Thursday, 1 September 2016

Life in a Munitions Factory, by a ‘Bedford Girl’

Group of women munition workers at George Kent's, 1916
 (Bedfordshire Archives, ref: Z1306/75/17/19)

1 September 1916: A Bedford girl, whose curiosity is ‘as keen as a two edged sword’ reports on her experiences of working at a munition factory in another part of England:

‘I can tell you I trembled a bit as I entered a large gate, for the guard looked so severe as he said “Passes please” Oh no!  He did not raise the alarm…and I found myself in a cosy office, there to be met by the sweetest of women who is doing her share of war work, and under her guidance I found myself filling-up numerous forms and smiling because I had made a start at last. Then I was handed my key, pass and badge. I was taken past the barrier into a very large canteen and had a good tea served by smartly dressed waitresses. Afterwards, I was shown the huts where I met several other girls who had just arrived. We chose our rooms and at first thought it strange to live in huts, but they are so comfortable and clean; there are 160 girls in each hostel; some rooms are double and some are single. At present there are only 14 hostels. The next day we were escorted to the principle building by a commissionaire, who has already done his bit at the front. Well, at last I was on the platform with my neat uniform of grey and a quaint mob cap, and my magazine shoes. My room was at last reached. There was a continual clash of hammers and every girl looked so busy, yet above the noise they were singing “When Irish eyes are smiling”, and all faces were beaming and stamped with happiness. At last I was seated at a table with five other girls, not so “green” as I, for I felt such an ignorant creature. Here I learnt to put the different parts of a fuse together. After a time, when I knew this work thoroughly, I preferred going into the more dangerous work and here again I had to start learning. I began handling some brass things, which I was told were death fuses to place in a more deadly shell that was to soon screech and scream in death-dealing flight somewhere in France. Oh, how gingerly I handled my first fuse; now I handle them with no fear whatsoever, yet I have heard the explosion whistle. I have also seen wreckage from an explosion, though very slight, hardly worth speaking of. We often pretend we are aboard a large ship because our factory’s explosive area is much like one. I can truly say we all like our life aboard this ship. Never could I, while this war is on, walk at ease in Bedford, knowing how much our soldiers are needing all the support they can get. Let every girl who has failed talk to me. There is no room for slackers…Come girls, your help is needed; plenty of room yet.’

Source: Bedfordshire Standard 01/09/1916

Note: this is a promotional advert issued by a munition factory (most likely George Kent Ltd in Luton), rather than a genuine diary extract. Bedfordshire Archives has some valuable records of work in a munitions factory in the George Kent collection (ref: GK), which is currently being catalogued. George Kent Ltd employed thousands of women workers at its Biscot Road site and at a specially extended site at Chaul End. Contrary to the cheery and optimistic tone of this piece, which plays down the dangers of munitions work, at least 10 women died in explosions at the factory 1916-1918. They are commemorated on a George Kent memorial, now at Stockwood Discovery Centre. More information can be found on Luton’s ‘Great War Stories’ website: 

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