Yesterday’s post began a series on British women working outside the home during the Great War.

You might wish to read it, if you have not already done so, for general background on their status.

Much of the information in this series is from Kate Adie’s Women of World War One, based on her book Fighting on the Home Front, and was shown on BBC2 on August 13, 2014.

Munitionettes – ‘canary women’

By 1915, women all over Britain were involved in some way in the war effort.

Those who had worked ‘in service’ — as domestic help — often found work in munitions factories. They were sometimes referred to as munitionettes.

Britain had a shortage of artillery shells, which came to light in the Shell Crisis scandal. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith appointed David Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions. According to Kate Adie, Lloyd George saw a place for women in munitions factories. From behind the scenes he helped Emmeline Pankhurst to organise a demonstration of women asking to help in this regard. On the day, he appeared afterwards to speak to the women. Shortly thereafter, work on artillery shells increased rapidly, with the ladies’ help.

Working with explosives was dangerous. Death was always a possibility. The Rotherwas Munitions Factory in Hereford had a number of huts, each with thick concrete-reinforced walls. In case one hut exploded, the others would remain standing. The documentary showed us that, even today, slender tapers of TNT are still carefully bundled together and tied by hand.

Other hazards of munitions factory work included reactions to the powder: swollen faces, skin rashes and, worst of all, yellow skin. It was impossible not to breathe it in, to wash it off or to expel it. In fact, when these women walked into towns or villages to run errands, people were amazed to see their yellow skin and clothes. As such, they became known as ‘canary women’.

Adie interviewed Gladys Sangster, who was born in 1917. Her mother worked in a munitions factory. She had inhaled so much powder whilst working that Gladys was born yellow.

That said, the munitionettes felt as if they had been ‘let out of the cage’. They were outside of the home — theirs or someone else’s. They were earning their own salaries, which, by the end of the war, was three times that of what they had been earning as domestic servants. Furthermore, they were forming their own friendships with other women and enjoying their independence.

However, the spectre of death was as much over their heads as it was for the men fighting in Flanders.

The Germans had targeted British munitions factories. The end of a 12-hour shift did not mean the end of danger for these woman who were frequently evacuated, day and night.

Football

Association and league football was eventually suspended during the Great War. Too many men were serving in Europe.

Factory women and those working elsewhere for the war effort started organising their own games locally, even though then, as now, football was considered to be harmful to female reproductive organs.

The government was keen to ensure women workers got plenty of food to keep them healthy. The Great War saw the creation of works canteens for this purpose. Women were delighted to eat a balanced meal at least once a day. For many, meat was a luxury, so they welcomed a regular portion of it with potatoes and vegetables.

The government was also eager to ensure the women got plenty of fresh air in their free time. Football was one way to keep the women active and refreshed. Cities and towns began organising female football teams. Sometimes, women played men. The men had to have their hands tied behind their backs so as not to have an unfair advantage. Male goalkeepers were allowed to have one hand free.

Bella Reay was a top goal scorer during the Great War. She scored well over 100 goals in one season. Adie spoke with her granddaughter who showed her Reay’s gold medal given to her after the Munition Girls Final.

Ladies football continued after the war until 1921, when the Football Association banned it, saying it was too dangerous.

Female police, toughness and night life

The Great War gave birth to the girls’ night out.

The general public were shocked to see groups of working women invading the previously male-dominated pubs in the evenings. It was immoral. Ladies didn’t do that sort of thing.

Furthermore, people commented on the toughness of the women. It’s not surprising, but I do wonder how it manifested itself later on through their children, especially daughters, and in their grandchildren.

Margaret Damer Dawson sought to resolve this moral panic. She was the step-daughter of Thomas de Grey, the 6th Baron Walsingham. She was very much involved with good causes concerning women, children and animals. During the early part of the war, she and Nina Boyle patrolled the streets of London helping Belgian women refugees who were in danger of becoming prostitutes. Boyle led a team of women volunteers. Dawson was her assistant. The group was known as Women Police Volunteers and operated by government permission. It gradually expanded its scope outside of London.

In 1915, Boyle left the Women Police Volunteers over a disagreement over an incident involving women workers in Grantham, Lincolnshire. Boyle did not wish to have curfews for adult women. Dawson did. This set the tone for the next few years, with Dawson’s new Women’s Police Service. The posts were unpaid and strictly volunteer.

Incidentally, policemen told their top brass that they had no desire to work alongside ‘copperettes’. Therefore, the male officers had their patrols and the women theirs.

The Women’s Police Service focussed on children in trouble and female factory workers. The women factory workers resented the women constables’ attempts to ‘keep them in line’.

However, at work, where there were male employees, conflict sometimes broke out between the sexes. Dawson’s constables were called into a few establishments for daily patrols and to quell any disputes between male and female employees. Adie says that a ‘class system’ of hierarchy was set up so that females deferred to their male superiors with no arguments.

Although this all sounds rather orderly and righteous, after the war ended, the government rejected requests from Dawson’s Women’s Police Service to join the newly-created teams of women constables, who were paid for their work. The government termed the volunteers ‘sour, middle-aged fanatics’.

Dawson, quite possibly, never recovered from the rejection. She died of a heart attack in 1920.

Next: More causes, more work — including medicine

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