Frances Hardinge discusses some of the most fascinating facts she found out while researching WWI and the 1920s for her novel Cuckoo Song

While writing Cuckoo Song, I read up on Britain during World War I and the 1920s, and discovered lots of things I didn't know. Try as I might, I couldn't squeeze them all into the book. Here are some random facts...

  1. During the First World War many women showed their worth be stepping into jobs that had previously been male. Some girls who worked at explosives factories became known as 'canaries' because the chemicals turned their skin yellow. 'Munitionettes' worked in ammunition factories (though many of them were only paid about half as much as men doing exactly the same job). A few particularly romantic munitionettes secretly enclosed love letters inside boxes of ammunition, so that they would be discovered by unknown soldiers...
  2. Back in the 1920s, Jelly Babies were called “Peace Babies”. Originally they had been called “Unclaimed Babies”, but when the Great War ended, the name was changed in celebration. (Personally I think 'unclaimed babies' sounds a bit sinister, as if they're poor little multicoloured orphans that you adopt and then eat.)
  3. Plastic was new, exciting, and a bit glamorous. Instead of boring old wood, poorer homes could suddenly have plastic goods that looked a bit like ivory, tortoiseshell, amber and other expensive materials. Cheap toys were often made of celluloid, which was actually really dangerous since it catches fire easily!
  4. Aeroplanes were still somewhat perilous contraptions, but popular amongst certain rich men with mechanical know-how and a reckless streak. A lot of them “flew by Bradshaw” - this meant that when they were lost, they swooped low over train stations, so that they could read the signs and work out where they were! (This must have been a bit unnerving for people waiting on the platforms.)
  5. Many car drivers were also incredibly dangerous! There was no driving test or Highway Code, so a lot of motorists couldn't drive for toffee. The roads weren't tarmac, so car wheels churned up big clouds of dust that made it difficult to see. Hardly anyone paid attention to the speed limit, and there were no speed cameras, so policemen had to hide in bushes with stopwatches, and jump out at any car that was going too fast. Even Winston Churchill was once stopped by the police for going the wrong way round a roundabout...
  6. In the 1920s, most children left school at fourteen and started work, to help bring in money for the family. Younger children might get pocket money, but in poor families no more than about a penny a week. Many of them found ingenious ways of getting a little more, such as selling empty jam jars to a rag-and-bone shops, or collecting horse manure from the street and selling it to people to use in their gardens. Some children would also 'help out' their family in less legal ways, by snatching fruit or buns from market stalls, or stealing lumps of coal from the docks. Sometimes they even left halfpennies on railway tracks so that they would be flattened, and could be used as pennies in the gas meter. (I don't recommend trying that one!)
  7. Being a domestic servant in a 1920s house looks like a really horrible job. A kitchen maid might have to get up at 5.30am, clean out the fireplaces and flues, light the fires, scrub the steps, polish door-knockers, blacklead a great, big cooking range until it gleamed, clean the boots and shoes, and help the cook besides with the cooking and huge amounts of washing up. Sometimes she even had to iron the bootlaces!
  8. Did you know that lots of people got interested in women's soccer just after the war? In 1920, one ladies' football match had a crowd of 55,000 people watching it. However, the Football Association soon put a stop to it. In 1921, they declared that the sport was “quite unsuitable for ladies”, and banned women's teams from playing on Football League grounds. Spoilsports.
  9. Lots of things were invented in the 1920s, including the first mechanical television, proper frozen food, bubble gum, car radios and spray cans! The first 3D movie was “The Power of Love”, shown to audiences back in 1922 (back then the 3D glasses had one green lens and one red). The 'popsicle' or ice lolly was also patented in 1923, though the inventor had actually come up with it years before, when he was eleven years old. (He left a fruit drink outside overnight, and it froze solid. There was a wooden stirrer in it, which made a nice, useful handle.)