collections

Women at Work during World War I

women work world war one
A female pit brow worker, the photograph was probably taken at the Wigan Coal and Iron Co Ltd; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.
Last year marked two significant centenaries: the cessation of fighting in the First World War and the passing of legislation that expanded the electoral franchise to include women for the first time (at this point limited, however, to property-owning and degree-educated women over thirty). Historians have long connected these two events. The war, after the mass conscription of men to the front line, allowed women to enter the public sphere in unprecedented capacities, both in terms of work and leisure. As is documented by this vast collection of remarkable photographs, held by London’s Imperial War Museum, women’s lives were entirely transformed. The images show women performing a whole host of tasks: casting bricks, generating electricity, solutionising cork, building ships, painting railway stations, warming rubber, milking cows, signalling trains, smelting iron, blasting granite, making glucose, digging holes, and constructing houses, in addition to the work already prescribed to them such as childcare and domestic labour.

Looking through the thousands of photographs, perhaps surprising is how many show signs of joy: scenes of rural cooperation and industrial progress, of mutual support and collective endeavour. Indeed, if one were to stumble across the collection with no idea of context, they might appear to document some kind of feminist utopia (albeit one heavily bent on arms production). The trauma of the war, the loss of loved ones, the toil of work are often not visible there on the surface. No doubt this partly reflects a genuine positive spirit present amongst the workers, but one wonders also what role the medium might play here: the transforming presence of the camera (offering perhaps a welcome novelty from the daily grind, or triggering instincts to pose), and simply the limitations of the visual in conveying the lived reality of working life (as the German playwright Bertolt Brecht would later remark, the reality of a factory or workplace cannot be conveyed by a “merely photographic” reproduction). And this is not to mention the influence of any motives or biases of the photographers (George P. Lewis and Horace Nicholls among others) or their employers, the British government.

The conditions these women worked in were often dangerous and accidents were common. The TNT factories were particularly hazardous. In January 1917, an explosion at a plant in East London killed 73 people, and workers were nicknamed “canaries” due to the dangerous chemicals turning their skin yellow. The women were also paid less then their male counterparts: the munitions factories paid their female workers as little as half what they paid the men for doing similar jobs. In 1918, women working on London transport went on strike to demand equal pay, the first strike of its kind. Addressing the issue of unequal pay, in 1919 the Report of the War Cabinet Committee on Women in Industry was published. It endorsed the principle of “equal pay for equal work”, but went on to state that, because of women’s “lesser strength and special health problems”, the output would likely not be equal. In the same year, some advances in equal rights were made, enshrined in law with the The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, which made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their gender. However, the 1919 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act then forced most women workers to leave their wartime roles so as to make way for the returning men from the front.

Read more on the creation of this particular collection here at the Imperial War Museum website. Read more on the role of women in the war in this BBC iWonder piece and also elsewhere on the BBC here. For more on the topic, including the story behind the making of these photographs, also check out Women’s Factory Work in World War One (2014) by Gareth R. Griffiths.

women work world war one
Munition workers in a shell warehouse at the National Shell Filling Factory, Chilwell, Nottinghamshire, July 1917. This was one of the largest shell factories in the country — Source.

women work world war one
Female munitions workers guide 6-inch howitzer shells being lowered to the floor at the National Shell Filling Factory in Chilwell, Nottinghamshire in July 1917 — Source.

women work world war one
Woman planing propellers — Source.

women work world war one
A female war worker carefully paints the roundel on the wing of an SE5A aircraft at the Austin Motor Company factory in Birmingham, September 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
Female workers in a rubber factory in Lancashire, September 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
Female workers roll casks of beer across the floor at a brewery in Cheshire, September 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
Female war workers feed the charcoal kilns used for purifying sugar at the Glebe Sugar Refinery Co., Greenock, in Scotland, November 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
Members of the Women’s Land Army cut hedges on a farm during the First World War, 1914; photograph by Horace Nicholls – Source.

women work world war one
A female worker inspects Mills hand grenades in a British factory, 1914 — Source.

women work world war one
A group of female workers outside the glucose factory of Messrs Nicholls, Nagel and Co Ltd in Trafford Park, Lancashire, September 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
A female worker cleans the rifling of a 15-inch gun after being lifted inside the barrel in the Coventry Ordnance Works, 1914 — Source.

