During the First World War Thamesmead was part of Woolwich Arsenal, and the manufacture of munitions which took place there was vital to the war effort.

Munitionettes 2
Up to 73,000 people worked in Thamesmead's munitions factories, including some Belgian refugees 

A considerable number of the workers were women who were known as “munitionettes”. For many, the chance to work brought new status and independence — but it was not without its dangers.

The work included filling shells with explosives; the first cases of TNT poisoning were recorded in August 1915. Their skin turned yellow and they were nicknamed “canaries”. 

Some people died as a result of the poisoning; at one point there were around two deaths per week 

As a result, safety regulations were introduced and protective clothing was issued. Bathrooms were installed to enable workers to wash off all the dust before they returned home at the end of a shift.

To encourage recruitment the Ministry of Munitions provided nurseries where women workers could leave their babies

The Arsenal site had its own railway system. This was partly to take the workers to their workplaces, but also to connect the different stages of the production process.     

Because of the risks involved, munitions assembly was broken down into steps, which were split between widely separated buildings. These were constructed in such a way that in the event of an explosion, the roof would blow off but the brick walls would remain undamaged.

WomenWidely separating the buildings meant that if an explosion occurred, it wouldn't set off a “chain reaction” of explosions in other buildings 

The private railway, which had 133 miles of track, was used to move components such as shells from one building to another. The land was still being used for munitions work in the Second World War, but eventually the whole operation was closed down.

Thamesmead was built as a “new town” on the land in the 1960s.

Words by Christine Wagg, Peabody historian.

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