There’s a picture of Ruby Loftus on the Imperial War Museum website1, which shows an engineering shop under the Essential Works Order during the Second World War. Ruby, who was 21 at the time, stares at the cutting tool, her face lit up by the centre lathe lamp. The workshop around her looks remarkably clean, bright and industrious, with other women working at benches. This picture is evocative and has a romantic air which draws you in. But all is not what it seems.
Obviously it’s daytime here, but there is war on, and there are no blackout curtains. These factories would be running 24/7, on shifts and with a piece-work system operating that would undermine health and safety. The machines would be overheating and burning oil. The atmosphere would be smokey and grim. One of Ruby’s fellow workers, Jean Burgess, who was just 19 when she started work in this same factory as a turner recalls “You walked into this building. It was noisy and grey. One of the things I remember was the greyness.”2 In other words, this picture is a bit of a set-up.
Ruby has an intense look of concentration as she watches the trail of twisting swarf coming out from the component she’s screw-cutting. She’s focused so hard that she doesn’t notice that the vibration of her lathe is causing the caliper gauge to slowly slide off the machine saddle, and it will soon end up wedged somewhere in the machinery.
Ruby has obviously not read Engineering Workshop Practice – first published 1943. One of the First Essentials in my copy says “the most expensive feature of a machine is its accuracy; the greater the accuracy the higher the cost, yet accuracy can be destroyed by one careless act, e.g. a spanner put down in the wrong place and forgotten.”
But actually the caliper or any of the other tools scattered carelessly about the lathe are the least of Ruby’s worries. And I don’t mean the fact that she’s not wearing any safety glasses, and that there is no guard over the machine chuck; which would be spinning round at something like 1,000 Revs Per Minute and could throw something out at her in the ‘blink of an eye’. Or that her bare arms are likely to be badly burned if one of the red-hot ringlets of swarf should change direction.
Then there’s the cutting fluid. Ruby’s lucky that the oil she’s using is pretty good; clean and white, but there would’ve been a shortage of oil in wartime. So most probably she would be using rancid soli-oil. Although she would get used to the smell, it would provoke cringing looks and nasty comments from others, as she travelled into work on a bus or train rammed full of people. And this ‘old’ oil would cause skin rashes, and dermatitis or even in extreme cases cancers.
What was most perilous though, and something this image doesn’t portray at all, is that making guns, bombs, bullets and blades, was especially dangerous. ROF factories were high up on the list of prime targets for enemy bombing. Being hit in an attack here could mean a massive explosion, or maybe an accidentally dropped shell-casing would cause a single spark to ignite a combination of chemicals and send the place sky high, as happened in Kirkby in 1944.3
There’s only one man in this picture. So a haven for women. Where they could express their independence and strive to help the war effort. Only they couldn’t. In reality all these women were unskilled or semi-skilled operators, their presence here resented by a lot of the men, and although they had more independence working here than in the home, everything was still controlled by men (the first equality legislation didn’t come in till the 1960s.)
Some of these sites were vast, 23,000 alone at the Kirkby factory. Women had to be moved all over the country to fill them, and then billeted in purpose built hostels, or in requisitioned mansions, stuffed together, maybe even sharing beds. And they could be transferred to other factories at the whim of the Labour Exchange, they were just numbers on the books.4
For this idealised version of engineering, commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, artist Laura Knight was asked “to paint a portrait to bolster female recruitment to the ordnance factories as the Ministry of Supply were concerned at the level of disaffection and absenteeism among women in the factories.”5
Actually this picture does Ruby a disservice. By all accounts she was remarkably skilled and able, and a natural at this job, although she only had minimal training (the propaganda says “In peace-time this task would only be performed by a man with eight or nine years’ experience.” A bit of Hyperbole?). At the end of the war Ruby was offered an opportunity to take an engineering course, which she declined and instead emigrated to Canada to work on a farm. Maybe this an indication of her thoughts about factory work.
I have some letters by my mum from 1943, from the same time the Ruby Loftus propaganda was displayed in all the national dailies. The letters refer to my mum’s conscription under the Essential Works Order and her transfer from a Glasgow engineering factory to Metro Vickers, in Manchester. She was billeted in a large rambling mansion in Whalley Range with other women working at the same factory. Being a member of the Workers International League, a Trotskyists group, whose aim was to organise workers, I was puzzled that she hardly a mentions conditions in her place of work. But strikes were illegal then and these factories were also subject to the Official Secrets Act.
If my mum had worked in this factory she would’ve organised these women, and also made sure that Ruby wore some eye protection!
- http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/south_east/5203414.stm I remember how, when we had important visitors to the engineering factory I worked at, we would be given time to clean the machine and around the tool lockers. Surfaces would be painted, polished and preened. We could demand new overalls and equipment at this time, when usually the was none in the stores.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ROF_Kirkby also https://www.wartimememoriesproject.com/ww2/allied/battalion.php?pid=5447
- http://www.billhunterweb.org.uk/articles/aircraftconvenor.htm Convenors Diary. Entry for 24 April 1943.
Picture: Ruby Loftus screw-cutting a Breech-ring at her lathe in the Royal Ordnance Factory in Newport, painting by Laura Knight 1943.