As large numbers of men enlisted into the forces, women were required to take on new roles within the workforce. The research behind this article has originated from a number of different primary sources including the Weaver Vale Museum in Northwich and a range of company documents held by the Cheshire Record Office.
Brunner Mond was established in 1873 by John Brunner and Ludwig Mond who were both leading figures in the chemical industry. Following the formation of the company they established a works at Winnington, Northwich which was designed to produce soda ash for the Ammonia Soda process in the North West of England . Until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 the workforce was overwhelmingly male as can be seen in the company papers from this time. This would create a major problem in the war years when male labour was in short supply.
According to social conventions at this time, women were largely confined to unskilled or unpaid work in the domestic sphere while men were the bread-winners through their employment. However, Brunner Mond was designated by the Ministry of Munitions as a producer of munitions for the Allied war effort and it was important to replace employees and maintain production when much of its workforce was serving in the military. Company records reveal the importance of women for Brunner Mond at this time, while photographic evidence survives to confirm that significant numbers of women worked at the Winnington plant during the war years.
A great deal of information is able to be garnered from documents produced by a company in relation to its day-to-day function. The Cheshire Archive located in the county town, Chester, holds a collection of such documents which help to demonstrate the importance of the role of women at this time in the operation of the company. The main documents which are of use in this historical investigation are three volumes of the Meetings of Managing Directors that cover the period 1911-1923.
In the first of these volumes of minutes, the main mention of women comes from the relief provided by the company to the widows of former workers who had deceased both in employment and while on company pensions . There is no mention of women being employed following the outbreak of the war. This would appear to illustrate how women were held back and kept in the domestic sphere until circumstances forced society to change, allowing them to enter employment in skilled jobs from which they had previously been excluded.
However, reference is in fact made to the employment of women prior to the beginning of the war in the second volume of these minutes . In 1916 it is noted that the workmen’s baths were opened to women too in 1913, although between 1913 and 1915 women used the baths a fraction of the amount of times weekly that men used them. This may indicate that whilst there was a role for women at the company prior to the war, it was fairly minimal. Interestingly, references to women employees become far more frequent between 1916 and 1918, with regular updates provided on the numbers of women employed by the company and their work to the managing directors in this period. It appears the role of women was far more important in the middle and later years of the war, perhaps particularly following the introduction of conscription in spring 1916. Thus this would explain why 936 women were working for the company in September 1916 but by April 1918 as the war dragged on, over of 2,000 women were working at the Winnington plant. Moreover, as noted in the minutes of the directors’ meeting for April 1918, a number of women were promoted to superintendents and supervisors at the plant. There is no discussion of whether to continue employing women after the cessation of hostilities. This could indicate one of two things: that women were dismissed after the war or alternatively that they were kept on and the issue was not worthy of mention. A memoir of Lena Bickerton from Northwich, the town closest geographically to the Winnington Works, suggests that women were dismissed. Bickerton includes an account of women working for Brunner Mond during this period and it is stated that ‘there was very little work for women following the close of the war’.
In the last volume of minutes of the director’s meetings there is once again a discussion of the role of women where updates on the employment of women within the company were discussed in the same way they were in the previous volumes . However, it is interesting to note is that following the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, the role of women seems to have become invisible once again. Evidently women played a substantial role during the war and there is no mention of a loss of jobs for women working for the company at this time.
The final document examined from the Cheshire Archives relating to Brunner Mond is an official announcement which was published August 5th 1914 outlining the company policy for men who were called upon to serve in the Armed forces or those who offered their services. The company formally stated that these men would have a job with the company guaranteed for them upon their return . In addition to this offer, a generous welfare package was also provided for the wives of such men which included half wages or a minimum sum of 10s per week plus an additional 1s per week to the wide in respect of every child under the age of 14. From all the documents it is clear that men were guaranteed their jobs after the war meaning that were very likely women could lose their jobs at the end of the war.
Newspapers also provide an interesting insight into the role of women at Brunner Mond during the war. One article, from the Manchester Evening News from the 15th August 1915 reported that Brunner Mond was offering ‘shift men’ a ‘war bonus’ of 3d per shift . This is significant as it demonstrates that prior to conscription being introduced in March 1916 the company was attempting to encourage their workforce to continue working with them at unsocial hours. More significant to the role of women is the omission of shift women from this announcement; clearly this monetary bonus was proposed in order to help retain the male workforce at a time of international conflict rather than advance the rights of all workers.
A second article from the Nantwich Guardian on 11th January 1918, towards the end of the war . This article is entitled ‘The Directors of Brunner Mond’ and mentions a Lady Jarmay who was married to the managing director, John Jarmay, and therefore had close personal connections to the company’s operations. Lady Jarmay is described by the article as a particularly hard-working war worker and as being highly efficient at carrying out her duties. However, the war-work which is referred to in this article isn’t connected to Brunner Mond. In fact, Lady Jarmay worked as a volunteer for the Red Cross, specifically the Voluntary Aid Deployment (V.A.D.) hospital in Winnington. This is the most significant mention of women in relation to Brunner Mond in the First World War and yet it isn’t even in relation to women being employed by the company but rather a tribute to an unpaid female relative of one director. Lady Jarmay’s social status may have precluded her from working on the shop floor at Brunner Mond, but the fact her nursing role was felt worthy of mention in the Nantwich Guardian is revealing, contrasting as it does with the dearth of references to the many women who worked at the Winnington plant. This suggests that the press at the time was reluctant to acknowledge the contribution of ordinary women in the absence of men, or it was not considered worthy of comment. By contrast, the social status of Lady Jarmay made her contribution more newsworthy.
From this investigation it is evident there was a role for women at Brunner Mond during the First World War. The role provided for women within the company evolved, developed and became stronger over the course of the war from women merely being provided with relief following the deaths of their husbands to being able to adopting skilled and supervisory positions in the workforce by the end of the war. In many ways the First World War provided women with an ideal opportunity to increase their employment status when men joined the armed forces and left their skilled jobs. Equally, the scant reference to the contribution made by these women in the company archives is consistent with the idea that Brunner Mond’s priorities remained with their male employees, who were guaranteed their jobs back on their return from military service. It is difficult to know if women were kept on in their jobs but the fact we don’t know may suggest they weren’t, or that at the very least there was no clear company policy to retain the women Brunner Mond had been so reliant on in the war years.