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Canary Girls: The World War One Women Who Turned Yellow

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Munition workers in a shell warehouse at National Shell Filling Factory No.6, Chilwell, Nottinghamshire in 1917. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

The role women played in the two World Wars is well known and well appreciated. As men went off to fight the war, positions previously held by men in factories and other services were quickly filled by women. Women worked the assembly line, drove trucks, served as air raid wardens and as nurses, worked in communications, intelligence, and performed hundreds of other duties critical for the war effort. One vital role women played was ensuring that the soldiers in the front line had adequate ammunition.

From the very beginning of the First World War, the British were having trouble producing the amount of weapons and ammunition needed by the country's armed forces. After several scathing attacks from the opposition and the media on the “shell crises of 1915”, the British government passed the Munitions of War Act 1915 to increase government oversight and regulation of the industry. To maximize munitions output, private companies supplying the armed forces were brought under the tight control of the newly created Ministry of Munitions. Wages, hours and employment conditions were regulated, strikes were prohibited, and workers were forbidden to leave their jobs without the employer’s consent. The Act also forced factories to employ women because of the shortage of able-bodied men, most of which were fighting the war. By the end of the war, the British government had more than four thousand munitions factories under its control, employing nearly a million female workers.

While women who worked the assembly lines were spared the horrors of the trenches, their jobs were no less dangerous. Munitions factories were often the enemy’s prime target with sites routinely flattened by bombing. There was also the risk of explosions.

“In these factories, they would take the casing, fill it with powder, then put a detonator in the top and that had to be tapped down,” said researcher Amy Dale to BBC. “If they tapped too hard, it would detonate."

"It happened to one lady, who was pregnant at the time, and it blinded her and she lost both her hands.” Amy added.

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Two women munitions workers stand beside examples of the shells produced at National Shell Filling Factory No.6, Chillwell, Nottinghamshire during the First World War. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

Nylon and silk clothing were banned as these materials build up static electricity which can create sparks, and sparks might lead to explosions. Women were strip searched everyday they went to work. They had to remove all objects containing metals including brassieres that contain metal clips and hair pins.

Freak accidents with explosives were common and they took the lives of many workers or left them injured. At least three major explosions occurred during this period killing more than three hundred workers and injuring hundreds more. Another occupational hazard of working in a munitions factory was the constant exposure to toxic chemicals.

Many women worked with trinitrotoluene (TNT), which is used in the manufacture of explosives, and cordite, which is used as a propellant in cartridges. When cordite is fired, the expanding gases propel bullets and shells out of the cartridge and out of the barrel. The manufacture of both TNT and cordite involves such corrosive substances such as sulfuric and nitric acid. Fumes from these acids turned many women’s skin and hair to a yellow color, earning them the nickname “canary girls”.

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Female workers in the Finishing Room, No. 14 National Filling Factory, Hereford. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

At the HM Factory in Gretna, in southern Scotland, which was the largest cordite factory in the world employing 12,000 women, female munitionettes—another nickname female munitions workers earned— mixed cordite paste in large vats with their bare hands. This particularly nasty brew was dubbed the Devil's Porridge by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the famous Sherlock Holmes series, when he visited the munitions factory in December 1916. Sir Doyle was particularly impressed by “those smiling khaki-clad girls who are swirling the stuff round in their hands”, unmindful of the fact that they “would be blown to atoms in an instant if certain small changes occurred.”

Indeed, there were more serious health hazards of working in a TNT factory than a little bit of harmless coloring, the effect of which wore out in a couple of weeks anyway.

TNT is toxic to the liver, and prolonged exposure causes anaemia and jaundice, which gave the body a different yellow coloration. Some 400 cases of toxic jaundice were recorded among ammunition workers in the First World War, of which 100 proved fatal. Some workers reported bone disintegration in later life, while others developed throat problems and dermatitis from TNT staining. Some women even gave birth to bright yellow babies. These babies were called Canary Babies.

There is a new museum near the Gretna today exploring the history of HM Factory, and highlighting the role women played in the war effort. It’s called The Devils Porridge Museum.

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Stirring the Devil’s Porridge at HM Factory Gretna. Photo credit: the Devil’s Porridge Museum, Gretna.

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Women workers preparing nitre to be taken to the Gretna munitions factory. Photo credit: Science & Society Picture Librar/SSPL

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Female munitions workers manufacturing heavy artillery shells at one of the Vickers Limited factories, May 1917. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

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Female munition workers weighing 4.5 shells in a factory in the Birmingham area, March 1918. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

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A female munitions worker drilling the bodies of Mills hand grenades in a workshop of a British factory. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

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A female munitions worker inspecting Mills hand grenades in a British factory. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

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A female munition worker at work in a factory at an undisclosed location. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

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A female munition worker painting shells in a factory at an undisclosed location. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

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Female munitions workers pushing a truckload of shells to be verified by the government inspector, June 1918. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

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Female workers painting aerial bombs in a factory, June 1918. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

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Female munition workers sorting through products in a factory in an undisclosed location in Britain, probably March 1918. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

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Female munitions workers guide 6 inch howitzer shells being lowered to the floor at the Chilwell ammunition factory in Nottinghamshire, UK. July 1917. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

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Female workers assembled in the Recreation Room at the Cubitts munitions factory, March 1918. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

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