• Working Women in Cheshire Wartime and industry, 1914 – 1950

This online exhibition explores how women’s work changed dramatically during the first half of the twentieth century, and highlights the essential role women played in keeping the county (and country) going during the first and second World Wars.

At the start of the twentieth century, women in Britain had little involvement in the industrial workplace. Where they did, it was usually in less physically demanding tasks, for instance stoking the fires at the Lion Salt Works in Marston.

However, with a shortage of workers arising from the huge numbers of men being sent off to fight, women quickly became vital figures in wartime industry.

Women at the Winnington Works, c. 1914 © Cheshire Archives and Local Studies


Women at the Winnington Works, c. 1914 © Cheshire Archives and Local Studies


The First World War

The First World War was an incredibly transformative period for women in the workplace. For the first time in British history, aspects of mechanical labour that had formerly been limited to men were undertaken by women on a large scale.

Between 1914 and 1918, the employment of women in Britain rose from around 24% of the working age population, to somewhere between 37% and 46%.

The biggest difference besides the increase in numbers was the range of work undertaken and the social background of those women put to work. Employment spread beyond poor, working-class women to middle and upper-middle-class women.

Women at the Winnington Works, c. 1914 © Cheshire Archives and Local Studies


Women at the Winnington Works, c. 1914 © Cheshire Archives and Local Studies


Suffrage and War Work

In 1915, Britain was gripped by a `Shell Scandal`, where troops on the front line had no ammunition with which to fight the enemy. In response to this, Emmeline Pankhurst and David Lloyd George organised the `Right to Serve` March on 17th July 1915, where large numbers of women marched demanding a greater role in the war effort.

The demonstration, which featured banners reading `The British lion is awake, so is the lioness`, led to the government allowing women to take on a prominent role in arms manufacturing.

As a result of the march, women took on a vast range of new jobs in which they had no previous experience.

This postcard shows Christabel Pankhurst leading the Women's Coronation Procession suffragette march in London, 1911. The march was held five days before King George V's coronation and demanded votes for women in the coronation year. 17 years later, women were finally given the same voting rights as men. © The Women’s Library collection, LSE Library


Women Workers in Middlewich, c. 1915 © West Cheshire Museums collection



Cheshire played a very important role in munitions production during the First World War, with women making up a large portion of the contributing workforce. Brunner Mond & Co. were Cheshire’s greatest producers of munitions and explosives during the period, and by 1918 they employed around 2,400 women.

Between 1915 and 1918, the company produced 191,619 tons of ammonium nitrate, which was a 4800% increase on annual production prior to the war.

From a sickness register for the company dating from 1916, we can find some of the names of the women employed by Brunner, Mond & Co. during the war, and using the 1911 Census we can see the dramatic change of occupation for many of them. Some had been dressmaking assistants, and many had been domestic servants or housewives. It may have been hard for them to imagine themselves involved in such heavy mechanical work only five years on.

Munition workers, “C” Shift, Brunner Mond. © West Cheshire Museums collection


Postcard of Nellie Houlgrave, who worked at Brunner Mond. © West Cheshire Museums collection



One of the most important munitions sites in Cheshire during the First World War was Brunner, Mond & Co.’s Gadbrook Works in Northwich. The site was one of the most active producers of T.N.T. during the war, with an output of sixty tons per day by the end of the war.

From its opening, the Gadbrook Works was “manned” almost entirely by women, with 545 female employees. However, T.N.T. production was a deadly profession.

In May 1917, Florence Gertrude Gleave, a Northwich resident of only twenty years old, became one of 104 women to die nationally from T.N.T. poisoning, in her case from her exposure to the chemical at the Gadbrook Works. She was dubbed the `Heroine of the Factory` in the Northwich Guardian.

A group of women workers at Brunner Mond's Gadbrook Works, which made munitions during the First World War. © West Cheshire Museums collection


Local newspaper article reporting on the death of Florence Gertrude Gleave, 1917. © Cheshire Archives and Local Studies


The Second World War

Though following the end of the First World War the presence of women in industry dropped to almost pre-war levels, the Second World War marked another surge in their involvement. Government figures show that women’s employment rose from around 5.1 million (26% of the female population of working age) in 1939, to around 7.25 million (36%) in 1943.

90% of all able-bodied single women between the ages of 18 and 40 were engaged in some form of work or National Service by September 1943. Many of those were employed once again in industrial roles, especially munitions production.

Cheshire was once again an important county in the productions of arms and other essential war materials. The New Cheshire Salt Works was taken over by the ministry of munitions and these images show women hard at work in the repurposed factory.

Women making munitions at the New Cheshire Salt Works during World War Two... © West Cheshire Museums collection


...and the same scene from the opposite angle. © West Cheshire Museums collection


Ethel Gabain and Cheshire War Art

Ethel Gabain (1883 – 1950) was one of six female artists selected as official war artists during the Second World War.

Her work has been noted as having been strongly inspired by women, who were the subject of many of her portraits and lithograph scenes. When she was made a member of the War Artists Advisory Committee, she found new ways to capture the lives of women at a time of great change to their place in society.

