Remembering those who fought in the Great War.

Women at War

Between 1914 and 1918, an estimated two million women replaced men in employment, resulting in an increase in the proportion of women in total employment from 24 per cent in July 1914 to 37 per cent by November 1918. In many instances however it was decreed that women would only be employed ‘for the duration of the war’. Unions were often hostile to female workers but the War forced them to deal with the issue of women’s work.

The scale of women’s employment could no longer be denied. Rising levels of women left unmarried or widowed by the war forced the hands of the established unions and female trade union membership rose from only 357,000 in 1914 to over a million by 1918. Employers circumvented wartime equal pay regulations by employing several women to replace one man, or by dividing skilled tasks into several less skilled stages. In these ways, women could be employed at a lower wage and not said to be ‘replacing’ a man directly. As the War situation changed more men left their jobs to enlist. There was an increasing demand to supply food, clothing, and armaments to those fighting on the front line. Men’s jobs on the home front were increasingly taken over by women. Some women also volunteered their services abroad as nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers, cooks, and clerical assistants.

Although many working women enjoyed new-found financial independence and the opportunity to develop new skills, life was not always easy. Women often worked long shifts, in addition to caring for children and queuing for food rations. All this of course had its effect locally. Women were employed on the trams, and in the Shipyards, Engine Works, Sugar Refineries and the Torpedo Factory. They took on the traditionally male jobs of bank clerks and postmen – in fact any job that men did, women stepped in. In many ways, the war had a dramatic effect on the lives of women. As well as increased financial independence, women also enjoyed a greater social freedom. For the first time, young single women could openly visit pubs, cinemas, and other public places unaccompanied by men. The war years also had a lasting effect on women’s fashion. Clothes became looser and more practical, hair was worn shorter, and trousers became generally acceptable. However, some historians have said that the longterm effect of the war on women’s lives has been over-emphasised. When men returned from the front, many women had to give up their wartime jobs, and there was an increased emphasis on the virtues and duties of motherhood. Although women over the age of 30 were granted the vote in 1918, it took a further 10 years before universal suffrage for everyone over the age of 21 was achieved.

Notes from contemporary sources re. Women during WW1 in Clydeside shipyards

Relatively few of the unoccupied women are of independent means or from well-to-do homes. Those who are not wives of soldiers and working men are principally girls who, owing to the enlistment of brothers or other male relatives, have, by both the freedom from housekeeping duties and the need of augmenting the household income, entered into the labour market.

Work done by women in shipyards
Attending plate-rolling and joggling machines. Back-handing angle-irons. Flanging. Fitting, upholstering, and polishing. Drillers' and caulkers' assistants. Plumbers' assistants. Platers' helpers. Rivet heaters. Holders-on. Crane driving. Catch girls. Firing plate furnace. General labouring (gathering scrap and cleaning up vessels in construction).

Efficiency of Labour
In dealing with the efficiency of female labour in the metal trades, it has to be borne carefully in mind that many of the women had before the war no experience of working machines, and that the experience of those who had worked machines (eg textile workers) was of a very different kind from that necessary to skilled engineering work. Where simple labouring is concerned, apart from physical disabilities, women might be reasonably expected to become quickly proficient; and in the case of work done on automatic machines, where technical skill is subordinate to attention, carefulness and dexterity, they might also be expected to reach a fair level of proficiency in a short time. Such expectations have undoubtedly been satisfied. There is general agreement that in unskilled and semi-skilled work, women have very quickly achieved success. In regularity, application, accuracy, and finish, they have proved very satisfactory; and the opinions gathered on their work amply confirm what their earnings when on piece rate indicate. Where skilled work - requiring, in addition to the above-mentioned virtues, technical knowledge, experience, adaptability, and initiative - is concerned, it is too early to speak confidently. So far as opinion has been formed, it appears to be adverse; but no reasonable standard of comparison exists by which the fairness of the opinion can be tested.

