Canary Girls

A couple of weeks ago I visited the latest exhibition showing at Manchester City Art Gallery – The Sensory War 1914-2014

This major group exhibition marking the Centenary of the First World War explores how artists have communicated the impact of military conflict on the body, mind, environment and human senses between 1914 and 2014.

Included in the exhibition were a number of pictures illustrating the role of women on the “Home Front”. Due to sending many hundreds of thousands of young men to the trenches in Europe there was a shortage of workers to man the production lines in the munitions factories. The solution was to recruit women.

This lithograph by Archibald Standish Hartrick, who worked as a war artist, shows a young woman filling shells with TNT explosive.

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Women’s Work: On Munitions – Dangerous Work (Packing T.N.T.) c.1917

The “munitionettes” were referred to as the “Canary Girls” as many of them developed yellow skin due to their exposure to the chemicals they were handling.

TNT (2,4,6-Trinitrotoluene) as well as being highly explosive presents a number of serious health effects such as anemia (reduced number of red blood cells and reduced hemoglobin and hematocrit), liver function abnormalities, respiratory complications, and possibly aplastic anaemia (ASTDR).

TNT can interact with haemoglobin to form methaemoglobin, reducing the capacity of the blood to carry oxygen and causing cyanosis – so it’s a chemical asphyxiant. It can also damage the liver, leading to jaundice and the yellow colour of the skin.

Exposure can occur by inhalation of dust and also by skin absorption – both potentially significant for the worker portrayed in the picture. The control measures leave a lot to be desired with what appears to be direct hand contact and only the use of a primitive mask to control inhalation exposure with no evidence of any engineering controls.

Conditions in munitions factories have improved considerably since the First World War and stringent control measures are implemented when TNT is handled to minimise exposure by both inhalation and skin contact.

For King and Country (1916) by Edward F Skinner Source: Imperial War Museum – used under the terms of the IWM Non Commercial Licence.

Another aspect of the work of the munitionettes was that the women were paid considerably lower wages than the men they had replaced. But they didn’t take it sitting down!

The trade union leader, Mary Macarthur, led the campaign to protect the women forced to work in the munitions industry. She pointed out that women in the industry received on average less that half of what the men were paid. After much discussion it was agreed to increase women’s wage-rates in the munitions industry. However, by 1918, whereas the average male wage in the munitions industry was £4 6s. 6d. for women it was only £2 2s. 4d. (Spartacus Educational website)

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