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Voices of the Canary Girls

Here are some voices of WWI ‘Canaries Girls’.

Ethel Dean who worked at Woolwich Arsenal, tells us that everything the powder touched turned yellow, the girl’s faces, hair, around their mouths and in the canteen the chairs and tables were turned yellow too. 

Isabella Clarke, who worked at the White Lund factory Morecambe, tells us that her friend died from gas poisoning after filling gas shells. 

Another young woman tells us of her friend who had a match in her pocket which dropped on the floor. The forewoman spotted it and the girl lost her job and was sent to prison. The girl never got over it and died a few months later. 

In WW2 ‘Canary Girl' Gwen Thomas worked in a Liverpool factory, she tells us;

‘There was no training, you just went to small areas called shops where they made different size shells and landmines. It was heavy work. There was this thing like a big cement mixer which was full of hot TNT, which would be tipped up so you could fill your can to take back to your work station. The smell was terrible. Once I slipped on the floor with one of these big cans and I was covered in TNT. My eyes sealed up, it was up my nose, it was everywhere. Some of the chaps that were working there got hold of me and put me on a trolley and took me down to the medical place. I had to wait for the TNT to ‘set’ on my face before attempting to get it off. I had quite a job and of course my face was red and scarred from the hot TNT. They left me on the bed for an hour and then it was straight back to work.’   

This testimony is from an unknown worker at the factory in Kirkby Lancashire in February 1944. Nineteen girls were filling trays of anti-tank mine fuses when one of the fuses exploded, setting off the rest of the fuses on the tray. 

‘The girl working on the tray was killed outright and her body disintegrated; two girls standing behind her were partly shielded from the blast by her body, but both were seriously injured, one fatally. The factory was badly damaged the roof blown off electrical fittings were dangling precariously and one of the walls was swaying in the breeze.’


Nelly Bagley was just 19 when she began working in the munitions factory. She recalls her embarrassment at having to strip to her underwear.


‘We women had to be checked in case of a stray clip or hook as anything metal could set off an explosion’ Nelly felt that the women were under a great deal of pressure as they were not allowed to talk about their work. To remain cheerful, they often sang especially at night as it helped to keep them awake. They did this even when the bombs fell close by.’

This from the daughter of Rene Kershaw who also worked at the Kirkby factory. 

Her mother had explained that she had been given no choice she was just told to go and work at the factory. Although Rene was on the morning shift she did not get home until the evening, her mouth was stained yellow from the chemicals she handled. She had always thought that the war efforts of these women workers should have been recognised but sadly they have been overlooked.  

Dr Helen McCartney of Kings College London researched into the munition workers of WW2 and stated that women risked serious injury including amputation with every shell they filled. Shells would be filled with TNT and a detonator added, this had to be tapped down very carefully. Tap too hard and it could (and did) explode. Women lost fingers, hands and regularly suffered burns and a number were blinded. Dr Helen also found that babies born to women munitions workers were born a bright yellow colour. She also found details of a woman worker in a Hereford factory who lost both her hands and was blinded. She was pregnant and never saw or held her baby. 

Explosions were common; one of the largest was at Chilwell in Nottinghamshire in 1918 when a catastrophic explosion tore through this national shell filling factory. The blast killed 134 workers and injured 250 – the biggest loss of life from a single accidental explosion during the First World War.


Eight tons of TNT had detonated without warning, flattening the factory and damaging properties within a three-mile area. The colossal blast was heard 30 miles away. Eye witness, Lottie Martin, a worker at the factory, later recalled:


‘Women, men and young people running, practically all their clothing burnt, torn and dishevelled. Their faces black and charred, some bleeding with limbs torn off, eyes and hair literally gone.'


The explosions continued for a number of days with utter devastation all around. 

At the munitions factory at Barnbow near Leeds 35 were killed and at Silvertown, London 73 dead and 400 injured.

 There are of course many more accounts from the dozens of shell filling factories around Britain. If you want to find out more than there is a great deal of information available.

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