Helen Caroline Bentwich – Munition


Helen was born in Notting Hill, London in 1892. Her family was a prominent Jewish family of bankers, politicians and a vice principal of the Working Men’s College. One of her brother’s was a suffragist. Helen was involved with various roles in social, charitable and voluntary work after leaving education, for both Jewish and non-Jewish organisations.

Helen married Norman Bentwich in 1915 and became a voluntary aid detachment nurse. She later took up a position as a private secretary for the ministry of finance. In 1916 Helen became a forewoman at the Woolwich Arsenal. She was actively fighting for the rights of women and tried to start a trade union at the Arsenal, which did not go down well with those higher up and she was forced to resign her position. She then went on to become an organiser for the Women’s Land Army.

Throughout her life, she was involved in so many things from politics to education and charity work. She joined the Labour Party in early 1930’s. In 1965 she was awarded a CBE for political and public services.


Blog written by: Lorna

Gladys Beatrice Scantlebury – VAD

Gladys Beatrice Scantlebury was born in Woolwich on 29th April 1886. Census records show her living at 85 Herbert Road, Plumstead with her timber merchant father, mother, two brothers and a servant. The 1911 census lists Gladys as working as a shorthand typist.

Her VAD Red Cross records indicate that she served as a nurse from May 1916 until April 1919. Gladys was mobilised for Southwood Hospital, Eltham in July 1915 before working at St. George’s Military Hospital and the Royal Herbert Hospital in Woolwich. During this period, she is recorded as living at 86 Eglinton Road, Plumstead.

Throughout the war, she was a Special Service Member, which meant she was helping at Military Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) hospitals. These had been staffed exclusively by nurses and orderlies from the RAMC prior to 1915, and requests for special service VADs went as far as Malta and Egypt[1] during the conflict. For her role as a special service member, she was paid the special service rate.

In November 1918, just days before Armistice has reached, she was awarded one Scarlet Efficiency Stripe for her service.

Electoral registers reveal that Gladys continued to live at 86 Eglinton Road until 1932, when she moved to 226 Court Road, Eltham, where she lived between 1937 and 1951. After the war, it seems she returned to her job as a typist, as in 1939 she is listed as working as a shorthand typist for coal contractors.

Her father died in March 1942, while Gladys died on her 67th Birthday in 1953 at Stone House, Dartford after a long illness.


Blog written by: June

Blog maintained by: Megan

[1] British Red Cross (2016), ‘Volunteers during the First World War’, British Red Cross. Available at: http://www.redcross.org.uk/About-us/Who-we-are/History-and-origin/First-World-War/Volunteers-during-WW1 (Accessed 29th April 2016).

Agnes Mary Challender – Munition

Eltham Munition Worker Did Not Die Of TNT Poisoning  (Pioneer 4/5/1917)

An article in the Pioneer records the details of an inquest held after the death of Arsenal Munition worker Agnes Mary Challender.

Challender, aged 36,  had been ill for sometime and was being treated for jaundice. She had been absent from work at the Arsenal for some months and had gone to Brighton to recuperate. Soon she returned to work feeling somewhat better, but she quickly fell ill again. The article reports that she had been working in the Cannon Cordite Cartridge Factory at the Arsenal and hadn’t anything to do with T.N.T. By all reports Challender had said she was ok that was until she was set to work with high explosive work – stitching up the cartridge bags.

Chrissie Howse (the deceased’s sister) of Blanmerle Rd, New Eltham and Emma Impey (the deceased’s landlady) of 6 Pelham Terrace, New Eltham, both gave evidence at the inquest. On 21st April,  Challender was in so much pain that the doctor ordered that she be removed to the Woolwich Infirmary. Challender had apparently told witnesses that she caught the poisoning from using the lavatories used by other workers and not by the work she had been doing. The article reports that Dr. W.E. Boulter, Medical Superintendant at Woolwich Infirmary said a postmortem revealed that no signs of TNT poisoning were found and she had in fact died of Tuberculosis. Her yellow skin was yellow reported as being due to Addison’s disease and nothing to do with any TNT poisoning.

Blog written by: Lorna

Lillian Barker – Munition

Lillian Barker – Employment at the Arsenal.

In 1916, Lillian Barker was appointed ‘Lady Superintendent’ at the Royal Arsenal. Her appointment was innovative and heralded in the local newspapers. She was paid £500 per year. Her role was to oversee the recruitment, work allocation, welfare, morale, discipline and supervision of the Arsenals ever expanding female workforce. She established numerous social, sport and recreational groups. She allowed flowers in the canteen and every girl was allowed their own tea pot. Barker also established crèches; the Arsenal was in fact the the first workplace to have a workplace crèche.

Case Factory
Royal Arsenal Woolwich Case Factory c1915-1919 Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust 

Born in 1874 in London, Barker was one of six children. She was educated at a nearby elementray school before training to become a teacher at Whitelands College, Chelsea. She taught for a number of years until, in 1914 she became the Principle of the London County Council Women’s Institute .

By all accounts Barker was a formidable character. Her fairness and discipline was as famous as her ‘Australian hat’. To her, the Arsenal women were ‘her girls’ who she would defend and discipline. Barker objected to the double standards at the Arsenal that meant a woman would be dismissed if she fell pregnant. In response Barker would only dismiss one of her girls if the man was also dismissed, though many of the fathers were likely to have been soldiers.
By 1916 women were entering the Arsenal in ever increasing numbers, numbers that reached to around 30,000. But two years before, on the outbreak of war, women were virtually unknown at the Arsenal.

