Whilst I’ve (almost) stopped giving authentic magic lantern shows in favour of power-point presentations, this week I’m doing one in a Yorkshire village hall, using original slides of the First World War. ‘Show’ isn’t the right word for this performance, as it is a sombre subject, especially as I accompany the high definition slides with the testimony of a British tommy and I’m personally moved by it, every time I do it. The talk includes a section on munitions factories and, in particular, the young girls who worked in them, known as ‘munitionettes’.
The three slides shown here are fairly typical of those produced by the War Department during the First World War, which often show girls in munitions factories enjoying themselves. Whilst there’s an element of propaganda in this, I’m sure they did find the work satisfying and the friendships comforting and lasting but their role was physically hard and dangerous, as they handled hazardous chemicals every day without adequate protection. This led to infertility and damaged immune system and some of the chemicals changed their skin colour. The girls whose skin turned yellow were known as ‘canary girls’.
Interestingly, about 80% of the munitions workers were women, yet they earned less than half the hourly rate of the men.
At the start of the war we had very few guns capable of firing shells (most fired shrapnel) and very little capacity to produce rifles, guns and ammunition. This changed rapidly, as existing Government-owned armaments factories were supplemented by private ones, contracted to the Government. Many new factories were built to make explosives, heavy armaments and small arms, on dozens of sites throughout the UK, some of them huge.
There were a number of serious fires and explosions in munitions factories, the two worst ones in Chilwell near Nottingham and Silvertown in West Ham, London. In these two incidents alone, over two hundred workers were killed and several hundred injured.
At the height of production, our munitions factories were producing fifty million shells a year and nearly two hundred thousand tons of explosives, far more than Germany could achieve.
After the War, women, quite rightly, expected more than the servile lives they had before the conflict, including the right to vote ….. and the rest is history!