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'Canary Girls' The Forgotten Heroines of Two World Wars

About The Canary Girls

In the middle of Britain located between Lichfield and Burton upon Trent is the National Memorial Arboretum; here we find memorials commemorating those who gave their lives, their health, physical and mental during the many conflicts around the globe. Nowhere at this huge and spectacular site is there a memorial to honour the women who worked in the 200 hundred or so munitions factories across Britain during both wars. Their sacrifice was no less than many other wartime workers. Many of them paid the ultimate price. They died, they suffered long term health issues and were maimed and scarred from the work they did. 

A woman mixing the ingredients to make ammunition

In 1914 at the outbreak of WWI there were just a few munitions factories in Britain making shells mainly for the navy in this ‘men only’ environment. By May 1915 with WWI beginning to bite, shells and explosive devices of all kinds in massive quantities were needed to arm the troops mostly on the western front. The shortage of munitions at that time led to what became known as the ‘shell scandal or shell crisis.’ Not nearly enough shells were being produced and many shells sent to the front were defective and did not explode. 

In this same year the newly adopted ‘Ministry of Munitions’ with Lloyd George at its head launched a campaign asking men ‘To take the Colours’ and women ‘To fill the Shells’. 

The ministry quickly commissioned the building of factories around Britain; the largest of these was built near Gretna and was known as ‘The greatest factory on earth.’ It was built by thousands of mainly Irish navvies and the site covered an area that was two miles wide and nine miles long. Once it was ready a workforce of 12,000 single women and girls, mainly teenagers were recruited. These women may not have been pressed into this work but with brothers and fathers away fighting they chose to do their bit. The women and girls (some as young as fourteen in WWI), were sent away from their hometowns and billeted near the factories. For many it was a chance of financial independence and freedom from the restraints of home life for others it may well have been daunting. 

Next the ministry commandeered factories around the country transforming them rapidly from making items for the everyday market into producing munitions, shell cases, bullets, detonators. pyrotechnics, poison gas canisters and the like. There were fewer and fewer men to do the heavy work in these factories and so the women of Britain (close to a million of them), answered the call. Of course society in general at that time had very set ideas of the sort of jobs women should be allowed to do and so it was against an atmosphere of suspicion and prejudice that women took over almost all the traditional male roles in these factories. They worked in extremely hazardous conditions and made up 90% of the workforce. 

A substance called cordite was used to fill shells and was made from a mixture of guncotton, nitro-glycerine and Vaseline petroleum. These volatile and highly toxic mixtures were made by hand in large vats by female workers. In a short time, it turned their skin and hair yellow and they became known as the ‘canaries’. These women worked 12 hour shifts night and day and had very little if any training. The shells they filled with this toxic mixture were heavy and weighed between 10k and 50k. By 1917 the factory at Gretna was producing 800 tons of cordite per week.  Around this time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited the factory and it seems it was he who christened the cordite mixture, ‘the devil’s porridge’.

Two women in a munitions factory, surrounded by ammunition

At the outbreak of WW2 because of its experience in WWI the Government quickly turned factories again into producing munitions. Women again answered the call and by 1941 Ernest Bevin’s Ministry of Labour declared that one million wives were needed for war work. It was then that women were conscripted; all unmarried women aged 20-30 (later extended to 19-43) now had to join the armed forces, work on the land or work in a factory. The factories would be mainly munitions, aircraft, tank and gun parts and as if this wasn’t dangerous enough many of the factories were targeted by German bombers. 

About What we are Trying to do

There is still no proper or substantial memorial in the UK. I feel a memorial should be placed among the eclectic mix of over 200 memorials in the N.M.A. to honour these heroic women. It is my hope that with public support this can be achieved. 

The first steps have been taken and I now have a contact to work with at the Arboretum. I have the necessary application forms and even a talented architect and gifted sculptor who have offered their services. The most important requirement of NMA is that the project is supported by a national organization. Also the sum of £1000 must accompany the initial application. It is my intention to raise this money with a variety of events locally. I have begun the process of setting up a small charity ‘Canary Girls’. Meanwhile I have a holding account for donations with Sedbergh Community Trust.

A group of women in a munitions factory, looking at the camera
Women in a munitions factory making ammunition, one woman is controlling a cart.

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