Review - Books - Into battle on the factory floor

1st October 2010 at 01:00

Working for Victory: A Diary of Life in a Second World War Factory

Edited by Sue Bruley

Publisher: The History Press

ISBN: 978-0752456492


This autumn marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the Blitz, when Britain came under a sustained bombing attack from Nazi Germany. News footage and source material show the political drama of the time, as well as life on the ground in central London for those working with the front-line emergency services.

But Working for Victory, one of six Blitz-related titles released by the History Press to coincide with the anniversary, gives a rare glimpse into the life of women on the factory floor via the diaries of Kathleen Church-Bliss and Elsie Whiteman.

The diary treats the reader to the quaint and revealing details of wartime life in the 1940s. It opens with the women's move to Croydon, where "after unpacking and tea, we listened to Churchill". Quite.

The two women, aged 45 and 47, swap the house they share in Surrey, and from which they also manage a tea-room, for an aircraft components factory. The friends share lodgings and keep several diaries from February 1942 until November 1944.

More than 1.5 million women joined the previously male-dominated workplace during the Second World War. In aircraft manufacture, the proportion of female employees rose from 7 to 40 per cent between 1935 and 1944. However, it was rare for women in the wartime industries to record their experiences: hours were long and many had children to care for when they got home.

After their initial training, Kathleen and Elsie join the 500-strong team at Morrison's Engineering Factory on Purley Way, Croydon. The two women are from fairly wealthy families and it takes some adjustment for them to get used to what they describe as the "abrupt and terse phraseology" of their co-workers. But there is a palpable sense of patriotism and satisfaction at being part of the war effort.

One of the recurring issues of factory life is the battle between the goodwill of the employees, working towards a common goal, and the tough reality of life on the factory floor as night shifts, few days off and poor equipment begin to take their toll.

The diary charts their negotiations with management, and Kathleen in particular becomes involved in the factory union, writing passionately about the rights of the workers and gender inequalities.

But it is the outrageously judgmental observations and the gossip that make this compilation such a good read and bring the facts and figures to life. The women are quick to give nicknames - Greasy Locks and the "young pimp of a teacher" to name a few - and provide readers with juicy details of arguments on the workplace floor.

For many of the men, this was the first time they had worked alongside women, and much of the diary records how professional - and not so professional - relationships developed. One woman is so petrified of the men knowing she is going to the toilet that she times bathroom breaks around the men's tea breaks and ends up with kidney problems.

When the Doodlebugs - pilotless bombing planes - arrive in the summer of 1944, the outside world suddenly becomes a significant presence and the entries from this time are vivid with the adrenaline rush of nightly air raids.

We learn of day-to-day life in the bomb shelter where the two women regularly take shelter for almost three months; families try to reserve spaces and others steal mattresses while their owners are absent.

Working for Victory is an astute and telling source material for any history student, showing how the war affected workers on the home front. But it is the domestic comments and observations that make this diary a brilliant and engaging piece of social commentary.


Sue Bruley is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Portsmouth and specialises in the history of women workers. She is also the author of Women in Britain since 1900: Social History in Perspective

The verdict: 910.

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