Munition Work at Erith.
Most people, I expect, have heard of the plan to train voluntary munition workers to replace the regular factory girls at week-ends. The first batch of women were trained at Vickers’ Works at Erith in July, and, ever since, a fresh party has taken their place every three weeks. I arrived on lst November in torrents of rain, and with about thirty other women tramped up to the Hostel, a large, Early Victorian house away from the squalid streets, in open country, overlooking the Thames. After settling into our rooms and lunching, we put on our dark blue overalls, tied our heads in handkerchiefs, and, with long coats to cover us up and baskets on our arms containing mugs, spoons, cocoa, etc., started for the works, about twenty minutes’ distant. There our names were registered at the head office, and, having plunged through inches of mud, across rails and bridges, we arrived at the workshop, a large one-storied building, with windows on either side, and “streets” of lathes running its entire length, and below the glazed roof a maze of iron girders and cogwheels, on which the bands revolve. I was set to “rough turning” 4•5 shrapnel shells, generally used for naval guns; these weigh between 28 and 30 lbs. when you first handle them, and 25 lbs. when turned. Lifting them from the floor and jacking up the lathe was hard work at first, and I was thankful when the five o’clock gong sounded and we were able to go to the Y.W.C.A. hut for tea. The canteen is excellent and much appreciated, and I never before felt so lovingly towards a Windsor chair, for at other times there is hardly a moment to sit down. Having put on a new shell, started the machinery and jacked up the lathe, you fish out the shell just finished from the mass of steel filings under your machine, gauge it, chalk your number on it and put it ready to be viewed, passed, and carted away. By then you probably find your lathe is getting slack and beginning to squeak horribly and wants jacking up again, or the shell on it must be tested with a ring, new shells greased, and the filings cleaned off the machine; these filings curl off in the most beautiful incandescent blue and green colours; but they have a horrid way of jumping into your glove or on to your face and burning you. By six we were back at work, having “clocked,” i.e. found our name card in a rack, put it in a slot under the clock, punched the time on it and replaced it in another rack. This had to be done when you arrived at work as well. On leaving, a card is handed in, showing the amount of work you have done. At nine we had a rest of seven minutes, just time to snatch a little food at the canteen, and at ten-thirty our eight hours came to an end, and we were free to go back to supper and our beds. The dead silence made a curious contrast to the hideous din of metal on metal, the explosions, and squeals from slackening gear. We were told to stay by our machines; the girl next me managed to get outside, and that certainly is one’s instinct, though there are sentries at the door to prevent it. I soon had two lathes to manage, which made things much more interesting. Each shell takes about twenty minutes to turn, and it is most exciting to see how many you can finish during the shift. Often much time is wasted by the breaking of a knife, or there is a shortage of shells.
After a week on the afternoon shift we worked from ten thirty p.m. till six-thirty on the night shift. It was very lovely on sonic mornings to leave the works in the grey dawn and see the sun rise, lighting up the shipping on the Thames and making even Erith slums beautiful, but it was always a great effort to leave the warm drawing-room at what should have been our bcd-time, and I never got over the almost overpowering sleepiness that came over me between three and four a.m, especially, or enjoyed my days spent in bed. The third week we worked from six-thirty to two-thirty, getting up at five and having breakfast at five-thirty.
The factory girls were most pleasant to us, but I do not think they really liked our being there. For one thing, the volunteers have put up the standard of work, and though many of the regular hands are most conscientious, some seemed very slack and took every chance of a rest. The output from our shop is about 30,000 shells a week. I should say there must be about 1000 machines of various sorts in the shop and quite half the workers are women ; before, no women have worked the lathes. Numbers of the mechanics are Belgians, but we were always glad to get an English fitter, as they were far more friendly and helpful. The dirt is simply appalling; in spite of overalls and two pairs of thick gloves you soon become covered with grease and steel dust. Women are paid about 2s. a day for day work and 3s. for the night shift, and a little extra for Sunday work. There is also a War bonus on extra shells turned; with this bonus added I made £1, 2s. 102d. one week and £1, 3s. 6zd. the next.
Many of our party were obliged to give up, finding the work too much for them, but in spite of many small discomforts I am very glad to have had the experience of life as a factory hand.