Ethel Gabain in 1913 © SusanWynneThomson John Copley, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Women workers in Islington in 1941, one of the pieces Ethel produced when she was an official war artist. © IWM Art.IWM ART LD 1538


In Chester, Williams & Williams Reliance Works commissioned three industrial pieces by Ethel. The paintings show hard working women at ease in the industrial environment, and capture a pivotal element of war far closer to home than was envisioned by artists who primarily painted scenes of conflict.

The scenes were symbolic of a nationwide phenomenon, and every city with industry would have been home to similar scenes during the Second World War. In capturing women at work during the period, Gabain’s work is demonstrative of a far greater acceptance and recognition of the role of women in the war effort, an acceptance which continued after the conflict, with a far greater number of women involved in industry and mechanical labour after 1944.


Williams & Williams

The family firm of Williams & Williams was founded at Chester in 1910 and specialised in cast iron window frames. During both World Wars production was switched from frames to other metal products for the war effort. During the Second World War the mostly female workforce made shell cases, shelters, sections of warships, ammunition boxes, Bailey bridges for the D-Day landings and, most famously, 48 million jerricans. The workforce grew so large that a huge canteen was built specially to accommodate everyone.

The firm later became Heywood Williams Ltd. The Liverpool Road factory closed in 1995 and was demolished the following year.


Ethel Gabain, Women Workers in the Canteen at Williams & Williams, Chester © West Cheshire Museums collection


Ethel Gabain, Women Welders at Williams & Williams, Chester © West Cheshire Museums collection


Cheshire’s Home Front

Besides the mechanical work undertaken by women at companies such as Williams & Williams to produce munitions for the war effort, women in Cheshire were also essential to keeping the nation strong in areas less directly related to the war itself.

At the College of Agriculture at Reaseheath, some 1,200 Land Girls were trained in arable farming, poultry keeping and animal husbandry, before being sent out to help farmhands short of labourers.

The formation of the Women’s Land Army during the Second World War was indicative of a strong desire to work, much like the Right to Serve March organised at the outset of the First World War.

Women's Land Army Rally at Stockport Town © Cheshire Archives and Local Studies


Digging for Victory! Land Army girls with a dog in a barrow. © West Cheshire Museums collection


Women in Industry, post-1944

As the Second World War drew to a close, whether or not women would remain in mechanical and industrial workplaces was still uncertain. Some portions of society had worried they presented a threat to working life.

When, in 1939, the government released the National Register which listed all women of working age, it was largely condemned by trade unions. They believed the introduction of women into formerly male roles could endanger the wages and status of men.

The status of women’s employment was in flux once more, and whilst some women retained their position in Cheshire’s industry, others returned to the home. Those that retained their positions, however, marked a new, post-war generation of women in industry.

Decorations in the Williams and Williams factory for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953. © West Cheshire Museums collection


Street party marking Victory in Europe (VE) Day on 8 May 1945. © West Cheshire Museums collection


Portraits of an Industry

Between 1944 and 1946, I.C.I. commissioned a run of portraits depicting members of their staff across a breadth of occupations. The paintings shown here all depict women workers who operated in Cheshire.

They women included Lily Brookes, who packed salt for household use; Sarah Ann Brown, who worked unloading heavy coal and limestone for chemical manufacture during both world wars, and continued after 1944; and Ellen McCoy, one of the first women ever to be employed in making synthetic ammonia.

However, even by 1946 it seemed the company harboured some reservations about the abilities of women, writing that Ellen was “one of the few women considered capable, if the need arises, of operating some of the machines”.

Lily Brookes

Lily Brookes was born in a “bass house”, a type of cottage attached to a salt works, and built of big clinkers from the fire grates under the salt pans.

She worked at the I.C.I. works in Winsford since the age of sixteen doing the same job her mother had: packing salt ready to be sold for household use. Unlike her mother before her, Lily was packing salt using machinery.

She gained essential experience for using the machines during the Second World War, when she used machinery to turn copper driving bands for shells.


Lily Brookes


Sarah Ann Brown


Ellen McCoy


A Changed Perception?

The portraits commissioned by I.C.I. show that in Cheshire, the involvement of women in industrial and mechanical occupations during wartime had led the way for altered attitudes towards the permanent position of women in the workplace.

That I.C.I. made sure to represent these women as essential and representative of their workforce demonstrates their newfound importance and steadfast involvement in the chemical industry.

These paintings, unlike the earlier photographs of women working at Brunner, Mond & Co. sites during the First World War, served to represent women as a permanent and vital element of the workforce, as opposed to something obscure that was necessary to be documented.

Part of the polythene manufacturing process.


Winnifred Burgess. Winnifred started as an unskilled worker in 1941. In just three years, she rose to become a leading hand in the manufacture of polythene.


Post-War Domesticity?

Despite the success stories documented in the Portraits of an Industry, and the growing acceptance of women in the industrial workplace that they demonstrate, the cessation of the Second World War marked a significant fall in the number of working women in Britain.

The post-war “baby boom” saw a return of the image of the domestic British housewife, as is reflected in advertisements and housekeeping guides of the 1950s.

One textbook from 1950 suggested to wives to “Touch up your makeup, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking” to ensure they were presentable for their husbands returning from work. The domestic post-war vision of women was a far cry from the view shown in Gabain’s paintings just six years prior.

It seems then, that the vital role of women during the two major conflicts of the twentieth century had not resulted in the widespread inclusion of women in the workplace. Despite a new recognition of women’s abilities in industry, there was still a long way to go.