Australian Munitions Workers

By Harper Wright

The Great War 1914-1918 was the first industrialised war on a global scale.  The final outcome was determined not only by feats of arms performed by men on battlefields that stretched from Flanders to Asia and the Pacific Islands, but also by harnessing the raw materials and industrial capacity of the allied nations. Napoleon’s maxim that an army marches on it stomach still held true in 1914.  However, the supply trains of the modern armies were vastly larger and more complex than any that had marched off to war in the past. Military mobilisation also required the mobilisation and redirection of the industrial resources of whole countries and empires in order to satisfy the logistical requirements of a modern army.

British factories delivered over 218 million artillery shells during the war; while at the same time over 5 million men left the workforce and joined the armed forces or merchant marine.  The incredible production of munitions and other supplies, in spite of the loss of so many skilled workers, was partly thanks to women entering the workforce to replace men or take up new opportunities.

Location of the Willans and Robinson  Factory, Google Maps

Location of the Willans and Robinson Factory, Google Maps

In early 1915 the production of munitions fell far short of demands of the British Army in France and elsewhere. David Lloyd George was made Mister of Munitions in May 1915 and tasked to drastically overhaul the production of armaments. One of the first munitions factories built under the direction of Lloyd George was the HM Factory Queensferry with Sandycroft, in Wales, just over the Cheshire border. Conversion and expansion of the Willans and Robinson factory started in May 1915, and by Christmas Day 1915 the first locally manufactured wet gun cotton was ready for shipment. In addition to guncotton, HM Factory also produced TNT, MNT and Oleum, or fuming sulphuric acid. The workforce at HM Factory peaked at 7,325 of whom 4,093 were men and 3.232 were women. At this time, apprenticeships to become a fitter or turner were for 7 years.  Therefore, there was a skilled labour shortage, especially after the introduction of conscription in 1916.

In response to this shortage of skilled workers, the Australian and Imperial Governments agreed a programme to recruit chemists and other skilled men to bolster munitions production in the UK. The Australian Munitions Workers scheme started seeking volunteers in the middle of August 1916. The men had to be volunteers as Australia did not institute conscription during the First World War. Two of the early volunteers were Alfred Chambers, aged 30, and Matthew Clayson, aged 29, who were born in Bedfordshire and Lancashire respectfully. They trained as fitters and turners in England, and then migrated to Australia a few years before the outbreak of war. Their ties to Britain may have encouraged them to return to help in the war effort.

Chambers and Clayson signed their “Agreements” with the Commonwealth Government on 30th August 1916.  This must have been a hard decision as both of them were married

NSW Munitions Workers on SS Osterley October 1916.  M Clayson Standing 2nd from Left.   A Chambers Seated 2nd from Left.                              Photo courtesy of Roslyn Spiteri

NSW Munitions Workers on SS Osterley October 1916. M Clayson Standing 2nd from Left.
A Chambers Seated 2nd from Left. Photo courtesy of Roslyn Spiteri

and Clayson was the father of two girls. They were accepted as volunteer numbers 21 and 22, and in just over three weeks they sailed from Sydney on the SS Osterley with 76 other volunteers.  The voyage via Cape Town to Tilbury lasted six weeks but was not uneventful. There were numerous complaints about the food, service and standards in the 3rd Class accommodation where the Australian volunteers were staying. The threat posed by German submarines also added to the unease on the ship.

The Osterley arrived at Tilbury on 10th November 1916. After a few days in London, Chambers and Clayson travelled up to Chester on the evening of 20th November.  They arrived in Chester the next morning. Later that day, they reported at H.M. Explosives Factory,

23 Cherry Road, Chester

23 Cherry Road, Chester

Queensferry. They signed on and were examined by the Factory doctor. On returning to Chester, Clayson and Chambers found lodgings together with Mrs Atkinson at 23 Cherry Road at £1.00 per week.  It was reported that the lodgings were clean, very comfortable, and in a good neighbourhood. The house was about a 25-30 minute walk from the train station in Chester. The reason many Australian munitions workers at Queensferry lived in Chester, Cheshire, was because there was not enough accommodation available in these Welsh factory towns.

