Women and men work amid rows of artillery shells at the National Filling Factory in Chilwell. 1917.

Women and men work amid rows of artillery shells at the National Filling Factory in Chilwell. 1917.

During World War One, large numbers of women were recruited into jobs vacated by men who had gone to fight in the war. New jobs were also created as part of the war effort, for example in munitions factories. The high demand for weapons resulted in the munitions factories becoming the largest single employer of women during 1918.

Though there was initial resistance to hiring women for what was seen as ‘men’s work’, the introduction of conscription in 1916 made the need for women workers urgent. Around this time, the government began coordinating the employment of women through campaigns and recruitment drives.

This led to women working in areas of work that were formerly reserved for men, for example as railway guards and ticket collectors, buses and tram conductors, postal workers, police, firefighters and as bank ‘tellers’ and clerks. Some women also worked heavy or precision machinery in engineering, led cart horses on farms, and worked in the civil service and factories.

By 1917 munitions factories, which primarily employed women workers, produced 80% of the weapons and shells used by the British Army. Known as ‘canaries’ because they had to handle TNT (the chemical compound trinitrotoluene that is used as an explosive agent in munitions) which caused their skin to turn yellow, these women risked their lives working with poisonous substances without adequate protective clothing or the required safety measures. Around 400 women died from overexposure to TNT during WWI.

On top of the dangerous working conditions, women were also paid significantly less than men in comparable positions. In 1918, women workers on London’s buses, trams and subways organized a strike and managed to win equal pay for equal work. When the war ended, many women were fired to free up jobs for returning veterans. These photos from the University of British Columbia offer a broad survey of the women who stepped up to keep their country running through an unprecedented conflict.

Rubber workers in Lancashire make mouthpieces for gas masks.

Rubber workers in Lancashire make mouthpieces for gas masks.

Chemical workers load wheelbarrows with lime.

Chemical workers load wheelbarrows with lime.

A worker hauls a cake of nitrate ammonia out of a dryer in a chemical plant.

A worker hauls a cake of nitrate ammonia out of a dryer in a chemical plant.

Workers in a chemical laboratory.

Workers in a chemical laboratory.

A worker welds a frame tug for a military airplane.

A worker welds a frame tug for a military airplane.

Tannery workers draw skins from a lime pit.

Tannery workers draw skins from a lime pit.

Tannery workers.

Tannery workers.

A Women's Royal Naval Service instructor drills recruits with gas masks.

A Women’s Royal Naval Service instructor drills recruits with gas masks.

Mine net workers wire floats together.

Mine net workers wire floats together.

Workers prepare for the construction of concrete ships.

Workers prepare for the construction of concrete ships.

Workers build parts for boilers and condensers.

Workers build parts for boilers and condensers.

(Left) A rubber worker operates a spreading machine in a tire factory. (Right) A worker shapes a tire.

(Left) A rubber worker operates a spreading machine in a tire factory. (Right) A worker shapes a tire.

Workers craft electrical fittings.

Workers craft electrical fittings.

A 20 ton crane driver.

A 20 ton crane driver.

(Left) Workers test a mine with air pressure. (Right) WRNS workers fit a mine.

(Left) Workers test a mine with air pressure. (Right) WRNS workers fit a mine.

Gear planers in a factory in Sunderland.

Gear planers in a factory in Sunderland.

A worker operates a circular saw.

A worker operates a circular saw.

A worker drills holes for the ribs of airship sheds.

A worker drills holes for the ribs of airship sheds.

Workers in a dressing shop.

Workers in a dressing shop.

Workers paint War Office vehicles.

Workers paint War Office vehicles.

Workers haul wood in a lumber yard.

Workers haul wood in a lumber yard.

(Left) Asbestos workers at a factory in Lancashire. (Right) Workers paint airplanes at a factory near Birmingham.

(Left) Asbestos workers at a factory in Lancashire. (Right) Workers paint airplanes at a factory near Birmingham.

Workers haul away earth while excavating for the installation of hydraulic pumps.

Workers haul away earth while excavating for the installation of hydraulic pumps.

A worker with an electric motor.

A worker with an electric motor.

Railway workers unload goods from a train.

Railway workers unload goods from a train.

Workers construct and treat airplane wings.

Workers construct and treat airplane wings.

Workers assemble artillery shells.

Workers assemble artillery shells.

Workers paint steel beams.

Workers paint steel beams.

Workers shovel nitrate of soda into a skip.

Workers shovel nitrate of soda into a skip.

(Left) A railway worker operates signal box levers. (Right) Workers clean a locomotive.

(Left) A railway worker operates signal box levers. (Right) Workers clean a locomotive.

Workers in a brass fittings shop.

Workers in a brass fittings shop.

A crane driver.

A crane driver.

(Photo credit: University of British Columbia Library).