Remembering Women Who Worked and Died for Their Country: munition workers of WW1, “Canary Girls” and others

yellow poppy  in memoriam

As the centenary of the Great War approaches this week, I offer readers not a traditional red poppy but a yellow one – actually a wild, Welsh yellow poppy. I have chose this to represent our failure to remember the hundreds of women who died doing horrible, filthy, toxic work in munitions plants across the UK, and presumably in all the countries engaged in that savage destruction of life.

Yellow because the women and girls who worked packing explosives into shells were known as the “Canary girls” because of  the way that TNT stained their skin yellow and their hair orange or green. It also poisoned them and many died horrible deaths in the service of their country.

yorkminster

In most cases their names are not recorded on local war memorials and their home towns have mostly forgotten them. There is a memorial in York Minster, recording the “Names of women of the empire who gave their lives in the war” but it is far from a complete list Some 168 female munitions workers are listed here but it is certain that this is less than half of the true number. Of the men injured in battle, only those who died as a result of those wounds by 1920 are recorded on war memorials and it seems likely that an even more abrupt cut-off was applied to women who had been made ill by their war work as all the women listed died within the dates of the war itself.

The York Minster memorial records that in 1915 only 2 women died in the course of their munitions work, but in 1916 49 died, many in massive explosions at shell filling factories. 50 died in 1917 and 37 in 1918. There are also 28 about whom we know so little that we don’t even know when, where or how they died.

The Imperial War Museum tells us something of the stories of the women on the York Minster panels. But even this recent effort is sadly incomplete, with some women having no information about their lives, deaths, work or homes. There are files in The National Archives at Kew, of appeals for compensation for munitions deaths of women who are not listed on the memorial.

These were almost exclusively working class women and girls who were doing this work out of desperate need for the money, as well as their undoubted sense of patriotic duty. Many were teenage girls of 14 or 15 and many others were mothers of large families for whom the money sent by the army, to support them while their husbands were away fighting and dying, was completely inadequate to fend of destitution.

Accidents and falls killed 18

Burns and fire killed 9

Explosions killed 74

TNT and other poisoning killed 44

We don’t know the cause of deaths of 22

1 poor girl committed suicide due to stress

 

Some of the IWM biographies have photos of the women. Pitifully, these were often accompanied by an apologetic note from their mothers saying that this was the only photo they had of their daughter. Can you imagine the sense of national duty that would push you to give away the only memento you had of your lost daughter? These were very poor people who could not afford the 3 days wages it cost to get a photo taken or copied.

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TNT poisoning was very nasty and the medical authorities were at a loss to understand why some workers were affected, sometimes after working for only a short time, and others appeared to be less affected.The liver damage caused by would normally be irreversible. TNT stands for trinitrotoluene which is a bright yellow substance, hence the skin staining, which must have partly masked the jaundicing- effect of liver damage.

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Government scientists even used themselves as ‘lab rats’ to try to get a better understanding of the causes of the poisoning, but even then they had little to offer for treatment other than removing the woman from work, which could of course be financially disastrous for her, and offering all workers a drink of milk before their shifts stared. The best run factories, such as Vickers in Barrow had complex systems of washing, gargling, laundering etc to try to keep the contamination to a minimum. Some shell filling factories, such as the massive Scottish one at Georgetown, near Paisley, devised their own respirator masks.

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“Dope” poisoning was also common and often fatal. The In Memoriam newspaper notice at the top of the blog is for a young woman who died of dope poisoning at Arrol Johnston’s aircraft factory in Dumfries, in Southern Scotland. “Dope” in this context has nothing to do with the slang word for illegal drugs. Dope was one of a wide variety of very volatile varnishes painted on the cloth of the early wooden aeroplanes. These planes were made of a lightweight wooden frame covered with cloth which had to be kept waterproof and taut across the frame, which is what the dope achieved. Each plane would receive perhaps 6 coats of dope. To be sure not to miss any spots of the cloth, the women and girls would lay their heads sideways near the surface whilst painting, thus inhaling the maximum amount of the fumes from the varnish.

dope poisoning

It is clear that, although deaths due to explosions could hardly be hidden from the news and hence the numbers recorded are probably not too wrong, those from TNT and dope poisoning were often not recorded as war deaths, since the women often went home when ill and died there. I think the numbers of “Canary girls” who died would probably have been far more than the few tens recorded in the York Minster panels.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.

 

List from the York Minster Panels, with information from the IWM biographies. Where the place of work just says Ministry of Munitions, it just means that them woman was on munitions work but the location has not been recorded.