Unfortunately, during the stopover in Cape Town, Clayson contracted a cold. After just 3 days work at Queensferry, the cold had developed into lobar pneumonia. His condition deteriorated rapidly, and by Sunday evening he was too ill to be transferred to hospital.  The help of local priest, Father Hayes, was sought. He immediately sent for nursing sisters who remained with him day and night until he died at 1.00 am on Friday, 1st December 1916.

Original Gravemarker of Matthew Clayson

Original Gravemarker of Matthew Clayson

On Monday, 4th December 1916, Matthew Clayson was buried in Chester Overleigh Cemetery in a shared

Clayson's Commonwealth War Graves Commission Headstone

Clayson’s Commonwealth War Graves Commission Headstone

grave with Madam Bertha Krebbs and Emily Jane Whitehouse.  They had died in 1906 and 1914 respectively, and sharing graves with strangers was not unusual at this time. Clayson’s grave is now marked with a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone.  The original grave marker can still be seen in the cemetery. After the Armistice in 1918, his widow and two girls were offered the opportunity to return to her family in Manchester. However it is not clear if they did return, or if they remained in Australia.

Chambers remained at HM Factory until September 1917 when he moved to Kent. He would have been at the factory when HM King George V and Queen Mary visited in May 1917. Such was his contribution to the factory that in the same month of May 1917, he was promoted to the role of a foreman in the Grillo Oleum side of the factory, where he continued to work with dangerous chemicals. He earned about £4/10 for a 54 hour week and his board and lodgings cost him 25 shillings a week. After paying the train fare to and from work each day, he would have had comfortable surplus to spend on himself or send back to his family in Australia. Chambers continued to live with the Atkinson family at 23 Cherry Road, Boughton during his time at

King George V and Queen Mary visiting HM Factory Queensferry with Sandycroft. 14 May 1917

King George V and Queen Mary visiting HM Factory Queensferry with Sandycroft. 14 May 1917

the factory and described the living conditions as “Fair” in July 1917.  According to the 1911 Census, the terrace house had 5 rooms. At that time 7 members of the Backhouse-Atkinson family and 2 boarders were resident in the house.

By March 1918, Chambers’ health had deteriorated due to rheumatism and disordered action of the heart. He was classified as unfit to work and embarked from Liverpool on RMS Suevic for the return journey to Australia on 21st April 1918.

In the photograph above of the NSW munitions workers on the SS Osterley, the men are proudly wearing their Australian Munitions Workers badges.  However, not all men who worked in the UK were proud of these badges. Another Australian munitions worker, Wilfrid Lumley, returned his after the war saying, “… I do not want such a paltry thing in my possession.”  Lumley joined the Small Arms Factory in Lithgow, NSW after finishing his education. He came to the UK as a Chemist in May 1917, and worked at HM Explosives Factory, Ellesmere Port, Cheshire.  This relatively small factory made poisonous gas (synthetic phenol and arsenic compounds).

His disparaging comments about the AMW Badge may be due to a misunderstanding of his role in the war effort. Although Lumley referred to himself as a “Chemist,” one of the Australia House documents describes him as a “Draughtsman.” His annual salary was £175, or just over £3/4/1 per week.  This is less than Chambers’ average wages as a foreman down the road at Queensferry. After the war, Lumley returned to Australia in May 1919 and worked in the Small Arms Factory. He remained there for over 30 years, and became “Chief Chemist” by 1949, although in 1938 he was the only chemist at the factory.

During the Great War a total of 2,838 Australian volunteers worked in UK factories under the Australian Munitions Workers scheme. Over 1,221 men worked in the UK on other schemes or joined from the Australian Imperial Force. In addition, 2,222 unskilled workers came to the UK as Australian War Workers or navvies, mainly in the construction industry or on the railways.  Many of the navvies disembarked in Liverpool, and some of them worked on construction projects in the Liverpool-Cheshire area. Sir John Jensen later wrote of the war workers “… the arrival of so large a body of really effective workers made an enormous difference.”

On the 19th November 1919 the British Secretary of State conveyed “His Majesty’s appreciation of the value of the services rendered during the war by the men from Australia who volunteered for work in the production of ships and munitions in this country. He understands the excellent behaviour of these volunteers and the sustained and steady application displayed by them in their work has earned the highest praise.”

For further reading on Australian Munitions workers, please see Griffiths, T. (2010). An industrial invasion. 1st ed. Terrey Hills, N. S. W.: Toptech Engineering.


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