All around Doncaster, women were stepping into new roles. They worked on the trams and railways, as postal workers, window cleaners, munitions workers and farmers. Women were involved in munitions work at the Great Northern Railway’s Doncaster Works (‘the Plant’), as well as in other industry across Doncaster.
There were lots of debates in the local newspapers about women’s abilities to do this wide variety of work. Early in the war, women workers were often called the ‘gentle’ or ‘fair’ sex. However, any concerns about their abilities were swept aside as the value of their work for the war effort became clear.
The Great Northern Railway’s Doncaster Works (the Plant) supported the war effort in a variety of ways. One of these was repairing 18-pounder cartridge cases that had been fired, ready for them to be refilled and reused on the Front. Many of the workers on these projects were women. Production increased greatly throughout the war.
Workers at the Plant repaired…
5,000 cases per week in May 1915
10,000 cases per week in November 1915
50,000 cases per week towards the end of 1916 and maintained this until February 1918 when this work ceased.
In all 4,267,093 cases were repaired at the GNR Plant in Doncaster.
‘Belles of the Brickfield’
In February 1918, The Doncaster Chronicle published an article stating that another industry had been ‘conquered by the Fair Sex’! The article disputed Peterborough’s claim to have the first women brick makers, stating that Doncaster had the ‘instinct for pioneering’ as women were already working at the Edlington Brick Works!
Women also took on work at Simpson’s Brickyard on Lower Dolcliffe Road in Mexborough, and the Powder Works at Denaby Main.
Lilian Smith, Munitions Worker
Doncaster women moved away from the area to support the war effort, as well as finding work at home. Lilian Smith, from Bentley, worked as a munitions worker at Ponders End Shell Works in Middlesex between October 1917 and July 1918. In April 1919 she was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by the Earl of Harewood ‘for courage displayed on occasions of danger in munitions factories.’ On 29 July 1918, a belt came off some machinery used in making six inch shells. Lilian grabbed it to set it back on when the machine started. She was carried from the floor to the ceiling by the belt. Her head crashed against a beam, while her feet went through a fanlight and she fell to the floor, unconscious. She survived, spending only a fortnight in the hospital!
At the same time as Lilian was given her OBE, two others were given to local men, one to Joseph Haigh of Conisbrough and another to Reginald Threlkeld of Denaby Main, both for courage and self-sacrifice on the occasion of an accident at a filling factory.
Plumtree Farm, Bawtry
Although women had been part of the industrial workforce before 1914, the war increased the need for female labour, and conscription made this need even greater. At Plumtree Farm, Bawtry, Mrs Peake of Bawtry Hall founded a farming school to train the new female workforce in agricultural skills.