By Michael Page, Surrey History Centre, and Sue James, Sutton High School.
Joyce R Read, attended Sutton High School between 1903 and 1914, having previously attend Surbiton High School. Born in 1896, she was the daughter of R A Read, a solicitor who lived at Avalon, Mulgrave Road, Sutton. She contributed an evocative piece to the autumn 1915 edition of the school magazine, describing her work as a munitionette in building A.3. of the Vickers munitions factory in Erith, Kent. The Vickers factory, at the outset of the war, was responsible for the design and manufacture of the Vickers machine gun but rapidly expanded the range of its output.
Imagine yourself in a vast single-storied building of great height. Whichever way you turn you are looking down vistas of huge iron girders, whirling belts and wooden levers. The floor in roughly concreted and there are large windows, reaching from the roof almost to the floor, down each side. This is the shell shop in Vickers’ munitions works at Erith in Kent.
The big door, through which you have just entered the shop, opens on to a wide road off which, on either side, are streets of lathes running the length of the building. If you have never been in such a place before, as is the case with most of us who go there, the unaccustomed sight does not strike you so forcibly as the sound. Your first feeling is of complete bewilderment. You turn to comment upon the appalling din to a friend with whom you may be rubbing shoulders, and find that unless you shout, it is useless to speak. It is impossible to describe the hubbub at all accurately. The foundation of it all is the grinding roar of thousands of revolving wheels and of steel cutting steel, but the noise is intensified by the roaring of the furnaces, by the metallic clanging of the steel shells as they are flung upon one another in heaps, and occasionally, worst of all, by the ear-piercing shriek of an engine as it enters or prepares to leave the far end of the shop with its truck-loads of shells. For the first eight hours that shop seems a perfect inferno of noise, and the heat almost justifies the impression – the industrial hand is not a lover of fresh air.
The sight is no common one, either. Wherever you turn – to the right, to the left, in front of you or behind- are shells, shells, shells. There is a pile of 4.5’s waiting to be rough turned, here are the finished shell cases which men are stacking on to a cart drawn by an old horse, who endures so patiently the noise and heat. On the right they are boring 18-pounders, which this old woman with the trolley is kept busy hauling from the centreing to the boring sheets. There are two streets in which men work intricate machines, and where they make the tools, and in the rest of the shop the lathes are worked entirely by girls. Girls work the lathes, girls mark and view the shells, and there are even women labourers. Of course, the mechanics are all men, and so are most of the labourers, but otherwise A. 3 is filled with girl workers. These girls wear a brass V, for “Vickers”, on either side of their collars, and have so won the nickname of “Vickers’ Virgins.”
That is where we munition workers go to work, and, if you are of a bloodthirsty turn of mind, it is very satisfactory work to do! It is hard work, never-the-less, and a person must be fairly strong to be able to do it. The work involves standing for eight hours, with a fair share of lifting heavy weights combined. The state of grime we get into, in spite of our overalls, caps and leather gloves, is almost incredible. We have an interval of half-an-hour after three hours of work, and another of seven minutes, two hours before the end of the shift. During these intervals we scramble for food in a Y.W.C.A. hut adjoining the shop. The 24 hours are divided into three shifts, and the workers change their shifts every week. The hours are from 6.30 a.m. to 2.30 p.m., from 2.30p.m. to 10.30 p.m., and from 10.30 p.m. to 6.30 a.m.
We are working under a company, entitled The Women Munition Workers Ltd., which was founded by Mrs. Cowan and Mrs. Moir, the wives of two M.P.’s. We train for three weeks, during which time we live in one of two equally delightful hostels run by our Directors. After we have trained we can either work one for shift on Sundays, so that the shop can always have its full complement of workers when the industrial hands are off, or we can work for three days in the week while another “Blue” takes the lathe for the remaining three days. Some of our “Blues” even work permanently. We are called “Blues” and the industrial hands are called “Khakis,” owing to the original difference in the colour of our overalls, there is absolutely no other distinction between us while we are in the factory. If anyone suggests, as people so frequently have done, that we are “ousting the factory girl” they will realise, if they think again, that the Trade Unions are by no means likely to allow any infringements on the rights of the industrial hands. Vickers are forced to pay us as much as the factory girls for that very reason. They also have no difficulty in finding work and lathes for any number who care to apply.
According to the High School’s 1934 ‘Jubilee Record and Register of Old Girls’, Joyce worked at Vickers for six months before working as a VAD for a year and then transferring to clerical work with the War Office for the rest of the war. In 1934 she was married as Mrs Reid, with two sons, and was running a chicken farm with her husband at Woodhall Farm, Shipbourne, Kent.