We would like to wish our readers and followers a very Merry Christmas and all the blessings for this festive season.
We would like to wish our readers and followers a very Merry Christmas and all the blessings for this festive season.
In The Pursuit of Power, Professor Sir Richard J. Evans noted that “British industrialists seemed to many to be to be too keen on ploughing their fortunes into becoming country landowners, rather than reinvesting them into productive technological innovation,” and this observation is noticeable in Adrian Tinniswood’s The Long Weekend which charts country house living between the wars. Although the First World War’s economic and social effects further accelerated the decline of the British aristocracy that began in the 1870s, Tinniswood’s latest tome demonstrates that the country house and the old ways of living were not yet in their death throes but still surviving: albeit on a form of artificial life support.
It is true that the high taxes imposed following the war and the loss of a generation led to the selling off of huge tracts of land and sometimes entire estates. Houses were also sold and while some were converted to other uses such as for housing, offices, schools, museums, hospitals and even as monasteries and convents, others were demolished and only live on in old photographs and magazine features. However despite the destruction of a large number of country homes and the dispersal of several estates, many of these homes and estates found new owners while some like the Duke of Portland were even able to expand their homes.
The building and acquisition of country houses during this period was spearheaded by the royal family and the new rich drawn from the banking and entrepreneurial class. After the First World War, King George V had broadened the pool by which his children could find suitable spouses: which meant that, unlike previous centuries, members of the aristocracy were no longer out of bounds as royal marriage partners. His only daughter Princess Mary married the heir to the earldom of Harewood in 1922 and through this marriage the Princess became chatelaine of Harewood House with its impressive Robert Adam and John Carr interiors and gardens landscaped by “Capability” Brown. The union between royalty and aristocracy was further cemented by the marriages of the Duke of York and Duke of Gloucester to Ladies Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott respectively, which led them to set up homes in the manner befitting their status as royal dukes and allow their wives to continue living the lifestyle they had been accustomed to. Meanwhile the Duke of Kent’s marriage a foreign royal, Princess Marina of Greece, led him to acquire Coppins in Buckinghamshire (left to him by his aunt Princess Victoria in her will) which served as an introduction to English country life for the Duchess who with her impecunious upbringing was more used to life in the city.
Their bachelor brother the Prince of Wales acquired his own country house, Fort Belvedere and lived a life that combined both the traditional and modern. While he indulged in traditional country pursuits such as hunting (which he gave up in the mid-1920s), shooting and gardening, the way he entertained family and friends was a marked contrast to his parents and the older generation. For a start, the food he served his guests was inspired by his travels abroad particularly America. Cocktails and jazz music interposed with the usual games such as cards and charades was also much a staple of dinners and house parties given by the Prince. He and his guests also swam, played tennis and picnicked in the grounds. Informality and comfort were also watchwords at Fort Belvedere, where guests would help themselves during meals and furniture was arranged in such a way as to encourage free flowing conversation. All these were a far cry from the more staid dinners and house parties at Windsor, Sandringham and Balmoral.
As mentioned earlier despite the demolition of several country houses, the interwar years also saw the building of new country houses mostly for those who made their money in finance and trade such as the Sassoons and Courtaulds, as well as Americans such as William Randolph Hearst and Harry Gordon Selfridge. Other Americans were content to purchase demolished houses that were transported brick by brick to America, or fixtures that were incorporated into homes, office buildings and hotels. There is nothing new about the likes of the new rich such as Sir Philip Sassoon acquiring a country house as this was precisely one way by which nouveaux riche arrivistes could be accepted and in time join the aristocracy, but perhaps echoing Professor Evans’ quote that industrialists were more concerned about becoming aristocratic landowners than reinvesting their fortunes into industry was one of the reasons why eventually Britain fell behind further in industry and manufacturing.
