Twelve Hours of Danger a Day: The Women Munition Workers of World War One Part 2

See part 1 here

Women who worked with TNT were nicknamed “canaries” because of the effect of working with it – turning hair ginger and skin yellow. Traditional gunpowder had been replaced by materials such as cordite and sulphur which were mixed by hand despite being dangerous to human health, and despite the jocular name the colour was a warning sign of toxic jaundice.

“Our skin was perfectly yellow, right down through the body, legs and toenails even, perfectly yellow,” reported one Mrs M Hall after a ten-hour shift absorbing deadly levels of TNT; and yet even when they asked for masks they were told they could not have them because of the risks of dermatitis. In 1917 seven shell girls refused to handle TNT and were fined 15 shillings each by the London Munitions Tribunal, with the chairman telling them The work is very important though the circumstances are disagreeable. I should have thought that all would be anxious to do what they can, even at some discomfort and inconvenience to themselves, to supply this explosive which is so much wanted by our soldiers.

The women refused to pay their fines on the grounds of being volunteers and not conscripts. Despite warnings women continued to work working with it and many suffered from the effects of prolonged TNT exposure, including liver failure, anaemia and spleen enlargement. Belatedly the change in skin and hair colour was recognised as a sign that the affected workers should be moved to other tasks, although some women regarded it as a badge of honour and pride in their dangerous work, and even had their own song

 

Same as the lads

Across the sea

If it wasn’t for the ammunition girls

Where would the Empire be?

 

When in 1916 a jury found that a girl of 16, working in an explosives factory, had died from TNT poisoning,  the powers that be at the factory were quick to point out that this was the only death and that ‘only a small class are susceptible to TNT poisoning. This class were those under 18 and the Ministry of Munitions was taking steps to prevent the employment of anyone under 18.’ Tacit acceptance that the change in skin colour was a barrier to recruitment into the factories: and a haste to reassure that anyone over 18 was safe and it was the silly girl’s fault for working there when she was too young.

bomb-manufacture-1916

When Zeppelin raids started munitions workers as much as ordinary civilians were on the front line, with the added danger of being surrounded by hundreds of tons of explosives. Gladys Kaye who was an overseer at Woolwich Arsenal described raids with typical British understatement

All our lights were put out when the Zeppelins used to come over…not only were the lights put out but all the doors and windows fastened from the outside so that we could not possibly get out. There was such a great outcry from the women that after a short time all the doors and windows were left open so that we could escape if a bomb did hit us. The Manchester Guardian of 8 December 1916 paid fulsome tribute

England is very proud of the pluck, endurance and determination of her munition girls….Zeppelin nights in some places have put a very hard strain on the nerves of these girls, who in some factories have spent hours waiting in black darkness, knowing that at any moment a bomb may explode the munitions piled beside them…the girls have come through the ordeal without panic or collapse.

Munitions worker Caroline Webb was equally laconic about the dangers. We had a big air raid one day and our manager came flying in: ‘Run for your lives, girls.’ Well, there was ninety tons of TNT stored there.

However, the real everyday danger came from industrial accidents. By 1917 women carried out 80% of all machine work on shells and fuses and operated heavy machinery such as overhead cranes. Explosions and accidents were common, but were hushed up with government censorship controlling what could be reported. The traditional problems with explosives were ever present and the precautions factories took must have gone some way to minimising risks, but it’s hard to gauge how much the workers in those factories thought about them from day to day. It was a world of manual labour and that was expected to exact a heavy price on both body and mind but simply had to be put up with. Even with careful handling catastrophe was always a threat and some accidents, could not be ignored – as Adie says, “Usually incidents were confined to ‘a factory in the north’ but time and again the flames in the sky and the shudder of explosions defeated the censors.” (p 140)

women-weighing-steel-shells

At Barnbow in November 1916 there was an explosion room 42, where several hundred women were filling, fusing, finishing off and packing 4½ inch shells. Room 42 was mainly used for the filling, and between 150 and 170 girls worked there. Shells were brought to the room already loaded with high explosive and all that remained was the insertion of the fuse and the screwing down of the cap. A girl inserted the fuse by hand, screwed it down and then it was taken and placed into a machine that revolved the shell and screwed the fuse down tightly.

