Wounds of Honour? The Dangers of First World War Munition Work.

The chapter titled ‘Wounds’ begins with the words ‘[I]t is seldom that we have a serious accident’.[1] Written by the upper-middle class supervisor Monica Cosens, her memoire recalls her time at the Woolwich Arsenal. The hyperbolic language of this book jars with the picture of two wounded Munitionettes where this blog begins.

I first saw this image in the 1918 book by Mabel Daggert on a library shelf at the Imperial War Museum but have since purchased a page taken from the Manchester Guardian because at its centre was this picture.[2] Research for this Blog resulted in the discovery of an article featuring the same photograph in the Daily Record, 1917 (Figure 1). The photograph in question, features two munition workers who had sustained injuries during shifts in a munition factory. Many women lost their lives in explosions but, there were innumerable incidents of the loss of limbs, fingers, blindness or the removal of metal filings from flesh wounds or even eyeballs. The two women pictured were part of the ‘army of women’, as Mrs Alec-Tweddie called women war workers, and as such were not unusual.[3] However, what is unusual is the fact that their injuries sustained through war work had been documented and publicised. Stories were framed in terms of plucky heroism and the two women pictured, had been honoured with an O.B.E. for dedication to their war work. The caption to the photograph of Annie and Lily reads: ‘Two munition workers who were awarded the Medal of the Order of the British Empire for “bravery and devotion to duty,” in the course of which one had her left hand blown off, and the other lost two fingers.’[4]

Figure 1: Miss Annie Rose and Miss Lily Smith, The Daily Record 27th August 1917

This led me to spend time searching through the British Newspaper Archive looking for reports on accidents at munition factories hoping to find names of women who had lost their lives or been injured. The frequency of incidents one suspects was extremely high, one reason being because, as we can see from the pamphlet Notes on the Employment of Women on Munitions of War, they carried out this dangerous work with very little protective clothing.[5] Figure 2 is a photograph from this pamphlet published, by the Ministry of Munitions, showing a Munitionette operating a lathe. She bends extremely close to the machine wearing no protective eyewear despite the swarf (metal fillings), which demonstrate how easily accidents could happen. The secrecy surrounding the locations and work of munition factories was certainly a factor in the lack of coverage and when explosions, accidents causing disfiguration, or deaths were acknowledged the details were superficial or the seriousness of life changing injuries were downplayed.

Figure 2: Notes on the Employment of Women on Munitions of War. p.43

There were minor accidents and disfiguring illnesses caused by the highly volatile chemicals used, most notably T.N.T. Documents in the National archives which document female supervisors’ reports from 1919 make for grim reading. At the very beginning of the munition production drive when women began to be employed in this industry, welfare provisions were non-existent or at best extremely basic. There were many minor accidents and as the Mile End supervisor recalled in her Welfare Report of 1919:

“I was astonished to find that in those germ-laden surroundings the Doctor performed minor operations, such as cutting off fingers and toes.”

Mile End Supervisor’s Report, May 1919 Ministry of Munitions Archives, National Archives, London. Document Reference: MUN/5/92/346

Annie Slade, who worked at the National Filling Factory No.14 in Rotherwas Herefordshire, recalled women losing their fingers during night air raids as the lights suddenly went out but the machines continued.[6] The Workers’ Dreadnought featured a front-page article on the “Dangers of Munition Work” which described ‘the hideous dangers to which women and girl munition workers are subjected.’[7]  The article exposes the exploitative working practices of the Vickers munition factory in Dartford using the experience of an ex-employee as their source. The woman told not only of the hard work but also the dangers:

Women and girls, some not more than 14 years of age, are carrying cleaning and painting cartridges weighing up to 20 lbs and lifting and arranging weighty boxes and trays of cartridges. They are performing operations which used to be thought heavy for strong men, and at one time they laboured from six a.m. to eight p.m. …… Explosions are of frequent occurrence. Young girls, ignorant of the enormous risks they are running, are employed on piece-work, incited by this method of payment they hurry with their work, though every hasty movement increases the risk.

“Dangers of Munition Workers” The Workers’ Dreadnought, 29th September 1917, Vol. IV. – No. 27 p.1

The article goes on to argue that safety was being sacrificed for “the defence of Vickers’ pocket” and that it was forbidden to mention accidents. The informant spoke of oiled rags being stuffed into the mouths of injured workers to stifle their cries.

