In January 1940, Winston Churchill chose Manchester to deliver a thunderous speech that may well have changed the course of the war.
He berated the Government for not expanding industry quickly enough now the country was locked in conflict. Most importantly, he cleared the way for more and more women to work on the war effort.
In a stirring call to the nation he said: ‘Fill the armies, rule the air, pour out the munitions, strangle the U-Boats, sweep the mines, plough the land, build ships, guard the streets, succour the wounded, uplift the downcast and honour the brave.’
The result was that 14 Government Training Centres were opened, where unemployed men and women alike could learn basic skills to equip them for jobs.
In all, 38 Training Centres were launched – including Manchester – before being reduced to 20 during 1943.
At the beginning of World War II, around 5.1 million women and girls in the UK went out to work, mainly in the clerical, retail or service sectors – though the cotton industry in Lancashire was a major employer.
The war was only two weeks old when the government announced the gradual drafting at least one million women into war work, replacing men called up for service in the armed forces.
The plan envisaged they would work in unskilled occupations such as bus conductors, railway cleaners, textile workers, clerks, shop assistants, and processed food operatives.
An estimated half a million women would also be needed in the munitions industries, though again the idea of training them to undertake skilled work was not being actively considered.
By January 1940, women were being recruited as bus or tram conductresses, though at a lower rate of pay than their male colleagues.
Three months later, a ruling handed down by an Industrial Court awarded corporation bus conductresses equal pay after six months’ satisfactory service.
The normal working week for women was set at 40 hours compared to 48 hours for their male colleagues. Overtime was to be paid at the male rate. Some shift-workers boarded at local homes.
Lancashire’s cotton industry remained vital to the nation’s survival. Once again, women and girls were recruited to replace men called up to the armed forces.
In June 1940, a handful of mills responded to a last-minute appeal from Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production, to work on Sundays.
This was not as straightforward as it might sound as bus and train transport had to be organised. The appeal was flashed on cinema screens and announcements made at dance halls. Even so, the mills operated at 80 per cent capacity.
However, the cotton industry as well as engineering firms, was soon suffering a high percentage of absenteeism among its workers who were mums of babies and toddlers.
The answer was the establishment of nurseries, some of the mills opening their own. Local authorities also provided facilities as well as officially registering ‘daily guardians’ to look after the children.
Each child had their own apron, towel, and flannel, as well as a peg to hang their coat on. In many areas of the country, the first job on a Monday morning was to delouse the kids.
Before the war, the country’s four major railway companies employed a combined total of 25,253 women and girls. By its end, the LMS alone was employing 39,000.
Initially, women were to do unskilled work, but new roles were opened as the war progressed. Soon women were being trained as signallers, electricians, blacksmiths, fitters and boiler cleaners, though not for footplate duties.
On 22 October 1939, the Ford Motor Co was asked to locate, equip and manage a shadow factory at Eccles for the mass production of Rolls-Royce Merlin aero engines.
As most skilled workers in the UK were already employed, Ford had to rely on untrained men, youths and women. Even so, the first production Merlins were delivered to aircraft manufacturers during June 1941.
In March 1942, Eccles was asked to increase production from 400 to 600 engines a month. By April 1944, the workforce of 17,307, including 5,828 women, were turning out 900 engines a month as well as a steady supply of spare parts.
The Dunlop Barrage Balloon factory housed in Gaythorn gasworks, Manchester, relied on women war workers. The gasworks had ceased production and had been relegated to a distribution point in 1929 when a new facility opened at Partington.
Its buildings, however, were ideal as they allowed ample room for the partial inflation of balloons to check that seams were airtight.
*Images of Manchester feature in Clive Hardy’s fascinating new book Women in Wartime – Britain 1939-45 now available for pre-order for £14.99 on inostalgia.co.uk.
All pre-ordered copies will be signed by the author and despatched postage free. It’s the ideal Christmas gift for everyone interested in our wartime heritage.