Friday, 7 October 2011

Sepia Saturday 95: Working Women at Rolls-Royce in the Great War

Alan Burnett's chosen image for Sepia Saturday this week celebrates the election of Denmark's first woman prime minister. The image, from the Royal Library of Denmark's Flickr Commons Collection, appears to be a lithographed poster showing a group of women from the Socialdemokratiet (Social Democratic Party) marching with banners. I'm going to follow this with the theme of women taking on roles previously reserved for men. I have written before about women who worked in the Land Army during the Great War, but a photo sent to me recently from the studio of W.W. Winter portrays a group of women who took on a very different set of tasks while their menfolk were away fighting.

Image © and courtesy of Chris Elmore
Group of women workers with a male "supervisor" from Rolls-Royce, Derby, c.1916-1917
Large format mounted print by W.W. Winter, Midland Road, Derby
Image © and courtesy of Chris Elmore

This image was sent to me by Chris Elmore, who wrote:
I believe the attached photograph was taken by W W Winter of Derby in 1916 or 17. It shows women who were recruited by the Rolls-Royce factory in Derby during the Great War. These ladies were perhaps the earliest to perform engineering tasks previously only performed by men. My grand mother Ada May Morris née Rudkin is in the photograph (seated second row from the front next to the last right) dressed in black out of respect for her husband Henry Augustus Morris D.C.M. who had died at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.

Image courtesy of War is Over
Rolls-Royce Armoured Car, unknown date and location

Much has been written about the women who worked in the Rolls-Royce factory in Derby during the Second World War, assembling Merlin engines which powered the celebrated Spitfires, but I've not been able to find a great deal about their role there during the Great War. When war broke out and orders for luxury cars all but disappeared, the factory initially took in some small orders for the manufacture of shell casings and ambulance wagons. The chassis of the Silver Ghost was also adapted for use in the construction of armoured cars, employed by T.E. Lawrence in his desert campaigns, but this was not enough to keep the factory running.

Image courtesy of
Handley Page Type O Bomber, nr Dead Sea, Palestine, c. 1918-1920
Image courtesy of Middle East Pictures

Although the British government had intended that the Derby factory manufacture existing aero engine designs under license, Henry Royce had other ideas. First tested in early 1915, the Eagle was designed from scratch by Royce and his engineering team, and subsequently became one of the mainstays of the British war effort, used to power a number of aircraft, including the Handley Page bomber. By the end of the war, the plant was making 50 engines a week.

If anyone can shed any further light on the women who worked at the Rolls-Royce Factory during the Great War, the kind of work they did, etc., Chris Elmore will be very grateful for the information.

Here's a quiz for all you budding and practised sleuths out there. What did it take New Zealand and Australia over a century to achieve, while Great Britain and Argentina almost managed it in half a century, and yet countries like India, Sri Lanka and Israel could do it in two or three decades? By the way, the United States has yet to do it, and Saudi Arabia can't do it.


Rolls-Royce Eagle and Rolls-Royce Limited, Wikipedia.

Botticelli, Peter (1995) Rolls-Royce and the Rise of High-Technology Industry, in Creating Modern Capitalism: How Entrepreneurs, Companies, and Countries, Triumphed in Three Industrial Revolutions, Thomas K. McCraw (ed.), pp.96-129.

Clegg, George (1968-1970) George Clegg Reminisces, Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts' Club.

King, Peter (2003) A Woman's Place in the Factory, Derby, BBC WW2 People's War.


  1. I think the answer is having a woman as head of state.

  2. Good try, Postcardy, but you're only half-way there, so I'm afraid I can't give you the cigar.

  3. Theses are a terrific set of photos about Rolls Royce. I worked in with British Rail for several years in the 90s so this post is of special interest to me.

  4. Grreat quiz, got me completely stumped, although I thought as Postcardy......

  5. Interesting take on the theme. I did not realize the roll of working women in WWI. WWII definitely gets all the press. Something else to distract my attention ....

  6. Do you mean elected head of state rather than just head of state?

  7. Getting closer Sheila, but still not quite there.

  8. A great post and photo. I would think that training women from this era was still a big challenge for any factory with industrial tools. The new dynamic of older men instructing women, and large groups of them too to judge by this photo, in engineering concepts must have introduced a strong twist to more modern liberating thought.

    As to the riddle, I'm stumped if it isn't head of state/prime minister/president as that's the common thread in all those countries. Now it's going to run though my head for the rest of the weekend. Arrgh!

  9. The answer "elected woman head of state" is correct ... but you have all ignored the other aspect of the question.

  10. As far as the US is concerned the answer is Play Fair. I wish I was not so cynical but man it is a mess here. This does not look like Rosie the Riviter. All of these women are too dressed up. It is a very interesting post for sure. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Something to do with the length of time after women got the vote until one was elected head of state?

    The first photo has so many interesting faces not to mention a fur rug.

  12. Exactly Kristin, well done. It struck me how proudly New Zealand tell the world that women achieved the right to vote in 1893, and yet it took us until 1999 - over a century - to elect a woman head of state. Yet others have managed to achieve the same feat after a mere two decades of women's suffrage.

  13. That armored car is just silly almost! But what a great group of photos you found for this theme....women sure did do a lot of things...hey we still do!

  14. This is the first that I have seen of an airplane like that. I bet it was dependable. Thanks for the interesting post.

    Kathy M.

  15. I had a feeling that the theme photo would throw up some fascinating related images and some first class research. You never disappoint Brett.

  16. Great photos and such a well-researched post. I had no idea that women worked in factories like Rolls-Royce during WWI. I was under the false impression that they didn't take those jobs until WWII. Thanks for educating me and giving me some new information to ponder.


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