Above: Staff at the National Explosives Factory, Hayle, with the shells that they were producing
It was dirty, exhausting, stressful, poisoned you, and was seriously hazardous….
Cornwall’s 4,000 or so “munitionettes” proved vital to Britain’s war effort from 1914-1918.
But danger was ever-present. On 20th December 1916 at 810am four munitions workers – including two girls – were killed in an explosion in the National Explosive Factory cordite presses in Hayle.
Pals May Stoneman and Cissie Rogers of Copperhouse were buried alongside each other in Phillack Cemetery. Cissie’s headstone records she “lost her life on war work”, May’s that she died “while doing her duty for her country”.
They were 19 and 20 years old. May had been working at the factory since 7 May 1913, Cissie only since February of the year that she died. For a photogallery of the National Explosives Factory today, click here.
They were workingin the Nitro-Cotton Drying Store which was made of lightly constructed wood, according to a government enquiry into the accident (now held at the National Archives). The enquiry found that the factory had been inspected regularly and had an excellent record. There was no sign of any negligence.
It didn’t deter other women. Previously only allowed shopwork or domestic service, they worked 12-hour shifts mixing dangerous chemicals to make high explosives, assembling shells, grenades and bullets.
Others operated made parts for howitzers, machineguns, depth-charges, and tanks.
Women were recruited by Holmans in Camborne, National and J&F Pool in Hayle, Nobel at Perranporth, Bickford-Smith in Redruth because male workers had quit to enlist. Only paid half as much (£2 2s 4d) as the men, it was still double what they earned before.
Chemicals in cordite or TNT were seriously bad for their health – it turned their skin yellow, so much so they were also dubbed “the canaries”.
A famous song written by a munitionette from the Great War went:
“We’re all here today, mate – tomorrow perhaps dead
If fate tumbles on us, and blows up our shed.
Afraid? Are you kidding? With money to spend?
Years back I wore tatters, Now – silk stockings my friend!
I’ve bracelets and jewellery, rings envied by friends
A Sergeant to swank with, and something to lend.
I drive out in taxis, do theatres in style
And this is my verdict – it is jolly worthwhile!
Worthwhile, for tomorrow if I’m blown to the sky,
I’ll have repaid my wages in death – and pass by”