Who were the Canary Girls?
The story of the risks and sacrifices munition workers made to supply ammunition to the front line is not often told. The Canary Girls, (the “munitionettes”), were the United Kingdom’s trinitrotoluene (TNT) shell makers of World War One and Two. Initially, working in the munition factories was seen as a positive consequence of war by the women who were finally able to take on traditionally male jobs. ‘Between 1914 and 1918 an estimated two million women replaced men in employment’. However, for these women, working sadly came at a cost.
What were the consequences to the munition workers health?
Munition factory conditions were hazardous and the women worked long hours for low pay. If not under threat from enemy fire and raids, they were likely to succumb to illness as a result of handling the TNT. Due to the limits of their knowledge at the time, only minor solutions to limit exposure were made. For example, the use of protective clothing including masks and improving ventilation.
On a daily basis, workers had to face the peril of handling explosive chemicals. This put them at risk of contracting potentially fatal diseases. Amputation of fingers or hands was an ongoing risk with every shell that passed through their hands. Also, they were helpless from suffering from burns or blindness. There were masses of reports from women who began suffering from yellow skin discolouration, nausea and skin irritation. This brought about the nickname canary as they resemble the plumage of a canary. A fatal side effect of handling the TNT was the risk of toxic jaundice and anaemia. In the first world war ‘400 cases of toxic jaundice were recorded among ammunition workers and 100 of those cases proved fatal’. Later in life, munition workers still suffer from direct consequences of their work in handling TNT including bone disintegration, throat problems and dermatitis.
The history of the Rotherwas ‘Royal Ordnance Munitions Factory’.
Rotherwas Munitions factory opened in 1916, where it ‘once supplied up to 70,000 bombs and explosive shells a week to the British Army during WW1’. The once-proud 300-acre site consisted of 370 buildings and employed around 6,000 staff – 4,000 of whom were women. The site was chosen for its proximity to the strategic railway network which brought in raw materials and workers from across the country. In 1942, the Luftwaffe dropped a pair of 250kg bombs in a raid on the Rotherwas factory, killing 22 people. Also, in 1944 during the Second World War, a 905 kg bomb overheated in a filling shed. This huge internal explosion led to the destruction of several buildings but luckily no lives were taken. In 1967 the factory was shut down.
The council bought the site from the Ministry of Defence in 1975. Now, most of the remaining munition buildings are gone and in its place stands Skylon Park’s new factories and offices. This includes the shell filling factory, a boiler house, a transit warehouse, two air raid shelters and several blast walls.
How have we honoured those who worked in the factories?
The plans to transform the remains of the warehouse into a museum and exhibition centre didn’t gain approval. However, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) chose to provide £77,100 to a memorial for workers at the Rotherwas factory 100 years since its opening. The launch of this project in 2016 is known as Rotherwas ROF- Front Line Duty. As part of this project, they want to collect a complete record of names of workers in the factory so we can honour and remember their sacrifice.
Last August at the Herefordshire County Fair, 31 women and one man who were workers in Herefordshire munition factories were awarded badges in a ceremony. Also, a number of “Canary Girls” were honoured last year by the Prime Minister with a medal and a visit to No 10 Downing Street to meet Theresa May following a BBC Hereford and Worcester campaign. The approval of a plaque in Rotherwas, remembering and honouring the munition workers, was approved in October 2017.
Where are we today?
International Women’s Day, the 8th of March, is a time to reflect on the struggles that women have been through before us. For example, the Canary Girls and the Suffragettes who fought for the right to vote.
The fight for equality still isn’t over today. We are still fighting for gender equality in relation to the workplace such as the gender pay gap. Over the past few months, we’re finally highlighting grave injustices against women through the #metoo and #timesup movements.
Are you having issues with equality in the workplace? Our employment team are here to help. We can provide you with guidance and support on issues such as Equal Pay, Discrimination, Harassment and Victimisation.