South Heighton’s Munitionettes

At South Heighton there was a Royal Ordnance Depot, employing around 140 staff making Mills Hand Grenades. Sidings ran down from the depot to the North Quay, where the munitions would be loaded onto Transports for France. The North Quay received munitions from around the country, but principally from Woolwich Arsenal.

As the First World War progressed, there was greater need to keep the fighting fronts supplied with munitions. A shortage of shells in 1915 led to what became known as the Shell Crisis or Shell Scandal.  This resulted in the fall of the Liberal Government, which was replaced by a Coalition, and the appointment of Lloyd George as the first Minister of Munitions. The government took over the privately owned munitions factories, and built new ones, in a bid to increase production. Due to the shortage of men, many of the jobs were taken by women, who became known as munitionettes. By 1917, munitionettes carried out about 80% of work on weaponry and ammunition.

It could be dangerous and unpleasant work.  The sulphuric acid that some of  the munitionettes worked with turned their skin yellow, and earned them the nick-name ‘canaries’. If any of these women were pregnant at the time,  their babies could be born with yellow skin although, luckily, the colour faded over time.  The main danger was, of course, from explosions. Newhaven Museum has a  “Danger of Fire and Explosion” notice, from the depot at South Heighton,  warning people that iron shod or nailed footwear should be covered by rubber overshoes. This was to avoid generating sparks.  As well as making grenades, the depot also handled phosphorous bombs returned from the Front for dumping.  Danger was averted, in August 1918,  when Mrs Eades, who worked at the depot, spotted smoke issuing from a stack of these bombs. She and Mrs Bridger, who was with her, immediately raised the alarm.  A narrow escape for South Heighton.

Sadly, in July 1918, an accident at the National Shell Filling Factory in Chilwell, Nottinghamshire, killed 139 and injured 250.  This 5 minute film clip, part of the BBC’s World War One at Home series, tells the story.  Click here to see it.