Sound story

9 Women Reveal The Dangers Of Working In A First World War Munitions Factory

Munitions workers played a crucial role in the First World War. They supplied the troops at the front with the armaments and equipment they needed to fight. They also freed up men from the workforce to join the armed forces.

Following a shortage of shells in 1915, the Ministry of Munitions was founded to control Britain's output of war material. It oversaw all aspects of the production and supply of munitions, under the forceful and energetic Minister for Munitions, David Lloyd George.   

A number of new initiatives were soon introduced to improve production levels. One of these was an appeal to women to register for war service work. Thousands of women volunteered as a result, and many of these were soon employed in the growing number of munitions factories across the country. By the end of the war, over 700,000 – and possibly up to one million – women had become ‘munitionettes’.

The munitionettes worked long hours in often hazardous conditions. Hear stories of some of the dangers and difficulties they faced by listening to these former munitions workers. Download a transcript of the interviews.

  • Becoming a ‘canary’

    Loading the player ...

    Munitions workers whose job was filling shells were prone to suffer from TNT poisoning. TNT stood for Trinitrotoluene – an explosive which turned the skin yellow of those who regularly came into contact with it. The munitions workers who were affected by this were commonly known as ‘canaries’ due to their bright yellow appearance. Although the visible effects usually wore off, some women died from working with TNT, if they were exposed to it for a prolonged period. As Ethel Dean, who worked at Woolwich Arsenal, recalled, ‘Everything that that powder touches goes yellow. All the girls’ faces were yellow, all round their mouths. They had their own canteen, in which everything was yellow that they touched… Everything they touched went yellow – chairs, tables, everything.’ (IWM SR 9439)

    Audio – Lilian Miles interview © IWM (IWM SR 854)

    Image – Munitions workers use primitive remote handling equipment to work with TNT explosives at Woolwich Arsenal. © IWM (Q 27889)

  • Health hazards

    Loading the player ...

    As well as handling the hazardous TNT powder, munitions workers risked their health in other ways in the busy, dangerous factories. The working conditions varied, but they often featured poor ventilation, exposure to harmful chemicals and sometimes even asbestos; and the physical labour involved – which included lifting heavy shells and operating machinery – could be back-breaking or extremely risky.

    Audio – Caroline Rennles interview © IWM (IWM SR 566)

    Image – Three female munitions workers push a wagon laden with cartridge cases at Woolwich Arsenal, May 1918. © IWM (Q 27881)

  • Noisy conditions

    Loading the player ...

    Depending on the type of production that was being carried out, the munitions factories could be very noisy working environments. With heavy machines operating, workers shouting at each other and moving heavy shells and equipment around, the factories were often deafening places to be. Thomas Peck described the munitions factory he worked at, Wright’s in Edgeware, Middlesex: ‘It was only a small place but the machinery, there was drills going and hammers and various things, you know. It was very noisy in there.’ (IWM SR 9365)

    Audio – Ethel Wilby interview © IWM (IWM SR 9356)

    Image – A woman drives a trolley train across a busy factory floor at the National Filling Factory, Chilwell. The trolley is loaded with shells and is used to transport the shells from one part of the factory to another. © IWM (Q 30023)

  • Workplace accidents

    Loading the player ...

    Working as they did long before modern-day health and safety legislation, workplace accidents were not unusual for employees of the munitions factories. From relatively minor injuries to more serious incidents and even death, munitions workers risked their health and often their lives while carrying out their jobs. The exact number of fatalities is difficult to know: many of these cases were kept out of the press, due to the impact such news would have had on national morale and the war effort. Isabella Clarke remembered that her friend died from the effects of gas poisoning, contracted while they were filling gas shells at the White Lund munitions factory in Lancashire. (IWM SR 774) Henry Oxley remembered from his time at Woolwich Arsenal, ‘Prevalent in my particular job was filings coming off the machine into one’s eyes. There was no protection to shield your eyes from the filings coming up. And that was an occurrence which happened quite often.’ (IWM SR 716)

    Audio – Lilian Miles interview © IWM (IWM SR 854)

    Image – A female worker operating a vertical profiling machine, profiling the outside figure of a trigger-guard for a Lewis light machine gun. © IWM (Q 110351)

  • Threat of explosion

    Loading the player ...

