Canaries stay chirpy in face of adversity

Inside the filling factory
Inside the filling factory

Throughout August the Banbury Guardian is revealing some of the fascinating stories in Banburyshire based around the First World War.

Even though the First World War was fought on foreign fields, the people of Britain still felt the impact and some of them made an important, direct contribution to the war effort – while making incredible sacrifices in doing so.

This was definitely true for the people of Banburyshire, and in particular the ‘canary girls’ of the National Shell Filling Factory No.9 by Overthorpe whose skin turned yellow from handling the hazardous chemicals.

Production of filled shells began in April 1916 and at the height of the war gave employment to 933 men and 548 women whose hard and dangerous work played a vital part in the war effort.

Despite the dangers, this was a unique opportunity for the women of Banbury and the surrounding villages.

Middleton Cheney historian Nancy Long said: “Girls hadn’t really gone out to work before so it was probably a great opportunity for them to socialise.

“They got caught up in this patriotism because the alternative was too awful to think about.”

Artillery shells were the main items produced, filled with high explosives, shrapnel or mustard gas. For 12 hours every day, the munitionettes filled shells with cordite or acetone which stained their faces and hands yellow – earning them the nickname ‘canaries’.

Some of them even gave birth to yellow babies. One of these ‘canary babies’ was Gladys Sangster, whose mother worked as a munitionette in the factory.

At the end of the war all the girls received a letter of thanks from Winston Churchill, who told them that without their help the allies would not have broken through the Hindenburg Line in September 1918; the final push that eventually won the war.

Those who want to know even more about Filling Factory Number No.9 can go along to the Banbury Museum exhibition Feeding the Frontline, which runs until November 15. People will also be able to see some real shell components that Mrs Sangster has donated.