Cement, Chemicals, Bricks and Beer: Women in Industry During the First World War

18 October 2016

Gender and Sexuality | History | War and Conflict

When we think of the role of women on the Home Front during the First World War, the images which spring to mind are inevitably those of fresh-faced city girls perched precariously on fence posts, wellies on and pitchfork in hand. Think harder and you might also have a vague recollection of countless rows of twenty-somethings handling and packing shell cases in London munitions factories; but what other jobs did women do during the First World War?

The photograph album Women at War: Industry and Services – Boots to Flour from Imperial War Museums featured in The First World War: Visual Perspectives and Narratives, offers multiple examples of the types of industries women were an essential part of during the Great War.

Women in paid industrial employment was not a new phenomenon. We had traditionally been part of the textile and coal industries (and many more), working in mills and other similar settings for a long time. By 1917, however, the lack of available male labour, brought about by the introduction of conscription a year earlier, forced traditionally masculine spheres to open up to female workers – providing much needed labour for services and items required both at home and on the front lines.

Around the country women not working the land put their backs into heavy, monotonous and sometimes even dangerous work to do their bit for the war effort.

Female labourers working with coal and other by-products carried out the jobs men had traditionally done – including heavy lifting. This photograph shows a woman at the South Metropolitan Gas Works carrying a sack, presumably of coke – a high-carbon fuel made from coal. Dirty and back-breaking work!

WWI Subject Album: Women at War: Industry and Services – Boots to Flour. Image © Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

Beer was a staple part of British consumption (and still is!) Here female brewery workers in Cheshire label bottles ready for packing.

WWI Subject Album: Women at War: Industry and Services  Boots to Flour. Image © Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

Another necessary industry was that of cement works. Here we see women emptying slag from railway trucks in Scotland.

WWI Subject Album: Women at War: Industry and Services –  Boots to Flour. Image ©  Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.  

Similarly, brick workers in South Wales shovel dirt into a machine to recover silica stone used for grinding.

WWI Subject Album: Women at War: Industry and Services –  Boots to Flour. Image ©  Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

Other jobs needed a more dexterous approach, with women also employed in laboratories mixing various chemicals, as dentists and in public services like the transportation, fire and police services.

WWI Subject Album: Women at War: Industry and Services –  Boots to Flour. Image ©  Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

Women at War: Industry and Services – Boots to Flour and similar photograph albums produced by the Ministry of Information and available through The First World War: Visual Perspectives and Narratives provide a fascinating insight into the work women were involved in and the scale of their contribution to British industry during this period.

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About the Author

Sarah Buckman

Sarah Buckman

Since joining Adam Matthew in September 2013, I have worked on many projects, including The First World War, Leisure, Travel & Mass Culture: The History of Tourism and Migration to New Worlds. My special interests are in restoration and eighteenth-century history, particularly military history.

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