Preston an armed camp? Munitions workers turn yellow

Posted on - 31st October, 2021 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Ashton-on-Ribble, History, Preston News, Riversway
August 1914 and potential recruits gather outside the Harris Pic: Preston Digital Archive

Preston a military camp?

In August 1914 war fever gripped the nation. Preston was a garrison town and a major railway hub, thus it rapidly became an armed camp with potential soldiers billeted all over the town. The Corn Exchange and even the tramway power station were used for accommodation. Ammunition trucks were parked in Lune Street. Over 250 local men volunteered for the Preston Pals regiment; few survived the war.


The First World War saw a massive industrial expansion in Preston. The Dick, Kerr tram works began to produce shells in 1915, indeed by the end of the war three quarters of a million had been made. Additionally 400 heavy guns were reconstructed.

While large parts of the male population died in France, 2,000 women toiled away in the Dick, Kerr factory.

Huge loses for the Preston Pals

The 4th Loyal, Preston's Territorials Pic:
August 1914 – the 4th Loyals, Preston’s Territorials, march past the Public Hall, where they are temporarily billeted Pic:

The following advert was placed in The Lancashire Daily Post, in August 1914:

“It is proposed to form a Company of young businessmen, clerks, etc, to be drawn from Preston and the surrounding districts, and be attached, if practicable, to a battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. Will those who would like to join apply here any afternoon or evening this week – the earlier the better.”

This Company became ‘D’ Company, 7th (Service) Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire regiment.

The battle of the Somme decimated the Preston Pals and the survivors were moved to other regiments.

Meanwhile many women were at risk making munitions.

War work – munitions production

The Dick Kerr factory in 1916 Pic:
The Dick, Kerr factory in 1916; note the number of women employed, over 2,000 in 1915 Pic:

The Dick, Kerr works not only made shells, including those for battleships, at up to 63” long. Other local firms produced munitions, including Stevensons and Coulthards.

The Imperial War Museum states:

“A number of new initiatives were soon introduced to improve production levels. One of these was an appeal to women to register for war service work. Thousands of women volunteered as a result, and many of these were soon employed in the growing number of munitions factories across the country. By the end of the war, over 700,000 – and possibly up to one million – women had become ‘munitionettes’.”

Munitions Pic: Math Encounters
Pic: Math Encounters

The dangers of making munitions

There were many dangers involved in making munitions, the TNT explosive turned workers yellow.

One of the women workers said: “Everything that that powder touches goes yellow. All the girls’ faces were yellow, all round their mouths. They had their own canteen, in which everything was yellow that they touched… Everything they touched went yellow – chairs, tables, everything.”

The risk of explosion was ever present. For example, 73 were killed in a London munitions factory explosion.

During long hours women workers also produced locomotives for the trench railways in France.

Dick, Kerr Locomotives

Dick, Kerr also made primitive flying boats. Moreover they used their tramway technology to make 100 petrol-electric locomotives for the trench railways in Europe. The locomotives used a 45hp petrol engine to drive a generator, the power was then fed to traction motors similar to a tram car.

Petrol-Electric Locomotive Pic:
Petrol-Electric Locomotive Pic:

This method of propulsion became the de facto way to drive locomotives later in the century. After steam began to be phased out, English Electric diesel-electric locomotives such as the class 37 were built in the 1950s.

Women gain status

The role of women increased considerably, as more men were called up. Women worked as post deliverers, tramcar attendants, and made shells and aircraft. Additionally women encroached on male-dominated posts such as teaching at Preston Grammar School.

Importantly, during the war this spurred the push for women’s suffrage. Women over 30 finally got the vote in 1918.

The war ends and king cotton declines

Mill demolition Pic: Andrew Gibson Photography
Mill demolition Pic: Andrew Gibson Photography

After the war, cotton production begin to decline. Overseas markets were producing their own cloth.

A short-lived post-war boom masked the ever downward trend of mill closures and profit drops. Preston produced more high quality cloth than other towns and fared better than Blackburn, where unemployment hit 50 per cent. Consequently, nearly 50 per cent of spinning and weaving capacity were not being used. As a result, little is left today of the once mighty textile industry.

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