Explore the world of domestic service in Britain from 1800 to 1950

Thursday, 28 July 2016


With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, an estimated 400,000 male and female servants left domestic service for the armed forces and various areas of wartime production, as well as clerical and support services. Maids suddenly had new opportunities to undertake war work offering higher pay and greater freedom – and they were eager to take advantage of these roles. The average wages of working women were often more than double what they could have expected before the war.

Women frequently worked in jobs previously been carried out by skilled or semi-skilled men. They found employment as land girls, nurses and bus conductresses; in shops, canteens and offices. From spring 1915, women also had the option of working in munitions factories, where they could earn over £2 (40 shillings) a week. These high wages were unheard of for women but the 'munitionettes' were still paid on average less than half what their male counterparts received.

By British official photographer : Nicholls, Horace (Photograph Q 30040 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17641099

The high rate of pay was because the work was extremely dangerous. Every day, munitionettes worked with hazardous chemicals such as  trinitrotoluene (TNT) without protection; it was the nitric acid in TNT which caused some women's skin to turn yellow. They were nicknamed 'canary girls'. Another daily hazard was the very real risk of explosion. During the war, there were several incidents at factories which killed or maimed large numbers of munitions workers. The deadliest occurred in July 1918 at the National Shell Filling Factory in Chilwell, Nottinghamshire; 134 men and women were killed and 250 more were injured. Munitionettes risked their lives to contribute to the war effort and by June 1917, they produced around 80% of all munitions for the British army.

One servant who worked in a munitions factory was Victoria May Wood. Born in December 1897 in Gillingham, Kent, she was the seventh child of a Cornish couple. She enjoyed school and although she had a keen brain, she was never given the chance to sit for a scholarship. Like her sisters, Victoria left school at 14 and was sent to work as a daily maid in the homes of the local gentry.  She never spoke with any affection about her employers although their husbands were apparently a bit kinder. 

During the First World War, Victoria was required to do war work and she was sent to Woolwich to work on munitions in the Arsenal.  At first, she was housed in huts in Abbey Wood where she was frozen with the cold. Later, she lived in private digs in New Cross. The other girls were Cockneys and because of Victoria's more refined accent, she was dubbed 'The Duchess'.

Victoria met her future husband as a result of working in the munitions factory. One of the girls, Sally Jones, was looking for a girl to write to her brother who was serving at the front line in Belgium and Victoria volunteered. Despite the fact that munitions work could be detrimental to one's health, Victoria lived to the ripe old age of 87. (With thanks to Colin Jones for this information about his mother)

Victoria May Wood (holding the triangle) with other munitionettes at Woolwich Arsenal (with thanks to Colin Jones)

In her memoir Canary Girls and Stockpots, Edith Hall recalled the Canary Girls who lodged in her mother's house near Hayes in Middlesex. They worked at the munitions factory nearby and they came mostly from the East End of London. Edith remembered how the Canaries 'did long hours at work, six days a week' and they 'could not get home very often due to their long hours but they sent money home out of their very high wages'.

After the war, many women who had occupied men’s pre-war roles were expected to vacate their posts for returning servicemen, but having had a taste of independence, they were loath to return to the shackles of domestic service again. It became increasingly difficult for employers, except the very rich, to find and retain good servants.

Postcard inscribed ‘Maggie, our maid 1916’. Maggie is dressed for war work. (Author’s collection)