WW1 - Women in Shipbuilding

Women during WW1 in 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