Manchester’s Industrial War: A view from the factories

As much as the history of World War One is a story of military engagements, of vital importance for victory was success in the industrial war at home. Put simply, Britain needed to produce the many millions of bombs, bullets, and other vital materials to successfully defeat the Germans on the Western (and other) fronts, but by May 1915 she was rapidly running out.

What followed, under the leadership of David Lloyd George as Minister for Munitions, was an enormous ramping up of Britain’s industrial efforts. Dozens of new factories were established to provide British troops with the equipment they needed, and a new, (and more significantly, largely female) workforce was recruited with profound political consequences following the end of the war.

Evidence for these changes on Manchester can be found in the letters and photographs at the Central Library Archives, which provide a window into the effects of the industrial war on Manchester at this time.

The first of these is a letter written by Lord Kitchener in March 1915 to MP Herbert Samuel, a member of the Local Government Board in Whitehall. In it, he hints at the scale of the challenge facing British industry, and asks Samuel

“…do you think that the local government authorities have any such persons [fitters, mill-wrights, machine hands and skilled or unskilled labour] in their employ who could be taken from them for the vital necessities of our armament factories?”

Kitchener's letter requesting industrial conscription
Figure 1: Letter by Lord Kitchener requesting surveys of local authority staff fit for factory work

By April Kitchener’s request for men was already being put to the local authorities in Manchester and elsewhere, with several communiques asking how many men could be spared, (even from roles within the public libraries):

Memo regarding Library Staff for industrial conscription
Figure 2: Memo detailing how many men from Manchester’s public libraries were available for industrial conscription

The result in Manchester was a massive mobilisation of the urban workforce into helping production for the war effort, and in particular an increased prominence given to the role of women. Private enterprise was also involved alongside state activity, with companies such as Mather and Platt Ltd also producing war materials, as these pictures show:

Female factory workers at Mather & Platt Ltd

Female factory workers at Mather & Platt Ltd clocking off
Figure 3: Women undertaking war work at Mather and Platt Ltd

The work was by no means easy, however, and on several occasions could be extremely dangerous. The people of Ashton-Under-Lyne tragically learned this to their cost on the 13th of June 1917, when an explosion at the Hooley Hill Munitions Factory killed 46 people, and injured hundreds more.

Ashton munitions factory explosion, 1917

Ashton munitions factory explosion funeral, 1917
Figure 4: The aftermath of the Hooley Hill Munitions Factory disaster

Although Manchester played just one part in Britain’s industrial war, the role it played, alongside all the other local authorities, was ultimately vital to the securing of victory by Britain at the end of World War One.

This blog post was researched and written by Isaac Boothroyd, a volunteer at the Manchester Central Library’s Archives+ scheme.

References & Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the staff of the Manchester Central Library and Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre for their help with accessing the resources used in this post, as well as draw attention to the following sources used within it:

  • M740/4/5/18 – Munitions workers, 1915 – correspondence regarding the appeal made to local authorities for war labour
  • M08143 – Munitions workers at Mather and Platt Ltd, clocking off at the end of the day.
  • M08144 – Munitions workers at Mather & Platt Ltd
  • t10244 – Ashton Munitions explosion, 1917 (held by the Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre)
  • t10246 – Ashton munitions explosion, funeral image (held by the Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre)
  • Earnshaw, L. ‘Tragedy on the Home Front: Munitions Explosion in Ashton’, GM1914, 30/01/2014, found at: https://gm1914.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/tragedy-on-the-home-front-munitions-explosion-in-ashton/
  • David, S. ‘How Germany Lost the WW1 Arms Race’, BBC News, 16/02/2012, found at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17011607

 

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