks, mufflers, mitten and balaclava helmets knitted by anybody under the age of thirteen. Her father made sure that the news reached the front page of his paper with the heading “Little Nora does her bit.”

The craze for civilian knitting was born during the First World War in many of the countries involved, including Nora’s Canada, as civilians on the home front began to knit for a cause. The garments that were produced in this craze – gloves, socks and balaclavas – were seen to fortify the soldiers on the front line against the harsh weather conditions. Jane Tynan, Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of the Arts in London believes that, “handmade knits comforted the body and soul on the western front.” Furthermore, these home knitted contributions were often necessary to keep soldiers clothed when official outfitters were unable to keep up with demand in the war effort.

In order to increase the production of home knitted items, movements such as “Knit Your Bit” were created to encourage feelings of patriotism throughout the civilian populations through the process of knitting. It was widely circulated that socks prevented trench foot, and consequently amputation, so knitting was viewed as a noble pastime. Knitting even became a frequent motif in many propaganda campaigns of the time, with images of women furiously knitting socks. The American Red Cross, for example, produced posters of motherly looking women alongside the words “Our Boys Need Sox!”: similarly when Nora Pennington won the district record for her knitting, her story was sent all over the British colonies. In spite of this, not everyone approved of Nora’s contribution. Her schoolmate David remembered decades later that, “the rest of us longed to grab her knitting, rip the stitches out and snarl the wool for her.” Even the war, it seems, couldn’t stop a little rivalry between school friends.

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