These new country homes such as Eltham Palace and Port Lympne were built with the latest comforts: en suite bathrooms, electricity and heating. Two names recur time and again in this book – Sir Edwin Lutyens and Philip Tilden. Both were busy with designing or modernising houses ranging from the magnificent Castle Drogo for the entrepreneur Julius Drewe to Chartwell for Winston Churchill during the years between the wars. This was also the period when interior design was becoming a recognised profession and an acceptable career for aristocratic and upper middle class women who had fallen on hard times. A notable example was Sibyl Colefax who with her eye for design and colour as well as her social contacts became the interior decorator of choice for those in society building a new home or updating an old one.
Tinniswood is a master story teller with an eye for detail and he weaves both into his narrative. There is for instance an account of a day in the life of the future Edward VIII in residence at Fort Belvedere that put paid to King George V’s grumbling that his oldest son only wanted that “queer old place” for “those damned weekends”. Gardening, golf and quiet evenings doing needlework or playing the bagpipes are certainly a far cry from the Jazz Age stereotypes of dancing the Charleston while quaffing copious amounts of cocktails. There are also descriptions of the lifestyle of the likes of the Dukes of Westminster and Devonshire who still carried on as their predecessors had lived; the former especially with his various houses around Britain also had a hunting lodge in northern France and two yachts that could be described as “country houses at sea” with their panelled wood and Queen Anne furniture.
But Tinniswood is at his best when he writes about those who were the engine that kept the country house ticking – the servants. Although service became an even less attractive career after the First World War, the great houses such as those of the Astors at Cliveden still had a full retinue of servants that included a butler, housekeeper, lady’s maid, valet, cook, kitchen staff, maids, footmen and those who worked outdoors. The “servant problem” was more acutely felt among the poorer members of the aristocracy and middle class households but even grand households grappled with their own version thanks to to the high turnover of staff, especially among the junior ranks of maids, footmen and kitchen maids. Using Herbert Parker as a case study, Tinniswood charts the changing fortunes of someone who made his career in domestic service through the eleven households and various country houses Parker worked for and the author brings home the point that the high turnover of servants was down to factors such as desire for promotion, higher pay, ability to get on with the employer and colleagues as well as prestige.
Despite the anecdotes of house parties, shooting weekends and the progress of the likes of the Duke and Duchess of York or the Duke of Westminster, the reality was that they were clinging on to a way of life that was in its death throes and which would come to an end in 1939. The Long Weekend is a poignant look at country house life deftly mixed with the political, social, cultural and even artistic conditions of the interwar period in a way that Downton Abbey had the chance to show but consistently and inexplicably failed to present.
Despite the sexy connotations attached to underwear, the V&A’s current exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is anything but. As the title of the exhibition goes, it traces the history of underwear from the earliest extant piece dating back from the 18th century to the present as well as examining the reasons and motivation for the existence of underwear. They range from reasons of hygiene to protection down to structural support of various parts of the human anatomy. Underwear also reflects and is also subject to the changes in fashion and what has been seen as the ideal body type and shape. As we’ve come to expect from the V&A, it does all this in an informative and yet visually appealing and interesting exhibition.
Cleverly, the displays are not displayed chronologically but according to themes and there is a wide variety of objects on display: not just underwear but advertisements, photographs, prints, packaging and even cartoons. One of the strongest aspects of the exhibition is examining how the emphasis on hygiene, protection and comfort has led to the development of fabrics and materials in underwear design and manufacture. Before the advent of synthetic fabrics, natural fibres such as cotton, linen and wool were used for underclothes for their ease in washing and durability. Wool particularly was singled out for its health benefits as advocated by Dr Gustav Jaeger for its ability to regulate body temperature. However from the late 19th century onwards, techniques were being develop to bolster the durability of natural fabrics such as for instance there was “Ellico” developed by William Elliot and Sons which was marketed as “unshrinkable wool”. By the 20th century, there was the invention of synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester in the middle of the last century down to today’s lycra, tactel and elastine that demonstrate the main function of underwear that is worn for both hygiene and protection.
