I never know, when I invite people along to the Forbury to give a talk or perform, how it will work out. There is a keen interest in local history there, so perhaps there might be some enthusiasm for the Rotherwas Munitions Project? You never know what it will turn up.
I’m familiar with the place. The Rotherwas Munitions filling shed is a huge, cavernous place, empty apart from a scattering of abandoned bottles and cans. Ivy pushes through where the glass is no more and nearly every wall space is decorated with grafitti. Above, the metal roof structure, first erected in 1915, looks down, sitting strong, unwavering. Vivid outlines of shell cases can be still be seen, etched into the concrete floor, a tangible connection to the history of this place. As the wind whistles through, it’s easy to imagine the laughing voices of the ‘canary girls’, who once worked here in the first and second world wars.
This was a busy place during both wars, with some 12,000 men and women working here, the Royal Ordnance Factory. It was an important job – and a very well paid one too, attracting women from all corners of the UK and Ireland. Here they produced munitions for use on land, sea and the air. But it was a dangerous job, with some dire health consequences. The chemicals the munition workers handled soon turned their hair and skin a lurid yellow, hence the moniker, ‘canary girls’. Recalled Nancy Evans, in an interview with BBC Radio: “We were like a canary. We were yellow, it penetrated your skin. Your hair turned blonde and on the top of the crown was the proper colour of your hair.”
In recent years there have been efforts to obtain a definitive list of all personnel who were employed at the factory, to honour their efforts by means of a display within a Heritage Centre currently being considered for development on part of the original site at Rotherwas.
Thanks to the work of local groups, like Herefordshire Lore, first hand accounts of the ‘canary girls’ of WWI and WWII are stored at the Hereford Archive and Record Centre. Only now is their critical role being fully recognised and a Memorial has been erected on the original site at Rotherwas to commemorate these men and women. But many names are missing and researchers are still looking for any names yet to be added. I didn’t think we would find one at the Forbury.
But I was wrong. It was to my utter surprise, when tiny, birdlike C, uttered ever so casually, that she had worked there during the war – with her mother! C, never seen without her red lipstick, is 96: she tells me she can hardly believe it herself. “That’s right, I was on the North side, the clearer site, but still had to wear those big boots, and I worked with cordite. I didn’t like it though. I worked with a lot of Irish girls, I liked them. But I left to work with the Red Cross, with my mother then too.”
It happened all so long ago, it’s of almost no consequence to C. Nonetheless, her name will be added to the long list of munition workers. Pictures from WWI.