Recently, an advertisement from a page in a journal, displayed in the current Sir George Grey Special Collections exhibition: World War 1914 -1918, made me look closer. The product is soap and the accompanying illustration is not unusual or incredibly striking. It was the text which made me pause, as it reminded me of scenes in Pat Barker's novel Regeneration. In particular, the lives of a group of munitionettes, who provide an insight into an element of home front life during the First World War.

Ref: The sphere. Vol. 76, no. 995. London: Illustrated Newspapers, 1918.
Munitionettes were British women employed in munitions factories during the First World War. These women worked with hazardous chemicals on a daily basis with minimal protection. Receiving an injury or getting killed by an explosion were always possibilities.

Many munitionettes worked with TNT, which after prolonged exposure, would turn their skin a yellow colour -- leading to the name 'canary girls'. Possibly not the type of woman with "dewy freshness and charm of skin and complexion" described in the advertisement above.

Below is a photograph showing a British shell-filling factory, covering an area of nearly ten acres.

Ref: Auckland Weekly News, 'The war of munitions...',
29 March 1917, AWNS-19170329-43-1

Other areas of employment for women during the First World War included work in offices, in hangars used to build aircraft, as nurses, ambulance drivers and Red Cross workers.

Ref: Auckland Weekly News, 'Women and war work...',
17 February 1916, AWNS-19160217-47-1
The image above shows a group of young women who make shoes for army horses at a factory in England. The group of photographs below show women doing a variety of work: scrubbing the outside of a train, welding and cleaning windows from the top of tall ladders.

Ref: Auckland Weekly News, 'Taking the place of men...',
22 June 1916, AWNS-19160622-45-1 
Ref: Auckland Weekly News, 'War work of women...',
20 September 1917, AWNS-19170920-37-2
Above is an image of women ambulance drivers rushing to their vehicles and the photograph below shows women in Whanganui, digging up potatoes to raise funds for wounded soldiers.

Ref: Auckland Weekly News, 'Women's patriotic work in Wanganui...',
8 November 1917,  AWNS-19171108-35-1
Author: Zoë Colling, Sir George Grey Special Collections


  1. Thanks for this great post.

    Glen Eden was the site of an munitions factory during this time. The work and impact of the factory on the local community is described in an oral history interview with Bertha Alexander in the Glen Eden Oral History Collection recorded in 1983.

    West Auckland Oral History
    Keywords: ammunitions, Bertha Alexander

    1. It is wonderful that there is an oral history account concerning the Glen Eden munitions factory. An excellent and precious resource.

      Thanks Sue!

      - Zoë Colling.


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