War work

During the Second World War, an unprecedented number of British women were employed in war work. By 1943, women made up over a third of the workforce in the most important sectors (Smith, 1984, p. 934).

The Olympia Works

The Olympia Works was owned by the Blackburn Aircraft Company. At the time of the Leeds Blitz around 1,100 men and women were employed in the manufacture of aircraft at this factory (BAE Systems, 2020). The aircraft manufactured here were used throughout the Second World War. The site of the factory is now occupied by a Tesco and a plaque commemorating the importance of Olympia Works can be found on the building (Leeds Civic Trust, n.d.).

Some of the aircraft manufactured at Olympia Works would have been transported to Royal Air Force bases by the Air Transport Auxiliary. Unlike the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, where women weren’t authorised to fly aircraft, the Air Transport Auxiliary had 150 female pilots responsible for getting aircraft to where they were needed (Royal Air Force Museum, 2018).

Did you know?

It was an aircraft made by the Blackburn Aircraft Company that destroyed the first enemy aircraft in the Second World War on the 26th September 1939 (Royal Air Force Museum, 2018).

Manufacturing parts of a Swordfish aircraft at the Olympia Works

This image shows a woman manufacturing parts for a Swordfish aircraft at Olympia Works (Leodis, n.d.).

Production line at Olympia Works

This image shows women working on a production line at Olympia Works. For safety purposes the women cover their hair with scarves (Leodis, n.d.)

The Royal Ordnance Factory from above.

The Royal Ordnance Factory seen from above in the 1960s Leeds Library and Information Services(1963) Aerial View, Manston, showing Royal Ordnance Factory Barnbow [Online photograph]. Available from: http://www.leodis.net/display.aspx?resourceIdentifier=20031030_23878115 [Accessed: 8 December 2020].

Blue plaque commemorating the Royal Ordnance Factory in Leeds

Blue plaque at the former site of the factory ‘(p_khoo) (2016) Barnbow Royal Ordnance Factory [online] Available from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/127359636@N08/25876199264/ [Accessed 10 December 2020]

The Royal Ordnance Factory

Leeds Royal Ordnance Factory was situated on Manson Lane in Crossgates, around half a mile from the Barnbow shell filling factory that operated during the First World War. The factory was hastily built on a sixty-acre site and employed thousands of local women (Culture24.org, 2005). It produced guns and tanks for those fighting on the front line.

The factory eventually became part of the Vickers group, an engineering company that specialised in shipbuilding, ammunition and aircraft manufacture. The group manufactured the famous Challenger Tank used widely by British soldiers on the front line.

Of the 3,000 people employed at the ROF in 1941, around 2,000 were women (Culture24.org, 2005). These women produced approximately 9,000 guns and over 4,000 Challenger Tanks. As in other British cities, the contributions that women made to the engineering industries during wartime were vital to the war effort.

Did you know?

Industrial conscription was introduced in December 1941 to call up women for essential war work.

Burton’s Factory, Hudson Road

Montague Burton established his tailoring business in Chesterfield in 1903. The company expanded rapidly, and its Leeds factory was said to be the largest in the world. It was famous for its modern canteen and for containing a dentist and a doctors’ surgery for employees (Summers, 2015, p. 50).

During the Second World War, the company switched production from civilian suits to army uniforms (Sigsworth, 1990, p. 109). Burton produced over 13 million uniforms for the navy, army and the Royal Air Force during the war. The government introduced controls on wool, so, firms like Burtons could easily access raw wool to produce the uniforms (Sigsworth, 1990, p. 109).

Large numbers of women were employed in the tailoring industry before the war. Women’s work became even more important after 1939, as women replaced men who had left to fight (Sigsworth, 1990, p. 109). Women at the factory outnumbered men ten to one (On-Magazine, n.d.).

Did you know?

From 1944, the firm turned production to their famous demob suits for war veterans. The three piece suit and tie became known as “The Full Monty” (Summers, 2015, p. 20).

The production line at Burton's

Women on the Burton's production line. Anon (n.d.) burton-fashion-yorkshire-history.png [online]. Available from: https://www.on-magazine.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/burton-fashion-yorkshire-history.png?ezimgfmt=ng:webp/ngcb7 (Accessed 7 December 2020).