Due to the secret nature of the work or the location of the factories many of the incidents of accidental injury were unreported with the exception of larger explosions. Several reported explosions included Silvertown, London, where 73 people were killed, and 300 people were injured on the 19th January 1917 at the Brunner, Mond & Co chemical factory.[8] At Chilwell, Nottingham, on 1st July 1918, 134 people were killed. A total of three separate explosions at the factory at Barnbow, Leeds firstly on the 5th December 1916 causing the death of 35 women, secondly the 21st March 1917 in which two women died and, finally, on the 31st March 1918 in which three men died.[9] There is no doubt from the reports that safety was ignored for the sake of expedited production. The Health of Munition Workers Committee was formed in 1915 by the Ministry of Munitions to investigate the effects of chemicals and working hours on the female workers. As a result of their findings the length of shifts were reduced as productivity was found to suffer when the workers became tired. Milk was distributed to those women working with T.N.T. as it was believed to counteract the side effects. There do seem to have been genuine efforts by the middle-class supervisors to take care of the health and well-being of the female munition workers.

As Angela Woollacott notes by 1916 a report published in the Lancet revealed the dangers of exposure to T.N.T as studied by Doctors Agnes Livingstone-Learmouth and Barbara Martin Cunningham who had spent five months studying munitions workers.[10] Certain measures were recommended including better ventilation in the factories, the frequent washing of uniforms and personal cleanliness. This developed into a regime of the women workers changing into gowns and washing (Figure 3) before eating and the distribution of milk or cocoa before a shift, believing that this would somehow neutralise the effects of the chemicals.  Lilian Barker, The Lady Superintendent for the Woolwich Arsenal wrote in her Welfare Report: ‘the workers on powder were given milk or cocoa free of charge’ [11] but as Miss Parry noted in her report dated 15th July,1919, ‘it did not follow that because milk was provided it was necessarily drunk.’[12] The serious reactions to the chemicals that female munition workers were exposed to included: jaundice, nasal and throat problems, headaches, chest pains, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhoea, skin rashes, fainting, swollen hands and feet, drowsiness, depression, blurred vision, changes in menstruation, irritability and loss of appetite.[13]

Figure 3: Screenshot taken from A Day in the Life of a Munition Worker showing the women having changed into white.

In circular no. 36 dated 26th November, 1915 a Dr. Legge recommends the use of alkaline cream to neutralise the effects of exposure to T.N.T and create a barrier on the skin [14] something advertisers were also quick to capitalise on as shown in the advertisement for’ Icilma’ cream, which included the veiled reference to the skin discolouration caused by working with T.N.T. (Figure 4). Newspaper reports also tell of the habit the women had for wearing face powder, or even using the T.N.T. powder to form a barrier against the chemicals – something Queen Mary remarked upon on one of her Royal visits to a munition factory, when it was revealed the women were using powder as a protective barrier against the harmful effects of T.N.T.:

‘The Queen and Princesses remarked upon the practice of girls who handle T.N.T. powdering their faces profusely…the girls regard powdering as an additional safeguard. All looked healthy.’

The Globe, 18 December 1917, p.4
Figure 4: Aberdeen Evening Express 22nd July 1918

The middle and upper classes saw excessive make-up as a marker of the lower classes. But the working-class women who worked in the munition factories may well have felt the need to use extra makeup in order to hide the resulting skin discolouration caused by contact with T.N.T. The upper-class Mrs Alec-Tweedie wrote disparagingly of the ‘tawdry finery’ of ‘the usual working-class girl’ remarking that ‘the factory hand has been known to pull out her mirror, puff-box and rouge in the middle of a twelve hours’ night shift…’[15] An article in the Daily Mirror actually featured the news:

A “run” was also made by munition girls on face creams, powders and manicure sets for faces and hands “honourably worn” in munition factories. Many of the “Canary girls,” The Daily Mirror learned, were asking for creams to remove some of their “tan”.

