Nobel’s Explosives Company had historically employed girls and women. When the Ardeer Factory opened in 1873, about one-third of the work force was female, employed mainly in packing cartridges. Traditionally, women workers were favoured in explosives works, perhaps because of their nimbler fingers for dealing with fiddly shell caps and fuses. In 1914 when the First World War started, Nobel’s Regent Factory in Linlithgow and the sister site at Westquarter went fully into war production. The work force was increasing and men, women and girls came from all around the district to work.
The women working in munitions were referred to as 'Munitionettes'. By June 1917 roughly 80% of the weaponry and ammunition used by the British Army was being made by women. The work was dangerous and unpleasant and the women worked with hazardous chemicals without adequate protection. Many worked with trinitrotoluene (TNT) and prolonged exposure to the sulphuric acid created serious health risks for the munitionettes. Exposure over a period of time turned the skin yellow and the girls were affectionately referred as 'Canaries'.
Another ever present hazard for the munitionettes was the risk of explosion. Explosions at British munitions factories during WW1 included the Silvertown explosion which killed 73 and injured over 400. The worst explosion was at the National Shell Filling Factory, Chilwell, which killed over 130 workers in 1918.
Nobel’s took every precaution to minimise the risks. The workforce was protected by enforcing best work practices through discipline, supervision and education. Risk awareness was high on the agenda, duties were segregated and entry to the site was rigorously controlled. Everyone entering would be searched and all metal articles left outside, including buttons, hairpins and jewellery. A uniform suit was provided. All locations throughout the process had to be spotlessly clean with no dust or grit in any designated areas. Walls, ceilings and floors are scrubbed regularly and meticulously. Glass was obscured to avoid sun rays.
Nobel’s Regent Works in Linlithgow grew through the war period, producing much needed munition products and providing employment for over 200 women and girls from the surrounding district. The work was hard and dangerous but the munitionettes played a leading role in the war effort.