She died in terrible agony. She died in terrible pain. They said that they reckoned that black powder, it burnt the back of her throat away.

Listen to the voices of those who were there or read the podcast transcript below.

As the First World War intensified, each belligerent nation found that more and more armaments were needed for its fighting forces. On the home fronts, workers were recruited for the growing number of munitions factories. Lily Smith, from Derbyshire, explained why she took a job in one.

And dad, he was on the watching staff at the shell factory, the old shell factory. And I worked at Strutts Mill. And dad said, would I like to work at the shell factory. I said, ‘Ooh, yes.’ I was only 17 then and I went as 18 because you wasn’t supposed to work nights, you see, under 18. And so, of course, dad got me on there and I used to travel backwards and forwards from Belper to Derby. Course it was more money on munitions. Sort of attracts you doesn’t it?!

The factories were noisy, chaotic places. Elsa Thomas remembered her first impressions of the vast Woolwich Arsenal in London.

I never was so frightened in my life as when I went to the Arsenal. And they took us into a workshop and all I could see was a little cap and a huge pressing machine. And this little boy was pulling and pulling – making copper caps. These copper caps fell there just like glittering things falling… Well that’s what my first experience was. I thought, ‘Oh, I could never do this.’ The lathes up above, you know, frightened. I thought, ‘I shall never do this, no I shall never do this.’

Women workers range shell cases in the New Case Shop at the Woolwich Arsenal.
Women workers range shell cases in the New Case Shop at the Woolwich Arsenal. © IWM (Q 27849)

Munitions workers carried out a wide range of jobs. Elsie McIntyre filled shells at Barnbow Factory in Leeds.

We had to stem… when it first opened in the early part of the war, we had to stem the powder into shells with broom handles and mallets.  You see, you’d have your shell and the broom handle, your tin of powder. And you’d put a bit in, stem it down, put a bit more in, stem it down. It took you all your time to get it all in. It was very hard work.

Men, as well as women, kept the factories working. Henry Oxley described his role at Woolwich.

My particular job in the factory was relative to putting holes in fuses of shells. And you worked to a gauge. In other words, you did so many, then you put your gauge to the particular hole you were drilling and if it was oversize, you called your foreman and he would check it and make it suitable to the particular gauge. In other words, if the job was found to be too big or too small as regards whatever you was doing, it was rejected. We had a special department for inspecting these particular components we were making for the shells. They were very meticulous and any rejects of course were cast out. And other than that the work was repetition, so there was no skill required whatsoever.

Ethel Wilby once found herself failing one such inspection.

Every now and again you had to test what you was doing and if it wasn’t right you had to get the tool setter to come and put it right for you. On one occasion I found it was wrong and he came and put it right – or thought I’d put it right – and each time I pulled the lever down, so it went wrong again. And he was so annoyed with me on this particular day that he said, ‘I’m not putting in any more for you’ and swore at me. ‘Go and see the boss.’ So I had to go and see the manager in his office and I explained to him what had gone wrong. I said, ‘I don’t seem to be doing anything right. I don’t know if it’s the machine or what.’ So he said, ‘Well, perhaps you’re not feeling so well today, go home and come back tomorrow.’ And I don’t know how many drills I broke but I know I was very sorry for myself.

The dangerous materials used in making explosives meant strict safety precautions had to be observed. But as Kathleen Gilbert explained, they were still not enough to combat the negative effects of the toxins.

We found work then at the Park Royal Filling Station. And it turned out to be a TNT factory – TNT. And you all had to change when you went in. You had to strip and change into other clothes because you weren’t allowed a little tiny bit of metal on you at all, not one hook or eye or anything. And of course they had corsets in those days with wires in them, you see. And you had to finish up with an overall and put your head covering on. And they used to give us domes of glass on the table with holes for your hands to go through, and you filled up the gains. Gains were something like cartridges but bigger. You filled them up with this black rock stuff. And everyone turned yellow there. And you washed so that the yellow came off, but it was always in your system.

George Ginns worked at White and Poppe’s Fuse Factory in Coventry. He clearly remembered the sight of munitions workers who’d been turned yellow by the chemicals they came into contact with.

They all went yellow. You know, very yellow. And there was quite a lot of them I don’t think they bothered at all, they never bothered about it they just carried on. But some of them were, you know, they used to make up decently and cover it up.  But a lot of them I don’t think cared a hang whether they looked yellow or green as long as they got the money – that was all they were interested in. But the majority of them in the loading were all on this TNT, were all went yellow. Quite yellow they were.  It was the toxic base of TNT, or Tri-Nitro-Toluene, that so affected the workers.

Caroline Rennles, who went yellow from working with TNT at Slade Green Factory in Kent, found there was a mixed reaction to her appearance.