In a shipyard, where the work done by women is drilling, red-leading, and measuring rivets,. the firm, while satisfied that the women were more attentive to their work than men, did not think their work so good, though it might become so in time: here, too, physical strength was probably the differentiating cause. On the other hand, a firm employing women at plate-edge machines found them very satisfactory and, in some case, superior to men. One woman earned 35s (£1.75) per week at the work, while the earnings of the man whom she succeeded had been 28s (£1.40) to 30s (£1.50) per week. The woman's mate (a man) was earning higher wages than ever he had done before, and this was attributed by the firm to the woman's ability. And in another case of women working drilling and other machines requiring about equal skill, a firm considered that the women were better than male apprentices of two and three years' experience working the same machines, and at one machine as good as a journeyman earning 91/2d (4p) per hour. It is in this new field of sub-division of labour and the subordination of the operator to the machine that skilled engineers have most to fear from the intrusion of women into their trade.

Both employers and women superintendents were generally agreed that women are, on the whole, excellent time-keepers. Not only are they punctual in their attendance at starting-time, but they are seldom off work for any lengthy period. Night-shift work accounts for more broken time than dayshift work, especially among married women. The reason given for this is that women do not so readily adapt themselves to night work as men. Sleeping during the day is not, as a rule, restful, particularly where it has to be done in an unquiet and undarkened room, and these disadvantageous conditions certainly are found in homes of many of the women workers. In addition to these influences which affect men equally with women, there is the tendency on the part of women to take the opportunity when on night shift to use the hours when they should be asleep for the performance of domestic duties. This tendency is naturally strongest in the case of married women who have children to look after; and some employers, recognising the fact, have done their best to exclude married women from their works.

In shipbuilding yards, the labouring work is trying (eg where bogies are pushed and where rubbish is removed from ships by women). Reference was also made in the course of the inquiry to the very trying effect of heat upon women engaged in a 'smiddy' back-handing angle-irons. The liability of women to pelvic congestion and hernia through lifting weights and prolonged standing was emphasised in the medical opinions given. In this connection, it is important to note that at least one firm employing a large number of women has provided seats for them.

Fatigue was referred to by several doctors interviewed as a consequence within their experience of the employment of women in engineering works. One doctor who had [worked] in Clydebank, a large engineering centre, stated that during his stay there he had dealt with many women patients, employed in the metal trades, complaining of general weakness. He stated the causes as hard and exacting work and carried food (constipation was a common complaint): a holiday, in many cases, was needed. Other doctors referred to the evil effects of night work. The women did not sleep well during the day owing to home conditions, and a considerable number of cases of fatigue resulted. On the bad effects of night work upon the women there was general agreement among those interviewed.

No evidence of a greater proportion of accidents among women than among men was secured. Apparently any accidents that have occurred have been slight in character and relatively few in number. The women are provided with overalls and head coverings by the firms in all cases, and these, with fencing of dangerous machinery, lessen considerably the liability to accidents. Such accidents as have occurred were put down to carelessness and undue eagerness rather than to the nature of the work. Where women are working on shipboard, some insufficiency of handrails on gangways has been noticed, and a recommendation for the wearing of men's overalls has been made where women have to climb iron ladders between the deck and the ship's bottom; but cases of this kind are exceptional.
Against the foregoing general evidences of deleterious effects upon health have to be set the opinion that, in many cases, the women have improved in bodily condition since entering the engineering industry. Improvement has been marked particularly in the case of women occupied prior to the war in dressmaking, tailoring, and other employments where the hygienic conditions were not so good as those in which they now work. But another and, probably, a more important cause is given. As has been shown, many of the women now employed in the industry came from low-paid occupations. Good wages have made possible more adequate nourishment and better conditions of life. which have resulted in raising the physical and mental tone of the workers. The economy of high wages appears to have here a practical example.

The chief certifying surgeon in Glasgow, Dr Scott, spoke to the well-marked ability of the women who had not been employed before (and who were, on the whole, better nourished), to stand the physical strain of the work better than their sisters who had been employed in textile and other factories. On the other hand, he was of opinion that the former were, for some time at least, more liable to accidents: he put this down to their inexperience of machinery and of factory discipline.

Attitude of Women to Organisation
The National Federation of Women Workers has made a strong and, in the circumstances, very successful effort to organise women munition-workers. The initial success has been difficult to maintain.
The fear of victimisation, whether justified or not, is very real. Another great difficulty is the feeling, particularly strong in soldiers' wives, that the Union stands for the restriction of output. the opinion expressed generally by the trade union officials was that once a few women had been organised in any shop, the others came in rapidly; but that where any small defection occurred, they went out as rapidly.

