The Munitionettes

By Bénédicte Windle, Volunteer and Treasurer for the Geology Trust

A Munitions factory of the timeAlso called "canary girls, the colour of their skin betraying the damage to their liver exposed to harmful chemicals and "temporary men", seen as a threat by their male counterparts, the women who worked in munitions factories captured my attention. They illustrated for me the endless pages of figures and statistics contained in the History of the Ministry of Munitions and to this day, they embody social change.

Like geologists, they were dismissed at the beginning of the war and by the end they had proved to be a critical part of military warfare. Munitionettes brought social change and altered perceptions and the geologists brought science to a whole new level by demonstrating the practical use of geology and its crucial value to strategy and tactics.

The lack of weapons and munitions for the war effort led to the Shell Crisis of 1915, a governmental upset and the creation of the Ministry of Munitions under the direction of David Lloyd George.

Social change was imposed in this instance by the Ministry of Munitions forcing factories, which had altered their function to make munitions for the war effort, to take on women as employees as so many men had left for the war, volunteers and then conscription. Over 890,000 women of all ages joined the two million already working in factories. A recruitment poster of the time

What seems to make perfect sense nowadays, provoked a lot of ill-feeling among the male munitions workers who still massively outnumbered women in the early years of the conflict. Heavy industry wasn't right for women, the jobs were too strenuous for women, they were wearing inappropriate clothing.

Munitionettes were comparatively well-paid (especially compared to domestic service) and often portrayed as frivolous, having acquired the freedom to spend their wages as they pleased. It was also thought that women working would reduce wages across the board even though they were paid less than half of what the men were paid in some cases for the same work. Lloyd George thought pay equality was "a social revolution which... it is undesirable to attempt during war time"

By June 1917, roughly 80% of the weaponry and ammunition used by the British army during World War I was being made by munitionettes.

With mothers and grandmothers needed to work in munitions, the government funded a number of day nurseries across the country. However there was no provision for women working in other domains and most still had to rely on friends and family to care for their children.

A Munitions factory of the timeMunitionettes wore a uniform with a thrilly cap, a long coat that was shorter than the trailing skirts women wore before the war that would have been dangerous in an industrial workplace. Some even wore trousers and certainly less constricted garments.

The fact also that women were working together in large numbers offered opportunities for social activities and sport was considered good for women, keeping them healthy and lifting their spirits. Ladies-only football teams were organised by some factories. They competed for a well-disputed Cup, their matches well attended and some women players became the stars of the day.

Social change extended into peacetime. For example, women's fashions which had already started to evolve by 1914 but the move to more practical clothing during wartime undoubtedly accelerated the pace of change.
Some aspects were reversed. The government had negotiated with the trade unions to ensure that when the war ended the munitionettes would leave and their jobs would once again be filled by men. In sports, women were banned from playing in Football League grounds in 1921.

Overall though social change cannot be undone and the role of women in industry and society had significantly altered and its impact been recognised, much like the role of geologists in military warfare.

A munition workers story
By Philip Kershaw, Volunteer webmaster for the Geology Trust

Two Barnbow CanariesBarnbow near Leeds was where one of these munitions factories was hastily set up in 1915, eventually extending to over 200 acres.  By October 1916 the work force numbered 16,000, 93% of which was women or girls. The working conditions at Barnbow were dangerous and extremely arduous. The girls handling explosives had to strip to their underwear and wear bottomless smocks and caps, hairpins and combs, or anything metal, were strictly forbidden. Blanche, my grandmother, was one of these girls. Albert, her husband to be, was fighting in France, whilst Blanche was one of the ‘Barnbow Canaries’, as they were known.

At 10:27 on 5th December 1916, just after Blanche and several hundred other ‘Barnbow Canaries’ had started their shift, a violent explosion ripped through room 42. A total of 35 women were killed outright, with many dozens injured. Thankfully my grandmother survived, but suffered terrible back wounds. I never knew my grandmother because she died before I was born. But she went on to marry Albert and have two children, my mother and uncle. I can remember my mother describing to me the ‘hole’ Blanche had in her back. Blanche and fellow Barnbow Canaries

Due to the censorship of that time, no account of the accident was made public; however in a special order of the day issued from the British HQ in France, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haigh paid tribute to the devotion and sacrifice of the munitions workers. The only clue to a tragedy having happened was in the many death notices in the Yorkshire Evening Post that stated, “killed by accident”.

Its a testament to the nature of the girls at Barnbow that production was stopped only briefly. Many of the injured girls were later taken for a period of convalescence to Weetwood Grange, which had been leased by Barnbow from the works Comfort Fund.

A Munitions factory of the time A Munitions factory of the time
A Munitions factory of the time A Munitions factory of the time
A Munitions factory of the time A Munitions factory of the time