Well of course we all had bright yellow faces, you see, ’cos we had no gas masks in those times and all our hair here… The manager used to say, ‘Tuck that hair under!’ you know, and you used to almost look like nuns. And you know what when you’re young… So it was all bright ginger, all our front hair, you know. And all our faces were bright yellow – they used to call us canaries. Well, when we used to come off this – not always, mind you, but sometimes – when we come off our little old train, like, the big main train would be coming through and it would be packed, you know, with different people. So of course the porters, like, they knew that we were all munitions kids, you know. So they’d say, ‘Go on, girl, hop in there,’ like, and they used to open the first class carriages, you know. And there’d be all – oh – there’d be all the officers sitting there and, you know, some of them used to look at us as though we was insects, know what I mean? And others used to mutter, ‘Oh well they’re doing their bit.’ As I say, some was quite nice and others, you know, used to treat us as though we was scum of the earth. ’Course we, all our clothes like, we couldn’t wear like good clothes because the powder used to seep into your clothes, know what I mean? But you couldn’t wear nothing posh there really.

Munitions workers encountered other dangers, too, as Laura Verity discovered.

Well I’d got this bad throat, you see, and the doctor, I don’t know what it was, he said it was some kind of poisoning. Well, you see, if you’d a bit of an inflammation, you see, gas is no good to you. And then, you see, they used a lot of asbestos at Bray’s. When I think now, my sister was onto me she said it’s a wonder you and me’s living that all that asbestos, ’cos all these nozzles and things were made of asbestos, you know, and it used to lay on the floors and you could see your footprints in it. Used to make you wonder, you see, and we were working with it.

Beatrice Lee also found her role at the Yorkshire Copper Works had its drawbacks.

It wasn’t what you’d call a healthy job. Because, well, at that time my hair was jet black and I used to have to bend over the boshes with the acid. You’ve seen the style today where people have their hair bleached at the front well my hair went like that, just at the front with bending over the boshes where the acid was, because we used to have to put the tubes in this hot acid. Well the hot tubes used to make the acid hot and then the fumes used to come up. It was a very unhealthy job but nevertheless I was very happy there.

By modern standards, there was a relaxed approach to health and safety in the factories, as Sibbald Stewart recalled.

My machine was quite safe because there was no really intricate machinery in it apart from the lathe turning and the chuck to be tightened up. But of course dealing with other machines was a different matter. If you were dealing with a cutting machine or a screw turning machine there were knives on the machines. But I’m afraid the protection was very poor compared to what it should be now. Sometimes a belt would slip down and that would involve a man being hurt with the belt. It has happened. He’d go to hospital. He’d probably be pulled into the machine or pulled onto the lathe in the machine, turning, with a sharp knife in it.

Health and safety?: A munitions worker is lifted into the barrel of a 15-inch naval gun manufactured at the Ordnance Works, Coventry, in order to clean the rifling.
Health and safety?: A munitions worker is lifted into the barrel of a 15-inch naval gun manufactured at the Ordnance Works, Coventry, in order to clean the rifling. © IWM (Q 30134)

The hazardous conditions in munitions factories could lead to fatalities. After Lilian Miles and her sister Grace went to work in Coventry in 1917, Grace fell ill.

Well she was ill. She went to the doctor and the doctor said that she was under the influence of alcohol because she was falling about and she couldn’t hold herself up, she was falling about. So the doctor told her to come back again when she was sober, he said. Well I went down to the doctor and I said to him, I said, ‘She doesn’t drink.’ He said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I think she was under the influence of drink.’ And I said she wasn’t. I said, ‘There’s something wrong with her,’ I said, ‘because she’s falling about all the while.’ And of course she was only 19, she wasn’t 20 – she died before she was 20. Besides, she didn’t drink. And so any rate, my landlady she said, ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘don’t go down to him again,’ she said, ‘I’ll send for him.’ So she sent for the doctor and she was ill and he had a specialist to her and they took her in the hospital. She died in terrible agony. She died in terrible pain and they said that they reckoned that black powder it burnt the back of her throat away. And the continual breathing of this black powder it sort of burnt the back of her throat away.

The high concentration of ammunition at the factories left them at risk of explosions.  Evelyn Ellershaw grew up in Lancaster and remembered the huge explosion there, at White Lund National Filling Factory, in October 1917.

The night that it blew up, at first we couldn’t make out what all these big bangs were and then we saw that the sky was all lit up. We thought it must be bombs. But anyway, we soon got to know that it was the factory that was going up and of course it was worse than any bonfire night. Terrible big bangs. But my father being a bus driver, he decided that he thought he’d better go – he might be useful. He got down as far as Penny Street Bridge and met a policeman who said, ‘We’re not allowing anybody into town.’ So he sent him back home again, told him to get his family and get up onto the moors, which of course dad did. And we went right up onto the moors. It was – you’ve seen the trails of evacuees leaving these… It was just like that, all the way up the road. And they told us to leave the doors and windows wide open, but mother said, ‘No, not on your life, I’m not leaving my doors wide open!’ And she didn’t. Well of course we were up on the hill – we were a long way away – and the house was still alright when we came back.