“Wise girls prepare for holidays.” The Daily Mirror, 18th May 1918. p.2

The use of the word tan both identifies the women as working class, due to a skin colour associated with working outside, but it also diminishes the harmful side effects of munitions work. As does the postcard by Fred Spurgin ‘Don’t go putting the powder where it is not wanted!’ (Figure 5) which plays on the suggested dual uses of powder. Depicting the female munition worker’s concern with her appearance, as well as hinting in a playful manner of the dangers of a slapdash approach to working with the explosive chemicals. The female munition worker is portrayed in Spurgin’s artistic style with a cinched-in waist, curls protruding from under her cap, wearing stockings and high heels, and heavily made-up.

Figure 5: Author’s Own Collection. Artist Fred Spurgin.

This theme also features on the postcard ‘The Munition Girl’s Toilet’ (Figure 6), which shows a childlike munition worker standing on a newspaper powdering her face using the shiny surface of the shell as a mirror.

Figure 6: Author’s own collection. Artist T Gilson.

The Yarmouth Independent reported in 1916 a meeting that occurred, part of a recruitment drive to encourage women to work in munitions. Warning that working with certain powders may change women’s complexion for a few days a Miss Winifred Gardiner, who ‘pleasantly described work in munition factory’ claimed that the women would not even mind their faces turning yellow when they thought about what their men were suffering at the Front.[16]

Instances were reported when a happy or positive outcome could be disseminated for morale, such as Agnes Mary Peters, a munition worker at the Woolwich Arsenal, who was blinded only a week after entering the Daily Mirror’s Beauty Contest but still received £10 prize money from the newspaper. (Figure 7) She was awarded the Order of the British Empire: “[F]or great courage and high example in continuing to do work of an exceptionally dangerous nature which finally resulted in an accident, by which she was totally blinded and otherwise injured.”[17] Later, in 1920, she married a soldier she had met at St Dunstan’s Home for the Blind in Saltdean, near Brighton (Figure 8).

Figure 7: Photograph taken by the Author. Domestic Front, Liddle Collection, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds.
Figure 8: Agnes Mary (Cissie) Peters and her husband Jack who she met at St Dunstan’s Home for the Blind, Saltdean near Brighton. https://www.ancestry.co.uk

Other women who were awarded O.B.E.s included Netta (Elspeth) Daniel, Isabella Dixon, Maude Bruce (Figure 9), Jenny Algar, Gladys Herrington and L.M. Ede, an examiner. Another young girl, Mabel Lethbridge, from an upper-class family wrote about her experiences in a book Fortune Grass published after the war in 1934. She described the explosion at the Hayes filling factory in which she lost a leg, but her story was reported at the time using positive hyperbolic language. The announcement of her O.B.E praised her ‘courage and high example shown on the occasion of an accident in a filling factory, causing loss of one leg and severe injuries to the other.'[18]

Figure 9 Miss Maud Bruce who worked at Gretna, Dumfries, Daily Record, 27th August 1917

Feminine characteristics of selfless care for others before oneself is demonstrated in the case of Margaret Winifred Burdett-Coutts who, after losing a finger and badly lacerating her hand in a circular saw “went quietly. away to have it treated in order not to unnerve her fellow workers.” She apparently felt that:

“the price I’ve paid for doing my duty is a light one compared with the wounds and sufferings of the brave lads out in the trenches. I think it is up to us women ‘to do our bit’ as far as we can”

Herfordshire Express, 14th January 1918, N.P.

Included in the archive of the IWM are photographs that form a memorialisation of female munition workers and details of the cause of death. The relations of one worker Mrs Margaret Armer Bradshaw donated two photographs, one of her in her munition workwear (Figure 10) and the other of her with her children and husband (Figure 11). She was killed by an explosion at the Liverpool filling factory at Aintree on 23rd July 1918.

Figure 10: MRS MARGARET ARMER BRADSHAW (WWC M55) Mrs Margaret Armer Bradshaw, Munitions work. Killed by the explosion of a shell on duty 23 July 1918. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205379967
Figure 11: MRS MARGARET ARMER BRADSHAW (WWC M55-1) Mrs Margaret Armer Bradshaw, Munitions work. Killed by the explosion of a shell on duty 23 July 1918. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205379968

