The Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, UK: the Role of Women Workers Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, UK: the Role of Women Workers

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Women in a factory.
Every night I prayed for the safety of my loved ones at the front, yet I was working 12 hours a day towards the destruction of other people's loved ones.
And after all our toil and labour past,
Sixpence or eightpence pays us off at last.

Mary Collier (c1690-1762), The Women's Labour, 1739

The Royal Arsenal in Woolwich dates from 1691, which is when the present site was purchased and was then known as the Woolwich Warren. Woolwich was also the site of the Royal Dockyard, dating from around 1518, although munitions work was not carried out on site until 1696 when the Royal Laboratory was constructed. This made ammunition, fuses and gunpowder. Its name was changed to the Royal Arsenal Woolwich at the suggestion of King George III in 1805.

18th- and 19th-Century Women Workers

Women were employed in war work long before the First World War and were first employed en masse in the Royal Laboratory in the 18th Century. They were paid piece-work sewing flannel cartridges, used to hold a charge of powder for a firearm. Wages for workers in 1777 were recorded as being between seven shillings and £1 per week. This contrasts with women's wages in the textile industry, which was around four shillings and two pence per week.

The Factories Acts of 1871 regulated the hours of women workers, although hundreds of women made cartridges at the Royal Arsenal until 1872, when they were all dismissed 'for reasons of social and economic wellbeing.' Women in the workplace were generally viewed as potentially destabilising to society. Being a wife and mother was viewed as the ideal for a Victorian woman. Even so, working was a necessity for many women, the main areas of work being domestic service and needlework. Other occupations included working in mines, bookbinding, pearl-stringing, shop and street selling, as well as home work such as making boxes and matches. Hop-picking in Kent provided seasonal employment in the summer. The work was generally low-skilled, low-paid and carried out in overcrowded conditions. Some women in desperate situations chose prostitution rather than the workhouse.

The Command Structure of the Royal Arsenal

At the outbreak of the First World War, the Royal Arsenal was in an anomalous position in the Army Governmental structure. The army controlled the Arsenal through the War Office by indirect means. Army reforms of 1898 established the Army Council, which was part military and part civilian. This directed the Arsenal in general policy through the 'Fourth Military Member', the Director General of Artillery who made demands for armaments through the Commanding Superintendent of Ordnance Factories (CSOF). He actually directed the Arsenal and was a cross between a managing director and a General. Mediating between the Director General of Artillery and CSOF was the Ordnance Board which produced and tested new designs and orders. The allocation of duties was not exactly clear to outsiders, and baffled the then-Munitions Minister David Lloyd George.

Woolwich and the Arsenal around 1914

Immediately before 1914 there were said to be about 14,000 men employed at the Arsenal. Another source indicates that in 1914 there were actually 10,8651 men employed in the Arsenal with an estimated 5,000 firms serving the War Office with clothing, furniture and raw materials.

The Arsenal dominated employment in Woolwich. The men who worked in there were not subject to army discipline and were well organised in their Trade Unions; the town even had its own labour newspaper.

The Labour Party was ambivalent in its attitude to war and in 1911, the Women's Labour League branch, Woolwich, sent a motion to their conference condemning 'the enormous yearly increase in the cost of national armaments'. They were not condemning the war itself, but those who profited from it.

In 1911, in Woolwich, there were 12,072 women who worked and 35,013 who did not. Of those who worked, there were:

  • Domestic service (including laundry) - 4,679

  • Clothing (including shirt-makers and milliners) - 2,663

  • Industrial work (including metal, wood and building) - 677

  • Commerce and clerks - 1404

The working week at the Royal Arsenal was then 48 hours: for the whole of London, it was at least 52. Living conditions in Woolwich were said to be more salubrious than the rest of the area.

Meantime Workers - the Question of Dilution

If the country is to be saved women must be allowed to serve.
Mrs Pankhurst, 1915

Following the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Lloyd George, head of the Ministry of Munitions, put the war on an industrial footing. Men were needed on the front line and shells and other munitions were desperately needed. Women were demanding 'the right to serve', and although the unions feared 'dilution' - allowing semi-skilled workers access to jobs previously classified as skilled - they dropped their restrictions to women workers for the duration of the war. It was made abundantly clear that the work was to be temporary and legislation made sure that this was so. Even those few women who learned specialised work such as tool-setting were only taught one of several jobs, so that they would be unable to generalise and be able to act as a tool-setter in any situation.

There had been no women workers at the Arsenal since 1875 and after 1920, there were very few. It was only in the period 1915 - 1920, when the Arsenal was open to women, until the Second World War, although there were far fewer women working. Women who worked on the land in the Women's Land Army were treated in the same way.