Before the war it is recorded that there were no women working in the ordnance factories. Women though were not entirely unbeknown to the Arsenal. In the eighteenth century women were employed in the Royal Laboratory, sewing flannel cartridges. They were paid piece work and known as the ‘Cartridge Girls’. But the introduction of the Factory Act in 1871 put paid to this and women and girls were banned from working at the Arsenal. The First World War changed this.

Barker remained at the Arsenal for the duration of war. After the war Barker joined the Ministry of Labour and would later work on reforming women’s prisons throughout the UK, introducing reforms that had a profound effect on women’s penal system. Barker died in 1955.

The Well Hall Pioneer Circle

Lynne has been researching the Well Hall Estate. She has come across an interesting group who met regularly …

The Well Hall Pioneer Circle
In summer 1916 the women of the estate formed a Pioneer Circle, originally for Well Hall but later extended to Eltham as well. The purpose of the circle was to promote and distribute the Woolwich labour newspaper ‘The Pioneer’ but as part of this the women met weekly to discuss items of topical interest. They met in the house of one of their number, Rhoda Baillie, at 34, Prince Rupert Road. Other names that were mentioned in the newspaper include the Mmes Woodnough, Bromley, Webster, Cockham, Skidmore, Pope, Mayes, Scarlett, Jeavons, Banks Ginns, Walker, MacDonald, Stewart and Bell together with a Miss A Stringer. its possible that not all of these women lived on the estate.
And what a range of issues they covered! During the war period they covered topics ranging from food shortages to pioneers of the past and from the need for communal kitchens to Venereal Disease. In December 1917 they made a visit to the Rachel Macmillan Baby Camp in Deptford as part of discussions they had had on education generally and on nursery education specifically. The meeting often began with one woman reading a paper, sometimes by an authority on their chosen subject, followed by a discussion. The newspaper coverage of their meetings in the Pioneer reports their discussions and findings. There were however other activities. In 1917 delegates were sent to the Woolwich Labour Food Conference and they also began making contributions to an inquiry on house planning organised by the South Wales Housing and Development Association in the form of responses to a schedule of some 70 questions. The women not unnaturally felt strongly about the lack of school accommodation for the estate especially as many young children had a walk of twenty or thirty minutes. They passed a resolution about this which was sent to the London County Council Education Committee.

Blog written by: Lynne

Winifred Collacott – VAD

Winifred was born Winifred Mary Collacott in Rochester in 1888. Her father was a tailor and, according to census records, she lived with her parents and five siblings in St Margaret Street, Rochester. She was employed as a dressmaker prior to her enlistment in November 1917.

According to VAD records, during the war she lived in Dunvegan Road, Eltham and travelled to the Royal Herbert Hospital in Woolwich, where she worked full-time as a clerical general service member.  Throughout her time at the Royal Herbert, she was paid between 29/6 and 33/6 per week for her work. VAD records show her still serving in June 1919.

The general service section of the Voluntary Aid Detachments was established just over a year after war had broken out in September 1915. Their role was to replace the men who had gone off to fight and they carried out various roles, from dispensers to storekeepers. By the time Winifred was leaving the VAD in 1919, around 11,000 men had been released from active service and replaced by women.

After war ended, she married Alfred W. Hulkes in March 1923. He was a native of Barnham, Kent and was born in 1893 to a painter father. He had three siblings. In 1911, he was employed as a grocer’s assistant before joining the Army Medical Corps as a private.

Winifred died at the age of 82 in 1970. It is unknown when Alfred died.


Blog Written By: June

Blog Maintained By: Megan

Munition Workers – More women thieves than men?

Volunteer Lorna has been researching the munition girls who worked at the Royal Arsenal during the war. Having spent many weeks looking through the newspapers she happened upon a common thread throughout – reports of female munition workers and theft. It got her thinking. Lorna explains…

Having spent the last few weeks reading through the Pioneer, a trade union newspaper from the time of the First World War, one thing seems to stand out more than anything. Women and thefts at the Arsenal!

Reading the paper it would seem that there are many more cases being reported  of female munition workers stealing and indeed serving time for such offences, usually hard labour, than thefts by male workers.  Though it is reported that men were  also being accused and charged with the same offence, the articles are less sensational and often small articles tucked into the corners of the newspaper pages.

I have found so many cases where items such as clothing and shoes were being stolen, especially in the winter months and quite often, according to the newspaper, the culprit was female and single, therefore not having a husband to support them, that I began to questions why. I did find other items being stolen such as watches, jewellery and money, but the main items stolen were coats, shoes and other items of clothing – items of clothing that are considered necessity rather than luxury.

So, looking at these cases reported I think there raises some interesting  questions:

  1. Could the incidents be linked to time of year and personal circumstances of the individuals accused?
  2. Could the fact that women stealing was reported more because it simply was not ‘the done thing’ for a woman to do?
  3. Were some trying to disparage the role of women workers at the arsenal? blacken their reputation and therefore justifying some fears that women would take men’s jobs?
  4. Were women struggling to pay for necessary items such as shoes and coats? or too frivolous with their money?


Blog written by: Lorna