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WW1 Canary Girls: When going to work was an act of bravery

Picture of women munitions workers

Women Munitions Workers (painting by Sir John Lavery [public domain] courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

During the First World War a group of British women, who became known as Canary Girls or Canaries, risked their lives every day by turning up for work. Yet they were nowhere near the front line.

So when I wanted to write a novel about women’s lives during the 1914-1918 war, I decided I didn’t want to invent characters who were upper or middle class members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) or the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) – essentially extensions of women’s accepted role as carer – but take my inspiration from women who filled the roles which would historically only have been done by men. Step up the Canary Girls!

picture of a canary

Canary (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Canary Girls got their name because they worked in British munitions factories, filling ammunition shells with explosives – the toxic nature of which turned their hands and skin yellow after prolonged exposure.  It sounds like an innocuous nickname but it masked the very real danger inherent in their work. The explosive was Trinitrotoluene (TNT), a very unstable compound of nitric and sulphuric acids mixed with other chemicals. Not only could careless handling of this prove fatal – at least two munitions factories in Britain exploded during the war, killing 400 civilians – it was also deleterious to the women’s long-term health. Yellow skin might be a precursor to anaemia, liver damage, a weakened immune system and an early death.

Yet, despite knowing the obvious risks at the outset,  around 64,000 of the 815,000 British women who went to work in munitions factories during the First World War filled these shells.  Why did they?

They were an ‘army’ of patriotic women. By risking their lives working in the Danger Buildings in munitions factories, the Canary Girls felt they were doing just as much as the men fighting at the Front to help Britain win the war.

Social freedom. Many female munitions workers had been in domestic service before the war, where they led isolated and confined lives of drudgery below stairs with little outside social interaction and no real life of their own.  Other women left home and moved away from the influence of their families for the first time to work in munitions. The war opened the cage door.

Illustration of a Victorian birdcage

Antique Bird Cage (Stampington & Co)

“You might be dead tomorrow,”was the prevailing morality in wartime Britain.  When subjected to enemy bombing from Zeppelins and Gotha planes, taking your life in your hands by filling shells with explosives took on a very different hue.

It was challenging and exciting. It might  have been dangerous, but it was also exciting. Many women relished learning new skills and doing ‘men’s work’.

Economic independence.  Munitions gave many working class women regular, full-time and well-paid work. Earnings as a Canary Girl were three times higher than those offered by domestic service or pre-war factory work.  Many flaunted their new wealth by buying fur coats and silk stockings, luxury apparel previously only worn by women of a higher class.

Many accepted it was only for the duration of the war.  As soon as the war ended, munitions factories began to wind down operations or close and many of the Canary Girls returned to their pre-war roles as homemakers, wives, and mothers or took low paid ‘women’s work’ jobs.

However, their aspirations had moved on.  The pre-war attitudes towards women and work would not alter completely, but their lives would never be the same again.

What do you think? If you were a woman living through the 1914-1918 war, would you have volunteered to fill shells with TNT?

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