Welcome to my blog, where I take pleasure in words and pictures, be they my own or those of others. I'm a creative individual, and the crafty side I explore on my 'other blog', Picking Up The Threads, which I hope you'll visit too. I'm sure you understand that I have sole copyright of my original work and any of my contributions, so please ask if you want to use them. A polite request is rarely refused. So, as they used to say on the BBC's 'Listen With Mother' radio programme, many years ago: "Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin."

Thursday, 23 June 2011

She Did Her Bit!

The title of today’s post is taken from a popular First World War propaganda poster which encouraged women to work in munitions factories. Sepia Saturday this week prompted this theme, and others will no doubt be posting similar stories and images from both World Wars.
My maternal grandmother, far right in her ‘Munitionette’ uniform
This is a picture of my maternal grandmother (she of Wedding Day Delay  and Beautiful Babies fame) with some of her fellow workers from the Munitions Factory where she was employed during the First World War. She was born in 1898 and left school in 1912 to enter the world or work. She was bright and articulate, nevertheless she did not enter any of the professions. She was the eldest girl of ten children and the family would have been keen for her to earn a wage and make a contribution to the household expenses. Instead she was apprenticed to a French chocolatier, and as far as I know, this is where she worked until she went into munitions. When I was a child she would tell me stories about her employer and the handmade chocolates they made to order. I was fascinated and wondered how she could resist ‘sampling’ the goods. She did say they were allowed occasionally to have a treat. This make perfect sense as knowing they would have the odd chocolate (perhaps a ‘mis-shape’ as we call them now?) must have meant they weren’t so tempted. What a kind and canny employer!

This is the only picture I have of her in her factory uniform, and as she married in 1918, she never went out to work again. Men returned from the war and took back the jobs which women had filled in their absence. Women who had been carrying out skilled labour, and filling many vital roles, returned to more menial tasks, or became housewives and mothers.

The women who went into munitions work, known as Munitionettes, were paid better than some others as the work was highly dangerous and carried a serious risk to their health. However, they were still paid half of the wage of a man carrying out the same task. Here we are nearly a century later and, in some areas at least, women still find it difficult to break through the glass ceiling. It’s possible to read in some first-hand accounts of the women having rolls of banknotes (Lyn Macdonald, 1914-18, Voices and image of The Great War), but I don’t recall any such legend within my own family. Whatever my grandmother earned would have been ploughed back into the family resources. Max Arthur in ‘Forgotten Voices of the Great War’ uses transcripts of original recordings held by the Imperial War Museum. Some of the ‘voices’ are of munitions workers and they probably present a more realistic picture of the dangers and hardships these women faced on a daily basis.

I don’t know anything about the other girls in the picture, but I do know that my grandmother played in an all-women football team, possibly with some of her co-workers. My grandfather saw them play and said they were very good (and he was not one to lavish praise where football was concerned). She would still have been living at home with her parents, and by 1916 two of her elder brothers had been killed in the war. This may account for my great-grandfather’s paternal strictness. Having lost two of his sons he was protective towards his future son-in-law, and if my Gran went out with her friends to alleviate some of the tediousness and loneliness, this was frowned upon, whilst “That lad is fighting for King and Country.” She did however, come home with a tattoo at the top of her arm on one occasion, perhaps egged on by the other girls. Nothing changes, and peer pressure was as strong then as it is today.  For the rest of her life she was deeply embarrassed by this. My grandfather had no such qualms about his own tattoo, which proudly proclaimed his love for my grandmother; her name surrounded by hearts and flowers if I remember correctly. As a nineteen-year old soldier serving in France it was probably 'de rigueur’.

When I was young my Gran would tell me all sorts of tales about her life and we would often say that one day we’d write a book together. Sadly I never even wrote anything down and my Gran died many years ago now so it’s too late to ask her. This is my way of honouring our shared wish. My Gran also appears on my other blog Picking Up The Threads. She was a very talented needlewoman, especially crochet, and you can see some examples of her work in ‘Hand in Glove With Grandma’.

You can read more about the work of the Munitionettes by clicking here. the North Watford History Group have an excellent page about the Munitions Factory my Gran would have worked in. If you click on the two links below you will be a treated to short black and white video clips from the British Pathe News archive. Click on the link, then on the still picture.

