The British government mobilised civilians more effectively than any other combatant nation. By 1944 a third of the civilian population were engaged in war work, including over 7,000,000 women.

Minister of Labour Ernest Bevin was responsible for Britain's manpower resources. He introduced the Essential Work Order (EWO) which became law in March 1941. The EWO tied workers to jobs considered essential for the war effort and prevented employers from sacking workers without permission from the Ministry of Labour.

Bevin was also responsible for overhauling the reserved occupations scheme that gave groups of skilled workers in certain occupations exemption from military service.


Ruby Loftus screwing a Breech-ring

portrait of a female factory worker operating a lathe during the Second World War.
© IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 2850)

Ruby Loftus screwing a Breech-ring, 1943, by Laura Knight. Loftus is at her lathe in the Royal Ordnance Factory in Newport, South Wales.

From early 1941, it became compulsory for women aged between 18 and 60 to register for war work. Conscription of women began in December. Unmarried 'mobile' women between the ages of 20 and 30 were called up and given a choice between joining the services or working in industry.

Pregnant women, those who had a child under the age of 14 or women with heavy domestic responsibilities could not be made to do war work, but they could volunteer. 'Immobile' women, who had a husband at home or were married to a serviceman, were directed into local war work.

As well as men and women carrying out paid war work in Britain’s factories, there were also thousands of part-time volunteer workers contributing to the war effort on top of their every day domestic responsibilities. Other vital war work was carried out on the land and on Britain's transport network.

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