The fact that they included both photographs gave her memory some humanity and pathos as she was remembered for her contribution to the war effort but also as a mother and wife. The Scotsman reported in June 1917 that accidents with explosives had increased from 485 in 1915 to 641 in 1917 but how accurate this figure was is questionable. It seems that only when the explosions were too conspicuous, because of the scale and devastation of the damage or loss of life, that they were reported. Injuries that were sustained were viewed in comparison with those suffered by serving men at the Front. Women were always viewed as serving or conforming to expected notions of duty but, their injuries and, or the visible manifestation of their work would have been apparent to the public in very visible ways during the war. However, the decommissioning of weaponry after the war was also fraught with danger. Reports of the inquest of those who perished in the 1924 explosion at the Slade Green factory, Erith, Kent, where cartridges were being dismantled, listed 12 women who died.[19] As late as 1924 when the Erith accident occurred, munition work was still hazardous but the longer reaching effects of working with the toxic chemicals had and would continue to take their toll on women’s bodies leaving them unable to conceive and suffering from the side effects of the toxic chemicals for the rest of their lives.


1 Cosens, Monica, Lloyd George’s Munitions Girls. London, Hutchinson & Co.1916. Print. p.69

2 Daggert, Mabel, Women Wanted: The Story Written in Blood Red Letters on the Horizon of the Great World War. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1918

3 Mrs. Alec-Tweedie, Women and Soldiers. New York: John Lane Company, 1918. Print.

4 The “Manchester Guardian” p.299. N.D.

5 Notes on the Employment of Women on Munitions of War. London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office. 1916

6 Laws, Bill (editor), In The Munitions: Women at War in Herefordshire. Herefordshire: Logaston Press, 2003. Print. p.11.

7 “Dangers of Munition Workers” The Workers’ Dreadnought, 29th September 1917, Vol. IV. – No. 27 p.1

8 http://www.20thcenturylondon.org.uk/server.php?show=conInformationRecord.207. Accessed January 2015. Hartlepool Northern Daily, 23 January 1917 p.2

9 http://www.barwickinelmethistoricalsociety.co./4746.html. Accessed 25.5.14. Sheffield Daily Telegraph 7th December 1916 p.6

10 Woollacott, Angela, On Her Their Lives Depend, Munitions Workers in the Great War. California: University of California Press, 1994, p. 81

11 Barker, Lilian, Welfare Report, Woolwich Arsenal, May 1919, Ministry of Munitions, National Archives, London, Document Reference: MUN/5/92/346/33.

12 Parry, Miss D, Welfare Report, Ministry of Munitions, National Archives, London, Document Reference: MUN/5/92

13 Richardson, Jennifer, Female Munition Workers Dress in Britain 1914-1918: A Visual and Material Culture Analysis. PhD University of Brighton, 2019. p.136

14 Circular no 36, 26th November 1915, Ministry of Munitions Archives, National Archives, London, Document Reference: MUN/5/147.

15 Mrs Alec-Tweedie (1918) p.55

16 Yarmouth Independent – Saturday 18 November 1916 p.6

17 Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 9th January 1918 p.6

18 Sheffield Independent – Friday 02 November 1934 p.6

19 Sheffield Daily Telegraph 21st February 1924 p.5


Mrs. Alec-Tweedie, Women and Soldiers. New York: John Lane Company, 1918. Print.

Cosens, Monica, Lloyd George’s Munitions Girls. London, Hutchinson & Co. 1916. Print.

Daggert, Mabel, Women Wanted:The Story Written in Blood Red Letters on the Horizon of the Great World War. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1918. Print.

Laws, Bill (editor), In The Munitions: Women at War in Herefordshire. Herefordshire: Logaston Press, 2003. Print.

Richardson, Jennifer, Female Munition Workers Dress in Britain 1914-1918: A Visual and Material Culture Analysis. PhD University of Brighton, 2019. Print.

Woollacott, Angela, On Her Their Lives Depend, Munitions Workers in the Great War. California: University of California Press, 1994. Print.

Love from Dad

As a little girl I used to watch my Grandmother empty and clean the items in one of her display cabinets. While she took out each object she would tell me its history, who it belonged to (mostly family members) and how it came into her possession. I think looking back, it was this ritual that sparked my interest in Material Culture and, along with her ‘hoarding’ gene, has helped developed the sentimentality I have for the traces of lives lived, left on, or by existing objects. It is for this reason that I had to purchase the three postcards I’m going to share with you in this blog post. All three postcards date from the First World War and were posted from the Front by fathers serving in the army to their children, back in ‘Blighty’. The messages on the reverse are endearing and must have been very precious to the children, albeit the briefest forms of contact from their fathers. It saddens me to have found them separated from the recipients and I endeavoured to search for the fathers in the hope that they survived the war.

