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What were women’s roles at the Dockyard during the First and Second World Wars?

14 September 2021

‘Times change, and we change with the times’

Black and white photograph of 2 women workers and 2 male workers welding HMS Acheron's Bulkhead

Women workers welding HMS Acheron’s Bulkhead. Date unknown. The submarine Acheron was laid down at Chatham on the 26 August 1944 and launched on 25 March 1947.

The First World War (1914-18) saw the lives of women overturned with women replacing men in the workplace to support the war effort. At Chatham women were employed in warship construction and repair for the first time. Although Dockyard workers were protected from conscription (being forced to serve in the Navy or Army) social pressure to ‘fight for King and Country’ was strong. By 1916, over 2000 women were employed to replace dockyard men who had volunteered for active service.

During the Second World War (1939-45) severe labour shortages saw women conscripted to work in industry or in the auxiliary services from December 1941. Even more women joined the dockyard workforce.

The Triangle Girls: Women Workers during The First World War.

 

The women of the Electrical Engineering Department proudly wearing their ‘On War Service’ badges.

The Triangle Girls took up the semi-skilled jobs previously undertaken by men to support the building of 12 ships and submarines between 1914 and 1918 and the repair of many others. The women earned their nickname from the triangle-shaped badges bearing the words ‘On War Service.’

55 women worked at the Electrical Engineering Department for the first time. Their role included manufacturing of gun firing connections, metal frames for lanterns, heating elements for cooking, fuses, soldering work, welding, ship wiring, operating lathes, assembling and inspecting new instruments. Despite the number of women employed it was not until 1918 that plans were drawn up for a women’s toilet to be built in the workshop.

Women workers in the Second World War (1939-45)

The Second World War changed life in many ways. With every man over 18 out at war the labour market urgently required workers. Women were urged into the job market to fill the holes in the workforce. Roles they took on at the Dockyard included working as electrical engineers, painters, pattern makers, welders, joiners, ship fitter, fire wardens and driving vehicles.

Constance Huggett

Portrait image of Mrs Huggett during the Second World War

Constance Huggett was one such women enlisted to help at Chatham Dockyard. In 1917 Huggett worked amongst a group of women in the No.5 Machine shop of the Constructive Department. At 16/17 she was one of the first women to be an overhead electric crane driver. In a 1983 local newspaper Huggett mentions collecting her daily wage of ½ crown and then rushing to the store for any food available.

In fact, Huggett worked at the Dockyard throughout both World Wars. In a letter she donated to Mr Keith Slade she outlined her memories of working at the dockyard in this period.

It is believed that she left the dockyard in late 1917 to join the Women’s Royal Army Corps which later became the ATS. During this time, she worked in France supporting the men from behind the front line. Which although she was restricted in job roles, she and other women were still open to enemy attack.

After leaving to be a nurse in New Zealand she finally returned to Gillingham where she worked in No.3 Slip during the Second World War.

This change in the workforce was a monumental moment in history. Women were able to prove that they could do the same jobs as men. Yet, with all of this, women were still expected to take care of the home performing what is referred to today as a ‘triple shift.’

The Homefront

Courtesy of Medway Archives Centre, DE402_14_33U

The impact of the First World War reached into every aspect of home life. At the outbreak of the war Chatham Town Hall quickly became the home of three ladies’ committees that took the lead in supporting the families of soldiers and sailors. The Town Hall was also where lists of those killed or missing in action were posted regularly.

In no time at all soldiers’ and sailors’ wives, many with babies in arms and little children trailing behind them, came to the committee-rooms to obtain pay and advice, or lingered round the notice boards at the doors to see if their husband was on the list of the dead or missing.

The Home

Women were still expected to stay in the home to clean, cook and take care of the children. This was made even harder when rationing came into force in the early ’40s. Items such as meat, cheese, flour and butter were restricted. This led to women looking for new ways to cook effectively and make the most of the food they had.

The idea behind rationing was to ensure that everyone received a fair share during a national shortage. Every person received a ration book with coupons. Sometimes items were allocated based on their availability and need for example, when milk was short priority was given to children and expectant mothers.

Here is a recipe from The Vintage Housewife for baking a 1940’s Lazy Daisy Cake

https://thevintagehousewife.me/lazy-daisy-cake-1940s-recipe/

Baking recipes originating in the ’40s reflected what was available in the rations. Therefore, most recipes were simple with few ingredients.

By 1941, not only was food rationed but clothes and soap saw shortages too. Rationing lasted for many years and many ask how women managed to keep the country going whilst also taking care of their family.

Life in the ’40s was hard for everyone. But the war showed the power and determination of women, something that was entirely unexpected.

Written by a Volunteer, Megan Piper

If you would like to know about the Triangle Girls and the Women that worked at the Royal Dockyards during the war, come along to our free online talk on 22 September 2021: ‘On War Service’ – Women in the Royal Dockyards during the First World War

 

 

References:

The Imperial War Museum. 2021. What you need to know about rationing in the second world war. (Accessed 27/08/2021)

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