As March is Women’s History Month, here are some of the previous entries we have done regarding women and their place in British history:
As March is Women’s History Month, here are some of the previous entries we have done regarding women and their place in British history:
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 Traditional gunpowder had been replaced by materials such as cordite and sulphur which were mixed by hand despite being dangerous to human health, and despite the jocular name the colour was a warning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