Lilian Barker, Lady Superintendent

In 1916, Miss Lilian Barker was appointed as Lady Superintendent and the success in recruiting women at the Arsenal was due to her. She was given the task of recruiting, engaging and allocating all female labour at the Arsenal. She was also responsible for their discipline and welfare, for boosting morale and for increasing production.

At the end of her first year, Lilian Barker had recruited 30,000 women, both from London and then from across the country. They came from mixed backgrounds, some from 'society' and some factory girls. They began working in the small arms factory, and later they took over much of the heavy work, such as heavy arms, trucking, crane-driving and danger work. Danger work was well-named and referred to working with the explosives such as TNT, amatol2 and TNT or shellite.

Miss Barker's appointment as Welfare Supervisor was to set an example others were to follow as best practice. Her salary of £500 per year was £100 more than other supervisors in the Arsenal. She had the responsibility for recruitment and work allocation and 'responsibility for the discipline and welfare of all females workers' and as to 'in different and subtle ways boost the morale of the workers and so increase production'. She established canteens, crèches3 and nurseries and supervised washing facilities.

Miss Barker was loved by her workers, who she referred to as 'my girls'. A contemporary reference to the women describes them as 'the toughest bunch of girls he had ever come across.' Other references describe the women as 'the elite of women workers.' This apparent discrepancy can be explained by the variety of women in the workplace.

Interestingly, Miss Barker, although behaving rather like a headmistress and being quick to act when trouble loomed, refused to accept the double standard, and would only dismiss a pregnant girl if the man was also discharged. Some women were allowed back to work after having their babies. She was proud of the fact that only 2% of her girls became pregnant. The fathers were more likely to be soldiers than fellow munitions workers.

The Life of a Woman Worker

On arrival, girls were interviewed and given a medical test, where their hair was checked for lice. Other checks were made on their heart and nerves (for danger work), their eyes, for fire inspection and gauging (blue eyes were thought to be best) and their veins, for production line work. Tasks allocated included shells, cartridges and fuses. Fuse inspection involved 16 separate small hand actions.

Men at Woolwich viewed the women as doing lesser jobs than they did, and a letter signed 'One of the Boys' described 'what they are doing is but child's play to what they would be called upon to do if they have to handle the work being done by younger men.' Typically, when women did the majority of the work in a particular area, it became referred to as 'women's work' and no longer fit for the men to do. Women were thought to be able to cope better with repetitive dead-end jobs, as they were thought only to be interested in money and not in gaining skills or progressing. Women supplemented men in skilled work; they didn't directly replace them. Women crane workers were acknowledged to be as skilled as the men, although the job did not pay well.

The only job in which women outnumbered the men was danger work, which was filling and involved handling explosives. TNT was particularly hazardous and turned their hair and skin bright yellow; the women who did this work were known as 'canaries'. The condition was known as 'yellow jaundice' and could be a killer. The first workers became ill in August 1915 and the first two deaths occurred in March 1916. Around two workers a week died. The girls were given extra milk to combat the effects, and protective clothing, which wasn't always worn, as it interfered with production. Although it paid extra, it was not a popular job and was considered unskilled or semi-skilled, despite requiring agility and speed.

Women were denied access to the most highly-skilled jobs in the gun factory and gun carriage department where there were at most 146 and 23 women respectively. Output went up when the women started work and on one job at Woolwich (the one with the 16 small hand movements), the rate was reduced from 40 seconds for 30 fuses to 15 seconds for 30 fuses.

Barker preferred experienced professionals as supervisors rather than 'ladies'; the Arsenal was one of the places that young ladies eager to do their bit would make for. These women were often inadequate for work as supervisors4, being either too petite or autocratic. Some brought their maids to do the work. They mainly worked in the canteens.

Conditions were poor and there was a long walk and waits of up to an hour outside to get pay. Random searches, which were resented, were made to ensure they weren't stealing equipment. The work was overcrowded and it was either too hot or well-ventilated and extremely cold. One man working in temperatures of over 80°F and under pressure to maintain output slit his own throat: it took an ambulance over three hours to reach him. Hours of work were long, with the legal maximum for women worked being 65 hours. Pay was at first on a par with that of the men, but was later reduced to take account of their inexperience. Most women were paid piece-work rates - estimates of how many were paid this way range from 60-90%.

