Munitions recruitment poster

I was researching the work of women during World War One, so as to find an occupation for Kathleen, one of the protagonists of my forthcoming novel, Orphan Rock [Transit Lounge, March 2022], when I came across women known as ‘canary girls’.

When it became obvious that the war was not going to be over in a hurry, and would require thousands of young men to joined up to fight, the authorities desperately required women to take their place in key industries. One such industry was munitions work, which became the most popular form of female employment in the UK, employing 950,000 women by the end of the war.

This work, however, was fraught with danger. Firstly, munitions factories were prime targets for enemy fire, with such sites frequently being bombarded. In addition, those working at Royal Ordnance Filling factories (ROFs) risked blindness, burns or losing fingers or hands. Their work required them to fill a casing with powder, then put a detonator on top that they then tapped down – tapped too hard, it would explode.

Fear of such explosions was so great that women were banned from wearing silk or nylon, in case the static created by these fabrics caused a spark, and were not allowed to wear any jewellery or trinkets, including hairpins.

And if enemy fire or accidental explosions didn’t get you, the TNT poisoning would. It was obvious to these women that they were being poisoned; TNT powder in the air turned their skin, hair and nails yellow – which earned them the name of ‘canaries’. Many of them, however, saw it as their patriotic duty to keep on working there, unaware that this condition could further develop into toxic jaundice. In an article in the Lancet in August 1916, Doctors Livingstone-Fairmont and Martin-Cunningham reported the symptoms of toxic jaundice by TNT poisoning as:

‘throat and/or chest tight, sore swollen and burning; coughing, sometimes a thick yellow phlegm with bitter taste; pain around the waist and in abdomen; nausea, vomiting, constipation at first, then diarrhoea; rashes and eruptions of the skin. These could in turn lead to toxic symptoms; digestive, as in the irritative stage of jaundice; circulatory, giddiness, hot and cold flushes, swelling etc.; cerebral, drowsiness, loss of memory, disorders of sight; delirium, coma and convulsions.’

Needless to say, I decided Kathleen would not work in a munitions factory!

By the end of the war, Britain had produced 25,000 artillery pieces and over 170 million rounds of artillery shells. Over 80% of the workforce responsible for these figures were women. But at the end of the war, these women were expected to return to their pre-war lives as housewives or domestic workers. #AmReading #histfic #HistoricalFiction #WWI #history #booklovers #OrphanRock