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On War Service badges – part 2

By Luca Golzio

After the introduction of the Military Service Act in 1916 the number of men who were required to leave the RSAF to join the armed forces increased. They were replaced by men who were either unfit to serve or who had been released from military service due to wounds or ill-health, and by women, who had traditionally been employed only as clerical staff, canteen or char ladies.

A group of First World War women munitions factory workers pose for the camera

A group of women munition workers at the RSAF many wearing their On War Service badge. In the centre is the Lady Superintendent, Jessie O’Brien, the others are unknown. © Enfield Local Studies and Archives.

The number of women working at the RSAF grew dramatically from only 5 at the end of 1915 to over 1,000 by the end of the following year, with the majority taken on to perform skilled and semi-skilled work in the workshops and stores.

typed memo

Women workers progressed to highly skilled jobs with higher rates of pay. © National Archives. Ministry of Munitions Memo.

Even girls as young as 14 were employed – and there were no less than 106 in October 1917.By the time the war ended nearly 1500 women were working in the factory performing a variety of important tasks such as examining components and parts to ensure that they were correctly manufactured, and viewing finished rifles.

Index card with details of women workers

Index card showing the rapid rise in the number of women workers at the factory after April 1916.

A summary of the workers at RSAF Enfield throughout the First World War
Date Men Boys Women Total
August 1914 1672 107 0 1778
December 1914 4154 694 0 4848
December 1915 6079 1185 5 7269
March 1916 6339 1255 22 7616
December 1916 6722 1233 1158 9163
December 1917 7145 1134 1465 9744
November 1918 6730 987 1459 9176
hand written page

After April 1916 men who were conscripted for military service from the RSAF were replaced by women. RSAF Factory Memo Book.

The introduction of large numbers of women caused some practical problems for the RSAF. Many new rules and regulations were introduced, a hostel built, and a separate canteen provided, which had a recreation room for rest and amusement attached. The women provided a piano, and dancing, gymnastic, needle work and other classes were arranged by the Lady Superintendent.

Handwritten page from the memo book

Strict dress regulations for women workers were introduced for health and safety reasons. RSAF Factory Memo Book.

There were such large numbers of women now employed in place of men fighting at the front, that a women’s “On War Service” badge was produced and issued to any women working in munitions and arms factories, regardless of whether they were considered skilled or unskilled workers, in recognition to their efforts. They often had to travel long distances to and from work, and those wearing the badge were often granted priority boarding buses and trams, and given concessions on fares. Some people would even show their appreciation by offering them their seat.

hundreds of women sat in the canteen at wooden tables and benches

The large canteen built for women workers at the RSAF. © Enfield Local Studies and Archives.

Unfortunately, no records survive of the women who worked at the RSAF during the First World War, but they can be seen on the photographs of staff of the various departments and workshops taken in 1918, which will be the subject of a future post.


Heritage Lottery Fund

To coincide with the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War the Royal Armouries has launched a project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund to mark the contributions of the men and women who worked at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield during the two world wars.

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