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A modern war requires the harnessing of economic and productive power to sustain the military effort. The first, requires the means of waging war such as armaments, munitions, ships, tanks and uniforms. The second, requires transport networks and the supply of essential foods. This need extends to the home front whose labour provides the essential supplies and equipment. With the outbreak of war with Germany in August 1914, the people of Falkirk District devoted themselves to the business of supporting the war effort by whatever means they could.

The role of women in munitions work begins in May 1915, when the so-called ‘Shell Scandal’ began a process which brought thousands of women into the factories. Plants were built for the manufacture of shells, aerial bombs, mortar bombs and grenades. By an Order dated 4th September 1915, the Minister of Munitions declared the foundries in Falkirk District ‘Controlled Establishments’, as provided by Section 4 of the Munitions of War Act, 1915. Carron Company responded to demands of the war in the same way as it had done throughout its 150-year history. The Blast Furnaces, Carron Branch Railway, Mungal Foundry and E. Department, were all employed in producing munitions. Mungal Foundry produced 1,000 shell cases per week and 50,000 Grenade Castings per week. The Low Foundry received orders for over a million cast iron grenade bodies.

(Munitionettes, Etna Foundry, Falkirk 1916)

Under the manager’s personal supervision, women and girls, known as munitionettes were employed as labourers in the Moulding Shops and women were employed in the Mungal Foundry producing light munitions castings. In the engineering Department Forging Shops women were employed in operating the Steam Hammers and in the Machining Shop unskilled workers were trained to operate turning lathes, boring and drilling machines and they augmented the depleted workforce at Carron, replacing those who had gone off to war. Specially made enamelled badge-type medals, inscribed CARRON – FOR WAR SERVICE were issued to the men employed at the works to protect them from the tribunals. Falkirk Iron Company produced gas shells and bombs in addition to twenty-two thousand ‘toffee apple’ trench mortar bombs. The Jones and Campbell’s Foundry at Larbert supplied grenades and trench bomb cases. The work could be dangerous, especially for those employed at the Nobel Explosives Works at Redding. Some were killed in explosions and many suffered from health problems from the chemicals they worked with. Their skin would turn yellow, hence their nick name of ‘canaries’, and their hair would turn orange the effects of TNT poisoning.

Wages in Munitions Production

The wages for munitions work was at first livable and later very lucrative, munitions work offered women an opportunity to escape the drudgery of domestic service. It also offered women independence, a reliable weekly income, and an improved standard of living. Many employers saw the government’s recommended ‘minimum’ weekly-rate of £1 as standard however; by the end of the war the wages were on average 30/- to 35/- per week and for some considerably more. This was a clear sign that the Ministry of Munitions and employers clearly needed female labour in the munitions factories. For those women employed at the Carron Company their wages were lower than their male co-workers however, they were more than in the more traditional female jobs. By 1918, the women were being paid £1 13s per week for a 54 hour week and those women on piece time rates earned considerably more.

Before the war women who worked in factories earned between 10s to 14s per week. Although better than those in domestic service or sweated work, they were inadequate for a woman to support herself let alone any dependents. There was no uniformity in industry and the Trade Board Act of 1909, which applied in particular to women working in trades considered by the act to be ‘sweating’ set out a minimum wage. The uniformity of the wage rate imposed on women employed in the munitions industries was a positive advance that helped in the establishment of trade boards in the postwar period that covered the many industries in which women worked. Until the shell shortage scandal there was wide spread unemployment amongst women workers and this improved as a shortage of women labour gave employers an incentive to increase wages. As the wages increased in munitions factories so the wages improved for women, under a ministry of munitions order, in other industries that employed women.

The Munitions Act of July 1915, set out that only piece rates should be equal and in October 1915, the ministry issued the now famous Circular L2, that stated women employed at ‘men’s work’ should be paid at the rate of one pound per week for a normal working week. For those women deemed to be doing skilled ‘men’s work’ or piecework they should receive the same rate as a man. The circular was initially issued as an instruction to those factories which were national or government-owned and as a recommendation to those factories that were controlled, those that remained under private ownership. Following pressure from the trade unions principally the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, the ministry extended its powers to the controlled establishments through the Munitions of War (Amendment) Act of January 1916, as a statutory order in February 1916.

(Pic shows Military Khaki Girls uniform)

Although women were to have received the same rate as men if doing skilled work many employers sought to circumvent the circular. They did this by retaining a few men who set up the machines so, the women were operating the machines and doing the work, they were not actually doing the same work as ‘skilled’ men they had replaced. The employers also broke down the job of the skilled man into different parts in order to avoid the women doing the whole job that the man had been doing. Both the NFWW and the WLTU were not surprised that women did not receive equal pay. The felt that there should be an arbitrator and the ministry supported that view by implementing in March 1916, the special Arbitration Tribunal for Women’s Wages. The tribunals were empowered by the ministry to try cases were either workers or employers were not adhering to the regulations. The NFWW regularly won cases were they put forward were employers were not paying women workers according to the skill level. In July 1916, Statutory Order No.447 was introduced and this set the rate of pay for women over eighteen who worked in traditional ‘women’s work’. The Order applied to fourteen hundred workplaces and also laid down that women working in danger zones should benefit from an additional 1/2d per hour. Further Orders were issued and by March 1917 orders for special ‘war advances’ were introduced to help wages to keep up with inflation.

(Munition box makers)

Tommy’s Sister

It was working class women who were predominantly employed in the munitions factories with middle and upper class women forming a tiny fraction of the estimated one million women employed in the factories in Britain. Despite middle and upper class women being celebrated in the press. There was no gender bonding between the classes on the factory floor as the middle and upper class women (known as ’Miaows’) tended to fill the clerical roles and it is always the articulate middle and upper class voices that are heard in the novels and memoirs. The working class women were acutely aware that they were at the forefront of the production line of death that ended with the men at the front. One of the posters used to recruit women to the munitions factories was deliberately emotive with the heading ‘On Her Their Lives Depend.’ The women did not work for patriotic reasons but for money, although some did see it as their patriotic duty by supporting their men fighting at the front. A high percentage of the women were married and needed to work to support their families as their husbands, fathers and sons were fighting.

(Munitions workers at Abbots Foundry, Falkirk, April 1916)

Many of the women were entitled to separation allowances but as we know they were insufficient to make ends meet. The women were not only earning a living to support their families but they were also directly engaged in the war effort by working in the munitions factories. They overcame the prejudice and hostility of their male co-workers and trade unionists who were opposed to women, particularly married women, being employed. The munitions workers won the respect and recognition for their work with women being awarded the Order of the British Empire for acts of bravery during accidents or explosions. There was a special service at St Paul’s Cathedral on 20 April 1918, were at the end the ‘Last Post’ was played for those women who had died. Countless women, it is not possible to calculate, sacrificed their lives in the factories with thousands more their health. Tommy’s sister endured long shifts and poor working conditions and for them working in the munitions factories was just the same experience of the Tommy in the trenches.

(Machining hand grenades, Falkirk Iron Works)

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