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Image of women workers of a flour mill at Rank & Sons, Birkenhead, Cheshire

First World War Centenary Logo

The Women War Workers of the North West

By Matthew Brosnan, Historian

The First World War was fought on a huge industrial scale. Munitions were needed in vast quantities to feed the guns and a variety of products were required to supply both military and civilian needs.

With men recruited for the armed forces, the industrial workforce changed. Over 600,000 women took on previously male-dominated roles in industry during the war, working alongside men in reserved occupations. Women made an increasingly varied contribution, working in labs, mills and factories, sometimes in hazardous circumstances.

As an industrial hub, the North West of England had a significant role to play. Many of the region’s companies converted to produce munitions for the war effort. Local working class women already doing industrial jobs in the North West were joined by other women learning new skills.

These photographs show the incredible range of essential products made by women in the North West during the war. Some of these images will feature in the exhibition From Street to Trench: A World War that Shaped a Region, which runs from 5 April 2014 to 31 May 2015 at IWM North in Manchester.

  • The munitions factory

    Women munitions workers, alongside their male counterparts, produce 6-inch high explosive shells at the works of the Yorkshire & Lancashire Railway Company at Horwich, Bolton in 1917. Many companies switched to making munitions during the war, as well as welcoming more women into their workforce.

    Q 109907

  • Lab workers

    Women at work in the laboratory of Brunner, Mond & Co in Northwich, a company that manufactured sodium bicarbonate. Sometimes known as baking soda, sodium bicarbonate was used for baking and a range of other purposes. Women at the factory did a variety of jobs, from scientific lab work to packaging the finished product.

    Q 28191

  • At the coal mine

    Women pit brow workers of the Wigan Coal and Iron Company, 1918. These women sorted coal and moved heavy tubs on the surface of a coal mine – work that was dirty and physically demanding. Jobs like these had been done by working class women before the war and continued to be important in wartime.

    Q 28302

  • Making tyres

    Women workers at the factory of Charles Macintosh & Sons in Manchester make tyres for motor vehicles. The company produced a wide range of vital rubber products, including mouthpieces for gas masks issued to soldiers. Making these products required technical skill.

    Q 28232

  • Working with asbestos

    Women workers producing asbestos mattresses at the factory of Turner Brothers in Trafford Park, Manchester. Whilst appreciated as a hazardous material today, asbestos was used in a range of wartime products such as mattresses used to line the boilers of battleships.

    Q 28244

  • The flour mill

    Women workers of a flour mill at Rank & Sons, Birkenhead, Cheshire, happily pose for the camera in 1918. Working in industry could be hard, monotonous and sometimes dangerous, but there was also a strong sense of camaraderie amongst workers. Wartime conditions saw a greater variety of opportunities for women.

    Q 28281

  • Manufacturing glucose

    Women employees working in the glucose factory of Nicholls, Nagel & Co, Trafford Park, Manchester, 1918. They are scraping runs and shovelling starch into trucks as part of the manufacturing process. Women workers at this company did physical work like this, but also worked as chemists in the lab.

    Q 28221

  • Baking biscuits

    A worker baking biscuits at an army biscuit factory in Lancashire, 1918. These distinctive hard biscuits were an important staple of the rations of British soldiers during the war. While they tended to be unpopular with soldiers due to their hard texture, they provided useful nutrition in a form that was almost indestructible.

    Q 28311

  • Producing glass

    Women workers at the Pilkington’s glass factory in St Helens, Cheshire, 1918. They are shown handling large sheets of glass with only tiny protective pads to help them. The factory produced glass products from large sheets to small portholes for submarines.

    Q 28288

  • The oil cake factory

    Women workers standing on large piles of oil cakes at the British Oil and Cake Mills, Manchester, 1918. Crushing oilseeds produced oil for food and soap and left oil cakes for feeding animals. The company still exists today as BOCM Pauls.

    Q 28254