Munitions work at Erith 1915 – Christmas 1915

Most people, I expect, have heard of the plan to train voluntary munitions workers to replace the regular factory girls at week-ends. The first batch of women were trained at Vickers’ Works at Erith in July (1915), and ever since a fresh party has taken their place every three weeks. I arrived at Erith on November 1st in torrents of rain, and with about thirty other women tramped up to the Hostel, a large Early Victorian house away from the squalid streets in open country overlooking the Thames. After settling into our rooms and lunching we put on our dark blue overalls, tied our heads in handkerchiefs, and with long coats to cover us up and baskets on our arms, containing mugs, spoons, coca, &c., started for the works about 20 minutes distant. There are names were registered at the Head Office, and having plunged through inches of mud, across rails and bridges, we arrived at the workshop, a large one-storied building with windows on either side, and “streets” of lathes running its entire length, and below a glazed roof a maze of iron girders and cogwheels, on which the bands revolved. I was set to “rough turning” 4.5 shrapnel shells, generally used for Naval guns; these weigh between 28 and 30lbs. when you first handle them, and 25lbs. when turned. Lifting them from the floor and jacking up the lathe was hard work at first, and I was thankful when the 5 o’clock gong sounded, and we were able to go to the Y.W.C.A. Hut for tea. The canteen is excellent and much appreciated, and I never before felt so lovingly towards a Windsor chair, for at other times there is hardly a moment to sit down. Having put on a new shell, started the machinery and jacked up the lathe, you fish out the shell just finished from the mass of steel filings under your machine, gauge it, chalk your number on it, and put it ready to be “viewed”, passed and carted away. By then you probably find your lathe is getting slack and beginning to squeak horribly, and wants jacking up again, or the shell on it must be tested with a ring, new shells greased and the filings cleaned off the machine; these filings curl off in the most beautiful incandescent blue and green colours, but they have a horrid way of jumping into your gloves or on to your face and burning you. By six we were back at work, having “clocked”, i.e., found our name card in a rack, put it in a slot under the clock, and punched the time on it and replaced it in another rack. This has to be done when you arrive at work as well. On leaving, a card is handed in showing the amount of work you have done. At 9 we had a rest of 7 minutes, just time to snatch a little food at the canteen and at 10.30 out 8 hours came to and end, and we were free to go back to supper and our beds. During the first week we had three Zeppelin scares, the factory was suddenly plunged in darkness, and all the machinery stopped. The dead silence made a curious contrast to the hideous din of metal on metal, the explosions and squeals from slackening gear. We were told to stay by our machines; the girl next to me managed to get outside, and that certainly is one’s instinct, though there are sentries at the doors to prevent it. I soon had two lathes to manage, which made things much more interesting. Each shell takes about 20 minutes to turn, and it is most exciting to see how many you can finish during the shift. Often much time is wasted by the breaking of the knife, or there is a shortage of shells.

After a week on the afternoon shift we worked from 10.30pm till 6.30 on the night shift. It was lovely on some mornings to leave the works in the grey dawn and see the sun rise. Lighting up the shipping on the Thames, and making even Erith slums beautiful, but it was always a great effort to leave the warm drawing room at what should have been bedtime, and I never got over the almost over-powering sleepiness that came over me between 3 and 4 am especially, or enjoyed my days spent in bed. The third week we worked from 6.30 to 2.30, getting up at 5, and having breakfast at 5.30.

The factory girls were most pleasant to us, but I do not think they really like our being their. For one thing, the volunteers have put up the standard of work, and though many of the regular hands are most conscientious, some seem very slack, and took every change of a rest. The output from our shop is about 30,000 shells a week. I should say there must be about 1000 machines of various sorts in the shop, and quite half the workers are women; before no women have worked on the lathes. Numbers of the mechanics are Belgians, but we are were always glad to get an English fitter, as they were far more friendly and helpful. The dirt is simply appalling; in spite of overalls and two pairs of thick gloves you soon become covered in grease and steel dust. Women are paid 2s a day for day work and 3s for the night shift, and a little extra for Sunday work. There is also a War Bonus on extra shells turned; with this bonus added I made £1 2s. 10½d. one week and £1 3s 6½d. the next.

Many of our party were obliged to give up, finding the work too much for them, but in spite of many small discomforts I am very glad to have had the experience of life as a factory hand.