25 comments:

  1. What an amazing life your grandmother had! How brave to work in munitions, but I suppose they just wanted to help the war effort. She sounds like a remarkable woman. Thank you for a fantastic post.
    Liz

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  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, thank-you. You must be incredibly proud of your grandmother who would have perhaps lived an even more remarkable life in today's world. I really must sit with my mum and document her life which has been extraordinary.

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  3. That is a great photo and a fascinating post. I never heard of munitionettes.

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  4. Wonderful picture and fascinating post. They are posed very formally, almost like dancers. I wonder what they thought of the clothes? I expect they were very proud to be doing their bit for the war effort.

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  5. Your grandmother seems to have an arm band theothers lack. I wonder if she was a section boss?

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  6. Great photo and history. Sad that women who would have wanted to continue working had to stay at home.......Rosie.

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  7. Wonderful post. I love the idea of going from making chocolates to munition; both require a lot of care. Your Gran was a fascinating woman.

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  8. Caminante, I don’t recall hearing that she had a supervising role. It’s more likely that this 1916, the year she lost two brothers, and this is a black armband.

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  9. What a great post, and what a great gimpse back into history you have shared with us.

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  10. A great post and family history.

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  11. What A Full Life! Hat Tip To All The Munitionettes !

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  12. Your grandmother sounds like she was extremely bright, capable, and fearless. What a great picture!

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  13. A wonderful story to go with an intriguing photograph, thank you. I don't suppose she worked at the big munitions factory in Nottingham, did she? I've read about it, and wasn't that where there was a huge explosion?

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  14. This is a fabulous photo and a treasure for your family!

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  15. Great post and in keeping with the theme too! I went a different more summer like route...these women of that era were very strong willed and it shows well!

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  16. Don't laugh, I rather fancy that uniform! I want one!! LOL

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  17. Stylish uniforms! I seem to remember their complexions often became quite yellow from the conditions they worked under, but it was very important work.

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  18. a nice testimony to your grandma. women's rights are an ongoing battle, but the younger generation doesn't seem to care as much as the women i grew up with. are they willing to settle for whatever has been gained so far, or do they not realize it is their fight now?

    as for chocolate, back to the days we had the Cadbury factory here in montreal, i had a high school friend that lived across the street, and can i tell you that, if at first the smell is interesting, after a while, it becomes nauseating. you're not so keen on having chocolate after that.... even this chocolate addict!!
    :D~
    HUGZ

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  19. So very interesting, some history I never knew and especially about the Munitionettes...your Gran must have been one hoot of a gal. And thought you did not write it down with her, it's not too late now to record and share just as you did this week. Wonderful photo too, almost stair steps pose, but then the stairs start downward again!

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  20. A very interesting photo that might be mistaken for something else, like a women's troupe of acrobats. Thanks for the Pathe links too. The early factories were very greasy and full of moving belts and levers, so the uniforms were needed protection given the style then of women's garments. I was moved to see that a woman loaded each bullet casing by hand. Given the huge volume of munitions expended in WWI, that is very sobering, specially considering that women on all sides were doing the same. Wonderful history to share.

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  21. I love the stories of the woman's role in the wars. When I was in nursing one of our electives was to study that role. The first nurses were downcast women from the streets who where left to do the "dirty work" of caring for wounded soldiers. A story I am very proud of actually. Real caring women.
    QMM

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  22. This is such an interesting tribute to your grandmother.

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  23. What a beautifully written tribute to your grandmother. She sounded hard working and fascinating, someone many people today could hugely benefit from meeting. Life during the war was horrendously hard and women played a vital role in supporting the community in their mission to keep the world progressing.

    I am including this post in my Blog Promotions Page on my blog, recommended by Lucewoman.

    CJ xx

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  24. Brett, thanks for raising that. She was living in Watford at the time and the family didn’t move to Nottingham until later. It appears there were two munitions factories in North Watford and the local history group have an excellent website. I’ve updated the blog and added a link accordingly.

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  25. What a wonderful read.
    We have to just close our eyes and imagine how life was in those days. Tough but with some challenge and reason to live.
    One among ten...... survival of the fittest was the unwritten law in those days.
    Wonderful.

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