Sheffield’s Women at Work in World War 1 — Dr. Sylvia Dunkley — 2nd October 2017.


Doctor Sylvia Dunkley moved to Sheffield in 1982 and was involved in run­ning an atom­ising sys­tems busi­ness with her hus­band.  She had a pas­sion for his­tory and even­tu­ally took a his­tory degree.

Before the war, the main female occu­pa­tion in Sheffield was 32.3% domestic and 22.4% in man­u­fac­tur­ing metal goods.  When the war com­menced many women became unem­ployed because of the col­lapse of the tra­di­tional indus­tries due to men leav­ing for the war.

In London, Queen Mary’s work­rooms were star­ted in order to give women employ­ment.  They knit­ted, darned and made rugs.

Sheffield became a large centre for the hos­pit­al­isa­tion of wounded sol­diers.  There was a huge demand for nurses and the army took over many places in Sheffield and changed their use to hos­pit­als.  The base hos­pital was centred on Ecclesall Road, in all 4,600 beds were estab­lished. Apart from  this, beds were provided at Carter Knowle School (115); Lydgate (130); Greystones (150).  Other affil­i­ated insti­tu­tions provided another 2,000 beds for less ser­i­ous cases.

Due to the short­age of man power, women were trained in cler­ical posts in banks and busi­nesses. Teachers, who once had to leave their jobs on mar­ry­ing, were allowed to stay on.

As trans­port was needed to ferry women work­ers to the factor­ies and the fact that 1,500 men had left to join the army, the tram ser­vice was severely stretched.  Women were  trained as conductors/drivers and, with agree­ment from the unions, were employed under the same wages and con­di­tions as men, who would get their jobs back on return from the war.  By the end of the war there were over 1000 women tram work­ers in Sheffield.

The postal ser­vices were also taken over by women.  73% of sort­ing office staff and most of the tele­gram and postal work­ers’ jobs were taken by women. Post Office tele­gram girls were recruited and based in sub-post offices around the city and would deliver tele­grams by hand by walk­ing or catch­ing a tram to each address.

Women were also employed as window clean­ers, crane drivers, meter read­ers and street clean­ers.

In 1915 there was a short­age of shells at the front.  Lloyd George (head of muni­tions) con­ver­ted factor­ies to make muni­tions.  He called them “National Projectile Factories”.  Hatfields and Thomas Firth were examples of such factor­ies.

Making shell cases involved 25 dif­fer­ent oper­a­tions and  each woman would do one stage only. Most import­ant were the shell exam­iners whose job it was to ensure that the cal­ibre was per­fect (oth­er­wise the shell would misfire/explode).  Newton Chambers made over 14,000 shell cases per week.  Only the shell cases were made in Sheffield, the task of filling them with explos­ives was done in more remote parts of the coun­try for obvi­ous reas­ons.

At the end of the war the men took back their jobs that they had left and the women returned to their pre­vi­ous employ­ment.  Thus, Sheffield women  played an essen­tial part in the war effort.

Sylvia was thanked for her present­a­tion which we all agreed was very inform­at­ive.