By Michael Page, Surrey History Centre, and Sue James, Sutton High School
Hilda Mary Collins joined the teaching staff at Sutton High School in September 1905, aged 20, to teach gymnastics, swimming, physiology, hygiene, reading and (later dance). She had a diploma from Anstey Physical Training College and a qualification in advanced physiology from South Kensington. From September 1914 she was only teaching dancing and in 1916 took temporary leave from the school to undertake war work at the newly built National Projectile Factory which had been erected at Lancaster from September 1915. The factory occupied a 33 acres site and was managed by the armament firm Messrs Vickers Ltd on behalf of the Ministry of Munitions. It produced over two million shells during its existence including 993,900 6-inch high explosive and chemical shells, 448,000 9.2 inch shells, 9,600 8-inch shells and 589,500 60-pounder shrapnel. In October 1918 there were 8656 employees of whom 47 per cent were women. During 1919 the factory was turned over to the manufacture of 250lbs. and 500lbs. aircraft bombs.
Hilda sent a letter back to the school, probably at the headmistress’s suggestion, describing her life as a munitions worker at the new factory. It was printed in the summer 1916 edition of the school magazine, by which time she was driving a lorry rather than working directly on the manufacture of shells.
It has been the experience of my life. I despair of ever being able to give anyone the slightest idea of what it is like.
My original idea was to drive a crane – that us a little, overhead kind of lift which carries the shells from one end of the building to the other, and deposits them anywhere they are wanted. But having watched the workings of that for an hour or so, I discovered that crane girls had half-an-hour earlier in the morning and half-an-hour later at night to work, which meant catching different trains from Miss Sharman (with whom I am staying) and different meals, and really couldn’t be worked. So I asked to be put on to a machine, and there happened to be one, quite near me, empty; so they said I could have that, and watch the girl next door for a day, who was working one just like it. So my job is called “Radius Noses”! We point the noses of the 9.2 shells. They weigh very nearly 200lbs. each shell, and there are special hand cranes for lifting them. It’s a fairly complicated machine I’m glad to say; and, as none of the machines seem to be quite true, one sometimes gets quite a lot of tricky work faking the shell to make it come out the right size. Each one has to be measured, stamped, and gauged by an overseer before you can take it out of your machine and count you have finished one. To “do time” you have to get eight done a day, and then your rate of pay automatically rises from £1 to 28s. When you do over eight you are said to be working on Bonus. I had a proud day two days ago, and did nine for the first time.
An ordinary day or day shift is like this: Catch the 7.10 train from Morecambe (they have just started running special trains for us, going right into our station in the works), change in a dining room cloak room into caps and overalls, which room holds eight hundred girls! Buzzer goes at 7.30, and you start straight away, if you are lucky enough to have a good mechanic who has got a shell “set” ready for you; if not, you wait – patiently if possible. You continue ad lib. from 7.30 a.m. to 12 noon, when there is one wild rush to various dining rooms, mine’s the 800 one, so you can imagine what it’s like, it’s impossible to describe it. Everyone brings her own food (as the canteen is not ready yet) and a teapot, and you can get hot water, and something cooked if you like to bring it in a little dish, but I don’t. What saves my life is, that you can take your food outside and eat it in the unfinished parts of the building if you like – otherwise I should been starved to death like Tantalus weeks ago – imagine 800 factory girls in one room with a glass roof! I don’t think any doctor could give you a strong enough tonic to make you want your food under those conditions.
At 1 o’clock another “buzzer”, and you must give in a brass check received when you arrive in the morning, and receive another. And so to work from 1 to 5.30 (that’s a good stretch, isn’t it?), when you get half-an-hour for tea; and then there is another half-an-hour, 6 to 6.30, which is usually wasted. Another buzzer, another wild rush to “check off”, a free fight to get dressed, and a scramble for the 6.50 train – luckily, from the works station these days, or you have to walk a mile in to Lancaster.
One thing I must mention, because it is so typical of men legislating for women. Engineering laws say: That workmen must not sit during workshop hours. So, would you believe it, since taking on women during the war they have stuck to that rule; and although in most of the operations the women could sit for at least a quarter to half the time without any detriment to their work, it is not allowed, and over 2,000 women in consequence have to stand from 7.30-12, and from 1-5.30, with overseers doled off to see that they don’t sit. Did you ever hear anything so scandalous? Mr. Leveson and all the women manageresses are working for their lives to get it altered; but, being a Government rule, of course it will take about a year to move them, I expect.
We have been working on Sundays as well, ever since the “Push” has been on, and it seems likely that we shall go on. I am on night shift this week, and took last night off, hence my ability to be sufficiently awake to write this letter. Until the last three days it has been cool, even cold sometimes, and generally rainy; but now we have added heat to the noise and smoke, it’s occasionally beyond the bearing point. I’ve worn straight through four pairs of footwear, all more or less thick, in three weeks! One keeps on stepping on white-hot steel, and no leather will stand it! I should have clogs, but my little Ford Motor lorry may arrive any day now, so it does not seem worthwhile. You can’t imagine what it will be like to be out in the sun and fresh air after being shut away from it for three weeks. Not that I would have missed these three weeks for anything: it’s a side of life I knew nothing whatever about, but the car will be a joy. I’m to have three sets of uniform, and fetch and carry from the town and stations, the Explosives Factory at White Inn, and occasionally from the Naval Construction Works at Barrow. Our factory, the National Projectile, is the biggest of the national factories constructed since the war, and is a quarter of a mile in length and nearly as broad.
In the Autumn 1916 school magazine it was reported that Hilda Collins was raising money to buy a piano for the Factory Girls’ Club in nearby Morecombe and the school had held a collection for this worthy cause. Staff records at the school show that Hilda moved from Lancaster to Plymouth as a driver with the Army Service Corps and formally left Sutton High School in April 1918.