On the other hand, in the metal trades, . . . the appeal that has been made to the women to organise that they may safe-guard the position of the men who have enlisted has been very effective, due doubtless in large measure to the fact that many of the women are related in one way or another to male workers in the industry.

Trade Union Attitude to the Introduction of Women
(a) The Relaxation and Restoration of Rules and Customs -
The introduction of women into the engineering and allied trades has been accepted by the Trade Unions only on the plea of urgent national necessity: and then not without written guarantees (i) that the women shall go out with the end of the war; (ii) that the change shall in no way prejudice the economic position of the men; and (iii) that all Trade Union rights and customs shall be fully restored at the termination of the war.

Those guarantees were given in the 'Treasury Agreement' signed on 25 March 1915, by which the representatives of all the Trade Unions concerned in the making of munitions agreed to recommend their constituents to forego all customs and rules which would tend to restrict output. The provisions of this Agreement were later incorporated in the Munitions of War Act, 1915.

(b) Attitude of Men Regarding Post-war Position -
Despite the guarantees, the conditions at present in force to safeguard their position, and the power retained for the Board of Trade; Trade Unionists, and the rank and file especially, are convinced that their pre-war position is being undermined. It is pointed out that, although in a number of instances the employers themselves have been compelled to introduce women against their will, when once the trouble of training them, and of adjusting the shop organisation to the new conditions are over - assuming that certain processes can be economically done by such labour - a large reserve will have been created which, at the first favourable opportunity will be called upon.

It is further maintained that following upon the expiration of the twelve months period succeeding the close of the war, the old struggle against the encroachment by the employer upon the skilled man's ground through the introduction of automatic machinery worked by semi-skilled labour will be resumed with these additional factors operating against the men. The result will only be determined then by the relative strength of the organised forces.

The attitude of the skilled men's Trade Unions to women is largely determined by these considerations.

(c) Attitude of Women regarding the Post-war Position -
The opinion of the women as given by themselves and by their Trade Union organisers is that their presence in the engineering and allied trades is limited to the war. The women feel that a serious obligation rests with them not to prejudice in any way the position of the men on their return from the Army. On the other hand, the comparatively high earnings and the satisfactory conditions of work in the industry have raised in those women who were occupied prior to the war, a strong feeling against returning to their pre-war occupations under the old conditions of work and wages. How far this feeling - and there is no doubt of its strength - will affect the final attitude of the women to work in the metal trades after the war, or how far it will tend only to modify the conditions of female labour in other industries, it is not possible yet to determine with any accuracy.

A W Kirkcaldy ed., Labour Finance and the War, Pitman Publishing, 1916

THE WOMEN OF RED CLYDESIDE: Women Munitions Workers in the West of Scotland during the First World War

The Port Glasgow Express reported - A very sad fatal accident occurred in the Glen Yard of Messrs William Hamilton & Co on Monday evening between six and seven o’clock. Isabella Carruthers residing with her parents at 1 Clune Place, had occasion to go the store of a vessel in course of construction to obtain
some galvanised meat hooks. These she secured, and was walking along the deck when she tripped on a ventilating door and injured her leg. Seeing the mishap a young apprentice offered to carry the hooks for her. He did so and Isa walked on in front with a lighted candle in her hand. She fell into No.3
hold, a distance of 27 feet. Her head lighted on the tunnel, dislocating her neck. When assistance reached her she was found to be dead, death having been instantaneous. Arrangements were made to have the body conveyed home. It should be added that this is the first accident of a serious nature that
has occurred to those female munition workers, and it is to be very much lamented. The deceased girl, who was about seventeen years of age, was held in much esteem by her fellow workers.


When the long day’s work is done,

And the slowly setting sun
Is making golden paths across the foam,

Then I mount a tramway car -
And I’m carried fast and far
To Ashton shore and home, sweet home.

‘Now, the cars are jolly nice,
But they’ve got an extra Spice -
That makes me wish the trip was twice as far,

For, to punch the tickets there,
They’ve a bunch of ladies fair
Doing duty on the platform of the car.

To annihilate the Nuns,
Tramwaymen have shouldered guns,
True Sons of Britain”, hardy fighting race;

And our women, bless their heart,
Taking up a noble part,
Step in to fill awhile each vacant place.

And they put you at your ease,
With their quiet ‘‘All fares, please!
They take your fare in quite a business way;

And the distances are checked
In a manner quite correct
“Tuppence-ha’penny;’thank you, sir; lovely day!”