At 10.27pm a violent explosion in the room killed 35 women outright, maiming and injuring dozens more. In some cases identification was only possible by the identity disks worn around the necks of the workers. The machine where the explosion had occurred was completely destroyed. Steam pipes had burst open and covered the floor with a cocktail of blood and water. Workers from elsewhere hurried to help with bringing out the injured to safety, and within a few hours workers had volunteered to carry on with the same work to prevent production falling off. No official notice was taken in the press of the explosions apart from the many death notices in the Yorkshire Evening Post that stated, “killed by accident”.

The Silvertown explosion in January 1917, when 69 workers were killed and 400 injured (although figures are not definitive) after fire broke out in the melt-pot room of Brunner Mond & Co factory in east London was extensively described in eyewitness accounts

I am still trembling from the shock of a terrible concussion and distant roar that occurred ten minutes ago…it was only one explosion, over in a few seconds, so it can’t be a Zeppelin blowing up munitions works….two ladies said that the whole sky was lit up like a red sunset and then came the roar. (Georgina Lee).

Last evening I was sitting alone…when without any warning there came the most ghastly crashing explosion possible to imagine!…I tore upstairs to look out of one of our upper windows which faces the direction of Woolwich and the sky was all red and lurid and vibrating, and then I felt sure that the arsenal was blown up and the whole of Woolwich in flames! (diary of Ethel Bilborough)

Years afterwards a journalist friend told me that on the evening of this disaster she was working in her room in Bayswater* when the drawn blind suddenly lifted without a sound, remained horizontal in the air for a moment or two, then slowly dropped. There was no wind and she had heard no noise. (Vera Brittain)

The explosion was heard 100 miles away in Sandringham, and all buildings within 400 yards were completely demolished, half a million windows were broken in surrounding districts, while the blast leapt the river and destroyed a gasometer at Woolwich. The cause of the blast was accidental but rumours of sabotage found many believers.

Many women were leaving munitions work by this time, having found safer jobs that were relatively well- paid, and in response the Ministry of Munitions created a Health and Welfare section to stem the flow of trained workers. Laws were passed to force factories to provide protective clothing, seats in workrooms, washing facilities, drinking water and cloakrooms.

oooOOOooo

War nudged women into uncharted territories – not just in work but in play too. New economic freedom gave working class women the means to dress up after work and enjoy themselves – an affluence much resented in some quarters, and despite the dangers of their work many munitionettes seem to have had the time of their lives. Women who had previously had very little surplus income now had money for clothes, cosmetics and leisure. Many munitions workers expressed this new-found affluence through fashionable dress leading to muttering that previous class distinctions in terms of appearance were becoming eroded and confused.  Cosmetic houses such as Rimmel and Maybelline made powder, rouge and mascara – previously worn only by women of distinctly dubious virtue – affordable by working class women.

Just as women without paid jobs were finding themselves with more household chores as their maids were diverted to munitions work, so those women who had always known the aches and pains of hard physical graft and the evidence it left on the body were for the first time earning money that meant they could buy items that gave at least the illusion of being a lady of leisure – or as some commentators expressed it, meant that they were getting above their stations. One well-received product was Ess Viotto, which were violet scented hand drops. In case anyone thinks that the exploitation of personal insecurity for commercial advantage is a recent phenomenon, the advertising for Ess Viotto dispels any illusions on that score by declaring that Women who have been working since the war began…have been concerned with preserving the smoothness and fine feelings of their hands. Violet scented Ess Viotto provided what Lizzie Ostrom calls a trompe l’oeil in smell form: the illusion of leisure. The woman of the 1910s could, while out and about, drop on some Ess Viotto and instantly turn her hands into delicately scented objects of beauty rather than rough instruments of labour.