My Dear Sonny

The first of the examples that I purchased is addressed to a Master G Dobson, who was living at 21 Unity Grove, Harrogate, Yorkshire. ‘Dad’ has written ‘On Active Service’, which entitled those serving at the Front free postage for the duration of the war.[1] This postcard, like many others, although manufactured in Britain, as is notated on the reverse, has the caption translated in English and French on the front. This suggests that the postcard may well have been purchased across the Channel in France or Belgium. Anti-German sentiments are subtly conveyed by the phrase ‘British Manufacture Throughout’ printed on the reverse.

Author’s own postcard

The use of children to represent adults during this time was not usual, as I discuss in my PhD. [2] The fact that the father soldier has chosen this postcard may have been due to sentimental reasons -perhaps the illustration reminded him of his young son. The young boy wears an officer’s cap and his sorrowful eyes convey the emotional strain of absence. The message on the reverse is quite revealing and stark. Beginning with ‘My Dear Sonny’ the father tenderly hopes that his ‘little man’ and ‘mammy’ are well. He then writes ‘I am just going in nasty trenches for a few days. Ta-Ta. From your Dad.’ One hopes that this sentence did not upset Master G Dobson or Mammy, who may have had to read out the card to her son, not knowing by the time the card reached Unity Grove, if her husband had survived possibly going over the top. This loaded phrase acknowledges the father’s strain and it seemed strange for him to admit to such feelings to his son. It was this last sentence that stayed with me and I determined to discover whether or not Master G Dobson’s father survived. And so began my apprehensive search through the online archives of ancestry.com.

Eventually I found a George Robert Dobson age 33, a private chauffeur living at 25 Wharfdale Place in Harrogate, see image below of the 1911 Census record. He lived there with his wife Maggie Dobson age 27 and 2 year old Geoffrey.


Further digging revealed that George Robert Dobson attested on the 6th August, 1914 into the Army Service Corps and the low numbers of his service number, 1195, clearly demonstrate just how eagerly he volunteered two days after war was declared. According to his service record, he had previously served in the Army Service Corps and, although the document notes that his attestation would last for one year, or as long as the war continued, he actually served for a total of 6 years until 1920. On the 1911 census his birthplace was listed as unknown but his service record details this as Driffield, Yorkshire. 

I was able to find the document, below, which details George Robert Dobson’s pre-war record in the Royal Army Corps, also describing his fresh complexion, grey eyes and dark brown hair. It appears that he served in France and Gallipoli being awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal and rose through the ranks from Private to Warrant Officer Class 2.

George Robert Dobson lived until 1967 in Wharfdale. His son Geoffrey, to whom the card was addressed, lived until he was 89 in 1998. Geoffrey’s wife Elsie, who was 2 years younger died in 1996. Geoffrey and Elsie had 2 children, although 1 passed away, their surviving son Brian Peter Dobson was born in 1939 and died in 2007. Brian was survived by his wife Doreen, nee O’Neill.

I am reassured that George returned home after the First World War and his family continued and survived. We do not know however, if he was affected in any way by his experiences during the War and tantalising questions remain as to how this emotive exchange between father and son was cut adrift.

Dear Curly Babs

The postcard ‘And I’m doing my share’ features another childlike individual representing an adult. The winking boiler-suit clad Munitionette wears an enormous blue bow atop of her curly bobbed haircut. She stands with her hands thrust on her hips and in the background a factory belches smoke out of its chimneys. This cartoon caught my eye firstly, because of the character of the Munitionette and the fact that she is wearing trousers. However, it was the fact that the two identical cards had been sent by serving soldiers in Belgium, or France, back home to their children that compelled me to add them to my collection . 

Author’s own Postcard

The first I collected of the identical postcard design, shown above. There is no address written on the reverse, which would most probably have been included with a letter to the soldier’s wife. As Kate Cole explains in her chapter on the exchange of postcards between father soldiers and their children this was a frequent occurrence.[3] The written message intimates that the image on the front reminded the father of his daughter as he has written ‘Belgium. To my Dear Curly Babs, With Love and Kisses From Dad.’ Sadly, no further information can be obtained from either the card, or the message itself as to the people involved in this exchange, unlike my other example.

