By Helen Cleary
Last updated 2011-03-10
Miss Joan Williams, munitions worker
Like many other women living in Blighty Joan Williams wanted to make a contribution to the war. The idea of working in a munitions factory came in 1915 with the news that her cousin in Bath had started to make shells. As she lived in London, Joan decided to offer her services to a factory in Chiswick situated on the banks of the Thames, and then wrote a lively memoir recounting her wartime work which she titled A Munitions Worker's Career at Messrs Gwynne's, Chiswick - 1915-1919.
Her decision was a spirited one; unlike most of her co-workers she was upper class and accustomed to being waited on. She was also aware that as a woman she might have been disadvantaged: 'I believe the men were always very jealous of the women doing the skilled work' but she notes that she experienced no problems and admired the leadership of her foreman Mr Baker who was 'of course... only too ready to teach me anything and anyhow it would have been ludicrous for anyone with his degree of skill to be jealous of any women and I don't think many men who knew their job and did it well really minded the women.'
Joan worked at the lathe - usually a 7ft Drummond - and although she felt very nervous on her first day she took to her new life straight away and enjoyed plenty of job satisfaction. 'I don't think any worker can have enjoyed their work more than I did, even though they attained a higher degree of skill and did far more important work. When I was on an interesting job it was nothing to leap out of bed at 5.15 on a frosty morning and I almost danced down Queen's Road under the stars, at the prospect of the day's work before me.'
Her background caused no real obstacle to her happiness either: 'A good many of the workers... had never come up against the upper classes at all and had very exaggerated ideas about them... Most ladies were to them people who "drew away their skirts" on encountering any working people, so I was very glad when they found it was quite possible to make friends with the despised class.' She was less impressed, however, by one fellow worker who 'was very free with her "Damns" and fond of airing explosive views'. Joan did not approve of this particular worker's attempt at creating division between union and non-union workers.
The memoir offers insight into safety regulations in munitions factories - she describes excellent first-aid facilities and organised procedures at Gwynne's. However, there were hazards. Women working in larger munitions factories were known as Canaries because they dealt with TNT which caused their skin to turn yellow. Around 400 women died from overexposure to TNT during World War One.
Other hazards were more obvious and minor problems were common. Although production at Gwynne's did not involve TNT, Joan herself recounts that grit from the grinding machine got into her eyes: 'I didn't take much notice at first but at the end of two days had to go to the hospital and have it scraped. It was quite a simple painless process but by that time both my eyes were so inflamed I could hardly see and I had a weird journey home, running a few steps and then being forced to close my eyes for a bit till they'd recovered enough to run further. I expect the passers-by thought I was a sad case of intoxication.'
In 1919 she was discharged and presented with a gift - an inkpot, lid inlaid with tortoiseshell - which 'surprised and touched' her. In conclusion she added her Managing Director's parting testimonial: 'I can only say that your attention to your work, your energy and perseverance were an example to the girls employed in the factory, and it was due to you, and others like you, that we were able to get such wonderfully satisfactory results from the large number of girls (some 1,000) that we employed at Chiswick, many on really difficult operations.'