Twelve Hours of Danger a Day: The Women Munition Workers of World War One Part 1

World War I cannot be said to have many silver linings, but it gave British women a newfound political and social confidence and the experience of those four years transformed the lives of millions of women in Britain. There is a myth that the war brought women into industrial work for the first time. In fact many women had always worked in industry—in coalmines, cotton mills and potteries.

But the war did change things. In the years leading up to the war, British capitalism had faced a crisis of rule on several fronts. There was a powerful revolt against imperialist rule in Ireland, waves of workers’ struggles and a militant movement demanding votes for women. The role that women played during the war as workers meant that their lives and expectations would never be quite the same again. Up to two million women moved into previously male-only industrial jobs and assumptions about what women were capable of were shattered. Suddenly it suited politicians to break from the ideology of women being incapable and weak, at least temporarily. Now they pushed women to the limits of endurance in the name of the war and patriotism, and the same ruling class that had stubbornly refused women the right to vote now pumped out propaganda demanding women serve the war effort.

Mobilisation and recruitment of men at the start of World War I was on a scale never seen before. On 7th August 1914 the Prime Minister asked Parliament for permission to sanction an increase in the army to 500,000 men. By the 5th September the PM announced that 250,000 to 300,000 men had enlisted and two days later that figure was amended to 439,000 men. Patriotic fires burned high, and by the end of 1914 1,186,337 men had enlisted; in the words of HG Wells, “No-one wants to be a non-combatant.” However, the numbers of men joining the army left a huge gap in the numbers of those available to do vital work.

There was however a potential army of women who wanted to do war work and were not being used.  A group of doctors, offering their services to the War Office in 1914 only to be told “all that was required of women was to go home and keep quiet.” (Undeterred, Dr. Elsie Inglis and her fellow Scottish suffragettes went on to establish the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in Serbia and France). The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies had called a truce with the government to allow concentration on the war effort, so it was only a matter of time before these women decided that they were not being used effectively and would voice their demands. In March 1915 the Board of Trade issued an appeal to women to register for paid employment of any kind – clerical, industrial or agricultural. In the first week after the appeal 20,000 registrations were made but take up was slow and many women felt that their hopes had been raised and their time wasted.

The change came with the “Shells Scandal” of 1915. Sir John French, British Commander in Chief, confided to the editor of the London Times that a shortage of suitable munitions was directly responsible for the failure of the British offensive at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. That the British Army were experiencing a shell shortage was not in doubt. British munitions production was not operating at full efficiency nor anything close to it. David Lloyd George the Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, believed that a radical improvement in the munitions industry was not only possible but necessary if Britain was to compete with Germany in a long war. The “Shells Scandal” was a factor in the fall of the Liberal government in 1915 and the creation of a Ministry of Munitions with Lloyd George at its head.

In July 1915 50,000 women marched through London petitioning to be allowed to work in munitions as a recognised labour force. Georgina Lee described it in her war diary as” a very inspiriting sight”.

Lloyd George replied to the Women’s Deputation. He said that nobody who had witnessed this most impressive procession could fail to appreciate the organising capacity of women….he promised that the women would be employed in unlimited numbers as they were wanted…but he explained that it would not be fair to pay them at the same rate for time work. Being untrained and unskilled, they could not get in as much work, of as good quality, in the same time as men. Lee remarked shrewdly I believe this Women’s Demonstration and Lloyd George’s acknowledgement marks a new departure for the Women’s Movement. It is, apart from patriotic motives, a clever stroke by the leaders of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. They have seized a glorious opportunity for women to show what they can do, if properly organised and if allowed to compete with men in spheres hitherto closed to them by law and prejudice.

