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SHOREHAM HISTORICAL SOCIETY: WOOLWICH WOMEN AT WAR

November 2016


On 18 November 2016 Steve Hookins, who was a member of the curatorial staff of Firepower, the Royal Artillery Museum at Woolwich until government cuts closed it down, gave a talk on "Woolwich Women at War" based on some wonderful vintage photographs.

At the outset of World War I it was generally expected that it would be a war waged by cavalry supported by artillery, as in earlier years, but when it turned into trench warfare the majority of the army's guns, firing on a flat trajectory, were all but useless, and modern howitzers and mortars and their shells were in alarmingly short supply.

More munitions workers were needed urgently, and with so many men on the front line it was decided in 1915 to recruit women. With wages at £8 a month, up to four times the wages for domestic service, added to motives of patriotism, there were plenty of volunteers.

At first the women were set to "women's work", making garments for gunners, but soon they were being trained for other jobs, not such specialized skilled work as making wheels for howitzers, which took a long apprenticeship, but making shells and cartridges, and the intricate work for small hands of assembling fuses and igniter caps. . Mixing cordite - "the devil's porridge" - was an unpleasant job that turned the skin and hair yellow, while filling and moving shells was dangerous work as an explosion at the TNT factory in Silvertown showed. Soon there were 30,000 women at Woolwich doing these jobs.


Hours were long and, until Lilian Barker took over as superintendent, living conditions were poor. Barker instituted hostels, nurseries, canteens with extra milk to combat the effects of exposure to nitrate, recreational activities, and other welfare measures.

After the War she attempted to find jobs for the women as they were demobilised. The War changed the status of women forever, leading quietly to the success of the women's suffrage movement, opening new jobs, and even changing ideas of what was acceptable dress.



 

Shoreham And District
Historical Society
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The Kent History Federation and
The Kent Archaeological Society

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