First World War ‘munitionettes’

Article Featured Image

traditional woman's cap and explosive shell in museum display © Lee Karen Stow

Photographer Lee Karen Stow reflects on the dangerous work carried out by women during the First World War:

"Thank you to all those who came to the Poppies: Women and War guided tour of the exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool earlier this month. One woman in the audience later spoke to me about her mother who had been a munitions worker. After seeing the stories of women and war on the walls, she felt keen to go home and learn more about the nature of the work her mother had undertaken. 

Her memory triggered my own memory of an image I took during my research and which is not in the exhibition (purely because of space). But the beauty of this blog means that I can share some of the images and stories that didn’t make the final edit.

Here is a munitions shell made by women in the First World War, alongside the mob cap worn by Rhoda Russell, a munitions worker at the Woolwich Arsenal in London. I photographed the items by kind permission of the Imperial War Museum in nearby Manchester. I find this image quite disturbing and revealing of the madness of war, or rather the industry of war, and women’s varied roles within it, often without realising the full consequences of what they are doing.

Munitions had been made at Woolwich since 1696 and women were first employed in volume in its Royal Laboratory in the 18th century. By the end of the First World War in November 1918 around 947,000 women had volunteered to produce shells, bullets and guns. The work was highly dangerous. Filling and handling explosives involved handling trinitrotoluene (TNT), a high explosive which turned their hair and skin yellow, earning for them the nickname ‘canary girls’. Prolonged exposure to the chemicals contributed to liver failure, anemia and spleen enlargement, and low fertility. Even worse, it could ignite and kill them instantly. Ironically, women were denied access to the most highly-skilled jobs in the gun factory and gun carriage department.

Despite the dangers, despite the fact that they were making instruments to slay others, the work gave them something they had not had before. These ‘munitionettes’ could wear trousers for the first time. Although the wage was a fraction of the men’s pay, a weekly wage of £2 bought silk stockings and jewellery, and the freedom to ride in a taxi."

Find out more about the exhibition and the themes within it in our free Poppies: Women and War talks and events. Lee Karen Stow will hold another free photography workshop and exhibition tour at the Museum of Liverpool on Saturday 14 November.