Between 1916 and 1918 unprecedented numbers of women were working in occupations that would have been unthinkable for them in pre-war Edwardian society – gamekeepers, coal-heavers, road sweepers, railway porters and shipyard rivetters. The shells scandal brought about an unprecedented and revolutionary evaluation of women’s labour and its value, and The enormous transformation of British industry that followed depended…on women, not only to take the place of men but to do jobs that men had never even be asked to do in such numbers before. (Zeppelin Nights p101). The greatest impact of all the many extensions of women’s labour in the war years was most famously, of course, as munitions workers.

The terms “munitions did not just refer to the manufacture of shells but if a job involved “feeding the guns” of the war effort then it could be termed munitions work – but the largest number of women were employed in the manufacture of explosives, shells and ammunition. Existing factories were enlarged and “superfactories” were built, the largest being at Gretna where manufacture started in April 1916. Gretna was so big it stretched for 12 miles and included two towns for the workers, four massive productions sites, its own telephone exchange, power station and railway system to carry the workers to and from the factories. By 1917 it employed over eleven thousand women.

As munitions factories began to fill up with female workers, 400,000 women left domestic service to become “munitionettes”, attracted by the comparatively high wages. As with the men who joined the army, women went into munitions for a variety of reasons, not always patriotic. Despite the high flown rhetoric and sentiments of The Home Service Review (Women! Remember who you are. Remember that they eyes of a nation are upon you….remember that you are helping to write the greatest page in the history of Womanhood!) money was as powerful an incentive as patriotism for some, while for others anything was better than the myriad petty indignities of being in service. Before the war some 1.7 million women were domestic servants, more than worked in any other occupation. For these women war work was a revelation. Even the low wages were higher than they had ever earned before and they had more independence than live-in servants ever experienced. Ethel Dean left her job in domestic service to work in a munitions factory at Woolwich Arsenal in London and relished the freedom the job gave her. “When you were in service you couldn’t go out when you liked. When you work in the factories you’ve got your own time, haven’t you? You just go home of a night, wherever you live, and you can go out when you like.”

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For some it was a reaction to grief. In the time of dogs and novels, tennis rackets and golf, and sometimes even a spare hour spent with our babies, we talked of munitions as we had talked before of the North Pole. The papers spoke of shells and tool-setters, of enormous wages and cheery canteens, happy hostels and gay girl-workers, but how one found the key to this useful wonderland we knew not….when the dreaded telegram came at last, and everything was grey and bitter, we…made our way to the lowest level – the gates of the nearest ammunition factory…a scrubby little man with a grimy collar smote a grimier fist on the grimiest of palms….”Fifteen shillin’s a week and a war bonus: hours 6 to2, 2 to 10 or 10 to 6. Them’s the facts. It’s for you to choose.”

Like new recruits to Kitchener’s army, new munitions workers were required to give their ages as this affected their eligibility for dangerous work and extra pay, but years were added on without too much fear of detection. Basic education – all most women had anyway thanks to deep-rooted prejudice that education was damaging to the female brain – and physical fitness was enough. The majority of women were working class and lower middle class – nice middle and upper class girls tended to go into nursing or women’s services –  but there were exceptions. At the Vickers factory in Erith a number of titled ladies took to the production line and one diarist working in a factory remarked that the few really shabby ones are popularly supposed to be peeresses.  Whether that is so or not it is certain that persons with glittering handles to their names have occasionally entered our ranks. However, mostly the upper and middle classes stayed away from industry, preferring to do their war work as nurses, ambulance drivers, clerks, running hospitals and doing a myriad volunteering roles.

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It didn’t always go easily for the new workers. Some men did all they could to discourage them – giving wrong or incomplete orders or refusing to help to mend broken machinery; and for many women the new world of machinery was frightening. Women knew that they were suspected of driving down wages and taking male jobs. On the other hand there was genuine help to negotiate this new unfamiliar world – I have a copy of a booklet entitled “Shell Turning for Munitions Workers” that says in the preface The great majority of these workers have not even an elementary knowledge of engineering…the authors have therefore provided them with some elementary instruction to assist them when they get to work in increasing the output of munitions.

