A London woman’s account of a munitions factory (1916)


Miss G West was a young London woman who worked as a cook at a large munitions factory in Woolwich. In these diary extracts from 1916, she describes conditions inside the factory:


March 22nd 1916
Wed. My first night duty. Quite enjoyed it though I felt very sleepy. Boys come in & out all the time to buy buns, tea, lemonade etc. and at 11.30 a big batch of girls come to dinner… The girls are very rough, regular cockneys, but mostly amiable if not rubbed the wrong way. If they are, it is Billingsgate gone mad. The only thing then is to give it them hot and they generally shut up after a bit. A good many come from the danger buildings. When they arrive at their work they have to take out all hairpins and must not wear metal buttons or hooks and eyes. They have to take off their own shoes on one side of the shift room and jump over a barrier onto what is called the clean side in their stockinged feet. There they put on danger shoes which are soft and have no treads. Their work is filling cartridges for bombs…

March 30th 1916
Woolwich is one huge slum, and in fact there are slums all the way between here and London which is one-and-a-half hours by tram… The canteen is close to the firing pits so that by day the noise is deafening, cups leap off the shelves and every now and then the windows break. But I am spared this at night. The workmen who work in the further parts of the factory go to work on the weirdest little trams with wee little engines and trucks like Irish jaunting cars…

July 22nd 1916
Today I was shown over the factory as a great favour. First I saw cordite made into charges. Each charge consists of five or six little bagsful and a core. Each little bag is shaped like a lifebelt. The quantity of cordite it contains has to be weighed to a pin’s head. Even the silk it is sewn up with is weighed. Each bag contains a different weight and the five or six are then threaded on the core. The core is made of a bundle of cordite like a faggot. The whole charge is then packed in a box with a detonator.

Then I was shown the lyddite works. This is a bright canary yellow powder (picric acid) and comes to the factory in wooden tubs. It is then sifted. The house (windows, doors, floor and walls) is bright yellow, and so are the faces & hands of all the workers. As soon as you go in the powder in the air makes you sneeze and splutter and gives you a horrid bitter taste at the back of the throat.

After sifting, the acid is put in cans and stood in tanks where it is boiled until it melts into a clear fluid like vinegar. Then it is poured into the shell case. But a mould is put in before it has time to solidify. This mould when drawn out leaves a space down the middle of the shell. Before it is drawn out beeswax is poured in, & then several cardboard washers put in. Then the mould is replaced by a candle shaped exploder of TNT or some other very high explosive is put in. After this the freeze cap is screwed in and then two screws have to be put in to hold it firm. The holes for these screws must not be drilled straight into the detonator. If they do the thing explodes.