February Talk: Julie Orton Davies on the Women of the Rotherwas Munitions Factory

Julie Orton Davies began her talk by showing us an atmospheric photograph of some ‘Canary Chicks’, girls from the enormous Rotherwas Munitions Filling Factory just outside Hereford, who had evidently gone in their distinctive uniforms to have a group photo taken during the First World War. Despite mob caps and trousers and jackets to cover them, the name Canary Chicks derived from the green or yellow skin and hair colour which resulted from their daily exposure to hazardous substances. At one time 68% of the 5760 employees were women; or rather young girls who would have avoided a constrained life in service to gain their independence living away from home and working in munitions. In service they might have earned £10 per annum, but here £1 per week. On the site at Rotherwas, there were two huge filling stations, separated by a railway line which brought both shells and chemicals to the factories. When the shells were cleaned and dried, they were moved by overhead gantries to be painted and then moved again, to be filled. This latter dangerous process included, for example, mixing ammonium nitrate and TNT for a set time in an ‘incorporation mill.’ The mixture was cooled and tinned over two days then put into the shells (half as tall as the girls themselves) through funnels with the addition of a layer of beeswax, and then screwed down very carefully as they were then detonatable.

Advertisements for the work were put in local Herefordshire newspapers but most of the girls were from beyond the county, including Wales, Southern Ireland and Manchester. Julia had various stories to relate from the women she had met who had once worked at Rotherwas: some were of what we would now called anti-social behaviour and others of the camaraderie in clubs and, surprisingly, female football teams, and a tale of Lancashire girls clog dancing on tables whilst local girls beat time by banging with their plates. It is Julia’s dedicated research which has uncovered all this and brought it to life for us. She showed just what a transformation in the role of women in society this work brought, although their jobs were saved for any men who might return.  As it was there were not that many of them during the war.

 

 

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