Little Known Fact
Did you know that women workers in the Munition Factories during WW1
were known as Munitionettes or 'canary girls'
From the start of WW1 the UK struggled to produce the amount of weapons and ammunition it needed to keep the troops supplied. In response to the Shell Crisis of 1915, the British government passed the Munitions of War Act in 1915, which started to regulate the munitions industry. The newly created Ministry for Munitions controlled wages and conditions of employment. Between 1915 and 1918 many British factories were taken over to produce munitions for the war effort and as the war progressed and more and more men were sent to the Western Front, women started to make up the shortfall in labour. By June 1917, roughly 80% of the weaponry and ammunition used by the British army during World War I was being made by women. Interestingly, women were paid on average less than half of what their male contemporaries had been paid.
|Credit : IWM|
The women, known as munitionettes, worked long days in physically demanding conditions but for many of them it was their first opportunity to do paid work outside of the home and a great camaraderie developed between the women workers. However, the work was not without great risk as prolonged exposure to hazardous chemicals, particularly TNT (trinitrotoluene) turned the women’s skin yellow, so much so that they became known as ‘canary girls’. Long term health risks also involved toxic liver failure, anaemia, spleen enlargement and fertility problems.
Another pervasive danger came from the risk of explosions. The explosives that the women worked with were dangerously flammable and flare-ups were an ever present danger. The Silvertown explosion in 1917 killed 73 people and injured over 400 and the 1918 explosion at the National Shell Filling Factory, Chilwell, killed over 130 workers.
The author Pat Barker wrote about Munition workers in her novel, Regeneration, which is book #1 in the Regeneration Trilogy.