Manx women powered industry during WWI

Alice Gibb

Alice Gibb

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The First World War played an enormous part in redefining the relationship between men and women in the British Isles.

Before the war, women in the UK had been engaged in a bitter struggle to secure the vote, which was denied them.

Alice Gibb

Alice Gibb

Around this time, the British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, is on record as stating: “A woman is as naturally disqualified from voting as is a rabbit.”

In many other aspects of life, women were also deemed second class citizens.

With the coming of the First World War, it quickly became apparent that a conflict of this magnitude could only be won by committing the whole resources of the state to the war effort.

There was massive expansion of industry to produce munitions, but at the same time men were leaving in thousands to join the army.

The manpower circle could only be squared by mobilising women.

Although women had worked in some industries before the war (notably textiles) what was different now was the sheer number of women who were entering the workplace.

The scale was unprecedented, and they took over almost every conceivable male job, from heavy engineering to cleaning locomotives to working as ‘clippies’ on the trams. The other important change was the fact that for the first time, middle class women entered the workplace in large numbers.

In the Isle of Man, Alice Gibb from Ramsey was one such woman.

The Gibb family were sufficiently wealthy for Alice and her sister not to need to work, but in 1916 Alice took a position as a supervisor at Chilwell munitions works near Nottingham.

The hours were long, the work was hard, and it was dangerous – Chilwell was almost completely destroyed in a massive explosion in 1918. Another Manx woman who left the island to work in munitions was May Brew.

She remembered: ‘Three sisters and myself left Douglas during the first months of the Great War, our destination being Coventry to work on munitions.

‘There was no work of that kind being done in Douglas. We soon found out there was really a war on.

‘We started work at 6am and continued to 6pm, worked one week night shifts and one week day shifts with one and a half hours off per shift for meals. The wages were 2.5d per hour (weekly wage 13s 1d days, 16s 9d nights) Sundays included.

“The Coventry Ordnance Works were under government control, and the girls had to keep their jobs or otherwise be out of work for six weeks.

‘The control was taken off in 1916, and wages went up to £1 4s and £1 10s.

‘The Zeppelins always paid their terrifying visits while we were on night shift. Lights would go out, and girls would faint by the dozen.

‘The persons to be pitied on those occasions were the nurses, who were always in attendance. It was a nightmare, those four years of war.”

Back in the Isle of Man, many women who had been left in financial difficulty by the collapse of the tourist industry found work in the factories which were established here.

Some, like that at Derby Castle, made socks for government contracts. Vickers of Barrow in Furness set up a factory in the Palace Ballroom in Douglas constructing airships, and employed almost exclusively female labour.

By 1918 it was unquestionable that the part British women had played in the war had been vital – indeed one of the reasons why Germany lost the war was that it never succeeded in fully mobilising its female population.

In the UK, the change in attitude towards women undoubtedly helped to secure the vote for those over 30 in 1918 (in the Isle of Man, this reward was less obvious, as these women already had the vote).

However much else besides had changed. Women had experienced new freedoms, and had earned their own money, away from parental or male control. Work in factories had led to the fashion for short hair and trousers among women – both were unthinkable before the war.

It was now acceptable for women to smoke, and be seen in pubs, with or without male company.

Alice Gibb’s overall from Chilwell munitions factory may be seen as part of the exhibition This Terrible Ordeal, at the Manx Museum. More information about women at war is available in the Manx National Heritage publication of the same name.

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