Name           Year of death   Place of work                Cause of death

1915

Elsie Cash         1915  Messrs J Booth & Co Machinery accident
Ethel Hawkins 1915 Ministry of Munitions TNT poisoning

1916

Ada Glassby      1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Agnes Lily Power 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Alice Smart       1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Amelia Stewart 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Edith Selina Levitt 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Edith Sykes        1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Eleanor aka Helena Beckett nee Barber 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Eliza Grant nee Hammond 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Elizabeth West nee Surtees 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Elsie Martha Atkinson 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Emmie Keyworth 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Ethel Agnes Jackson 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Florence Whitley nee Naylor 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Gertrude Fanny Reed formerly Temple nee Houldcroft 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Ida Worslop         1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Jane aka Jennie Blackamore 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Jane Few nee Handley 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Kate Bainbridge 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Kathleen Eastment 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Katie Chapman    1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Lilian Eva Ellis     1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Margaret Barker 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Maria Evelyn Rowley 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Martha Alderson nee Kitson 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Mary Amelia Schofield 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Mary Elizabeth Carter nee Lacy 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Mary Elizabeth or May Wortley nee Wilkinson 1916 Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Mary Gibson    1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Mary Jane Blackstone 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Olive Yeates     1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Polly Booth      1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Rose Wood       1916 Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Sarah Ann Jennings 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Explosion
Charlotte Fox   1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Machinery accident
Emma Rodgers nee Porter 1916 Cammells, Grimesthorpe Machinery accident
Margaret Gargan 1916 Ministry of Munitions Not known
Alice Cotsford nee Cream 1916 Ministry of Munitions Poisoning due to war work.
Ann Leonard     1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Poisoning due to war work.
Annie Evelyn Baron 1916 Aeroplane factory, Bridlington, Yorkshire Poisoning due to war work.
Ellen J Clark    1916 Ministry of Munitions Poisoning due to war work.
Alice Post         1916 Mesrs Curtis & Harvey TNT poisoning
Alice Williams 1916 not known TNT poisoning
Annie Holmes 1916 not known TNT poisoning
Bridget Agnes Jubb nee Churchfield 1916 Ministry of Munitions TNT poisoning
Charlotte aka Lottie Meade nee Hudson 1916 Ministry of Munitions TNT poisoning
Dorothy Maud Rebecca Willis nee Hart 1916 Ministry of Munitions TNT poisoning
Elizabeth Farrar 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire TNT poisoning
Elizabeth Mason formerly Bristow nee Booth 1916 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire TNT poisoning
Gladys Irene Pritchard nee Harris 1916 Wales- Ministry of Munitions TNT poisoning
Lizzie Jones     1916 Wales – Ministry of Munitions TNT poisoning

1917

Ada Hannah Botterill 1917 Leeds Forge Company Accident
Dorothy Ling 1917 Ministry of Munitions Accident
Elizabeth aka Lizzie Anderson 1917 Dalzell Steel Works, Motherwell, Scotland Accident
Florence Benton 1917 Grimesthorpe Gas Works, Yorkshire Accident
Margaret Valentine 1917 Ministry of Munitions Accident
Mary Ellen Dawber 1917 Grove Chemical Works Accident
Maud Armstrong 1917 Skinningrove Ironworks Accident
E Smith (Mrs) 1917 Ministry of Munitions Burns
Lucy May Eaton 1917 Ministry of Munitions Burns
Martha Hannah Beech nee Pigg 1917 Ministry of Munitions Burns
Ada Frances Curtis 1917 Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Alice Rofe 1917 Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Annie Frost 1917 National Filling Factory Hayes Middlesex Explosion
Annie M Smith 1917 Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Catherine M England (Mrs) 1917 Ajax Chemical Company Explosion
Dorothy Mary Watson 1917 National Explosives Factory, Pembrey, Llanelli Explosion
Edith Rose Maskell nee Smith 1917 Ajax Chemical Company Explosion
Florence A R Hodgkins 1917 Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Gladys E Knights 1917 Ajax Chemical Company Explosion
Emily L Baker 1917 Vivian and Sons Spelter Works fall
Ellen Jane Ross later Cox later Webb 1917 Ajax Chemical Company Fire
Martha Gurry formerly Panons nee Purkiss 1917 Ajax Chemical Company Fire
Mary Ann Foley 1917 Ajax Chemical Company Fire
Rose Harriet Abbott (Mrs) nee Smith 1917 Ajax Chemical Company Fire
Florence Lomas 1917 Vickers projectile factory, Barrow Not known
Florence Kate Carter 1917 Ministry of Munitions Poisoning due to war work.
Margaret Cameron nee Sherlock 1917 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire Poisoning due to war work.
Sarah Cooper (Mrs) 1917 Ministry of Munitions Poisoning due to war work.
Margaret Morgan 1917 not known suicide
Agnes Deane 1917 Ministry of Munitions TNT poisoning
Annie Bell 1917 White Lund Filling Factory TNT poisoning
Annie Elizabeth Perry nee Britt 1917 National Filling Factory Hayes Middlesex TNT poisoning
Bertha McIntosh 1917 White Lund, Morecambe TNT poisoning
Edith M Dillon 1917 not known TNT poisoning
Edith Perkins 1917 not known TNT poisoning
Elizabeth M Macey 1917 Ministry of Munitions TNT poisoning
Elizabeth Walsh 1917 not known TNT poisoning
Elsie Oates 1917 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire TNT poisoning
Emily Mary Judd 1917 National Filling Station Hayes Middlesex TNT poisoning
Esther Devonald nee Hancock 1917 Wales – Ministry of Munitions TNT poisoning
Florence Gertrude Gleave 1917 Gadbrook TNT poisoning
Florence Harriet Chandler 1917 Ministry of Munitions TNT poisoning
Helen Garvine 1917 not known TNT poisoning
Letitia Henderson 1917 Ministry of Munitions TNT poisoning
Lily Maud Leaver 1917 Wales – Ministry of Munitions TNT poisoning
Margaret A Silcock 1917 not known TNT poisoning
Margaret Roscoe 1917 White Lund TNT poisoning
Maria Haverty 1917 not known TNT poisoning
Mary Lucy Turner 1917 not known TNT poisoning
Sarah Ann Butterworth 1917 not known TNT poisoning