From the” Port” right-down to “Scott’s,”

When the workmen come in lots,

And crowd the cars like hives of swarming bees,
At these times of rush and stress

The clever conductress

Gets through her work with simple charm and ease.

Since the lads who ran the cars
Have all gone to the wars,
As every Briton should if he’s a man,

While they send the Huns to Hades,
We will run the cars with ladies,
And make their job as easy as we can.

Then, here’s to the girlies sweet,

In their uniform so neat,
And for them let us thank our lucky stays

On the women we’re relying
To keep the old flag flying:
They’re doing that when serving on the cars.

Greenock Jas Brown

Greenock Electricity Department

Mr Forrest – “It is interesting  to see the social changes brought about during the 14-18 war, when women were employed on work that would not have been considered possible for them to do before then, and in fact the Bay Street rotary converter sub-station was staffed solely by five ladies, aged about twenty two. 


From the book “Women of the War By Barbara McLaren.” No woman’s work has more directly furthered the prosecution of the war than that of Miss Agnes Borthwick(born Greenock), who within one year has risen to the unique position—for a woman—of works manager in a great Munition Factory. When
Miss Borthwick sees the trains laden with ammunition steaming out of the factory she must feel with justifiable pride that she and her 4000 girls are working for the country as vitally as the soldiers, who will fire the unceasing stream of shells which the girls are sending to them day by day. Miss Borthwick is of Scottish birth. A woman of high educational attainments, she took an honours M.A. degree in English at Glasgow University in 1912, and subsequently held a research scholarship at Bryn Mawr College, U.S.A. At the outbreak of war Miss Borthwick returned to England, and in November 1915, when the newly formed Ministry of Munitions appealed for women workers, she volunteered, and went to Woolwich for a course of training. In January 1916 Miss Borthwick was sent to Georgetown-by-Paisley, where a new filling factory was in course of construction. Here she began work with only 24 girls. At first she and her workers scrubbed the shops, cleaned the newly built blocks of buildings, and unloaded the trucks of empty shells, which arrived at the factory ready to be filled with explosives. Two months later Miss Borthwick was promoted from forewoman to assistant works manager, and in May, on the promotion of the works manager, she took his place. By the end of 1916 the 24 original workers had increased to 4000 girls - the only men employed in the factory were a few engineers and mechanical experts. Not only do the girls do all the filling of 18-pounder shells and cartridges of all sizes, but they also do the packing of the filled shells, and the trolleying to the railway. The medical and nursing staff, the police patrol, the fire patrol, and the canteen workers are all women. Work never ceases night and day. The girls work in shifts of eight and threequarter hours.
There are now 130 shops, and the factory covers such a large acreage that its boundary is about five miles round. Above everything else, it must not be forgotten that the entire work of this factory is what is called “danger work.”
Miss Borthwick is only twenty-seven. She is a freshlooking girl with a very quiet manner, suggesting a reserve of resolution and courage eminently necessary in her work. On her shoulders rests the heavy responsibility for the successful working of the factory, and she has helped to develop it in an incredibly short time from a few huts to the throbbing ‘hive of industry which it is to-day. Owing to her efficiency, and because she has never failed to make good whatever she has undertaken, she has earned this great opportunity of service to the country. She talks of her work as calmly and naturally as if there were nothing remarkable about
it. Yet she made this admission while on a recent three days’ leave: “Until I came away from the factory, I hadn’t realised how heavy and how unending the responsibility is.”


Nursing has always been a role of choice for women and something which was in great demand during the war. It is difficult to appreciate exactly what the nurses and orderlies had to endure and experience at this time. Unsung heroes indeed! Local women served in all the branches of nursing. At the beginning of the war the humanitarian situation in Serbia attracted the concerned women of Scotland, many of whom went over to do their bit as part of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals founded by Elsie Inglis and part of the Suffrage movement. Unwanted by the War Office she raised over £500,000 and equipped 14 field hospitals in Serbia,
Belgium, France, Russia, Romania, Corsica, Corfu & Greece. We know of two local women who went out - Jean Whyte of Greenock who worked at Mladanovatz Hospital from July till November 1915, and Sister Barr of Gourock who was at Mladanovatz, Corsica and the America Unit in Macedonia. Jean Whyte was awarded the British Red Cross Society Order of Merit medal.