women work world war one
Women workers showing protection worn during sand blasting operations in the Granite Works of Messrs. Stewart & Co. Ltd., Fraser Place, Aberdeen, October 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
Female operator pouring AMT into a funnel ready for preliminary hand stemming, No. 14 National Filling Factory, Hereford — Source.

women work world war one
A female munition worker painting shells in a factory at an undisclosed location — Source.

women work world war one
Women workers making paper containers in the tailors shop, Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, May 1918 — Source.

women work world war one
Three female glass workers pack a “government order for 1 million lamp bulbs” at a warehouse somewhere in Britain, 1917 — Source.

women work world war one
A female acetylene welder at work in an aircraft factory in the Midlands, September 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
A female worker unloading coal from a railway waggon at the chemical works of Brunner Mond & Co. Ltd., Northwich, Manchester, September 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
Female workers scraping runs and shovelling starch into trucks at the glucose factory of Nicholls, Nagel & Co. Ltd., Trafford Park, Manchester, September 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
Female chemists in the laboratory of the glucose factory of Nicholls, Nagel & Co. Ltd., Trafford Park, Manchester, September 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
A female worker making rubber treads on motor vehicle tyres in the rubber factory of Charles Macintosh and Sons Ltd, Manchester, in September 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
Two female workers in an asbestos factory in Lancashire, September 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
A female worker hoisting barrels of oil into railway trucks, in a Lancashire oil and cake Factory, September 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
Female workers attending to machinery in the mills of Rank & Sons, Birkenhead, Cheshire September 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
Female workers pack glass for use as portholes in submarines in a Lancashire factory during, September 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
Female workers feeding the charcoal kilns for refining sugar, in the Glebe Sugar Refinery, Greenock, Scotland, November 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
Female workers in the clinker house in a cement works in Scotland, November 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
A female worker operating a sand blast for designing granite, in the granite works of Stewart & Co. Ltd., Fraser Place, Aberdeen, October 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
A female glass worker carrying a tube of rolled glass at Pilkington Glass Ltd of St Helen’s, Lancashire; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
A female gas worker charging a retort at a gas works, South Metropolitan Gas Co., June 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
Female workers cheering King George V and Queen Mary on their departure from the Royal Clothing Department on the 21st June 1918, Grosvenor Road, Pimlico; photograph by Horace Nicholls — Source.

women work world war one
A member of the Women’s Land Army Forestry Corps chops the base of a tree with an axe in a forest in the United Kingdom during the First World War; photograph by Horace Nicholls — Source.

women work world war one
Air Mechanics of the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) working on the fuselage of an Avro 504 aircraft, 1918 — Source.

women work world war one
Sail makers of the WRMS on board HMS ESSEX, Devonport, 1917 — Source.

women work world war one
A female controller in a vehicle of the tramways department of the Corporation of Glasgow (now Glasgow City Council). Ten controllers were employed by the department, starting in June 1916. They worked fifty-one hours per week and earned 37 shillings per week, including a bonus — Source.

women work world war one
A female chimney sweep working for her father in Camberwell, London — Source.

women work world war one
Female wire rope workers in the wire warehouse at Craddocks Wire Rope Factory in Wakefield, 23rd August 1916 — Source.

women work world war one
A female gas worker stoking the furnaces of a factory at an undisclosed location — Source.

women work world war one
Female labourers heaving sacks of coal in a gas works at an undisclosed location — Source.

women work world war one
Two female munitions workers stand beside examples of the shells produced at National Shell Filling Factory Chillwell, Nottinghamshire, July 1917; photograph by Horace Nicholls — Source.

women work world war one
A female worker and a male worker fastening bands around a coil of rope intended for use in the navy, Scotland, November 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
A female worker operating a polishing machine in the granite works of Stewart & Co. Ltd., Fraser Place, Aberdeen, October 1918; photograph by George P. Lewis — Source.

women work world war one
Young female munition workers filling shells in a factory at an undisclosed location — Source.

women work world war one
Group of Women workers employed at a Brick Works in South Wales — Source.

women work world war one
Mrs Kitchener, a female gravedigger, carries on her husband’s business whilst he serves on the front, Aley Green Cemetery, Luton — Source.