ON THE FACTORY FLOOR
On 17 March 1915 the Board of Trade issued an appeal for women to work ‘in paid employment of any kind’. Within the first week of registration 20,000 British women had signed up. They may have been spurred on to do their bit for the war effort, but employers were slow to respond to the potential new workforce on offer. That was to change during 1915 which saw a period of outrage and political unrest as Britain struggled to respond to a potentially long-drawn-out war against Germany.
Under Lloyd George, the Ministry of Munitions was created and the effort to increase the supply of war related items was compounded by the Women’s Right to Serve March in July 1915. This saw 30,000 women march through London. Thousands of women began to flood into the ‘semi-skilled’ workforce and onto factory floors.
In Norfolk, the women’s patriotic response was as eager as the rest of the country. They were tasked with all manner of jobs in factories; from food production, to war clothing and importantly munitions. Colman’s Mustard Factory saw an increase in female workers with the senior female members of the Colman family becoming heavily involved in philanthropic war efforts. Shoe factories Howlett and White Ltd. and Sexton, Son and Everard Ltd. also had a huge increase of women in their factories. However, it was the creation of Norwich Components, by established local firms Boulton & Paul, Laurence, Scott & Co. and others, under the auspices of the East Anglian Munitions Committee which notably changed the factory landscape in Norwich.
During the First World War a large number of Norwich women enrolled in engineering factories, a previously male preserve. This was both in patriotic response to the demand for munitions, as the scale and duration of the war created an urgent need for increased production, and to allow men to be released for military service. Women’s service in such factories earned them the title Munitionettes’.
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. Artillery shells were manufactured by Laurence Scott & Co. and fuses constructed at Norwich Components Ltd.
Boulton & Paul recruited 1,800 munitions workers and opened a new factory at Riverside, across the river from their Rose Lane base. 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 (applying a weatherproof coating to the fabric of the aeroplane).
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.
Boulton & Paul provided an extensive range of welfare services and leisure time activities; girls’ football matches and weekly dances were especially popular. 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.
Laurence, Scott & Co. manufactured artillery shells in two specially built temporary structures at their Gothic Works on Hardy Road, Norwich, employing 230 women. Although processes were simplified and special tools made in the factory, such as one modified from a greenhouse syringe, the work was physically and technically demanding. Shells could weigh half a hundredweight and on average 250 shells were completed each week. However, just before the last big offensive on the Western Front, 7,000 were produced in a fortnight. There was cooperation with the men but, on occasion, suspicion could arise; men complained to their union about a secret meeting between the women workers and the foreman!
At Armistice, the women’s engineering contracts ceased, they were congratulated for their noble work but their days as Munitionettes were over. Some women returned to their previous trades while others responded to the call for menial work advertised in the newspapers, particularly in domestic service. At the time of the 1939 census many of the former munition workers were, as married women, unpaid domestic workers at home.
NORWICH BOOT AND SHOE TRADE
Norwich; home of a thriving boot and shoe trade from the 19th century, came to be of even greater importance in the 20th century as the industry was revolutionised due to the outbreak of the First World War. Having largely focused on the production of women’s and children’s shoes prior to the war, shoe factories in Norwich such as Howlett and White Ltd. and Sexton, Son and Everard Ltd. quickly offered their services to the War Office to make army boots and shoes for the Allied Forces.
The first army boots made in Norwich were produced by Howlett and White Ltd. for the French Army, with the firm producing 474,000 pairs of boots and shoes for the British armed forces and 32,000 pairs for the Allies. They also produced hospital slippers for wounded servicemen and shoes for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. P. Haldinstein and Sons similarly produced 500,000 pairs of boots and shoes during the war, having concentrated all of their efforts into the manufacture of army footwear.
The call to arms at the beginning of the British military campaign and the introduction of conscription in 1915, resulted in a large percentage of the almost exclusively male workforce leaving the home front to serve in military campaigns. The majority of these had the promise of returning to their position of employment on their return. P. Haldinstein and Sons saw 90 percent of its male employees join the army at the outbreak of the war, whilst 150 male employees left S.L. Witton Ltd. to join the army.
Consequently, females were increasingly employed in the boot and shoe trade to make up for the deficit in the male workforce and work formerly recognised as being solely male was taken up by women.
Despite initial distrust of the female workers, particularly from trade unions who feared a decrease in wages, the majority of female employees came to be recognised as valuable workers. Female employees of Wm. Hurrell were described as working ‘cheerfully and industriously at the bench and machine’ and were acknowledged for doing their bit for the nation and the men fighting to protect it.