Dear Bernie

The second version of this card has a ‘Field Post Office’ postmark dated 2 July 1918 and censor number 3920 has cleared it for postage.[4] The postcard is addressed to Master Bernard M Richardson, 15 Kings Avenue, Muswell Hill, London N10 and the message reads:

Dear Bernie, I am sending this to your new home. I wish I could come and see it. I will as soon as I can. Fond love & greetings from Daddy.

Searching the online census records I found Bernard May Richardson age 1 living at 58 Beckwith Road, Herne Hill London. He, along with his sister Marjorie Christine, age 2, lived with their parents and their paternal grandparents – William May and Ann Richardson. ‘Daddy’, Ernest May Richardson, was listed as a commercial Traveller (a salesman) age 34, born in Lincoln. His wife, Harty Sophie, nee Kirk/Kite, who he married in 1907, was born in 1883 in Sutton.

Courtesy of ancestry.com 1911 census record

During the First World War Ernest May Richardson served in the 16th Battalion, London Regiment (Queen’s Westminster Rifles), according to his service record, his service number was 90080.

Ernest May Richardson’s attestation form courtesy of ancestry.com

He attested in 1916 aged 39 but survived the war. According to the Regiment’s history Ernest’s battalion saw action in 1916 at the beginning of July at Gommecourt, south of Arras, part of the Battle of the Somme.[5] The 1939 electoral records show Ernest May Richardson living with his wife Harty and his incapacitated elderly mother.

Ernest May Richardson died in 1940, aged 63, at Epsom and Ewell Hospital in Epsom. He was survived by his widow Harty Sophia Richardson and left £845 of effects. Harty died in 1954.

Bernard May Richardson, the little boy to whom the postcard was addressed was born 14th December 1909 in Harrow and it appears that he followed his father’s example by volunteering for service, although he chose the Royal Artillery. He attested a few days after the Second World War was declared on the 6th September 1939. Bernard’s service number was 1479786 and embarked to Malaya on 6th December 1941.

Courtesy of http://www.forces-war-records.co.uk

His record card above details him as on a ‘Stragglers’ list in 1942. Stragglers were soldiers, who did not surrender and presumably hid and survived in the jungles of East Asia trying to avoid capture. Searching the Forces War Records website I discovered Bernard’s Prisoner of War record card, which shows his father as deceased and his mother as next of kin and dates his status as a prisoner of war in 1943.

Courtesy of http://www.forces-war-records.co.uk

Sadly though this is where his story falters, as I cannot find any further records of him.


Nicholas J Saunders recently noted that:

as first-hand memory disappears, our views are inevitably shaped by the physical remains, and by the interpretations of those who had no part in their design, production or original purpose.’[6]

It is on the reverse of these now delicate postcards where we share the father’s emotional exchanges with their children in the midst of the horror of the First World War and realise how precious these brief messages were to the children themselves to have survived over 100 years later.

[1] Doyle, Peter, British Postcards of the First World War. Oxford: Shire, 2014. Kindle Loc. 463

[2] Richardson, Jennifer, Female Munition Workers’ Workwear in Britain, 1914-1918: A Visual and Material Cultural Analysis. University of Brighton, 2019. Unpublished PhD Thesis

[3] Cole, Kate, Postcards from the Front 1914-1918. London: Amberley, 2016. Kindle.

[4] The Field Post Office would at this point been the Divisional or Brigade headquarters, or at rail heads.

[5]https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/units/4899/london-regiment/ accessed 16 July 2020

[6] Saunders, Nicholas J. (Ed). Matters of Conflict: Material culture, memory and the First World War. Abingdon: Routledge, 2004. Print. p.5


Cole, Kate, Postcards from the Front 1914-1918. London: Amberley, 2016. Kindle.

de Vries, Guus, The Great War Through Picture Postcards. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2016. Print

Doyle, Peter, British Postcards of the First World War. Oxford: Shire, 2014. Kindle Loc.

