A Shortage of Labour

A Shortage of Labour – Kathryn from Thetford has been looking into how the Homefront was managing for labour 100 years ago – in the month when compulsory conscription looked likely to start and labour issues would worsen further.

By 1916 there was a serious shortage of labour. The Army Council made arrangements regarding the limited number of soldiers serving at home who had been accustomed to working on farms-they could undertake farm work at any season of the year except during the corn harvest. The farmers had to show that suitable labour couldn’t be found locally and had to pay 4s a day to the soldier providing his own board & lodging or 2s 6d if the latter was provided by the farmer.

Although there was prejudice about women taking on paid work, the shortage of labour meant that women took on many occupations previously held by men.

In March 1916, at a meeting of the Norfolk War Agricultural Committee, the employment of women on the land as a war expedient was discussed: the Norfolk Ladies Committee were continuing to canvass and by this time 3,500 women had enrolled to work on the land.


Recruiting poster (from Wikipedia)

The question of women’s hours and rate of pay was considered:

  • Normal working hours should be 8am – 4pm or 9am – 5pm (with a half hour for lunch)
  • Wage per day 2s
  • Payment for shorter periods than one day – 3d per hour.

There was a great deal of work that women could take on in the spring, such as hoeing, weeding, getting the land fit for the turnip crop and later on working on the harvest. They could also undertake work on dairy farms.

Before World War 1, women engineers were unheard of, but by 1916, at Charles Burrell & Sons Ltd in Thetford, a traction engine manufacturing works, approximately 150 women from Thetford and the surrounding villages were trained to use drills, grinders, lathes and other machine and hand tools to produce munitions and military hardware.

munitions worker

This image forms part of Norfolk Record Office holdings from the following archive: Records of King’s Lynn Independent (Congregational), New Conduit Street, King’s Lynn, reference FC 10/18. A note on the image reads: ‘internal combustion engines woman milling a steering arm of motor lorry engine – Labour Supply Department’

These “munitionettes” did shift work alongside a smaller number of men. They were supervised by male employees who had either reserved occupations or were too old for military service.


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