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Wartime working

Wartime working

Documents which look at the prevailing social and economic conditions during the First World War - including the great changes in the workplace - are included in various archive collections held by the Modern Records Centre, including those of trade unions and employers' organisations. Some of the highlights from the hundred documents digitised to commemorate the First World War centenary are described below.


Official report of the International Mercantile Marine Conference to consider the crimes committed by commanders and crews of German U-boats, 1917

Speaking for myself, it seems that nothing is too bad for the Germans, for it has been simply murder and cowardice and thorough injustice

In the years leading up to the First World War Britain had naval supremacy (in the words of the song 'ruled the waves') and, on the outbreak of war, declared a naval blockade on Germany - restricting the import of food supplies as well as munitions. Outgunned above the waves, Germany used submarine warfare to attack military and merchant shipping from both Allied and neutral countries in an attempt to enforce their own blockade on Britain. The nature of the U-boat attacks on civilian vessels - without warning - proved hugely controversial and the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare eventually forced the United States into the war in 1917. This report of a conference of merchant seaman from various allied and neutral countries includes strong attacks on both the German naval policy and Germans in general, as well as a vivid description of the attack on the 'Belgian Prince' by able seaman George Sileski, one of the few survivors.

[From the archives of the National Union of Seamen; document reference: MSS.175/5/17]


The Seaman - reporting the "Lusitania outrage", 21 May 1915The Seaman

Women and children have before now been done to death at the bidding of unscrupulous castes, but never before, I feel certain, have human lives been so wantonly destroyed as were those on the unarmed ship which was sent to her doom but a few miles from the Irish coast

This issue of the 'The Seaman', the newspaper of the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union, includes articles condemning the torpedoeing of the ocean liner RMS Lusitania on its voyage from New York to Liverpool, with the loss of more than 1,000 passengers and crew. It also contains lists of sailors who had survived the U-boat attack on HMS Goliath at the Dardanelles.

[From the archives of the National Union of Seamen; document reference: MSS.175A/4/1/5]


Acceleration of supply of munitions: the organisation of labour, 10 June 1915

In this effort, which may mean the saving of the nation, organised labour can and must take an essential and indispensable part, for with enthusiasm and unselfishness it can render invaluable service in a great national crisis

In 1915, faced with a shortage of ammunition abroad and industrial disputes at home, the government introduced radical measures in an attempt to increase output in munitions factories. The 1915 Munitions of War Act came into law on 2 July 1915 and included provisions to make strikes and lock-outs illegal, bring management of certain factories under state control ("controlled establishments"), and to make it a criminal offence for employees engaged on war work to leave their jobs without obtaining a certificate of authorisation from their employer. This confidential memorandum, submitted before the Act became law, contains the recommendations of the National Advisory Committee on War Output - a committee of trade unionists established to provide advice to the Ministry of Munitions. It expresses discontent with the idea of industrial conscription, as "the application of any form of compulsion to workmen concerned in the manufacture of munitions of war, except as a last and unavoidable resource, would be so disturbing as to defeat the object in view".

[From the archives of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation; document reference: MSS.36/M43 (file 1)]


'The Worker', no.1, 8 January 1916

The politicians, press and pulpit will unite in a clamorous and lying attack on the "drunken, thriftless, shirking" workers who failed to support their brothers in the trenches, because, forsooth, they refused to sacrifice those liberties these same brothers in the trenches are presumably fighting for

'The Worker' was produced by the Clyde Workers' Committee as part of their campaign against the "Munitions Act, dilution of Labour, high food prices, conscription and the endless demand for sacrifices on the part of the workers". Much of the newspaper is taken up with reports and comment on the visit of David Lloyd George, then Minister of Munitions, to 'Red Clydeside' in a failed attempt to defuse tensions over the Munitions of War Act (known locally as the 'Slavery Act'). William Gallacher, author of the leading article in this issue, was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment in April 1916 for his 'seditious' writing in 'The Worker'. He would later become a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and one of the CPGB's few Members of Parliament.

[From the Maitland Sara Hallinan collection; document reference: MSS.15X/1/321/1]


Précis of information received by the Board of Trade from Provincial Advisory Committees for Juvenile Employment in England and Wales, August 1916

High wages have led boys into habits of extravagance and thriftlessness and gambling and betting among youths is increasing..... The facility with which boys have been able to obtain work has brought about a weakened sense of responsibility and obligation towards their employers. It is a very common practice for boys to throw up their work at a minute’s notice, on the slightest pretext

The disruption in trade caused by the outbreak of war and the removal of large numbers of men from civilian life into the army caused major changes to the workforce during the First World War. The increased employment of women is well known, but, at a time when it was legal to leave school at the age of 12, the war also had a significant effect on the employment of teenagers. In 1916 the Board of Trade investigated the issue of youth employment, gathering data on the extent and sustainability of the increase, and the possible effects that an increased workload (and paypacket) might have on the health, education and behaviour of young people. The precis of information from Provincial Advisory Committees includes descriptions of local conditions in areas including Liverpool, Huddersfield, Southampton and Northampton. Under the section on "effects on character", concern is expressed about the absence of male role models and the "harmful influence exerted on the young minds by cinema shows" which had taken the place of healthy outdoor pursuits like cricket and football.

A similar summary of information received by the Board of Trade from Advisory Committees for Juvenile Employment is also available.

[From the archive of the National Union of Teachers; document reference: MSS.179/1/13/6]


Joint Appeal by The Federation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Trades and the National Advisory Committee on War Output, February 1917

A German naval expert has recently boasted that England will be starved out by means of the submarines within three months. Let us show that the determination of the workers of this country is such, and their power of producing first-rate work in the shortest possible time is such, that this country cannot be starved by any means the Huns can devise, or in any length of time they like to specify

Two and a half years into the war, as an intensifying German U-boat campaign against merchant shipping threatened to cause widespread food shortages in Britain, British trade union leaders issued this appeal to shipyard workers and maritime engineers to work harder and faster in order to beat the German blockade, arguing that "at no time in the course of the struggle has the national position been more critical".

[From the archives of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation; document reference: MSS.36/M43 (file 2)]


Commission of Enquiry into Industrial Unrest: Report of the commissioners for the London and south-eastern area, 1917

The unrest is real, widespread and in some directions extreme, and such as to constitute a national danger unless dealt with promptly and effectively. We are at this moment within view of a possible social upheaval or at least extensive and manifold strikes

In 1917 (a year of revolution elsewhere in Europe), a government enquiry looked into the question of growing industrial and social unrest in Britain. This report focuses on London and the south east, and outlines the main causes of discontent in the region - rising food prices and resentment at profiteering, "industrial fatigue", "inequality of sacrifice", uncertainty as to the future, lack of confidence in the Government and "resentment at undue interference".

[From the archives of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation; document reference: MSS.36/I9]