When war broke out in 1914, life for women in Britain was mainly restricted to a life of domesticity. With so many men going off to war, women were called upon to take their place in factories and other industries.
DID YOU KNOW...?
Ship-building was already a major industry, especially in Belfast, but during the war it had to increase. By 1917 Britain was building as many new ships as German U-boats were sinking!
Many women left their low-paid jobs in domestic service for higher-paid work in munitions factories. To keep pace with demand from the frontline this often meant working 12 hour shifts. Accidents were common in the munitions factories and dangerous chemicals caused health problems that affected workers long after the war ended.
Despite their huge contribution from 1914-1918, the 1919 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act forced thousands of women out of their jobs as men came home and factories switched to peacetime production. Overall, the number of women in work actually decreased between 1911 and 1921!
Canning factories filled millions of tins with Maconachie’s stew, a vital ration which warmed the soldiers who shared meal times behind the lines. Factory workers packed tea, biscuits, chocolates and cigarettes into specially designed and decorated tins to appeal to soldiers at the Front with images of family and home. However, much of what they kept was ruined by the rain and mud.
Workers were vital to the war effort, as Britain needed to increase production and maximum efficiency was needed. To ensure this was for everyone to work together, the government encouraged workers to form unions, and through these to bargain and cooperate with their employers and the government. Trade Unions became more important than they had ever been before, so important that local trade union representatives were exempt from conscription because they were vital to the war effort. The increase in collective bargaining meant there were far fewer strikes, and in industries that were particularly essential (such as munitions), working conditions improved a lot. In 1919 more than half of the male workforce, and a fifth of the female workforce, were members of Trade Unions – more than double the number who were in 1907.