General reactions to women taking over the work of men was varied, from official encouragement to outrage, but tempered by the acknowledgement that it was only for the duration of the war. Many comforted themselves that once the war was over then women would be slotting back into their accustomed pre-war roles and status, while ignoring that women had been a sizeable part of the workforce before the war, that they had always worked in the home and on the land – and that a good deal of that work had been hard, physically demanding and often unpaid.

The process of putting women into jobs previously filled by men was known as substitution, and unions had accepted the necessity for women in factories to deal with the manpower shortages as long as they were not paid at the same rate as men. Munitions was the biggest single employer of British women in substituted roles and was controlled by the Munitions of War Act of July 1915. The act gave the government wide ranging powers to manage the way the munitions industry was run and to impose strict rules for the employment of the workforce, such as setting a limit on profits and outlawing strikes: and making it a penal offence for a worker to leave his or her job at a controlled establishment such as a munitions factory without the consent of the employer. In the negotiations leading up to the 1915‘Treasury Agreement’ with trade unions and manufacturers that allowed women into men’s jobs, it was set out that to protect post-war male wages a woman doing the same job as a man should be paid at the same rate. The famous circular ‘L.2’, which set out the levels of pay and working conditions for female dilutees in munitions works with its promise of ‘equal pay for equal work’ was issued in October 1915.

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Although the circular and the Munitions of War Act gave the government the ability to enforce equal wages in controlled trades, and set a minimum weekly rate of 20 shillings* for women doing skilled ‘male’ work, employers often circumnavigated the edict. ‘Male’ jobs were often ‘diluted’ (broken down into multiple processes) to avoid being labelled ‘equal work’ and to prevent women taking them over and hence undermining pay rates once the war was over – and while 20 shillings was a minimum, it came to be interpreted as a standard. Even if they were paid less than men the wages women could expect for working in munitions were far greater than anything they had earned before the war- from £6 (120s.) to as much as £10 (200s.) or £20 (400s.) per week.
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For that money, however, it was usual to submit to stringent safety checks before going on shift, then work an eight to twelve hour shift, with one and a half hours for meal breaks and Sunday the only day off, while lateness and missed days resulted in hefty fines. (Although it’s not as if women, particularly working class women, had been leading easy, work free lives prior to August 1914. Most people worked long hours before the war – a girl in domestic service would get one half day off a week and one full day a month and might work eighteen hours a day and there were no labour saving devices. Women, whether in the home or at work, were no strangers to ceaseless, thankless grindingly hard work).  The work was physically demanding – to and fro…carrying each time two shells…two for the machine and two finished from the machine. My head ached, my shoulders swelled, and the muscles in my calves felt lacerated. On and on till, unable to bear it any longer, I leant, utterly exhausted, against a pile of boxes…..’Gawd! Said Louie. ‘You ain’t half soft!’

The uniform consisted of a pair of wooden soled clogs, with slippers or gumboots for those working in the most critical areas, and a “National Shell Overall”, which was a drawstring cap and a flame retardant canvas or twill overall with a belted waist. No metal could be worn in the munitions factories so this meant no corsets, and long hair could get caught in machines so women started wearing it short. To allow women to work more easily – floor length skirts and petticoats were not conducive to rolling heavy shells around a  filthy, greasy-floored munitions factory – the outfit was soon supplemented with trousers, something no woman would have dreamed of wearing before the war. Trousers became a badge of honour to be worn proudly and mark out the wearer as a munitionette. Women working in male domains were a challenge to notions of conventional feminine behaviour, but the need for female labour and the wide representation in the press of trouser wearing ‘munitionettes’ became a recognisable mark of their industry and contribution to the war effort, even though it aroused unease to see women in such distinctively masculine attire. Some French women munition workers visiting munitions factories were so impressed with what they called ‘neat and commonsense trouser’ worn by the workers that they took samples back to France.