1918


Annie Keenan 1918 Newcastle shipyard Accident
Dinah Bamber 1918 Vickers projectile factory Accident
Mary Lyns 1918 Ministry of Munitions Accident
Mary Taylor 1918 Ministry of Munitions Accident
Elsie Mary Bonsall 1918 Standard Firework Company Burns
Gladys Hayden 1918 Ministry of Munitions Burns
Annie Benson 1918 Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Dorothy Prince Brown 1918 H.M. Factory Langwith Explosion
Edith Ellen Copham 1918 National Explosives Factory, Pembrey, Llanelli Explosion
Eliza Ward 1918 Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Elizabeth Clara Brown 1918 National Filling Factory No. 6, Chilwell, Nottinghamshire Explosion
Ellen Preece 1918 Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Elsie Lavinia Gibbs 1918 Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Elsie May Garratt 1918 H.M. Factory Langwith Explosion
Elsie Robinson 1918 Derbyshire – Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Ethel Gorrill 1918 H.M. Factory Langwith Explosion
Frances Mary aka Fanny Clarke or Clark 1918 National Filling Factory No. 6, Chilwell, Nottinghamshire Explosion
Gertrude Cursley nee Adams 1918 Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Grace M Bolton 1918 Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Hannah Freer 1918 National Filling Factory No. 6, Chilwell, Nottinghamshire Explosion
Jane Elston 1918 Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Jane Jenkins 1918 Pembrey Munitions Factory, Llanelli Explosion
Leah Eddy 1918 National Explosives Co. Hayle Explosion
Margaret Armer Bradshaw (Mrs) nee Clarkson 1918 Aintree – Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Mary Crossland 1918 National Filling Factory No. 6, Chilwell, Nottinghamshire Explosion
Mary Elizabeth aka Polly Elliott 1918 National Filling Factory No. 6, Chilwell, Nottinghamshire Explosion
Mary Fitzmaurice 1918 National Explosives Factory, Pembrey, Llanelli Explosion
Munitions Worker Fanny Taylo 1918 National Filling Factory No. 6, Chilwell, Nottinghamshire Explosion
Norah Bates 1918 Derbyshire – Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Charlotte Evelyn Massey nee Hill 1918 Rowlands’ Shell Factory, Seacombe Machinery accident
Eliza Jane Paragreen 1918 Rudge-Whitworth Works Machinery accident
Beatrice Horridge 1918 Ministry of Munitions Not known
Martha Huxley 1918 Ministry of Munitions Not known
Emily Sedgwick 1918 National Filling Factory No1, Barnbow, Yorkshire shock
Annie Freeman 1918 Ministry of Munitions TNT poisoning
Fanny Taylor 1918 National Filling Factory No. 6, Chilwell, Nottinghamshire TNT poisoning
Marion Constance Lotinga 1918 near Hereford? TNT poisoning
Charlotte Herridge (Mrs) nee Davis Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Edith Ellis British Army, Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Edith Francis Roache Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Ellen AKA Nellie Hall Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Florence Hilda Lindley Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Gladys Stella Staniland Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Louie Chaplin National Filling Factory No. 6, Chilwell, Nottinghamshire Explosion
Nellie Moulds Derbyshire – Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Susannah Taylor Ministry of Munitions Explosion
Amy Melville Ministry of Munitions Not known
Bridget Cashin Ministry of Munitions Not known
Clara Frost Ministry of Munitions Not known
Dolly Crowther Ministry of Munitions Not known
Elsie Bruce Ministry of Munitions Not known
Irene Bradly Ministry of Munitions Not known
Lily Elliott Ministry of Munitions Not known
Lily Morris or Morriss nee Beers Ministry of Munitions Not known
Louisa Preston (mrs) not known Not known
M A Johnson Ministry of Munitions Not known
M Bunce Ministry of Munitions Not known
Mabel Allen not known Not known
Margaret de Clippelier Ministry of Munitions Not known
Mary Ann Kelly nee Clarke not known Not known
Mrs Atherley Ministry of Munitions Not known
Rose Hughes Ministry of Munitions Not known
Sarah Sheridan Contribution Unknown Not known
Violet May Brookes Ministry of Munitions Not known
Florence Portman nee Ennis not known TNT poisoning
Kate Hill not known TNT poisoning

Some names I have found in my researches which are not on the York Minster records, but there must be many more and I would be pleased to hear from anyone with any information.

Miss Christine Cardow

Mrs Ruth Jones

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One Comment Add yours

  1. M. A. Lossl says:

    Thank you for a great post. We shall remember our sisters.

    Like

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