Wartime women – a review of an exhibition at Coventry Transport Museum

Wartime women

War Effort

Coventry Transport Museum

To 5 January 2014 – admission free

Wartime women (image C Vauxhall Heritage)

Wartime women (image C Vauxhall Heritage)

The following review was carried in Socialism Today, the monthly magazine of the Socialist Party. For information about how to subscribe, click here

By Jane Nellist

As early as 1936, the Conservative government started investing in preparation for war. They bought huge tracts of land and buildings, kitting out factories in readiness. Coventry and the West Midlands were pivotal in those plans. What’s more, women were to play a key role in their success – and many of those companies profited from the war effort.

This exhibition at Coventry’s Transport Museum rediscovers the importance of the ‘Shadow Scheme’, the government-funded programme which aimed to utilise the benefits and proven track record of mass production, honed in the car factories, to produce the necessary armaments, especially aircraft, in case of war. The exhibition tells the story of the rise of these factories, and of the women and men who worked in them.

The shadow factories were an entirely new concept. Established firms were either given government funding to expand their own production lines or were given other companies’ products to manufacture, such as aircraft engines. Modern factories with up-to-date machine tools could then churn out the tanks, aircraft, shells and other hardware.

Some of those factories are still in existence, one being the Land Rover plant at Lode Lane Solihull, now producing the Land Rover Discovery. In Coventry, most of the shadow factories have now disappeared – such as Rootes Ryton (which became Peugeot), Massey Ferguson at Banner Lane, and Jaguar’s Browns Lane factory – along with the thousands of skilled, relatively well-paid jobs in the many car companies that fed the city.

Accompanying the exhibition is a new film, Out of the Shadows, produced especially for the exhibition. By using the first-hand experiences of those who worked in the shadow factories, as well as original film from the period, it brings to light what life was like for those workers, including the thousands of women who had been conscripted or volunteered. Christiaan van Schaardenburgh, the museum’s curator, and others add to the story.

One of the issues that this film raises is that the Nazi regime in Germany used slave labour to drive forward the production of armaments. Because of the inhumane way the workers were treated, however, as well as the likelihood of sabotage, this was not as productive as the shadow factory scheme. By utilising female workers in Britain through conscription, which by 1943 applied to all women aged between 20 and 50, there was a much more ‘willing and committed’ workforce. But it didn’t come without problems. Although the exhibition hints at some of these, it does not deal with them in depth, which is a shame because some of the issues are ones that we can relate to today, such as the demand for equal pay and childcare.

Women doing what were considered ‘male’ skilled jobs, such as machine turning, welding and riveting, were just as competent as the men. Despite the initial suspicion and reluctance, they did gain recognition and respect from fellow male workers and the male-dominated trade unions of the time.

Ernie Roberts, a Coventry shop steward, recorded that, “After training they became as good as the men. I must admit that many of us thought they weren’t capable because they hadn’t the industrial background we had had all of our lives…” He was to become the assistant general secretary of the AUEW engineering union and then, later, a Labour MP. Jack Jones, the future leader of the Transport and General Workers Union and a district organiser at the time of the war, helped women in Coventry achieve the equal pay they had been promised.

The male voice of the government newsreel film encourages women to volunteer for the new government-funded shadow factories to ensure that Britain was sufficiently equipped and prepared for war. The enticement was that “temporarily, women will get the same rate of pay”. It went on to say that the women would “lend a bit of colour and charm”. Nothing changes then! The bosses used every trick in the book to deny women equal pay, as they do now.

There were logistical problems of housing all the women workers, many of them conscripted from other parts of the country, especially in a bomb ravaged city. It meant that, as well as hostels being set up to house the thousands of workers, local inspectors were sent round to search out spare bedrooms for the women. As many as 16,000 billets were found for workers in Coventry alone.

There were other practical problems for women, such as shopping. How could you get the daily necessities which were subject to strict rationing and inevitably long queues? If you were rich, of course, you could still get anything you wanted. Women were working ten-hour shifts in factories Monday to Friday, with a further half-day shift on a Saturday. The Factories Act, which had begun to limit hours of work, was relaxed so that the war effort could be fulfilled.

Women with young children volunteered; it is estimated that around one and a quarter million women with children under 14 were working. Nurseries were opened which, for a shilling a day, fed and looked after young children where there were no other family members to do that. But life was not all rosy, as Mass Observation’s detailed reports highlighted. Many women working long hours in the factories still had to juggle all of the other household and caring chores which took a toll on their health. Accidents at work happened because they were so tired.

It was dangerous work, too. Nightly bombing raids continued on the factories. No matter what devastation took place, the factories and the machine tools, serviced by thousands of conscripted women workers, were soon back up and running. They were well camouflaged and extremely well organised with their own Air Raid Precautions wardens and fire crews.

Women were used as a reserve army of labour; when they were no longer needed at the end of the war, they were sent home. The newsreels then showed films promoting a woman’s role in the home! However, some of that freedom that women experienced in the war must not have been totally lost and, maybe, had an influence on their daughters’ attitudes in the more progressive 1960s.

Economic researchers have found after the war, even though private manufacturers had financially benefitted from the factory infrastructure and machine tools they inherited from the shadow factories to kick-start the post-war car industry, they had been profiteering and owed the government thousands of pounds. Only one Coventry company, Carbodies, which is better known as the manufacturer of the famous London taxi cab and is now the only car manufacturer left in Coventry, had not profiteered. The government actually gave it money back. Interestingly, a few months ago, when it looked likely that the company would close, workers appealed to the government for support to keep the factory operating. The help was not forthcoming. A Chinese company has now bought Carbodies and looks likely to move to a new site, leaving the shadow factory to the fate of most of the others.

The War Effort exhibition not only gives you all the facts and figures, it lets the voice of the ordinary factory workers, including all those unsung women, be heard. Its story touches on so many themes of today. It’s well worth rediscovering this episode of our social history. But make sure you set aside a day to visit because the Transport Museum has a great deal more to offer, especially for families.


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