Of course there were the expected moral panics about women having their own money and what they might get up to with it when they were gallivanting around unchaperoned, and the horror of what women might get up to if left to their own devices and with money in their pockets meant that imaginations ran riot. If a woman had moved into the male sphere of work and dress (such as trousers), the arguments went, then they must be immoral and would take even greater liberties, like smoking and drinking in pubs and (whisper it) behaving sexually like men as well.

munitions-cartoon

The sight of hundreds of young women heading out to enjoy themselves after work started a widespread grumbling – that these women were aping men by smoking, drinking and wearing trousers, aping their betters by buying fripperies like ribbons, hats, jewellery and even fur coats and silk stockings. They were, it was implied in a phrase loaded with condemnation, no better than they should be. The press was full of stories about young women drinking in public houses with men, buying showy clothes  – ‘looking for all the world like flash barmaids,’ in the words of one enraged churchman – and going dancing and to the cinema and to many people these were sure signs of immorality. The tendency of munitionettes to buy showy clothes was particularly worrying in some quarters, as any display of finery by the working class woman was seen as upsetting class divisions and being the first step on the road to being a tart. But as Adie points out

The independence from home and opportunity to meet new colleagues from different backgrounds possible had more impact on women than the actual job. This was a liberation they had not had to fight for and had not expected.  To have money to spend, to be able to go to a pub without the family or neighbours tattling, or choose to go dancing or to the cinema without having to ask anyone’s permission, was freedom indeed. Unmarried women, even in their twenties, were meant to submit to their fathers’ wishes – such as ‘Be in by ten o’clock – or else.’ It was an era in which young women were told that wearing make-up was ‘fast’ or ‘common,’ and keeping your wages instead of handing them over to your mother was unheard of.  (Adie p 132) And she concludes

In one sense the country had got itself a new army, a vast cohort of women with a united purpose, wearing uniform and prepared to face danger – and if it got a bit unruly on Saturday nights, what did you expect? (Adie p 133) In her opinion, there was no mass flight to immorality, simply the move towards a greater confidence in themselves as women, workers and citizens.

With so much written about the risk to public morality of the new freedoms of working women, to maintain order and help male foremen and factory owners who had no time or inclination to deal with the problems of large numbers of women workers, the government appointed welfare inspectors— the Women’s Police Service, the forerunners of the first women police officers. Their job was to ensure safety by searching the workers and to patrol the factories to stop shirking, but also to try and control the morality of women workers by leading them away from the lure of drink and sexual relationships – particularly women who were married and whose husbands were away fighting. Understandably there was need for their work – many of the younger women had been in service before the war or had not worked at all, they were living and working away from home for the first time, had unaccustomed freedoms, money in their pocket and were generally wholly ignorant of sex and not in any sense streetwise. But the WPS faced resistance and resentment as one of them recalled

The girls here are very rough (Pembrey, in South Wales) and their language is sometimes too terrible…the previous Sub Insp had only one sergeant & three constables under her and they managed to get themselves heartily detested by all the workers, with the result that for a policeman to as much as show herself was a signal for all the girls to shriek and boo. They several times threatened to duck the Sub Insp & once did throw a basin of dirty water over her…but as she comments with unconscious patronage that must have enraged some workers but they are very influenced easily by a little oratory and go back to work like lambs if you shout at them long enough. This is class difference as an element of control.

 

oooOOOooo

But when the war was finally won the government and much of the trade union leadership wanted to put the clocks back – at the 1918 TUC congress the Birmingham Brass Workers Union said that women should be prevented from doing heavy jobs to stop their “physical degeneration”. The retort from a delegate from the National Women’s Federation was, “Why, bless my soul, a woman who carries a child carries a heavy weight.” Miss Symons at the same congress said, “We want women on the same footing as men. When a man is taken on he is not asked to show if he can do the job as much as another man, but a woman has to go through the test, and wherever possible her wages are reduced.” After the war ended hundreds of thousands of women quickly lost their jobs and by the autumn of 1919, 750,000 fewer women were employed in industry. Accommodation for single women, canteens and day nurseries were shut down. In deals that had been agreed with trade unions women’s employment had been only “for the duration” and for many women domestic service was once again the only option. Stung by guilt and pity at the sight of war-shattered men returning from the front, women of all classes were encouraged to give up their jobs to former servicemen and concentrate on returning to their rightful domestic sphere to create nurturing homes for their husbands (if they still had them) and children. The wartime women worker was seen as an aberration as single and widowed women joined in the pressure for married women in particular to leave jobs: but the clock could not be turned back entirely. Women had found new independence. They had shown themselves and the rest of society that they could do jobs that before the war would have been unthinkable. They had seen that the government could organise state provision for them and their children when it needed to. But most of all they had experienced in greater numbers than ever before being part of the collective force of the working class.

women-munitionettes

world-war-one-munition-girls

In 1920 Barbara Drake wrote a major study of women and trade unions and recognised this was one of the most important consequences of the war. She wrote that most of all what women workers learned, “which they did not intend to forget” was “the value of their labour and the power of organisation”. Whereas in 1914 there were 212,000 women working in the munitions industry, by the end of the war it had increased to 950,000. Christopher Addison, who succeeded Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions, estimated in June, 1917, that about 80 per cent of all weapons and shells were being produced by women.

