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.’ (IWM SR 9439)
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.’ (IWM SR 9365)
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 Clarke remembered 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. (IWM SR 774) 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.’
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.’ (IWM SR 11462) 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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.’
By Amanda Mason