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As Adie says ‘If any single image caught the eye of the public, it was…trousers, modestly part-concealed below a tunic. ‘Disgusting’ was a much used description.‘ But as she also goes on to say, trousers for munition workers signified something more serious than the frivolity of mere fashion and women aping males. Trousers were smart and comfortable and they were deeply practical for women doing men’s work and as such were influential in marking an increased emancipation for those who wore them. As Adie concludes -‘their monarch might be horrified, their mother might be upset and the maids’ former employers might fear for their morals, but trousers had arrived.’

And not just trousers. Munition workers were now a vital economic resource for as long as the war lasted, and some interest was taken in keeping them fit and healthy enough to work under intense physical and mental pressure. The concern was much more geared to production than any innate sense of responsibility for the welfare of the workers as individuals, but canteens were provided, supplying plain but nourishing food. Some of the lady supervisors in factories noted that women were completely unused to being served plenty of food and having time to eat it – this was a society that took for granted that if money was tight, the greater share of food on the table went to the man of the house and then the children, and as a result some women were seriously undernourished. Then they began to realise that sitting down together, this could be a pleasurable time…the canteen was a revelation. Being together. Food and gossip. New friends and fun. All reinforced by a shared sense of doing a job that was valued, however dirty and tedious it might be. (Adie, p147).

While clothing had to be unadorned and jewellery – even hairpins – was strictly forbidden under pain of a 28 day prison sentence and summary dismissal, a variety of small nuances in dress created little islands of individualism and asserted femininity. A posy of flowers in a shell casing at a bench, brightly coloured ribbons instead of shoelaces, or a lace edging to an overall. Elizabeth Gore’s mother worked at Woolwich Arsenal:

My father…when there was a scramble for the seats on upper decks of the trams…said they were the toughest bunch of girls he had ever come across. But mother…admired their gaiety and fortitude and their bright conversation. Everything about the Arsenal tended towards drabness and monotony – the work, the clothes, the long hours, but the girls strove to introduce a touch of variety and even frivolity…the first fashion touch was a posy pinned to the gown, every shop having its own emblem. As these were confiscated during working hours, someone got the idea of substituting bright coloured ribbons for the government shoe laces. First the ‘cap shop’ girls…with emerald green ribbons in their shoes, the ‘new fuse’ girls followed with yellow and soon the whole Arsenal was in the fashion.

Given the nature of the work death was never far away in a munitions factory, where the atmosphere was noxious with toxic fumes. During the war 61 women died of poisoning, 400 from over-exposure to TNT and 71 were killed as a result of explosions. There were stringent precautions against anything that could cause a spark – things like matches, tobacco, hairgrips and corset clasps were banned and workers would be searched for them, yet safety measures were primitive, with little protective clothing. Photographs of munitions factories show women handling shells, working machinery and packing cartridges while dressed in their National Shell Overall and little else – no ear defenders, no goggles, no hard hats, but this was a time when heavy industry was accepted as dangerous or risky. ‘Health and safety’ and caring for the well being of employees only gradually became accepted as a way to get the best out of workers who were being called on to make superhuman efforts.

Part 2 continues here

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5 thoughts on “Twelve Hours of Danger a Day: The Women Munition Workers of World War One Part 1

  1. I think I’d still rather be a woman in a munitions factory than a man in the trenches. 🙂 To be honest, work outside the home was enjoyable but I liked the freedom of homemaking and raising kids a lot better when I was younger. No one forced this upon me and my husband and I were quite poor. I’m glad women have choices of course but given the choice of munitions factory or cooking dinner and making clothes for my kids I know which lifestyle I’d pick. For some working in the factory may have been seen as an opportunity but I’m sure for others it was just a burden.

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    1. Many thanks for your comments and they underline what we should be thankful for today – the ability and right to make our own choices and not be forced into one way of life. For many women of that period, being a munitionette was a form of liberation, for others, yes it could be a burden for others it was both.

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