Canary Girls

Ian Smith


Germany invaded Belgium on 4 August 1914, leading Britain to declare war. In that first weekend, one hundred men an hour signed up to join the armed forces. By the end of the First World War over five million men had joined up.

The rush to do one’s duty and fight at the front left a shortage of skilled workers in factories across Britain. Women who mainly did menial or domestic jobs at this time, were now recruited to work in industry.

Even though there was a shortage of men to work in the factories, women were accused of taking jobs away from the ones who couldn’t fight. Women were also a cheaper workforce as they were paid less for doing the same job.

Shell Shortage

The nature of warfare changed dramatically during the First World War. Artillery had previously been a back up to soldiers but now became the main destructive force.

In 1915 a crucial shortage of shells and munitions occurred. Parliament was forced to adopt a National Munitions Policy with David Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions. It controlled wages, hours and employment conditions in munitions factories. It also forced the factories to employ more women to help with the shortage.

Munitions factories became the largest single employer of women with over 900,000 being employed in the industry. Even though they did the same job as the men they were paid half the wage.

By June 1917 the factories that the women worked in produced over fifty million shells a year. At the end of the war the British Army had fired around 170 million shells during the conflict.

Dangerous Work

With the declaration of war many firms realised that there was an opportunity to increase sales. Local Munitions Committees were organised by engineering and metal producing firms. National Shell Factories (NSF) were set up all over the country.

National Shell Factories took over existing buildings. Grangetown which had been used for spinning hemp and yarn, Festiniog Railway in Portmadoc and the Baldwins factory in Landore, Swansea were just a few of these. All of them produced varying weights of shell and shell heads.

It was dangerous work and the risk of explosion was always present. There are many recorded cases of death and serious injury.

Pembrey and the Canary Girls

Nobels Explosives owned the site of a former dynamite factory at Pembrey, near Burry Port. With government approval in 1914, they opened one of the first purpose built TNT (trinitrotoluene) factories. The site was taken over by the Ministry of Munitions and became the National Explosives Factory (NEF) Pembrey by 1917 and closed at the end of the war.

The work in this factory was heavy and dangerous and TNT was a highly poisonous substance. It contained picric acid which had the effect of turning the skin of the women who worked with it bright yellow - giving rise to the nickname canary girls.

The women were given milk to drink to combat the effects of these dangerous compounds. It could lead to liver failure, anaemia and damage to the immune system. Around four hundred women died from overexposure to TNT during the First World War.

Munitionette Football

During the war, women became heavily involved in sports like football and cricket. Football teams were formed at munitions factories across Britain. The government actively encouraged the women to play sports as they believed it was good for their health and kept them fit to work in the factories.

The North East of England was a hotspot of women’s football. Blythe Spartans Ladies FC were undefeated with their centre forward Bella Raey scoring 133 goals in one season. In 1918 thirty teams competed in the Munitionettes Cup.

When the men returned from the front, the munition factories closed and the ladies teams disbanded. In 1921 the FA banned women from playing on any of their grounds even though they were just as popular on the pitch as the men teams. Men were returning to football and they believed there was no place for women n the game.

It wasn’t until 1971 that the FA relented and allowed women to play at their grounds.

Llanelli Ladies FC, 1921.


In 1915, the Women's War Workers Committee drew up a list of demands including the right to training, trade union membership and equal pay for equal work.

Women who filled roles previously held by men were paid much less and were justifiably angry. Men were also concerned that women would continue in these jobs after the war and a lower pay rate would become normal.

The first strike for equal pay in the UK happened in 1918 by women workers on London buses and trams. The Strike was successful and forced the government to look into whether the pay gap between sexes should be applied to all sections of industry.

The War Cabinet set up a committee in 1917 to look into equality at work. The report was not published until 1919. It found no difference between the sexes with production or quality of work. But the view that women were less able than men still remained.

Explosion in Pembrey

As soon as the war ended, the munitions factory at Pembrey, Carmarthenshire was used to dismantle shells rather than to make them. On 18 November 1918, Mary Fitzmaurice (36), Jane Jenkins (21) and Edith Ellen Copham (19) were killed in an explosion. Two other women were injured.

On the night of the fatal accident the women were dealing with a different type of shell than they had been used to. The explosion killed Jane immediately. Mary and Edith died in hospital that night.

The women were all from Swansea and Edith and Mary were buried in Danygraig cemetery on the east side of the town. A huge funeral procession was led from High Street by a brass band and followed by 500 munition girls from the factory, wearing their uniforms. The South Wales Weekly Post said that the women ‘had died as surely in the service of their country as any on the battlefield’ and noted that the crowds of onlookers saluted as the funeral passed.

Over a million shells were dismantle at Pembrey without any further accidents.

The funeral of a munitions worker in Swansea.

Comments (3)

Comments are currently unavailable. We apologise for the inconvenience.
S jacobs
8 August 2021, 00:31
Hello Ian, i have a request please. I'm trying to learn as much as poss about early days of women's football in Wales. Pleased to find out about the munitions teams. Great photo of Llanelli ladies team! Is there info about them? It's difficult to find out about any welsh ladies football history. Are there any good sources of info you wouldn't mind pointing me to please?
Thanks S Jacobs
19 December 2019, 13:29
My great Gran worked at the factory Mabel Morgan. she was tuff as nails. The pictures tell the story upon there faces, tied and frightened for the future.
Chris stephens
18 October 2019, 14:45

I spoke to you during Andrew Vacarri exhibition and you kindly gave me your card.i am hoping that you will be able to visit our afternoon club and talk on a subject,I am quite interested in the Canary Girls.The group is called the Nifty Wednesday Club we meet on a Wednesday afternoon in the Owain Glyndwr Community Centre in Waunceirch Neath speakers normally start at 2pm and finish at 2.45.due to time constraints.
Thank you, Chris Stephens