Just as clothes and accessories have reflected changing trends in fashion and standards of beauty, underwear is the same and nowhere is this more apparent with the corset. Although its basic shape has remained unaltered, subtle changes reflect changing fashions from the “hourglass” shape of the 1850s to the “S-bend” of the 1890s and by the twentieth century, synthetic and elastic materials have replaced whalebone: beginning in the 1920s when the prevailing fashion for fluidity meant that underwear was used to minimise and flatten the body. What is interesting is the variety of corsets on display such as for horse riding and other sports such as tennis, golf and cycling, for maternity and to wear in the tropics – a very interesting point as even as Western women were becoming more emancipated and physically active they were still to some extent constrained, and up to the first world war were still swathed in their voluminous clothes and layers even in the heat of countries such as India, Egypt and the Philippines!
Of course the wearing of underwear is not only for practical or health reasons but also for comfort, aesthetics, allure and mystique so this is where “lingerie” comes in; underwear that is made of silk, lace, applique, crepe de chine and satin mostly hand stitched and embroidered to be used as a tool for seduction. The upper gallery also features underwear that while ostensibly as for comfort such as tea gowns, dressing gowns, hostess gowns and lounging pyjamas are also by their beauty and informality the means of seduction and allure: and the diaphanous fabrics hint to the male admirer of the delights in store for him and that he’s not going to have to fight his way through layers of petticoats and a corset to enjoy them.
Overall the exhibition is fascinating and carefully curated but especially for the last part of the exhibition there is too much emphasis on prestige brands and not enough of high street stalwarts such as for instance Marks and Spencer or Anne Summers. I believe that’s a glaring omission especially as M&S has arguably been the go-to shop for majority of women for underwear for the last 80-90 years. But apart from that quibble, kudos to the V&A for attempting to present the history of the underwear not only from the woman’s side but also to give equal attention to the men as well.
2016 marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme and the anniversary an added dimension as it was also exactly a hundred years ago when a film depicting the battle was premiered to picture houses up and down the country. The Battle of the Somme, featuring both actual and recreated footage was a bold and risky move by the War Office designed to rally support for the war effort and it was seen by many people. For the first time, audiences could see the battle unfolding before their eyes on screen rather than reading about it in the newspapers or through letters from family and friends at the Front.
To celebrate both landmark events the Imperial War Museum has mounted the exhibition Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies which documents the history of war movies through objects and paraphernalia such as props, scripts, notes, costumes, film clips and posters. There are also features of real people who have inspired films such as Adolf Hitler (Downfall) and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) as well as works of fiction and non-fiction that have made it from print to screen for instance Atonement, War Horse, Empire of the Sun and Full Metal Jacket.
Two of the interesting aspects of the exhibition are the enduring popularity of the Second World War for war movies, with many of the films featured such as The Dam Busters, Carve Her Name With Pride and The Bridge of the River Kwai made during the 1950s when the end of the war was barely a decade in the past; while the 1960s and 1970s saw the release of films featuring all-star casts such as The Great Escape and Das Boot. This fascination has endured to this day with films such as Saving Private Ryan and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
The other interesting aspect is the production side of making these films where attention to detail and striving for accuracy and authenticity were emphasised. Here we see story boards; annotated scripts; models and interviews with directors, writers and other production people to talk viewers through the process by which a particular scene was shot and filmed and the issues that are at the forefront of a particular film. One of the most fascinating clips was featuring the real Omaha Beach landings on D-Day followed Steven Spielberg’s version in Saving Private Ryan and it was astonishing to see how Spielberg was able to recreate the actual event almost frame by frame.
The last part of the exhibition notes how war films have been received both by the critics and the public. Films such as Oh What a Lovely War and Casablanca have entered our popular consciousness while the likes of Patton and Bridge of Spies have garnered critical praise and awards. What comes out of the exhibition is that while no film can totally be 100% accurate and portray the realities of war, for better or for worse they shape our perception of a conflict. If a film is done well, it can help broaden our understanding of the conflict and even the times we live in today. However, the film industry doesn’t always get in right – Operation Burma and U-571 are two of the most historically inaccurate war films ever made and have the potential to perpetuate falsehoods and misconceptions. As the exhibition quoted The Times “misrepresentation on the screen can do very much more harm than an article in a newspaper” because it “speaks in a language that can be understood by millions” – a very perceptive comment that sums up not only war movies but period movies and TV programmes in general.
