SHOREHAM HISTORICAL SOCIETY: WOOLWICH WOMEN
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
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