Sheffield's women's war work, 1914-1918

Kaela O'Reilly, Gabby Clark & Caitlin Russell

The British army saw an expansion from 350,000 to 3,500,000 between 1914 and 1917 [1]. To address the lack of men in the work force on the home front caused by this mobilisation, the women of Britain stepped forward to help out with the war effort.

Before the outbreak of war, women were fiercely campaigning for the right to vote. However most campaigning – especially the militant campaigning of the Suffragettes – was put on hold when war broke out. Emmeline Pankhurst transformed the WSPU’s campaign into one that appealed for war work using slogans such as: ‘For men must fight and women must work’ and ‘Shell’s made by a wife may save her husband’s life’.[2]

In 1914 the world was a man’s world and women not only in Sheffield, but nationally were confined to the domestic sphere. Separate spheres was an ideology that suggested a man should earn the family’s keep and the women should be at home looking after the children and doing the house work.

This photograph shows the first  female tram conductor, Mrs Gladys M. Piggott, who was from Sheffield. She was important because the role as a tram conductor was a big move towards women escaping the domestic sphere. It is evidence that Sheffield was part of the national change of women’s roles throughout the war and that women were part of a huge contribution to the war effort.

Mrs Glady M.Piggott

Women also worked in munitions production. With around about 52,000 Sheffield men gone from the city to fight,[4]  Thomas Firth and Son’s steel manufacturers employed over 15,000 women alone. Firth’s National Projectile Factory in Sheffield during WWI concentrated on the production of munitions.

Historian George Robb suggested that the ‘actual experience of war made forcing gender roles more difficult’ because women  like Mrs Gladys M. Piggott had to step up and take part in the war effort at home . And it tells us that there were many others like her across the country that were prepared to take up men’s jobs. Robb implies that Mrs Gladys M. Piggott took part in a national scale of social change through the ‘release from all manner of stuffy Victorian customs’. This shows it was a big moment in the change of a women’s place in society. But this did not all happen that smoothly: ‘At first there was reluctance to take women away from their homes and at first in 1914’. Susan R Grayzel has suggested that the war ‘produced multiple and contradictory effects: simultaneously granting suffrage and depriving women of their loved ones or offering access to professions without access to equal wages.’[6]

There was public hostility towards woman working in “men’s jobs”, such as in factories and driving trams. Robb also suggests many women were told to ‘go home and sit still’ and submit to the pre-war view that women should be confined to the four walls of their home. ‘Every woman’s weekly and woman’s own published war recipes and military sewing patterns’, he writes, ‘but urged women not to be seduced into ‘inappropriate’ war work.’ The government only allowed woman to be employed in “men’s jobs” under the condition that as soon as the war ended, the women would give  servicemen back their jobs .[3]  There was a myth that women could not carry out the same jobs to the same standard as the men and as a result they were paid less.

There was an increase in women joining groups and unions that fought for women’s rights. An example of a popular Sheffield union was the National Federation of Women Workers which had 5000 members by June 1918.[5] In 1918 there were strikes carried out by women bus conductors all over London and Kent over the unfair pay. This drove the War Committee to produce a report that said there should be ‘equal pay for equal work’. A lady named Mary MacArthur from Sheffield who worked in the engineering industry,  with the help of the National Federation and the General Unions, successfully secured an amendment to the Munitions Act.  This required that women should receive the same rate of pay as men, when carrying out men’s work and led to the establishment of the first national minimum rate in the engineering industry.

 Mary MacArthur

Hadfield’s Ltd was a steel foundry in Attercliffe, Sheffield, and during The Great War over a thousand woman took over the production of the company’s Era cast steel that was used to make war ships and shells. In a meeting that took place with Sir Hadfield and the woman he now employed, he mentioned the “difficult circumstances”[7] the woman had to work under. This not only refers to the war that was going on, being away from the husbands; but also the fact that the woman had to juggle their domestic tasks, as well as work in the factories.

A group in Sheffield called the Women Workers Interest Associations highlighted the difficulties of juggling the work and the domestic sphere, recording complaints of ‘the complete lack of child minding facilities’ and the fact that woman were often absent from work on Mondays, which was traditionally washing day. To try and offer advice and make the working woman’s lives easier, a series called ‘The Woman’s Part’ was published in weekly supplements in provincial newspapers.

Similarly, a monthly journal called The Bombshell released by Thomas firth & Sons was devoted to the ‘interests of women’. The Bombshell was a very patriotic journal that urged women to be domestic and womanly whilst working in the munitions factory. This is interesting because unlike Woman’s Weekly it supported their work in the factories to help out the war effort in Sheffield whilst still having responsibilities in the domestic sphere. The patriotic image of the woman on the front cover shows that women could have an important role in the war.

This advertisement from Bombshell is for ‘Ven-Vusa’, ‘oxygen cream’ which was designed to put life back into the women’s skin after a hard day at the munitions factory.  This source symbolises that women should work hard to retain their femininity whilst working in the factories.

Overall, Sheffield had an important part to play in the war effort because it produced munitions, tools and clothes that were needed on the frontline. It was the women’s chance to prove that they were capable enough to continue to run the country whilst the men were away and it laid down the foundations for equalising women’s rights in the future.



[2] J. Purvis, Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography, London (2002)

[3]Gail, Braybon.Women workers in the First World War: The British. Routledge (1981).

[4] P. Warr, Sheffield’s Great War and Beyond, Barnsley (2015)

[5] Sheffields Woman’s History Group.Sheffield Women’s History Walk: A guide to local women’s history. (1984)

[6] Susan R. Grayzel, Women and the first world war, (London, 2002)

[7] A W, Mckears. Hadfield’s of Sheffield. The First 100 Years. (1973)

This page was added on 11 October 2016.

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