The Great War freed women from centuries of taboos, restrictions and beliefs, overturning ideas about what women could do, what they were capable of and what could be demanded of them: and the women and girls of the munitions factories and arsenals were at the forefront of that liberation. A revolution was going on while the war was being fought – with their men at the front women took their places in factories, farms, shops and offices and slowly but surely changed for ever not only their lives but the lives of generations after them. The genie of votes for women and the right to work and be paid as men did and be as professionally respected was out of the bottle and wasn’t going to be forced back, however long it took to achieve those aims. As Dr Elsie Inglis said, when she heard that thanks to women’s work during the war the House of Commons was to discuss granting the vote to women over thirty – “Where do they think the world would have been without women’s work all these ages?”

 

Further Reading:

Blogs.some.ox.ac.uk Somerville and the Great War

http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/barnbow-lasses/

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2411052/Incredible-photos-shed-light-working-life-Britains-women-First-World-War.html

http://www.barwickinelmethistoricalsociety.com/4746.html

https://gm1914.wordpress.com/2016/10/13/manchesters-industrial-war-a-view-from-the-factories/

Gavin Roynon (ed) Home Fires Burning: The Great War Diaries of Georgina Lee (Stroud, 2006)

Joyce Marlow (ed) The Virago Book of Women and the Great War (London, 1998)

Jerry White. Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War (London, 2014)

Terry Charman. The First World War on the Home Front (London, 2014)

Kate Adie. Fighting on the Home Front (London, 2013)

The Illustrated First World War: from the Illustrated London News Archive (2014)

Neil R Storey & Molly Housego. Women in the First World War (London, 2010)

John Masters. Fourteen Eighteen (London, 1965)

Lucy Lethbridge. Servants (London, 2013)

Shell Turning for Munitions Workers – facsimile published by Army and Navy Press

Carol Harris. Women at War 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)

Lizzie Ostrom. Perfume: A Century of Scents (London, 2015)

Trevor Royle. The Flowers of the Forest: Scotland and the First World War (Edinburgh, 2007)

Vera Brittain. Testament of Youth (London, 1978)

Nina Edwards. Dressed for War: Uniform, Civilian Clothing and Trappings 1914-1918 (London, 2015)

Graham Hill and Howard Bloch. The Silvertown Explosion: London 1917 (Stroud, 2004)

Notes:

*Pre-decimal coinage. There were 20 shillings to £ 1 sterling. In 1914 a shilling bought 5 pounds of meat, 4  pounds of sugar or 4 quarts of milk. Average wage varied from 26 shillings to 24 shillings for men, 10 shillings to 15 shillings for women.

*Bayswater was and is a suburb of west London about 12 miles from the site of the explosion.

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5 thoughts on “Twelve Hours of Danger a Day: The Women Munition Workers of World War One Part 2

  1. One man claimed to have seen a man exiting a zeppelin’s sub-cloud device while out with his girlfriend in a London park one night about a week before the Silvertown explosion. The man asked for directions to Silvertown before leaving. It may be of interest to you that my friend Graham Hill wrote the definitive book about the Silvertown explosion. It has been updated and is being republished and should be available very soon. Additionally, he will be giving talks on the subject in various museums and history societies in London. The details can be obtained from him on Twitter at @westhamgray.

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      1. ‘The Silvertown Explosion’ by Graham Hill and Howard Bloch. The new edition will contain some additional information. Graham is especially pleased to have been able to add detail to the story of a young munitionette who lost her life as a result of the injuries she sustained in the explosion. He wants to record the personal stories of the workers affected by the catastrophe before they disappear.

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