Judith Hewitt, Museum Manager at the Devil’s Porridge Museum on the fascinating autograph books kept by the young women who worked in the local munitions factory, HM Factory Gretna, during the First World War
“God made the bees
The bees made the honey
The Gretna Girls have done the work
And the chemists made all the money.”
This is my favourite excerpt from a World War One era autograph book in the collection at The Devil’s Porridge Museum. The Museum is lucky enough to have a number of these charming little books and we have them on display in digitally scanned versions on a touchscreen within the Museum.
more like this
Each turn of the page brings another beautifully handwritten poem or phrase, sometimes with a name or date or address attached.
Most of the ones in the Museum date from 1918 and one can imagine the 12,000 young women who worked at HM Factory Gretna during World War One compiling an autograph book at the end of the War when the future of the Factory was in doubt and when many of the ‘girls’ who had done difficult and dangerous war work at this, the greatest factory on earth at that time, would be facing a return to their pre-War life.
Over 80% of the Gretna Girls (a term used at the time) were aged 16-20 and single. They were mostly categorised as working class having mainly worked in domestic service, as farm hands or in other factories before the War began. These young women were attracted to the Factory from across the British Isles.
We know there were Gaelic speakers, that there were girls described as ‘fisher folk’ and that people came from across Scotland, Ireland and England to work at HM Factory Gretna. One young woman came from Cornwall and another from the Isle of Man but most were from Dumfries and Galloway, Cumbria, Carlisle, Newcastle, Sunderland and County Durham. This geographical range is reflected in the autograph books with people signing their names and leaving their addresses from across the British Isles.
One of our autograph books belonged to a girl who was from Kirkby Stephen. This small town in Westmoreland is where my grandfather was born in 1922 and lived until the outbreak of World War Two when he joined the RAF. I have been there many times for family holidays over the years, it is a place close to my heart and I was amazed and delighted to discover that a girl who worked in the Factory (which is the main focus of the Museum I now work in) came from there and returned there after the War.
I wonder if she knew my grandfather as a boy? It is a pleasure to handle something that would have been in close proximity to him all those years ago.
Autograph book pages fall into several categories. Many deal with friendship and it is lovely to think of the people forging relationships in times of War. One tends to think of World War One as a dark time, and work at HM Factory Gretna sounds particularly grim to modern ears (mixing acids and other chemicals, shifts which ran through the night, descriptions of wind and rain as well as fires and explosions) but even here people seem to have forged long-term friendships and romantic relationships.
It is interesting to note that a lot of the people who signed the autograph books seem to have stayed in the same hostel. The hostels were built to house the workers and were given names from history (especially of famous women or Scots) and from the War. One autograph book was given to Sophia Wynn by her friend May. They both lived at Boadicea Hostel in Gretna and many of the signatures are from people who also lived there.
Life in hostels was tightly regulated (we have lists in the Museum collection of all the contents needed for each type of hostel, this is as detailed as the number of teaspoons and potato mashers needed!) The Ministry of Munitions saw themselves as in locu parentis and appointed a matron for each hostel who was to act as a mother figure for the girls and ensure that they kept to curfew (10pm) and that they kept their morals intact! Each girl had a cubicle of her own with only a curtain on the doorway so she never had complete privacy.
Many of the pages of the autograph books contain humour, some quite tame (such as a drawing of a balloon just out of sight), others acerbic or satirical such as the quote above about the wages of the girls as compared with that of the chemists and some a bit bawdy. Some jokes must have been personal ‘in-jokes’ as their meaning is now indecipherable. Times may change but human beings having a laugh and pointing out the absurdities of life does not.
References to the War itself are few and far between. There is little evidence of patriotism in these books. The tone is, on the whole, stoical, seemingly people were resigned to the difficulties they were facing and making the best of it showing the British stiff upper lip and spirit which would be exemplified in World War Two during the Blitz. Some of the pages contain criticism of the War and these interest me particularly as social comment.
It sometimes feels hard to hear the voices of the 12,000 women who worked at HM Factory Gretna. Most of the documents made by Factory officials were created by men as were the majority of articles written about the young women. There are lots of photographs of women at work at HM Factory Gretna (women working in industrial hubs seems to have been a novelty) so the women can be seen but not heard. These autograph books are a priceless document of women’s friendship, their humour and their lives during War.
The opening comment about the girls doing the work and the chemists making the money strikes me most as it is one of the most critical comments from a young munitions worker that I have read. It also suggests the perennial problem of inequality between the sexes. Even in time of War when women’s wages were higher and opportunities more plentiful, that imbalance remained and, for all the propaganda, women knew they were seen as being worth less. A timely comment indeed.
Devil's Porridge Museum
The Devil's Porridge Exhibition was founded in 1997 and tells the story of the greatest munitions factory on earth. 9 miles long and 2 miles wide HM Factory Gretna employed 30,000 people during the First World War, most of them women, and by 1917 produced 1100 tons of cordite every…