Richardson, Jennifer, Female Munition Workers’ Workwear in Britain, 1914-1918: A Visual and Material Cultural Analysis. University of Brighton, 2019. Unpublished PhD Thesis

Saunders, Nicholas J. (Ed). Matters of Conflict: Material culture, memory and the First World War. Abingdon: Routledge, 2004. Print.

A Postcard is better!!

Welcome to the first “Cartoons, Close-ups” Blog!

I am a dress historian, which means I look at history through the clothing worn by women, specifically. I am fascinated by the period just before, during and, after the First World War because of the questions being raised in British society about the role of women. The involvement of women in politics, work opportunities and their demands for ‘independence’ were observed and reflected in debates and representations of fashion, gender and respectability. The reality, however, was less dramatic, especially for working-class women. I am fascinated by the contradictions in society and how working-class women juggled expectations of respectability, work versus homelife, motherhood and duty, survival and bettering oneself.

My PhD thesis researched the specific range of workwear worn by female munition workers in Britain between 1914-1918. I was fascinated by the shock and disgust that was expressed over the sight of women wearing trousers, which are now regarded as acceptable and practical garments worn by women in 21st Century Britain. Since 2014 I have been collecting First World War portrait postcards and cartoons, which depict trouser wearing Munitionettes, as female munition workers were nicknamed. Taking inspiration from the descriptive noun ‘Suffragette’, which was applied to those involved in the pre-war campaign for the women’s vote, the noun ‘Munitionette’ first appeared in print in The Sphere in 1915. I’ve christened this Blog site Cartoons, Close-ups after the cartoon and photographic postcards that I have collected, examples of both I’m going to share with you.

Now Look pleasant!

Portrait photography was particularly popular at this time. Recording yourself and sending it to sweethearts or male relatives fighting at the Front was encouraged in cartoons and on postcards. See Figure 2 which shows a cartoon of a photographer encouraging a soldier in uniform to look his best! Photographic studios featured prominently on high streets across the country and with the introduction of postcard backing, effectively turning the photograph into a postcard, the cost of having one’s portrait captured became much cheaper.[1] An article in the Yorkshire Evening Post, 31st October 1916, detailed the ‘new craze’ among female munition workers to have their photographs taken. Reporting that female munition workers ‘see in the new and cheap photograph a means of obtaining a permanent record of how they “did their bit” in the great war….’[2] The article goes on to report of one Leeds photographer charging 1s 3d and 1s 9d for a dozen copies acknowledging that friends may have clubbed together to share the cost.[3] The importance of having one’s portrait taken and exchanging these cards with sweethearts, friends and family was clearly common practice. Suggestions on how to have a perfect photograph taken as a lovely memento for the soldier sweetheart to take to the front, appeared in an article in Home Notes, June 10, 1916:

“I want a really good photo of you, dear, to take out there with me” is the cry of every soldier just leaving for the Front “and I won’t be put off with any cheap postcard affair – let’s have something really like you.” …When a man says that of course he means “something that is really like you at your best”. So, do please take care that the photographer catches you in one of your happiest moments.[4]

Where a dedication to a relative or friend has been written on the reverse of these postcards, the brief but sentimental exchange of feelings, not only suggests a desire to preserve one’s unusual appearance, but it also contains the implicit desire to present oneself at one’s best, as the cartoons on the postcard below demonstrates. (Figures 1).

Figure 1: Author’s own postcard.

A postcard’s better!

The picture postcard was a hugely successful form of mass communication at the beginning of the twentieth century. According to Esther Milne in her book Letters, Postcards, Emails: technologies of presence, the British postcard market was slower to develop than that of its European neighbours, in particular Germany.[5] This was mainly because of the strict Post Office Regulations in England, that had, until the late 1890s, maintained a monopoly over the production of picture postcards. A change in the Post Office’s regulations allowing pictures on one side and the cost of postage starting off at half a penny, meant it was an affordable means of mass communication with as many as six deliveries per day.[6] James Taylor has explained the scale of postal deliveries to and from the Front during the War, estimating that the number of items handled on a daily basis by the Post Office amounted to over 2 billion a day. Guus de Vries has calculated that at least 30 billion postcards were sent by, or received by, soldiers on the Front over the period of the War.[9] This figure does not include the domestic market. In a recent book Comics and the World Wars: A Cultural Record the authors describe humour as being ‘dependent upon the society in which it exists, adapting and evolving with it..’ reflecting the discourses of a particular moment in time.[10]