    There were a number of explosions at munitions factories during the First World War. The massive amount of explosive material kept at the factories meant this was an ever-present danger for those working at them. One of the largest of these disasters occurred at Silvertown, in London’s East End, in January 1917. As many as 73 people were killed, and 400 were injured. Florence Parsons, who was working nearby, remembered the huge sound the factory made as it went up: ‘A terrible explosion went. We thought it was a Zeppelin over the top of us – it really rocked us… Oh the explosion, it rocked everywhere.’ (IWM SR 11462) As key centres of war production, munitions factories were also particular targets for enemy air raids, adding another element of danger to working at them.

    Audio – Florence Thompson interview © IWM (IWM SR 722)

    Image – The Venesta factory, which produced wood veneer packing cases for the tea trade, lies in ruins following the detonation of 83 tonnes of TNT at the Brunner Mond's explosives factory in Silvertown, East London, on 19 January 1917. © IWM (Q 15364)

  • Long hours

    Loading the player ...

    The working day for a munitions worker varied according to where he or she was employed but, due to the pressures and demands of war production, they generally had to work long hours. Usually a shift system operated, and some workers also put in overtime. The length of time the shifts lasted were not standardised but could be up to 12 hours' long, as many factories operated both day and night. Many munitions workers later remembered how exhausting the night shifts were and the difficulty of staying alert when working them.

    Audio – Lily Smith interview © IWM (IWM SR 9321)

    Image – Munitions workers arriving at the railway station after a night shift, Gretna Green. © IWM (Q 30560)

  • Short breaks

    Loading the player ...

    Despite such a tiring working day, munitions workers didn’t have many – or particularly long – breaks. Some even remembered having no breaks at all. The better factories provided canteens, washrooms and toilet facilities for their employees, but these were not to be found at every workplace. When Kathleen Gilbert was a munitions worker in London, her hours were, ‘from 6am to 5.30pm, standing all the time. We had a 10 minute break, to go to the toilets, and we had to stand and eat sandwiches at the machine.’ (IWM SR 9105)

    Audio – Lily Truphet interview © IWM (IWM SR 693)

    Image – Female munitions workers at the National Shell Factory in Dublin take a break outdoors during the First World War. © IWM (Q 33228)

  • Repetitive work

    Loading the player ...

    Munitions workers carried out a wide range of jobs during the war, and were involved in the manufacturing of a variety of armaments and equipment essential to the war effort. They could be engaged in: cleaning, filling, painting and stacking shells; operating machinery; weighing powder; assembling detonators; filling bullets; lacquering fuses and making shell cases. It was often repetitive – but they had to stay focused, as their work was checked and needed to meet the required standards.

    Audio – Amy May interview © IWM (IWM SR 684)

    Image – Female workers in the examination room where cartridges and bullets are given their final inspection. © IWM (Q 110355)

  • Male hostility

    Loading the player ...

    At the start of the First World War, there were strict controls in Britain over the types of jobs that women could have. But the increasing need for more men in the armed forces meant that these had to be removed, so that women could take men’s places in the workplace. Although women were already able to work in factories, the types of jobs they carried out changed with the move from a peacetime to a wartime economy. There was often some resentment as women began to take over what was seen as traditionally ‘male’ work. Some of the 'munitionettes' experienced hostility from their male co-workers, and there was resistance to them earning the same wages as men.

    Audio – Elsa Thomas interview © IWM (IWM SR 676)

    Image – Men and women workers filling shells in the National Shell Filling Factory, Chilwell. © IWM (Q 30028)

  • Strict rules

    Loading the player ...

    Due to the risk of explosion at the factories, strict regulations were put in place to reduce the chances of accidents happening. The workers wore wooden clogs so as to avoid the sparks that could be caused by shoes with any metal in them. Other metal items were prohibited, including jewellery and hairpins. They were also not allowed to have any matches on them – something which cost Lilian Miles’s friend her job at the Coventry Ordnance Works when their fore-mistress saw a match drop out of her pocket. The girl was also imprisoned for this accidental crime: ‘She never got over it. Within a few months, she died. She was 20 years of age.’ (IWM SR 854)

    Audio – Ethel Dean interview © IWM (IWM SR 9439)

    Image – Three female munitions workers stand in front of 15-inch high explosive shells at the National Shell Filling Factory at Chilwell, Nottinghamshire, during the First World War. © IWM (HU 96426)