During World War I the United Kingdom called upon its female population to join the workforce. With a majority of men being deployed and a dire need for production both to support the troops and to keep the country running, women were asked to “do their bit”.
Munition factories were one of the main sites where man (or woman) power was needed. These production facilities dealt mainly with trinitrotoluene (TNT), a toxic chemical compound that was originally used as a yellow die before its potential as an explosive was discovered.
It is no wonder that the women who were exposed to TNT on a daily basis turned yellow due to depigmentation of the skin. Their hair would often turn green or reddish too and sometimes even fall off altogether. Hence the nickname ‘Canary Girls’ or ‘Munitionettes’. The side effects of working with such a toxic substance was not just visual. Other effects include: vomiting, nausea, migraines, breast deformation, chest pain, and weakening of the immune system.
On top of all these risks, the leading cause of death in the factories was explosions. The biggest of these blasts was in 1918 at the National Shell Filling Factory, Chilwell and killed 130 workers. This is Britain’s worst ever disaster involving an explosion and it was the biggest loss of life in a single explosion during WWI.
Despite all these hazards and the women’s ability to perform both heavy duty and delicate tasks perfectly, on average, women were paid less than half of what their male counterparts received.
(Images: The Imperial War Museum)