Figure 2: Author’s own postcard

Postcards also became very sought after as collectors’ items and souvenirs and were not only sent as communications in their own right but were included with letters:

of these the comic artist-drawn cards counted for a significant proportion, running into millions. In addition, there were millions of cards that were also acquired not for posting but to be added to a personal collection, for exchange or to be given as a gift in person.[7]

James Taylor argues that postcards were not only a form of whimsical communication but they also formed a part of the propaganda activities to encourage the Nation’s continued support of the war, alongside the posters, marching bands, films, lectures, music-hall and theatrical performances, rousing speeches held at rallies as well as town processions and gala days.[8] 

Annebella Pollen has written about the cruel humour contained in Victorian Vinegar Valentine cards, where insults are explicitly expressed.[11] The cartoon postcard beneath features two unmarried women, one a seemingly middle aged spinster who is reading from a  letter. Miss Dainty is unforgivingly catty in her response to the romantic anecdote that Miss Dial’s photograph saved her soldier sweetheart. The difference in age is reinforced by the shorter dress worn by Miss Dainty, which is the height of fashion as opposed to the longer, more modest outfit of Miss Dial. The sender of the card does not refer to the joke cartoon merely telling her daughter that they travelled to Betws-y-Coed, in Wales, from Llandudno by motor bus that day! 

Figure 3: Author’s own postcard

Postcards are commercial items and the artists designed them to be eye-catching through colourful designs and humour. The artists played with topics, which featured concerns prevalent in public debates. These recognisable tropes and commentaries enabled the buyer and recipient to share the joke and experience the camaraderie required by the nation during the war. Postcards were also a quick and public means of communication, so that much like the way we use modern text messaging, the notes are often brief and mostly discuss travel plans, comments on the weather only occasionally acknowledging the cartoon content. In my next blog I’m going to share with you some of the heartwarming postcards sent by serving soldiers to their children back in ‘Blighty.’ 

I hope you have enjoyed this very brief introduction that I will continue to share with you over future blog posts.


Chapman, Jane, Anna Hoyles, Andrew Kerr and Adam Sheriff, Comics and the World Wars: A Cultural Record. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Print. 

De Vries, Guus, The Great War through picture postcards. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2016. Print

Milne, Esther, Letters, Postcards, Emails: technologies of presence. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Pollen, Annebella, ”Love Letters and Hate mail: Victorian Vinegar Valentines”, 8 September 2014 https://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/2014/09/08/love-letters-and-hate-mail-victorian-vinegar-valentines/

Richardson, Jennifer, Female Munition Workers’ Workwear in Britain, 1914-1918:

A Visual and Material Culture Analysis. Unpublished PhD, University of Brighton, 2019

Taylor, James, Pack up your troubles: How Humorous Postcards Helped to Win World War 1. London: Conway, 2016. Kindle.

[1] Evidence that postcard photographs cost 2/4d each has been found on a high street photographer’s shop window in Swindon from 1906 https://www.flickr.com/photos/swindonlocal/7428065156/in/photostream/ and in an advertisement in a regimental magazine for a photographer in Eastbourne. The Sussex Patrol, Incorporating the Sussex Signal; Dec 1, 1916; 1, 7; Trench Journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War pg. 0 Imperial War Museum, London at 3/- per dozen.

[2] The Girls’ Record of their War Work. Photographs in munition suits.” Yorkshire Evening Post 31st October 1916, p.5

[3] Ibid

[4] “A Portrait for you Soldier Boy”, Home Notes, No 1170, Vol XC, 10th June 1916, Print. p. 403

[5] Milne, Esther, Letters, Postcards, Emails: technologies of presence. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010. Print. p.105.  

[6] tp://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/projects/EVIIpc/index.php Accessed 3.10.14 

[7] Taylor, J (2016) Loc.211

[8] Ibid (2016) Loc. Loc.1266 

[9] De Vries (2016) p.11

[10] Chapman, Hoyles, Kerr and Sheriff (2015) p.37

[11] Pollen, Annebella, ”Love Letters and Hate mail: Victorian Vinegar Valentines”, 8 September 2014 https://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/2014/09/08/love-letters-and-hate-mail-victorian-vinegar-valentines/