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.
Becoming a Canary
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.’
'I was yellow, all over'
“I was yellow, all over, you were absolutely, that colour, colour of my cushions, yeah. Our black hair was practically green, yeah, but it wore off once you come out of it, it wore off within the, within a couple of weeks it was gone. It wore out of it very quickly. But while you were in there, while you were working, you were yellow. Doesn't make no difference, I mean, you wash and wash it doesn't make no difference, it didn't come off because your whole body was yellow. You were yellow all over so, I mean, it didn't, I mean, you could have a bit of a bath. So, I mean, you don't, it, It didn't wash off, but it wore off once you were out of. It sort of got out of your system I suppose.”
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, as Caroline Rennies explains.
'I was never poisoned'
“And we used to do aerial torpedoes. Well, they were about a good two feet six I should think. Oh, they were heavy. So, we used to fill them up with powder. And, you know, string up with, that's all you could do, string it up in the front like that, you know, up to the other end of the hatches, you see. Then used to have a doctor come around every fortnight and he used to, like, pull our eyes down and pull our teeth and all that kind of thing. And I remember this doctor he was looking at us girls one day, you know, and he said, “Half of you girls will never have babies,” he said. I suppose you thought you were pulling your stomachs to pieces, you know. See, the powder used to go into your stomach. Now come to think of it I was never poisoned in my stomach with it. But I don't know if I was actually poisoned, but it used to go into their stomach and give them, you know, bad pains. Because, you see, we were supposed to keep our mouths shut but you know what girls. Well, you see, we didn't realise the danger, really. See, only when you're young you don't realise really. I mean, we'd never been in a war, had we? So, a lot of them used to have all these stomach pains but I never did, never. And they used to give us milk to drink, you know, I suppose to counteract the poisoning or whatever it was in our inside. So, so, oh, we don't mind dying for our country. As I say, you were so young you didn't realise.”
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.
'You couldn't hear yourself speak'
“Oh, well, a bit dingy and noisy, you couldn't hear yourself speak without shouting at your, the noise was terrible really. With all the machines going at the time, you couldn’t make yourself heard. (chuckling) No, you could only talk when you was off duty really. But you just got on with it. You had to stand all day long, it was a bit tiring there, but I mean, no different to service. It was war time and that was it.”
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 Clarkeremembered 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. 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.’
'They were only slightly hurt'
“Oh, there was little. Yes, of course you always find them, always heard of somebody getting hurt, like. I mean, I've seen the ambulance fetch people out, but they've only been slightly hurt, not seriously hurt. When I was soldering one of the bullets out, it sort of went back and then bang and my fingers. And those same fingers have always been a bit funny but. I was away from work for about 6 weeks with it. I couldn't use my arm and they put me on the sling, I couldn't use it. I had to go to work because he wouldn't pay me. I had to go to work every day to get my wages. But because I couldn't stay at home, they wouldn’t let me stay at home, they wouldn't pay me, but I had to go to work every day, but I didn't do anything.”
Threat Of Explosion
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.’ 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.
'There were two explosions'
“When there were two explosions I were there. The first, I can’t remember whether it was 42 shell stores or 41. My mother worked in, I’m really sure she worked in 41 and it were 42 that the explosion was in, but I was on E block and then the shell stores that went up was just like across there, like that block is but lower down. And we’d just got to work, just got there for night shift, went on 10 – 6 and we'd only just got there, and I were just picking the shell out, shell up, like, to, to put fuse on when it, this explosion, you know. Not so many killed, only, I only remember one name and they called her Florrie; they called her Florence Naylor, and she lived in Goddard Road.”
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.
'It was all bed and work'
“I had no freedom with regards going and enjoying myself, and it was all bed and work. Because when I was on days it would be 7 o’clock when I got home. By the time I’d had my tea and that, well, I was ready for bed. It was six in the morning until six at night, same at night, six at night till six the next morning, yeah, you see. I mean I was up at 4 o’clock, I had to be up at 4 o’clock to catch the train at 5:00. I mean, it was a long day for a girl, 17. They wouldn’t do it today (chuckles), they wouldn’t, honestly, no.”
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.’
'We had ten minutes for tea'
“We used to have, when you were day work, you had a quarter of an hour for your coffee morning, and then you'd have an hour for dinner or sometimes half an hour for dinner, should get ten minutes tea break for the afternoon cup of tea. More often than not we used to make her own because it was quicker, used to go to the end of the room where all the hot water, could just make a tea and we could get it quicker than going up to the canteen and lining up and waiting for it.”
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.
'Little springs, little this, little that'
“They sent me to this detonator place, a cap like that and that had to unscrew, come off, and that all comprised of about a dozen different things, little springs, little this, little that, all packed in there, you know, and it's all. And each part had to come out, be measured with a thing that we had for measuring and weighing the springs to see if they took the right pressure and all that sort of thing. One would do this, one would do that, one with the senior as you filled down that box load. So, you pass that box on, and the next girl would do her part to it. And that’s how it would go on right down the table. When it got to the end of the table, it would come back the other end being assembled again. Didn't do all the job yourself. That was how it was done.”
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.
'They didn't want to show us their livelihood'
“These men, as soon as we went in, they knew we were going to start this, you know, it goes round. They didn't want to show us. Mr Bond, the Sergeant Major Bond, who was in charge of us, he said to me, “You’ll have to put up with any difficulty you have,” he says, “come to me.” Well, I wasn't going to go to Cusumano’s route. I never went to the major about it. They didn't want to show us their livelihood. You see, they knew it was their livelihood coming, women were coming in, you see. They were going to cut the wages. Women, you know, we had all that to put up with it. They didn't say anything to me, but you had that feeling you were going to take a man's wage from him. Oh no, there's some blasted women coming here, you know how you'd feel.”
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.’
'We were all covered up'
“When, when, when, when we went in, we had special clothes. You had what, they had a big, big factory floor, with the partition down the middle and what they call a clean and dirty. When you went in in the morning, you took your coat and clothes off and put them in a kit bag and that was called dirty. Then you went over that cross over the middle over to the clean. You put their overall on, which had a what's name on the back, your number and the WD on it, and a mob cap. Wasn’t supposed to wear any hairpins, any hooks and eyes, anything metal you mustn't have on you and special shoes with WD on and we went into the comfort clean. More ordinary clothes but you had to wear their, their overall. It was all, we were all covered up that with mob caps and, because you weren’t allowed their hair and all their hair all loose, you know? No, nothing in his shoes to keep them on. No, nothing metal, no hooks and eyes. No, nothing metal, no button. Even linen buttons got a metal ring. Wasn't them, mustn't wear them.”