AS THE world celebrates International Women’s Day, the Echo looks back at when they helped guide the country through dark days and ensured we all had a bright future.

As more and more Hampshire men were called up for military service in the First World War shortages in the workforce became a serious problem.

The answer was to employ women in roles normally considered the domain of men, which resulted in society having to revaluate the contribution made by women to the nation’s manufacturing and service industries such as transport.

In Southampton women were invited to serve as conductors on the local tram system and immediately 300 applicants came forward for less than 50 places.

By September, 1915, five women were reported ready for duty, and 16 more in training. A few months later one had been promoted to inspector, and later a female driver was appointed.

Back in 1983 Southampton’s museums department compiled a history of the role of local women workers during the Great War entitled, “Til the Boys Come Home”.

Womens Land Army special feature. 20th May 1949. © THE SOUTHERN DAILY ECHO ARCHIVES. Ref - 5078.
Included in the interviews undertaken for the history were quotes from women who worked on the trams...

“I added three years to my age to get a job on the trams.”

“I rode a bike to work. I got up at half past four, we had to be down at the town depot just after five.

At half past five the first tram went out.”

“We used to keep warm. I remember when it was bitter they used to give us a cup of Oxo at the end of the journey – they used to have an urn there and you could have a drink.”

“We earned on a good morning, £1 or 30 shillings (£1.50). We thought we were millionaires.”

Substitution, the extensive use of women in place of men, really began in the autumn of 1915, the same year as the Ministry of Munitions was set up because of a shortage of artillery shells.

Womens Land Army special feature. 20th May 1949. © THE SOUTHERN DAILY ECHO ARCHIVES. Ref - 5083.
In the May of the following year universal male conscription meant that increasingly women replaced the conscripted men and Southampton was considered to be a suitable site for munitions factories because of good transport facilities and labour.

Many women were recruited to work in the Government’s Rolling Mills at Woolston, the Redbridge Shultz factory, Oakley Road works in Shirley, the Gun Cotton factory at Millbrook, and the Reliance works beside the floating bridge.

Many were young girls and had previously worked as shop assistants or domestic servants.

“When I went for a job at the Woolston Rolling Mills I was asked if I would be able to drive a crane. As I’d come straight from boarding school I said I wouldn’t know until I tried; so I was taken up and shown the controls. I had someone with me twice, after that I was left to myself.”

“The day I started at the Rolling Mills it was bitterly cold. They hadn’t finished the roof or walls and snow was coming in. So we spent the day huddled over a brazier to keep warm. I was so ill when I got home I didn’t think I’d ever go back, but my mother gave me a glass of brandy and I was fine the next day.”

“We had to see a doctor once a month, that was the girls who were working in the foundry, because there were fumes and we had to wear masks. We were allowed a pint of milk a day, and all our clothes supplied.

Womens Land Army special feature. 20th May 1949. © THE SOUTHERN DAILY ECHO ARCHIVES. Ref - 5082.
We used to have two hours up and two hours down, we had to rest, you see.”

“We had to remove hairpins, jewellery, and outdoor shoes and anything which might strike a flash.

“The factory floor was always wet to minimise any spark which no doubt might cause an explosion.”

Ships bringing in food were sunk, and so the Women's Land Army was created in 1917 with the sole purpose of cultivating food for the people of Britain.

This was also put to use during the Second World War.

Again, thousands of men were overseas with the armed forces and British women took on a variety of jobs here on home soil.

From 1941, women were called up for war work, filling roles such as mechanics, engineers, munition workers, air raid wardens and more.

First World War women

By mid-1943, almost 90 per cent of single women and 80 per cent of married women were working in factories, on the land or in the armed forces.

Nothing good usually comes of war but small strides on a long journey for female equality were thankfully made during those dark times.