Although the women could join unions, the majority of organisation was by workshops. Workshops had fashions, such as coloured shoelaces or ribbons, or the wearing of a flower in uniforms. There were also popular and patriotic songs, although some were obviously not for public consumption such as the one which began:

Old men sitting on the Arsenal wall
Just like his dad doing sod all.

There were protests from time to time about issues including protests about food; one on 20 November, 1916 was against the conditions in the canteen. Overlookers trying to get the women back to work were pelted with bread pellets and rice puddings. Another protest about food could have brought the Arsenal to a standstill and there were slogans of 'No food, no work' and the Ministry responded by setting up its own Food Section. Women complained about differential rations.

Housing the Women

With women arriving in hundreds rather than tens, pressure on housing began to mount. At first, the demand was met from within Woolwich, however it became clear that more accommodation was needed. Houses were built at Well Hall on Garden City lines in 1915 with 2794 houses completed. Hostels and temporary places of accommodation were built. These included a Women Supervisors' Hostel in Nightingale Place, the Joan of Arc hostel, Plumstead, Well Hall Hostel and Corbett Hostel. Most girls were forced into hostels, no matter what their feelings on the matter and by December 1916 4,500 women were in hostels. They were often run on military lines by supervisors or matrons, many of whom 'treated the residents as undesirable intrusions on cleanliness and good order.' There was said to be excessive concern over moral welfare and not enough care for their physical comfort.

Pressure on housing led landlords to raise rents to such an extent that there was a campaign, 'War on War Rents' and the Government dealt with exploitative landlords by the Rent and Mortgage Restriction Act 1915.

As well as the nurseries for children referred to above (the Cyril Henry Nursery catered for 700 babies by the end of the war), clubs were opened for the women. Opening in 1914 - initially to save unemployed girls from the moral trap of idleness - the 'Girls' Clubs' eventually became clubs for munitions workers. The most popular were the mixed clubs, although many women preferred their own entertainment and entertained wounded soldiers with tableaux vivants and singing patriotic songs.

Some beer-houses closed through lack of supplies and women were among the customers affected. Alcoholic drink was diluted to 50% of its pre-war strength, so drunkenness was not a significant problem 'with such weak beer'. It never reverted to its pre-war strength, so the effects of dilution are with us to this day.

Killing the Goose - the End of the War

Recommendations from the McKinnon Wood Committee at the end of the war concluded that the Arsenal should not be relied upon in future for a single operations, eg the production of shells, the congested buildings were dangerous and stores of ammunition shouldn't be kept so close to London.

Women were the first choice for demobilisation as they were seen as seeing the employment as temporary. This may have been true of the 'ladies', although it wasn't so for women who faced a return to being domestic servants or other underpaid employment. There were also married women who had become war widows who were wholly responsible for the upkeep of their families.

The first layoffs came after the collapse of the Russian Front. Numbers fell from 28,195 on 17 November, 1917, to 27,841 by 24 November, 1917. 200 more went the next week. There were complaints, not about why it was happening, but about the manner in which it was done. There was a tendency to discharge by class and it was the better-off women who were being retained; those who were in better circumstances. As women were laid off, the Women's Land Army began recruiting. The only other alternative was the WAAC. Winston Churchill, then Minister of Munitions, said that 'munitions firms had acted with commendable promptitude in immediately dismissing several thousands of their women workers', comments which 'recoiled on my head and caused a great deal of unfavourable comment' about the obvious ingratitude of it all. He then advised a slight delay in further layoffs.

Demobilisation was demoralising and the Arsenal unions stopped holding back on wage demands. There were demands for a war advance for women, but the fight for equal pay was at a time when they were most vulnerable to discharge. In the end, although the women did get some of their demands, it was like 'driftwood on the tide' and not much was gained.

The Legacy

The contemporary records never described women as doing anything for themselves, but the idea of women's work had changed. Work became women's work when a majority of women were doing it. What had been boys' jobs - the dead end jobs - became women's work. The nature of work had changed with the subdivision of complex mechanical processes into production line type work, such as the shell-making and the system of supervision. Light engineering became women's work.

Industrial welfare conditions pioneered by Quaker firms before the war was given shape during the war with the provision of canteens, washing facilities and medical care. These became good practice, together with limiting hours of production, which actually increased the rate of output per worker. The division between women and men was not changed.


Work on original source material was carried out for a thesis in the 1970s by Deborah Thom. Research for this entry was carried out at the Greenwich Heritage Centre.

1 6000 of these were classified as skilled engineering workers.2An explosive mixture of ammonium nitrate.3The Woolwich Arsenal was the first workplace crèche in the country.4There was one supervisor to every 1000 girls.

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