A Lasting Legacy from the Home Front

How The Devil’s Porridge stirred up women’s rights.

Women unloading the nitrating pans at HM Munitions Factory, Gretna. © IWM (HU 82182)

Women unloading the nitrating pans at HM Munitions Factory, Gretna. © IWM (HU 82182)

The First World War saw a marked shift in the role of women within society as the demands of the War Effort helped advance women’s rights and opened the door to opportunities that were previously seen as traditionally male.  One of those areas was in immunitions factories, like HM Factory Gretna, which was also known as ‘The Devil’s Porridge’.

 

It produced more cordite than every other munitions factory in Great Britain put together.

Built in 1915, the largest of all the UK’s munition factories it stretched 12 miles from Mossband, in Cumbria, to Gretna and Eastriggs, in Dumfries and Galloway. The factory required its own power source, water supply and narrow gauge railway to move materials and supplies.

By 1917, 11,576 women worked at The Devil’s Porridge.

Hundreds of chemists, explosive experts and engineers were recruited from across the Commonwealth to organise and manage the production of RDB cordite, which was an alternative to the gunpowder British forces used at the time.

The factory received a number of visitors during its life-span, including members of the Royal Family, and Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  In fact, it was Doyle who gave the factory its nickname when describing the mixing of the cordite.  He wrote: “The Nitroglycerin on the one side and the guncotton on the other are kneaded into a sort of Devil’s Porridge.”

The vast majority of the work-force was made up of young women who travelled from across Britain.  They mixed this devil’s porridge and in doing so got their own nickname – ‘Canary Girls’ – as their skin would turn yellow from the sulphur.  Sadly, many of the Canary Girls would make the ultimate sacrifice as they supported the War Effort.


The sacrifice of the Canary Girls

They said you could see them coming for miles, out of the factories, down the streets and getting on buses.  Their hair bright ginger with faces that glowed in the dark and skin a lurid shade of yellow. These were the ‘Canary Girls’ – women whose skin and hair was dyed from working with the sulphur and packing ammo in the munitions factories.

Sadly, the colour change wasn’t just cosmetic.  

© IWM (Q 70679) Female munitions workers producing howitzer shells at the National Shell Filling Factory at Chilwell, Nottinghamshire

© IWM (Q 70679) Female munitions workers producing howitzer shells at the National Shell Filling Factory at Chilwell, Nottinghamshire

The toxic chemicals penetrated deeper, which caused some of the women to give birth to babies with toxic, sallow skin. They were literally giving their lives to the cause and for just half the salary of their male counterparts. The Canary Girls suffered from burns, nausea, skin rashes, coughs and chest infections all caused from sulphur and TNT poisoning. With the risk of explosion and toxic atmosphere many brave women lost their lives working in munitions factories like The Devil’s Porridge.

The Canary Girls’ legacy lasted long after the First World War. Their commitment and sacrifices didn’t just help tilt the balance of the War Effort; it fundamentally shifted how British society viewed women. Without the Canary Girls, their daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters wouldn’t have the opportunities they enjoy today.

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