Retro: how war reshaped Sheffield industry

Retro Kelham Island exhib: a certificate awarded to Annie Stocks, who worked at the National Projectile Factory in Templeborough, 1916-1918
Retro Kelham Island exhib: a certificate awarded to Annie Stocks, who worked at the National Projectile Factory in Templeborough, 1916-1918
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A new exhibition at Kelham Island Museum looks at the effect of the First World War on industry and workers in Sheffield.

Curator Karen Middlemast, who has pulled together the War Work exhibition from the museum’s collection, said: “We are looking at what Sheffield industry did during the war period and the impact of war on manufacturers and workers of the city.

“The period saw a huge changes for women. They had worked in different industries in Sheffield before World War One but nothing quite on this scale.

“The war really changed women’s lives afterwards, including the vote coming in. It really made social changes apart from producing things for the war effort.”

The exhibition examines the role of women as munitions workers as thousands poured into the factories to replace men who had gone to the front. Five hundred women worked at the Thomas Firth-run National Projectile Factory in Templeborough alone.

Sheffield’s industrial war effort was extensive, said Karen, with existing factories, such as the Simplex car works in Tinsley, moving over to war production and new ones being built.

She said: “They didn’t just spring into action making munitions in 1914. It was quite a large industry from the 1860s onwards for all kinds of armaments, particularly armour plating.

“The Cammell Laird Cyclops Works tested armour plate for Russian navy. They had a catalogue in French and German.

“Testing really advanced the industry. By 1914 Sheffield really had one of the most advanced armaments industries.”

Visitors to Sheffield factories included, amazingly, the leader of the giant Krupps armaments works in Germany, who visited Hadfield’s just before war broke out. A brochure marking the visit is on show.

Karen said: “The 1914 mobilisation of industry was really quite uncoordinated to start with. At the beginning of the war shell manufacturers couldn’t keep up with demand.

“That led to the formation of the Ministry of Munitions and the funding and building of new factories, the National Projectile Factories. It was quite an operation.

“The Munitions of War Act brought tackled the shortages and organised the infrastructure.

“Lots of rules were brought in, including about profit limitations, and the ministry started to bring in conditions about how people lived and worked.

“Pub opening times were restricted because if people were in the pubs late they were going to be late for work and that threatened damage to the war effort.”

Eventually long working hours were cut because studies showed that workers who were better rested were more propductive.

Alongside the big factories the exhibition looks at smaller companies like the cutlers who made bayonet blades. Karen said: “We made so many products in Sheffield, almost all the kit that the soldiers took with them. That included cutlery and digging tools.”

Some industrial advances were made during the conflict. Karen said: “Before the war soldiers never wore helmets and they didn’t have them in 1914. Some were made at Dixon’s, who could stamp them out from one sheet of metal. They made bowls and were used to that kind of technique. The helmets became known as the ‘battle bowler’ because of their shape.”

Other advances included the development of manganese steel at Hadfield’s.

The exhibition also looks at the lives of workers through their own eyes.

Some factories produced magazines like The Bombshell, which are full of interesting comments about the works canteeen and also actitivies like theatrical and sports clubs. One poem written by an anonymous woman worker talks about how she has enjoyed the money and was keen to work for the war effort but was happy for Tommy to have his job back and she wouldn’t stand in his way so he could support his family.

Films show what the factories were like, as does the work of artists who were asked by factory owners to capture the scenes. A series of paintings of women workers at Cammell Laird was sold as postcards for the Red Cross.

There was industrial unrest at the time. Some skilled workers resented the lower-paid women workers doing similar jobs and unionised engineers fought battles against conscription of skilled workers. The shop stewards’ movement that developed won significant victories.

Karen found a letter written by two grinders to the Ministry of Munitions. It very politely put the case for a pay rise, arguing that “advantage was being taken of our patriotism”.

Karen said: “Everyone thought it was going to be over by Christmas. By 1916 these workers said, ‘We do want to do our bit for the war effort. We’re working all the hours and just that you’re taking advantage of us, really. We’d really like a pay rise’.”

A smaller exhibition running in the Hawley Gallery looks at weapons made in Sheffield to take lives, including a gruesome array of bayonets and trench knives, and instruments made to save them.

These include medical instruments and others used by vets to look after the two million horses that were sent to the conflict.

Another exhibition, Sheffield Remembers, running from November, will bring together the museum’s collection of First World War memorials from companies in Sheffield. In the meantime, several are on show in the museum.

The War Work exhibition runs until July 31, 2015.