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There's a Crocodile in Kingston!

It's amazing where you can find inspiration! For me, the story of The Kingston Crocodile, or Snappity as he's affectionately known amongst the staff of Kingston Museum, struck a chord, for the thing that I most pride about myself is that I'm a working woman. And not just a working woman, but a working mum to boot. I run a business whilst being the primary carer of two fabulous kids, and whilst I'm busier than I've ever been I'm also happier.

I've made this choice - and I'm lucky to have been able to do so. If I'd been born just over 100 years ago, the only choices available would have been between a good wringing or a mangle!

Snappity is the subject of a local legend. During WW1, Kingston was the home to the Sopwith Aviation company. At that time, everyone in the UK had heard of the company and it's founder, Thomas Sopwith. They made the then infamous Sopwith Camel, a fighter plane which was to be the most successful during the war.

In 1916, conscription expanded to include married men up to the age of 40, and with that a demand for workers in the factories had to be met. The suffragettes, lead by Emeline Pankhurst, had been very vocal that women should be allowed to play their part in the war effort, so it didn't take much to persuade the government of the day that the answer to their workforce dilemma lay in the women of England. Ladies flooded into the factories, making everything from bullets to bombs.

Clara Archer nee Newbury - Sopwith Aviation Munitions Worker

The women in the factories enjoyed a life that had been denied to their generation. Many of the munitionettes came from service, and it was the first time that there had been large groups of women working together. There work space was regulated. There was a canteen. Some of the factories even had free childcare! They worked 12 hours a day, which was less than they were used to in service! They were paid a decent wage. The work was dangerous, and by modern standards the conditions were poor, but for them it was a step up.

Needless to say, when the war ended and their production lines were halted in the name of peace, some of the women didn't want to return to domestic life. The men, too, were keen to keep the factories alive. The Sopwith Aviation company was filled with skilled woodworkers, and so many of them took the initiative and started to make things out of wood that could be sold. Wooden spoons were produced!

Local legend has it that some of the women in the factory took the offcuts of wood and made The Kingston Crocodile. Bentalls bought the whole lot and sold them in their store in Christmas 1919.

In our research, which was kindly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, we found an article which referenced a photo of the crocodile, and a group of ladies holding him. Sadly, we were unable to recover the photo, but we live in hope that one day it will pop back up.

But we discovered enough in our research to know that Snappity is much more than a children's toy. The women who made him were ordinary. None were famous. None were marching through the streets demanding votes for women. And yet, their contribution to the war effort was so profound that the powers that be could not longer deny that a womans value extends beyond her ability to use a mangle. Whilst the suffragettes are often credited for obtaining the vote for women, it's hard to imagine their campaign would have been successful without the munitionettes demonstrating their worth.

The efforts of the munitionettes set off a chain of events that mean I get work if I choose, and given how much happiness my career brings me, I have much to thank them for. It seems the best way for me to show that appreciation is by keeping their story alive.

Story Storks Heritage Ltd was awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to research the history behind the Kingston Crocodile. We created a teachers pack and held a community event in 2018. The teachers pack is available on our website, and Story Storks comes to local schools to tell the story to EY and KS1 children. See our website for more details.


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