Real to Reel is a good exhibition but understandably it won’t be able to cover all aspects of war cinema and the focus is overwhelmingly on British and American cinema (bar Downfall which is a German film). However, there are more than enough to show why war is a popular topic for film makers and how conflicts such as the two World Wars continue to provide a fresh source for storytelling and film making even long after the real guns have fallen silent.
The bloggers visited both exhibitions on 9 September 2016.
Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is at the V&A until 12 March 2017 https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/undressed-a-brief-history-of-underwear
Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies is at the Imperial War Museum London until 8 January 2017
For millions of people the simple field poppy has been the symbol of remembrance for the war dead since 1920, and its adoption was inspired by a poem written by Canadian doctor Lieutenant- General John McCrae: who in turn was moved to write it by the death of a friend, Alex Helmer, in the second Battle of Ypres in 1915, when McCrae noticed how poppies quickly grew around the graves of the war dead
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The rondeau was published by Punch in December 1915 and gained immediate popularity for its depiction of the sacrifice of so many men’s lives, and was also used in war propaganda and for motivation and encouragement.
Poppies became popular as an icon of public remembrance through the work of Anna Guerin of France and an American professor and humanitarian named Moina Michael of the USA, who took Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem, and devised a practical way of raising vital funds for wartime charities.
Moina Michael wrote a response to McCrae’s poem entitled We Shall Keep The Faith in 1918.
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
She vowed to always wear a poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who served in the war. Michael realised the need to provide financial and occupational support for ex-servicemen after teaching a class of disabled veterans at the University of Georgia, and pursued the idea of selling silk poppies to raise funds for them.
Moina Michael’s efforts inspired Frenchwoman Anna Guérin to suggest to the newly-formed British Legion that they should take on the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. The first ‘Poppy Appeal’ in 1921 used artificial poppies made by women and children in war-devastated areas of France.
Because the money already raised for widows and orphans could not be spent on buying poppies until after distribution to the public, Madame Guerin agreed with the British Legion’s treasury to take responsibility for the poppy order from France on the understanding that they would reimburse her afterwards. The first ‘Poppy Appeal’ ended up raising £106,000. In 1921 Earl Haig set up the Earl Haig fund to assist ex-servicemen, and one of the ways that was done was the sale of paper poppies in the weeks before Armistice Day on 11th November.
The Founding of the Poppy Factory
The Poppy Factory was the brainchild and inspiration of Major George Howson, himself a serving soldier and founder with Jack Cohen MP of The Disabled Society in 1920 in response to the growing need for employment support amongst wounded veterans of the Great War. When he opened the original Poppy Factory in 1922, it was his “to give the disabled their chance.” Thousands of wounded soldiers, sailors and airmen were returning from The Great War without the means of earning a living, despite the promises of ‘a land fit for heroes,’ and Howson was sure he could do something about it.
George Howson persuaded Earl Haig that the Disabled Society should supply the appeal’s poppies to provide paid work for British veterans wounded in the war. Haig accepted and Howson was given a grant of £2,000 with which he set up a small factory off the Old Kent Road with five ex-servicemen. It was here that the first British poppies were made.
Howson wrote a moving letter to his parents of the news of the grant for the factory; “I have been given a cheque for £2,000 to make poppies with. It is a large responsibility and will be very difficult. If the experiment is successful it will be the start of an industry to employ 150 men. I do not think it can be a great success, but it is worth trying. I consider the attempt ought to be made if only to give the disabled their chance.”
The workforce quickly grew to over 40 men and they made over a million poppies in 2 months. The Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) visited The Disabled Society’s Poppy Factory in November 1924. The factory made 27 million poppies that year. Most of the employees were disabled, and by then there was a long waiting list for prospective employees.
