BOULTON & PAUL
The Norwich engineering company of Boulton & Paul were specialists in sectional and steel-framed buildings. In 1915, at the request of the British government, they embarked upon the new venture of aeroplane production. Their own skilled craftsmen formed the nucleus of the aircraft section at the Rose Lane Works.
The scale and duration of the war created an urgent need for increased production of munitions and new recruits to the forces.
In late 1915, the government set up the Ministry of Munitions and negotiated with employers and unions for the ‘dilution’ of the workforce. Women were placed in semi-skilled jobs formerly done by men, thereby releasing more men for military service.
Boulton & Paul recruited 1,800 munitions workers and opened a new aircraft section at Riverside Works on the opposite bank of the Wensum. All the necessary machinery and stores were moved while the works were closed during Easter Week 1916. Although the men reportedly did not resent the introduction of ‘girl labour’, it soon became clear that the shop floor was not the place to learn the engineering skills demanded, and the craftsman wasted time explaining each task. The company therefore decided to set up an in-house school under Mr. Scott of the London Institute of Engineering, where women would be trained and placed according to aptitude in specialised workshops. Women doing light metal fitting work had their own separate shop under the supervision of a Miss Lewis. The company later received official recognition from Lloyd George and the Chief Woman Dilution Officer at the Ministry of Munitions and representatives from other manufacturers visited Norwich to study their methods.
Over the course of the First World War, Boulton & Paul employed 3,281 men and 1,226 women. The factory produced 2,530 military aeroplanes – F.E.2B, Sopwith Camel and Sopwith Snipe – together with all necessary spares. In addition to this, they made 70 flying-boat hulls for the Navy and 7,835 propellers. Women were involved in all production processes such as welding, carpentry, fitting, varnishing and doping (weatherproof coating).
In 1916 Boulton & Paul and Laurence, Scott & Co. also set up Norwich Components, specialising in the manufacture of fuses for shells. With 970 women and 250 men on the payroll, the factory worked non-stop in three 8-hour shifts and by the Armistice had produced over two million fuses.
In 1916, the tens of women previously employed at Boulton & Paul had become hundreds. They were encouraged to see their work in helping to make planes and munitions as vital to the war effort. A few women were promoted. Miss Lewis, the forewoman of the girls’ fitting shop, was headhunted by the Ministry of Munitions to help organise its national employment of women.
Letters to the Works Magazine indicate that not everyone welcomed such encroachment into formerly male territory; “Nemo” asked, “Has the present woman come to stay? Won’t her head get tired with rational thought and logical argument? Or is she going to acquire for ever that extra 2 oz. of grey matter and dispute authority with man to the end of time?”
When off duty, dancing classes at the Rose Lane mess room were popular but the dances on Friday night, where male partners were invited, were the place to be. The Riverside mess room had a stage and many entertainments were organised, especially for convalescent soldiers. Some girls married during the war to fellow workers or soldiers.
The women workers earned less than half the wages of the men (£2- 2s- 4d compared with £4- 6s- 8d), although they were doing the same job and working the same shifts. However, most of them had previously earned less, being employed as domestics, laundresses, seamstresses or in the shoe trade. Many were very young and Lady Welfare Superintendents were employed to organise and supervise separate facilities. The women’s mess room at Riverside provided luxurious surroundings where subsidised meals could be bought and workers could have space to chat and write letters in their spare time.