Canary Girls and the role of women in WW1

Today women are an integral part of the workforce in the UK, however, before WW1 this was not the case. Although progress was slow, the First World War changed women’s place in society and demonstrated that they were the physical and intellectual equal of men.

A change in attitudes

Edwardian women were expected to be mothers, carers and homemakers. But with men leaving to fight in the war, women had to take on the jobs of those who were serving. From 1914, millions took on jobs traditionally held by men, such as factory work.

Women at Rank & Sons flour mill, Birkenhead © IWM (Q 28281)

More than 1.5 million women flooded into these industries and others to replace men away at the front. In 1914 just over 2 million worked in factories and by the end of the war it was nearly 3 million.

For the first time, large numbers of women worked in the civil service, business, banks, shops, transport and farming. Many women who had been in solitary occupations prior to the war, such as domestic service, reveled in the “sisterhood” of larger groups.

The dangers of working in munitions factories

Some factory workers, who were responsible for creating munitions, were exposed to toxic chemicals which subsequently turned their skin yellow.

They became known as Canary Girls and their work was often as hazardous as being in the trenches. There were around 950,000 female munitions workers and many did 12-hour days, six days a week for a wage of 30 shillings (which in today’s money would be around £411), making cordite and TNT, filling shells and bullets.

A woman drills the bodies of Mills hand grenades in a workshop © IWM (Q 54614)

During the war, Britain produced 170 million shells, 4 million rifles, 250,000 machine guns, 52,000 planes, 2,800 tanks and 25,000 artillery guns, and munitions was not just weapons; it was textiles, clothing, food, drink, tobacco, metal, paper wood and chemicals.

Caroline Rennes, was one of 80,000 men, women and children working at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, South London:

"Our hair was all bright ginger and our faces were all yellow."

There were other dangers and as well as daily minor accidents, hundreds were killed in huge TNT explosions in factories in Kent, East London and Nottingham.

Post-war perception of women

After the war it was expected that women should return to domestic roles.

Shipyard workers on the River Clyde, Glasgow © IWM (Q 19490)

Although many were forced to quit industrial jobs to make way for returning men, their role in the war had fundamentally changed how society regarded them and in 1918 around 8.5 million women over 30 got the vote.