Young guns: the women and children of WW1 munitions factories

That many women took on new roles in munitions factories during the First World War is well-known. But what surprised author Lou Kuenzler was just how young many of these workers were – and that they toiled in hugely challenging and dangerous conditions, too. Writing for HistoryExtra, the novelist explores the stories of these ‘munitionettes’…

Women munition workers stacking a reserve of shell castings during WWI

The early 20th-century footballer Lily Parr is a legendary figure. Scouted for the famous Dick, Kerr’s Ladies team when only 14 years old, Parr was a larger-than-life sporting great – an exceptional player of her time who is credited with 43 goals during her first season playing for Dick, Kerr’s Ladies and around 1,000 in total. But the team that Parr played for was not formed out of desire to showcase and further women’s sport; it sprang from wartime necessity, as women took up many of the jobs previously held by men, in munitions factories.

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My latest children’s book, Our Beautiful Game (Faber, July 2021) centres around young women and girls who played football during the First World War as newly formed female teams flourished in the munitions factories operating across Britain at the time. Nearly every factory involved in war work had its own team of ‘munitionettes’ – as the girls and women working in the industry were almost universally known.

Two WW1 era female football players challenge for the ball
Nearly every factory involved in war work had its own team of ‘munitionettes’ – including the famous Dick, Kerr Ladies, pictured here in white. (Photo by MacGregor/Topical Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Before beginning my research in earnest, I knew I would find plenty of references to young players out on the pitch, such as Parr. Naively, I thought those employed in the dangerous business of making munitions would be a little older. I quickly uncovered evidence; however, of many teenagers – and even young children – working amongst the explosives and weaponry in production at these sites.

Jobs for the young

It was still common practice in post-Edwardian Britain for both girls and boys as young as 14 to be out of school and working. This was especially true in industrial areas, and with the outbreak of war, the trend increased. As family life, and society in general, was disrupted by the unprecedented upheaval of the conflict, wages available to munitions workers brought large contingents of adolescents to the factories. The popular British journalist and writer Hall Caine published a book entitled: Our Girls: Their Work for the War in early December 1916. The book is a collection of stories detailing women’s working lives in the factories and was designed to be a gift for the proud ‘munitionettes’ to send to their men at the front. Whilst touring a factory, which was probably Woolwich Arsenal in south-east London, Caine came across an 11-year-old girl who had earned five shillings for her first week’s work. He does not appear to find her presence in any way unusual or unsettling.

At the opposite end of the range, he notes a group of elderly women boiling lead in huge vats. Watching them ladling out the scaly grey liquid, Caine finds it impossible not to think of the “witches in Macbeth”, especially when the white hair of one of the older women “falls from its knot, and in lifting her ladle, her gaunt figure sways across the light”. Florid poetics aside, all this is quite surprising when the officials responsible for recruiting women workers were told to address themselves to those between the ages of 18 and 35 years old.

Munitions worker Peggy Hamilton’s wonderfully insightful memoir of munitions work, Three Years Or The Duration, is dedicated to two very young boys, Jimmy and Harry, whom she met whist on the factory floor. Only 19 herself when war broke out, Hamilton was raised in a house with two parlour maids, two housemaids, two kitchen maids, a housekeeper, and a resident handyman – demonstrating the broad spectrum of social class as well as age to be found working together for the war effort. Unprepared for such manual labour, she describes the conditions in the Birmingham factory where she met Jimmy as “frightful”. They were working together in dark, airless, grimy buildings without any kind of heating during the bitterly cold winters. Unsure of Jimmy’s exact age, she feels that he looks no more than seven or eight. Notwithstanding that young friends of her own family would have been better nourished, she depicts “a little boy, hollow-cheeked, with big dark rings around his eyes”. She recalls how he worked at a great pace, winding endless strips of shim brass: “Hour after hour he stood there at this wearisome job, a little robot, and his speed never slackened.”

Women work at aircraft manufacturing company during WW1
Women work at aircraft manufacturing company, Dick, Kerr Company, Lancashire, during 1918. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Although Hamilton herself endured long shifts – from seven in the morning until seven at night, six days a week – her young workmate was always there before she started and worked an hour or two after she left. It is unsurprising then that she worried about him “sweating away his young life in this filthy building”. When she asked the foreman about him, however, she was told not to worry: with his father away at war and other mouths to feed at home, he would be happy to bring as much money back to his mother as he could. Hamilton was paid a pound a week, but she assumed a child would be paid much less.

It was the job of the Welfare Department of the Ministry of Munitions, under the directorship of reformer Seebohm Rowntree, to monitor working conditions in the munitions factories, including toilets, eating facilities, industrial safety, first aid rooms and special clothing/breathing apparatus. However, this organisation was not established until late December 1915, by which time so many existing factories had been turned over to weapons production that the department was only able to focus on the new, purpose-built sites springing up all over the country in response to the shortage of weaponry at the Front. Hamilton recalls the vast difference in conditions at the various factories she worked in. Whilst the new sites were well-equipped and closely monitored, some of the smaller ad hoc ones, which were even more likely to employ youngsters, often had little or nothing in the way of support and facilities. She recalls, even by her final placement of the war, that the London & Scottish Engineering Company had no official first aid facility and any injury was dealt with by the foreman. As she worked nights, and the foreman was on the dayshift, any steel chip she got in her eye would have to wait until morning for him to remove with his penknife.

Conversely, women workers were often held to strict standards and could be called up in front of munitions tribunals for a vast array of infringements, including: leaving a job without permission (even if was to escape sexual harassment); wearing the wrong clothes; being late for work; and taking part in a strike.

Women workers in a factory during WW1
Women workers were often held to strict standards and could be called up in front of munitions tribunals for a vast array of infringements. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The 1916 Munitions of War Amendment Act stipulated the presence of at least one woman at tribunals where women’s cases were heard. One such assessor described how “young girls, some of them almost children” appeared before the court “tongue-tied with terror of the ordeal”.  One 14-year-old Birmingham girl was so distressed that she threw herself into the canal two days before her tribunal. She was rescued but remained unconscious when the case was called. In another case, a Teesside munitions firm took a woman worker to tribunal over her refusal to carry cast iron frames weighing about a hundred pounds, when men doing the same were allowed assistance.

Working conditions and ‘canaries’

The factories were dangerous places, with eye injuries a constant problem, or hair being caught in the machinery. Women frequently lost fingers and maimed their hands. Explosions, in which women lost their lives, were covered up by the government to avoid local panic. Vanishes and dyes caused nausea, fainting, headaches and even death. Those working with TNT (the explosive, trinitrotoluene) were in even greater peril of course, earning themselves the jovial nickname ‘canaries’ due to the jaundice effect from the chemicals which turned their skin bright yellow. They also suffered from a range of ailments, including nasal and throat problems, constipation, diarrhoea, blurred vision, skin rashes, depression, and fatal lung disease.

Nevertheless, this employment also offered liberation to the female workers who were able to travel around the country with greater freedom and earn higher wages than ever before. A sense of joy and pride in the job is captured repeatedly in recollections of the time. Workers often wore flowers in their lapels or bright coloured laces. These unprecedented female spaces also, of course, led to the rise of women and young girls enjoying a new shared leisure time and playing football together up and down the land – something that, until 1921, when women’s football came under stricter regulation, gave them a measure of freedom like never before.

Lou Kuenzler is the author of Our Beautiful Game (Faber, July 2021)