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The munitionettes

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Food for the guns
A WWI War Bond Campaign postcard, with an artist's impression of munitionettes in a factory setting on the front (left)
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(Credit: Ewan Waugh).

The Devil's Porridge Museum

The award-winning Devil’s Porridge Museum in Eastriggs, south of Scotland, is only 70 miles from Newcastle and just north of Carlisle. The fantastic museum commemorates HM Factory, Gretna, the largest munitions factory in the world during WWI (1914-18).

 

"Devil’s Porridge" derives from the cordite explosive used in shells. To produce it, gun cotton had to be mixed with highly unstable nitro-glycerine. The conditions must have been horrendous.

 

The munitionettes handling the explosives often turned yellow and were nicknamed 'canaries'.

 

Up to 12,000 munitionettes worked at the vast Gretna complex, including a large number of women from North East England.

When Blyth Spartans Ladies played Carlisle Munitionettes at Brunton Park, home of Carlisle United FC, on April 20, 1918, many of the North East-born munitionettes turned up to support Blyth - who won 3-0 courtesy of an Annie Allen goal and a brace by Bella Reay.

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The Devil's Porridge

Eastriggs, Scotland

An award-winning museum commemorating HM Factory, Gretna. Image credit: The Devil's Porridge.

On War Service Medal

In May 1916, the War Office's (Ministry of Munitions) Committee On War Service issued a badge exclusively for women workers, see image right, to recognise their tremendous work in the war effort - despite much opposition to its issue.

 

Women were already wearing private company badges (although these were made illegal in 1915), and it was felt that wearing an official badge would recognise the valuable contribution munitionettes were making to the war effort. 

 

It would mean the wearer would get a seat on a bus if nothing else!

 

The women’s badge wasn't technically a badge; it was a triangular brooch (women didn't have buttonholes on their clothes). From May to December 1916, more than 270,000 On War Service badges were issued to skilled and unskilled factory workers, clerical staff, charladies and canteen workers.

 

By mid-1918, around 1 million women were to be employed in the munitions industries.

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South Tyneside Libraries

South Tyneside history

An extensive archive of the photographic and printed history of South Tyneside.

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Five Working Women
Hebburn munitionettes, South Tyneside (copyright: South Tyneside Libraries). Notice the triangular brooches. 
They would most likely be "On War Service" medals.​

Munitionettes' working clothes

There was no set uniform for munitions workers - they were provided with clothing felt to be suitable for the job they were undertaking.

 

On their head, they wore a (mop) cap to keep their hair back and out of harm's way. 

 

The heavy tunic usually had a cloth belt with buttons down the front. Nothing metal was worn or carried to prevent sparks around the cordite ("devil's porridge"). Darker-coloured tunic and trousers of the munitionettes indicated outdoor, dirty or physical work. In contrast, a white, ankle-length dress usually denoted indoor work in the food, health or pharmaceutical industry.


If they were allowed - health and safety were strict - the munitionettes would add personal touches to their uniforms, like lace collars, bows and sweetheart brooches.

Few photographs exist of individual munitionettes posing for the camera. Most images are of groups in the workplace, like the one below. 


It is difficult for us today to appreciate just how daring and revolutionary it was to see women wearing trousers. If you look at pictures of the suffragettes immediately before WWI, in the autumn of 1914, you'll see even they wore long skirts.

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Munitionettes
Seven munitionettes from Armstrong Whitworth 43 shop, Scotswood Works, Newcastle (copyright: TWCMS: 2005.4617)

Munitionette Mary Calder (nee Hume)

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Thank you to Kevin Wearn, from Killingworth, Northumberland, who sent this wonderful image of his maternal grandmother and her two younger sisters when they were munitionettes at 'Armstrong' munition factory on the River Tyne at Scotswood, Newcastle. 

Kevin, 66, explained: "My grandmother, Mary Calder (nee Hume), and from memory, her siblings, Frances and Margaret, were sent down from Alnwick where they lived at 4 Lisburn Street. They were three of, I believe, a family of 13 children."

 

Mary was born in 1893, so she was 21 when WWI broke out in 1914 and older than her siblings Frances and Margaret. Given Armstrong Whitworth, in Newcastle, lost around 2,000 men to the army as early as the autumn of that year, it's possible Mary joined the company around that time and encouraged her sisters to join her there as munitionettes.

 

In the above photo, Mary is in the top row (second from the right), Frances is sitting at the front (centre) and Margaret is sitting on the right-hand side. Notice how both Mary and Frances are sporting sweetheart brooches on their uniforms. We don't know what they did on the shop floor, but their dark overalls show it was a dirty, manual/physical role.

Kevin believes the picture was taken in 1916 or 1917, when his grandmother, Mary, was probably 23 years old because she married James Calder in December 1917, so they must have been courting - hence the (small) sweetheart brooch she is wearing.

 

"My grandfather joined the Navy in March 1915, and when they [James and Mary] got married in December 1917, James was serving on the HMS Dreadnaught [sic]. He was demobbed in March 1919."

 

Kevin continued: "My grandma and granddad lived in Heaton/Byker [Newcastle] and had one daughter, my mam Evelyn, who was born in 1921. I came across this photograph when my mam died in 1987.

 

My grandma died in 1956 when I was one year old so I don't remember her at all, sadly. However, I do recall meeting my Aunty Margaret ("Meggie") and Aunty Frances when I was a boy, and being taken by my mam to Alnwick to visit family.

 

"I was, obviously, too young to remember them in any detail. Having seen this photo, it would be fantastic just to have an hour with the three sisters to talk about their incredible role in WWI."

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