Louise Bell’s is the Diverse histories researcher for the National Archives – in her second article for Digging In, she explores how the records of women in engineering can be used as a new lens to view a cross section of women’s war work.
Women in factories engaged in engineering work, as did women in various military services – it cut across many of the fields of women’s work as it was so essential to delivering the many technological elements of the war. WO 142/263 an as of yet undigitised holding of the National Archives, contains a document entitled: ‘Report on the work of women in connection with the anti-gas department’ which was written in January 1919 by a Miss Morgan, whose role was that of Lady Superintendent. Perhaps not what you would expect to find in a document where the first page contains this title:
‘Historical record of technical inspection of anti-gas component parts for small box respirator’
Women were connected with the work of manufacturing respirators from the earliest days. The Women’s Emergency Corps ran shifts of women who undertook the role of packing respirators to be sent to France. Early in June 1915, the first official appointment of a woman in this industry was made, when one was appointed Superintendent at the Camden Laundry. At this time, the Camden Laundry was involved in drying and packing helmets which had already been impregnated with the appropriate chemicals for reducing the effects of gas used. On 10 July 1915, this woman and one other were sent to France to open repair depots at Abbeville and Calais.
When the work of making the masks for the small box respirator began in August 1916, one company in London (James Spicer and Sons Ltd.) engaged a number of educated women for inspection work, at the request of the Anti-Gas Department. These women were supplied with an indoor uniform of scarlet and were hence given the nickname of Redcoats. Inspecting the work done by the Redcoats was initially undertaken by Non-Commissioned Officers of the Anti-Gas Department, but eventually the best Redcoats were chosen, raised in rank and pay, put into uniform, and ultimately replaced the men. They were then known as Sergeants – although officially they ranked as Military Supervisors of Inspection. A Lady Superintendent was also appointed at this time, to be in charge of the Sergeants and Redcoats.
At the time of this report being produced, Miss Morgan reveals some figures which give an indication of the success that women had within this field. She states that:
‘some seven Lady Superintendents have been appointed… About 100 “Sergeants” have been appointed in England, and 12 women assistants in France. Of “Redcoats” the Department has employed 800 to 1000.’
In the Anti-Gas Department factories, practically all of the work was undertaken by women. In particular, this can be seen in the manufacturing of nearly 50 million respirators, where women were involved in varying roles, from the making of components to the assembling and inspection of the finished article. The operations of machining, impregnating, drying, folding and packing were all carried out by women. With the exception of preparing the solution to impregnate the masks with, women were employed throughout.
The work of women employed in factories manufacturing vegetable charcoal was highly praised by those in authority. In the first gas masks of the First World War, it was initially found that wood charcoal was a good absorbent of poisonous gases. In about 1918, it was found that charcoals made from the shells and seeds of various fruits and nuts, such as coconuts, chestnuts and peach stones, performed much better than wood charcoal. These ‘waste materials’ were collected from the public in recycling programs to assist the war effort. With the exception of the chipping machine – on which they were never employed – women were used throughout on this work, though never in the same proportion as men. Approximately one woman to two men was the average.
The Women’s Royal Naval Service were also involved in the repairing of anti-gas respirators. In our collections we have a few examples of service records for ratings which state that they worked within this role. These belong to Jean Walker Craw and Florence Mary Morgan. Searching using the term ‘gas mask worker’ brings up further results in our catalogue.
The extent of the role that women played in engineering in the First World War is one that isn’t often considered. The fact that they were so involved with the technical manufacturing of gas masks is just one small area which they were involved with. But one area which can be used to give a further insight into their work, and to hopefully pique more interest in this theme.
Words by Louise Bell