Within 10 years, the name had changed to The Poppy Factory and Howson was employing over 350 disabled veterans to make the poppies. The factory moved to Richmond in 1925 and in 1928 Howson founded the annual Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey.
Within just three years, the British Legion Poppy Factory (as it had become known) had outgrown the former collar factory premises in Bermondsey as the demand for poppies increased, so in 1926 it moved to the Lansdown Brewery site in Richmond on the Petersham Road using funds donated by Howson. The charity is still based in Richmond to this day.
After George Howson’s death from pancreatic cancer in 1936, his coffin was taken to The Poppy Factory and surrounded by colourful wreaths and poppies. Every worker then took his turn to hold an hour of silent vigil in his memory.
George Howson founded the first annual Field of Remembrance in the grounds of Westminster Abbey in 1928 with a small band of disabled factory workers. They grouped around two battlefield crosses, familiar to those who had served in Flanders and the Western Front, with a tray of poppies and they invited passers-by to plant a poppy in the vicinity of the crosses. In the first year, there were only two memorials – one dedicated to “Tommy Atkins” – a nickname for a rank-and-file soldier in the British Army – and one to Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, who had died in January that year.
In November 2014 the annual order for poppies and wreaths was the largest ever from The Royal British Legion, and the 2014 Poppy Appeal raised a record £44m for the charity. Whereas The Poppy Factory has to fundraise itself to support disabled veterans into the wider world of work, the cost of producing the poppies is recovered from The Royal British Legion. The Poppy Factory’s annual Field of Remembrance was opened in 2014 by HRH Prince Harry, and raised a record £35,000. The money raised at the Field is traditionally donated to The Royal British Legion.
With many thanks to Mel Waters and Bill Kay at the Poppy Factory for permission to use the information and photos on their site.
Unsurprisingly given her vigorous marital life with Albert, Victoria finds herself pregnant just months into her marriage and with the spectre of Charlotte looming over the young queen, she is treated as an invalid by her mother which she resents. As childbirth then was seen as a “dangerous business”, the issue arises of who should be regent should Victoria die or become incapacitated due to child birth. She proposes Albert but the Tories are opposed to a foreigner as regent.
Albert meanwhile is still searching for a role especially as his wife still refuses to share her duties with him, and it’s patently clear that her isolated upbringing under her mother’s care has left her ignorant of current affairs and that she takes little interest in the conditions of her subjects. His knowledge of his adopted country is far superior to hers and he uses his enforced idleness to educate himself on the technological advances and changes making their mark. While on a visit to a local squire up north who happens to be a neighbour of Sir Robert Peel (Nigel Lindsay), the arrival of the railways becomes a focal point of conversation: the royal couple’s host is opposed to them owing to their view that the railways encroach on private land. Albert on the other hand welcomes the railways, as he sees them as a vehicle for progress allowing people, products and ideas to travel from one part of the country to another. Much to his delight, he’s invited by Sir Robert to take a ride on the train on the latter’s estate and he accepts the invitation by sneaking out one early morning. This results in another row between Albert and Victoria – sadly we do not see the latter’s famous fierce temper deployed to full effect here but later having taken a ride in the railway herself, she slowly begins to recognise that there are things she needs to learn and where Albert can be of help to her.
Back in London, Parliament approves the motion that Albert is to be regent in the event of Victoria’s death or incapacitation. Victoria spurns the plain food that her mother suggests for her by ordering food that she wants to eat and crucially begins to involve Albert while she works on the red boxes.
The final episode seemed to be a return to the soap opera-like intrigues I thought disappeared with the beginning of this series. Fast forward a few months, Victoria is getting bored and restless, it’s clear she hates being pregnant and she blanches at the thought of breastfeeding so she dispatches Lehzen and Jenkins to search for a suitable wet nurse.
