When the Military Industry was Dominated by Women (1914-1918)

During World War I, women were recruited into jobs vacated by men who were fighting in the war. New jobs were created as part of the war effort. The high demand for weapons resulted in the munitions factories becoming the largest single employer of women during 1918.

Women and men work amid rows of artillery shells at the National Filling Factory in Chilwell (1917)

Photo credit: University of British Columbia Library

Initially, there was resistance to hiring women, but eventually the government began coordinating the employment of women through campaigns and recruitment drives.

A large numbers of women worked heavy or precision machinery in engineering, led cart horses on farms, and worked in the civil service and factories. By 1917 munitions factories, which primarily employed women workers, produced 80% of the weapons and shells used by the British Army.

Known as ‘canaries’ because they had to handle TNT (the chemical compound trinitrotoluene that is used as an explosive agent in munitions) that caused their skin to turn yellow, these women risked their lives working with poisonous substances without adequate protective clothing or the required safety measures. Around 400 women died from overexposure to TNT during WWI.

When the war ended, many women were fired to free up jobs for returning veterans. These photos from the University of British Columbia offer a broad survey of the women who stepped up to keep their country running through an unprecedented conflict.

Rubber workers in Lancashire make mouthpieces for gas masks.

Photo credit: University of British Columbia Library

Chemical workers load wheelbarrows with lime.

Photo credit: University of British Columbia Library

A worker hauls a cake of nitrate ammonia out of a dryer in a chemical plant.

Photo credit: University of British Columbia Library

Workers in a chemical laboratory.

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A worker welds a frame tug for a military airplane.

Photo credit: University of British Columbia Library

Tannery workers draw skins from a lime pit.

Photo credit: University of British Columbia Library

Tannery workers.

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A Women’s Royal Naval Service instructor drills recruits with gas masks

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Mine net workers wire floats together

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Workers prepare for the construction of concrete ships

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Workers build parts for boilers and condensers

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A rubber worker operates a spreading machine in a tire factory. A worker shapes a tire

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Workers craft electrical fittings

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A 20 ton crane driver

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Workers test a mine with air pressure. WRNS workers fit a mine

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Gear planers in a factory in Sunderland

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A worker operates a circular saw

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A worker drills holes for the ribs of airship sheds

Photo credit: University of British Columbia Library

Workers in a dressing shop

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Workers paint War Office vehicles

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Workers haul wood in a lumber yard

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Asbestos workers at a factory in Lancashire. Workers paint airplanes at a factory near Birmingham

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Workers haul away earth while excavating for the installation of hydraulic pumps

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A worker with an electric motor

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Railway workers unload goods from a train

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Workers construct and treat airplane wings

Photo credit: University of British Columbia Library

Workers assemble artillery shells

Photo credit: University of British Columbia Library

Workers paint steel beams

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Workers shovel nitrate of soda into a skip

Photo credit: University of British Columbia Library

A railway worker operates signal box levers. Workers clean a locomotive

Photo credit: University of British Columbia Library

Workers in a brass fittings shop

Photo credit: University of British Columbia Library

A crane driver

Photo credit: University of British Columbia Library

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