Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Timbertown Girls by Chris Brader.
"The country's need for large quantities of explosives simply
trumped any other consideration." It was the First World War. In a desperate
attempt to keep the soldiers on the Front supplied with the shells and bullets
they needed, a vast munitions factory was built stretching from Gretna to
Eastriggs. Twenty thousand workers were needed almost immediately. The dangerous
essential work was undertaken by people who came from all parts of the country.
Many were young - just teenagers - and the majority, perhaps 60% were
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thrilled to the patriotism of the girls,
proposing "Hats off to the women of Britain!" Others, such as the Presbyterian
minister in Annan, were aghast at the way their settled life was being changed
so rapidly: "Our quiet streets are now disturbed on Sunday evenings by . . .
workers singing Harry Lauder songs and rag-time melodies."
The chemicals made
the work hazardous. Mary Ann Halliday blamed the acid for gum poisoning which
led her to have all her teeth extracted; others complained of the fumes -
"particles of acid land on your face and make you nearly mad with the feeling of
pins and needles" - and there was always the danger of explosions.
were housed in new, hastily built towns at Gretna and East Riggs. Many girls
lived in timber hostels. Each one was "a marvellous wooden construction with
four dormitories and a large dining room". But the girls were closely supervised
and there was a ten o'clock curfew.
Nevertheless they were to be found in the
public houses which now all belonged to the Central Control Board.
Prohibitionists wrote of women being excessively inebriated, but the Board was
seeking to make the pubs "wholesome centres of social life and education". In
places like the Gretna Tavern, converted from the old Carlisle Post Office, food
and soft drinks were served in an attempt to counteract the predominantly male
and hard-drinking culture of the pub. The women's bars drew criticism from
opponents of the scheme, who witnessed "tightly jammed crowds of women dancing
up and down in gross abandon".
But there was more to do than drink. Workers
flocked to the new cinemas in Gretna and in Carlisle there was often standing
room only in all of the six cinemas. The sensationalist films shocked the
moralists, but they also promoted an image of woman's freedom and independence,
"an ability to do anything of which man is capable". It was an image which
matched the new life-style which these young flappers found they were leading.
The factory promoted leisure time activities, dances, films, improving classes
and sports in order to maintain the morale of the workers and enhance
production. The girls were taking part in hockey, athletics, tennis and
football. "When Mossband Swifts played Carlisle Munitionettes in 1917, they
wore, appropriately, Khaki shorts, with red jerseys and khaki caps. . . It
proved an entertaining spectacle for a male audience."
There were concerns
about increasing immorality. Women were given authority as police officers and
they patrolled the area around the castle and the city centre. The new found
freedoms were kept under constant surveillance.
With the end of the war, the
Gretna Factory cut down rapidly on production and the women workers returned to
their homes. Their "public visibility on the streets suggested a new arrangement
in society that heralded changes we take for granted 100 years later".
Brader works in the County Record Office at Petteril Bank. His book shows how
our grandmothers and great-grandmothers not only made an important contribution
to defending the country during the First World War, but also, by discovering
new freedoms, helped to change the lives of women for the better.