Munitions workers had a reputation for being well paid. When soldier Charles Quinnell was home on leave, he found that his friend was not strapped for cash.

Well some of the munitions makers were getting four, five and six pounds a week, which in those days was a lot of money. And to me of course they were wealthy people; I was still on the old bob a day stunt. There was one chap who’d lost an eye as a boy and of course he was excused military duty. And he asked me to come out one night with him, so I went out with him. And we went to a show at the Woolwich Hippodrome and then when we came out of there we adjourned to a pub and he was drinking double Scotch whiskeys. So when we parted he said, ‘Well, what about tomorrow night?’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, Bill, but I can’t keep up this pace. Two nights of this and I’ll be broke.’ He said, ‘That’s alright, I got plenty of money.’ But I wouldn’t have it.

But munitions wages were hard earned. Sibbald Stewart described the long hours at Elswick Ordnance Factory in Glasgow.

We started off at 6 in the morning and we worked ’til about six at night. Twelve hours on the machine and the night shift came on and took us over, took over from us and gone on over midnight. So, two twelve-hour days for each machine in the twenty-four hours. Oh, a break for half an hour at midnight in the night shift, but you’d a full hour’s break at lunchtime on the day shift. The only breaks, yes, no cups of tea in the morning or afternoon… Heavy going! It was tiring work, it was tiring of course they were heavy – they were 72 pounds weight per shell, the shell case alone. It was heavy going.

Despite the prospect of earning high wages, the risks of munitions work and the unhealthy conditions in the factories led to discontent. Many employees joined trade unions. Isabella Clarke organised her co-workers at Coventry Royal Ordnance Works.

There was no union then and I didn’t know nothing at all about unions. And there was a Mrs Arnold, which was Alice Arnold, which was made Mayoress of Coventry. And Alice came to me – we became very personal friends – and Alice came to me and she asked me why didn’t I form a union among the other girls? There was a good many Irish girls there at the time, and would I join the union. And I did and they did, and we used to pay the money in. And at that time the union was at the back of the Maypole in Broadgate – the Transport Workers’ Union. And of course Alice was a big union woman in them days, she organised more or less the union among the women of Coventry. And it was her that put me right about the rate and that.

As so many men were in the armed forces, the majority of those recruited for the new munitions workforce were women. Harry Smith remembered the reaction to this from the male workers at his factory in Yorkshire.

Oh they all came in, the women, then. Well, they worked the lathes, the machines. They did quite a few jobs, the womenfolk that came in.  Well they weren’t as skilled as the men that’d been brought up with the job, but they did just the job that they were told to do. And there were more repetition work then than previously in the years before the war. Well, some didn’t – the older men didn’t like it, but some enjoyed it because they, some went to have a drink at night with them, but not me.

Despite resistance to women working in the factories, the men at the front knew they were dependent on the munitions they produced. Hal Kerridge, who served on the Western Front, explained why such supplies were so vital.

Well, at one stage for every shell that we fired, they fired a dozen. Oh we were overwhelmed, there’s no doubt about that. Because I know in the – some issue that was put forward by the high-ups and the Parliament or somebody said, ‘The lads want shells. They’re all grumbling because they don’t get enough shells.’ ‘Right, you shall have shells.’ So they removed – whoever it was – removed all the restrictions about women labour, said, ‘You can employ women wherever you like on whatever you like, whatever they’re capable of doing – put ’em in the shell factories.’ And that’s when we started to get shells and shells and more and more and more shells.  And they were a saviour, they really were. Because if they hadn’t removed those restrictions about the employment of women labour, we’d have been in trouble.

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

Related Content

Young men from Cambridge University in a military gym class during the First World War.
© IWM (Q 30299)
First World War

Voices of the First World War: Sport In War

Episode 19: Sports and games were important to those who served during the First World War. Both when officially organised and on a more ad hoc basis, sport kept them fit and provided a welcome distraction from what was going on around them. 

General Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend KCB DSO (1861-1924) with Khalil Pasha and staff shortly after the surrender of Kut. Front row: Colonel Parr, General Townshend, and Khalil Pasha. Back row: Naum Bay, Captain W E T Morland, Naum Hava, and Faud Bey.
First World War

Voices of the First World War: Mesopotamia

Episode 18: The entry of the Ottoman Empire into the First World War in October 1914 threatened British interests in the Middle East. The British government decided to send troops to Mesopotamia – present-day Iraq – to protect the valuable oil fields near Basra. 

British soldiers loaded with kit, as they arrive at Victoria Station, London, at the start of a period of leave.
© IWM (Q 30505)
First World War

Voices of the First World War: Home On Leave

Episode 17: Many men and women who served in the First World War spent long periods of time away from home. To reduce this sense of separation, leave was granted to lift them out of the monotony and dangers of active service.