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Milling through the ages: 19th and 20th century 

Women, milling, and the world wars

(Credit: Jake Banyard, Garfield Weston Foundation intern at the Mills Archive)

The two World Wars of the 20th century were major events in British history and had a large impact on the way that society functioned and was organised. As the British population participated in the war effort, both the flour milling industry and women’s lives were affected. The first and the second World Wars required a fundamental reorganisation of the labour force as, predominantly men, were asked or forced to fight. This left big gaps in the workforce of the UK, and existing industries searched for ways to satisfy their labour demands, competing also against the rapidly expanding war industries for workers. Women were seen as a largely untapped source of labour and were used to fill the gaps that had emerged.

Although the proportion of women in the industrial and agricultural workforce certainly increased massively during the World Wars, that is not to say that women did not work outside of the wars. Indeed, women represented a large and significant part of the workforce before the outbreak of war in 1914. The largest industrial employer of women was the textiles industry, where 656,000 women worked; but women also had jobs in the woollen and linen industries, the metal industry; in papermilling, the boot and shoe industry; they worked with leather, food, clothing; and as bookbinders, box makers and lacemakers. Women were of course also a part of the flour milling industry outside of the wars. In a pamphlet produced by the Transport and General Workers’ Union, published in June 1939, months before the outbreak of WW2, women’s permitted jobs and their wages are detailed. Women were to be employed in only the following jobs: ‘Work in the sack shop, including sack sewing machines’, ‘Packing small bags under sixty pounds in weight’, ‘Sweeping’, ‘Cleaning (machinery excepted)’, and ‘Messroom attendance’.

Those who praised women’s so called new-found ability to work during war were reminded of women’s history in the workplace by this 1916 Factory Inspector’s report,
‘It is permissible to wonder whether some of the surprise and admiration freely expressed in many quarters over new proofs of women’s physical capacity and endurance, is not in part attributable to lack of knowledge or appreciation of the very heavy and strenuous nature of much of normal pre-war work for women, domestic and industrial.’

Indeed, women already contributed significantly to the industrial workforce. However, a gendered division of the workplace still existed. As seen in the Trade Union pamphlet, women were limited in the jobs they were allowed to do. This affected the flour milling industry and many other industries where certain jobs, often regarded as ‘skilled,’ were reserved for men. This division was based upon gender stereotypes but also material male anxieties: trade unions of ‘skilled’ male workers ensured that women were kept out of their craft out of a fear that women would bring wages down across the board if allowed into their occupations. Women occupied a complex position in the industrial labour force, in some ways extensive participants and in other ways largely excluded.

This position changed during both World Wars. Some evidence of women’s roles in flour milling can be found in the Milling magazine, of which the Mills Archive holds a significant collection. Issues date back to the early 20th century and discuss a wide range of topics relating to flour milling and food production. An article in the 6th January 1943 edition, entitled ‘Man power’, discusses the labour shortage and the problems the industry is having employing women in order to replace men. On top of this, an article in the 6th November 1943 edition discusses the work of women as truckers in the flour milling industry. Trucking made up, and still makes up, an important aspect of the transport systems and food distribution during the wars. The article voices anxieties about the potential injury that women could suffer in the job role where they would be expected to lift heavy sacks and bags, saying that ‘a woman trucker may be asked to do work which is normally done by a man occupied in trucking, but which is unsuitable for a woman.’ Specific legislation had been put into place in 1942, limiting the weight that women were allowed to lift to 65 lb (roughly 30 kilos).

Women also took on new jobs in other transport related areas. The ‘Idle Women’ were a group of women who worked on canalboats during the Second World War and delivered supplies between London, Birmingham, and Coventry. Crewed in groups of three, the women delivered goods, including flour and grains and coal during three-week round trips. The women attracted enough attention, presumably because it was so unbelievable that women could do such work, that a short film was produced by British Pathé which documents the beginning of one such trip, the commentator noting that it was ‘a pretty tough job, even for a man.’

Evidence of women’s increased involvement in industrial work can also be found in documentation about wages and rations. An article released in the 20th February 1943 edition contains information about bread rations in 1917: during the First World War. The section on women’s rations distinguishes between women doing ‘Heavy industrial work or agricultural work’, ‘Women on industrial work or in domestic service’, and ‘Women unoccupied or on sedentary work.’ The creation of a ‘Heavy industrial’ category allows us to make the basic assumption that women were involved in heavy industrial activities within the flour milling industry, something that they would largely have been excluded from before 1914. Furthermore, a wage increase detailed in the 6th November 1943 edition for women bag packers could be read as evidence that women’s presence within that workforce was significant enough to merit a wage raise specific to women.

Whilst the picture of women’s work in the flour milling industry during the two World Wars is certainly not completed by this evidence, it does begin to tell the story of the increased number and range of roles that women held in and out of flour mills during the period. What should also be considered is what happened after each of the wars. When victory was declared in both 1918 and 1945, soldiers returning from the front lines expected their jobs back. Torn away from their civilian lives, either by choice or through conscription, soldiers sought to claim back their professions and livelihoods. The experiences of women after the First and Second World Wars, were not completely alike however. After, and towards the end of, the First World War, many were hopeful about the change it would bring to women in the UK. One trade unionist, Mary Macarthur said,

‘Of all the changes worked by the war none has yet been greater than the change in the status and position of women: and yet it is not so much that woman herself has changed, as that man’s conception of her has changed.’

Despite her hope, real change does not seem to have materialised. The wartime government was underprepared for the post-war rearranging of society and did not present an adequate solution to the problems faced. Women were forced out of their jobs in factories across the country, offered only the fare of their train ticket home, two weeks of pay and the promise of an ‘out-of-work donation’ that they would be expected to live off. Placed into an impossible situation, women were expected to give up their jobs for men but also were criticised for not finding work and contributing to the rebuilding of British society, the very same society that they had worked relentlessly to prop up during the war. In the face of this double-edged sword, many women were forced to return to jobs in the domestic sectors as servants and maids.
Demobilisation after the Second World War was not such an abrupt cut off from the working world for women. Whilst the same situation arose, that of returning soldiers expecting jobs, the government took a different approach. Employers were expected to accommodate for the new workforce and the ‘Reinstatement of Civil Employment Act, 1944’ meant that employees had a right to their pre-war job. Of course, this meant that women were under pressure to leave the jobs that they had held during the war. There was an expectation that women would return to their roles as mothers and wives, roles that they had never stopped playing during the war as they managed the double burden of both industrial and domestic labour.

This appears quite a pessimistic conclusion. Women’s contributions during the World Wars to the flour milling industry and to wider industry did not seem to lead directly to more equal opportunities and toward equality in the labour market. However, Gail Braybon and Penny Summerfield in their book, Out of the Cage: Women’s Experiences in Two World Wars, present a key point. Whilst women’s experiences of the two wars may not have led directly to change, it was upon this history and experience that feminist movements of the 60s and 70s drew upon to further their cause. The impact of the wars upon women’s relationship to work was highly important and women working in flour mills and on canal boats were a vital part of that.

Braybon, Gail, and Summerfield, Penny. Out of the cage: women’s experiences in two world wars. Volume 5, (London, 2013).
Unknown Author, ‘World War Two and the Idle Women’, Canalside Heritage Centre, 7th May 2020,
Beauty And The Barge, British Pathé, (1945),
Milling, 06/01/1943
Milling, 20/02/1943
Milling, 06/11/1943

Women, milling, and the world wars

Above: cigarette card issued as part of a series during, or shortly after, the First World War (The Mildred Cookson Collection, The Mills Archive Trust)

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