As the first female Sovereign to be expecting, it’s understandable that the atmosphere is very tense and that certain people stand to benefit should something happen to her and the baby. What is maddening is the constant reference and bleating about Princess Charlotte’s death, repeated constantly in the last two episodes; everyone watching knows it by now but it’s easily forgotten that there were other women in the family who survived childbirth, especially King George III’s wife Queen Charlotte who managed to give birth to fifteen children with thirteen surviving into adulthood.
The tense atmosphere is made worse by the arrival of the Duke of Cumberland who taunts his niece in very unsubtle ways especially as she has been the target of an assassination attempt by a young man called Edward Oxford, who attempts to shoot her while she’s out on one of her regular carriage drives with Albert. Suspicion falls on the Duke, especially as evidence seems to point to him being aware of a plot to do away with his niece. (Even though at the time it was later revealed that Oxford was a lone wolf, insane and that his pistol wasn’t loaded, Cumberland’s unpopularity both in Britain and Hanover through rescinding the constitution promulgated by his predecessor William IV as well as his past history – being accused of murdering his valet and suspected of fathering his sister’s illegitimate son, among other things – showed how much people were willing to believe he was behind the plot).
In other developments, the slow burning romance between Francatelli and Skerrett ends on a sad note when she declines his offer to join him after he receives an offer to open his own establishment. As for Ernst, he returns not only to support his brother but also to have a catch up with the Duchess of Sutherland. When Albert remonstrates his brother for what he has done, Ernst sets the record straight by showing him a lock of the Duchess’s hair which he has requested.
The last two episodes also depicted Victoria’s close relationship with Baroness Lehzen who has been with the Queen ever since she was a child. Her role as Victoria’s gatekeeper especially when it comes to her personal correspondence is something that Albert is suspicious of especially as this correspondence nearly led to a security breach (which brings home the point that it’s not only the present British royal family who are the targets of fantasists). Another touching scene is that between the Queen and her uncle Leopold which gives us an insight into his marriage to Princess Charlotte- which by all accounts was a loving one despite being cut short by her tragic death.
The series ends on a happy note when we see Victoria and Albert with their new born baby daughter who Albert suggests be named after her mother. While ITV has already commissioned a second series for next year, there are already new story lines shaping up – most notably a looming showdown between Albert and Lehzen and Victoria’s confident prediction that their next child will be a boy. But we will have to wait until 2017 to see how these and others will play out. Oooh, the suspense – and we aren’t going to check wiki or google ‘Queen Victoria’s children’ or ‘Prince Albert and Lehzen – what happened?’ in the meantime and spoil it for ourselves, are we?
So, all in all what do I make of this series? While there are some good bits and there is a huge effort made to depict as faithfully as possible the attitudes of the time, the rituals of court life and the politicking of the day, they are spoiled by unnecessary padding: especially with the downstairs story lines and the constant beating of the viewers over the head with certain lines and themes over and over again. A major omission was overlooking Baron Stockmar’s role in bringing together Victoria and Albert and his role as their unofficial counsellor in such matters as the way they viewed and developed the monarchy and the education of their children. That was a wasted opportunity, and something that could have been explored instead of all the pointless downstairs scenes.
Crucially any meaningful way of exploring Queen Victoria’s relationship with Lord Melbourne was junked in favour of romance. I can see why the writer took liberties with Prince Ernst and the Duchess of Sutherland as it reveals a kernel of truth about how standards of morality were slowly changing and that Albert was determined to reform the Court and distance the family from the more louche Hanoverians, but with Lord Melbourne it doesn’t make any sense. Instead of using the Victoria/Lord M story line as a way to chart Victoria’s political education and serve as an insight into her personality, the Lord M storyline degenerated into the romance that never was.
Hopefully by series 2 things will be better. Queen Victoria’s own story and her reign are interesting enough. There’s no need to pad it out with downstairs narratives or other flummery; this drama has the potential to present to us those early years of Victoria’s life and reign that have been overshadowed by the Widow of Windsor.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
Blogs.some.ox.ac.uk Somerville and the Great War
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)
*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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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