The story of a Wigan Canary Girl and the campaign to honour our forgotten heroines
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Eric Martlew, a former MP for Carlisle, is the son of a one-time Wigan munitions worker and is backing efforts for a statue to be fashioned to honour this neglected body of people who slaved in potentially lethal industrial conditions.
Like many women, Molly Martlew was injured while carrying out the dangerous task of making explosives during the war.
During both global conflicts, dozens of munitions factories were built or commandeered around Britain and with most men of working age fighting abroad, more than a million women staffed the factories.
They were mostly of working class stock who spent their days filling bullets and shells and they were known as ‘Canary Girls’.
The name came about because repeated exposure to the toxic chemicals used in TNT, which they mixed in vats, could turn their skin and hair an orange-yellow colour, like the feathers of a canary.
Close contact with these toxins could also cause breathing problems and other health issues including the daily risk of injury such as, burns, losing a limb, blindness and even death.
Sparks produced in the mixing process would sometimes cause explosions that could kill people, and for safety reasons, the women were banned from taking anything metal into the building which meant: no hairpins, no safety pins and definitely no matches, though accidents still happened.
In 1940, 30-year-old Molly from Wigan was married with five children - Ronnie, Dennis, Joyce, June and Joe - when she went to work at the Royal Ordnance Factory at Euxton near Chorley, which employed up to 35,000 people.
Molly’s youngest son tells her story and of why he supports the drive for a statue to be built in memory of these hidden female figures and the work they carried out for our country.
Eric, who was the parliamentary member for Carlisle between 1987 and 2020, said: “I suspect that her main reason for going there was the money. It was a lot better than could be earned in other factories or the mills.
“My father, George, used to drive the train from Wigan to the private station at the munitions factory, but my mother would never get on the train he drove because she said he would crash it!
“In the summer of 1941, she was putting detonators into bombs.
“They called it ‘tickling them in’ because if you didn’t get it quite right, they could blow up.
“That day, one of them did and it took my mother’s right thumb and two fingers off. She was right-handed.
“When they took her to the medical centre they said ‘You’re pregnant.’
“She said, ‘I know. But if I’d told you, you’d have stopped me working.’
“Fortunately, there was an eminent surgeon working close by, he saved the rest of her hand and redesigned it so she could still use it.
“After that she had my brother, Les, who turned 80 in November 2021.
“My mother received £600 in compensation, which was a lot of money during the war and she wanted to buy a house with it, but my father didn’t.
“They spent some of it sending my second-oldest brother, Dennis, to grammar school.
“He had passed the exam, but before the 1944 Education Act came into place, they had to pay.
“My eldest brother, Ronnie, had also passed the exam, but there was no money left to send him, so he missed out.
“The money was spent buying things on the black market, which got the family through the war.
"My mother go back to the munitions factory, so went to work at the Heinz factory just outside Wigan and had two more children, a girl who was stillborn, and in 1949, me.”
The National Memorial Arboretum, in Staffordshire, is a centre of remembrance with nearly 400 memorials to those who served in wars around the world, it includes a statue to the Women’s Land Army and the Women’s Timber Corps.
The WLA boosted Britain’s food production during the Second World War, and tended to be middle class, and the Lumberjills as they were known, tackled a shortage of timber working in forestry.
Yet the mainly ordinary working-class Canary Girls, who risked their lives every day, do not have one.
Sandra Gold-Wood runs The Canary Girls Project, a trust trying to raise funds for a statue to be built there in the name of these brave women.
It has an architect trustee who has produced a design for it and two sculptors who wish to be involved.
Sandra said: “In 1915 the press of the day declared the government guilty of not supplying enough munitions for the troops at the front, calling it a shell scandal.
"This led to a huge recruitment campaign aimed at women and girls from 16 to 19 and then in 1916, slightly older and married women.
"The campaign stated that it was “healthy work” in “ideal conditions”, but without a doubt this was untrue.
"Many factories where women worked were turned over to producing munitions and they were left with little choice but to carry on.
"Although, generally speaking, the women were well paid they still earned half of what a man was paid for doing the same job.
“There are 400 memorials in the arboretum dedicated to all the branches of the armed and the auxiliary services, including dogs and pigeons, but not for these ordinary, and in my view extraordinary, women.
"The Canary Girls Memorial Project is seeking equality of esteem and we have been raising funds by giving presentations to groups and societies.
"We also sell yellow poppies and have laid wreaths of yellow poppies on local war memorials at remembrance.”
Eric started to think about his mother’s story again after hearing Sandra being interviewed on BBC Radio Cumbria in 2021.
Eric said: “I am supporting Sandra’s campaign, which needs to raise about £150,000. She calls these women, the “wars’ forgotten heroines”.
“In 1952 my father was transferred to Carlisle by British Railways and became one of the top drivers on the West Coast Mainline, occasionally driving the Royal Family.
“Decades later, as MP for Carlisle, I successfully campaigned for the £9bn upgrade of the West Coast Main Line (WCML).
“My mother got a job as a machinist at the Metal Box factory as there was a system then called a Green Card, where companies had to employ a percentage of disabled workers.
“They gave her certain jobs she could do but she was always conscious of her disability.
“Very often, if you see a picture of her she would have gloves on. It must have bothered her, but she never let it show.
“I remember once as a child she was taking me for a walk and I was holding her hand and I said, ‘I don’t want your funny hand…’
“My father died when I was 17. Driving steam trains wasn’t good for your health and the Senior Service cigarettes didn’t help.
“It was rough when he died and a lot of the family had left home so I was the only one working as my mother had stopped working to look after my father, but she got her job back afterwards.
“She was a grafter and her family meant everything. Women of her generation and upbringing didn’t expect a lot.
“They left school, they went to work in the cotton mills in Wigan, they got married, they had children and they brought up their family.
“She wanted more than that for her children. We all did reasonably well.
“In March 1987 I was picked as the Labour candidate for Carlisle in the General Election, my mother was very ill at the time.
“The family were called to the Cumberland Infirmary, because the doctors didn’t think she’d survive but she said, “I’ll get out of here, because you need my vote.”
“I had inherited a majority of only 71 from Ron Lewis, who’d been Labour MP for Carlisle since the 1960s, it was the most marginal Labour seat in the country.
“Within three days she was out of hospital but by the time of the election in June, she was back in the Infirmary.
“At the count I borrowed a mobile phone, which were very rare in those days, and called my mother to tell her I’d won, by 900 votes, “Is that all?” she said.
“She died in the August, aged 77.
“Months later a nurse who had looked after her in her final days stopped me and said, ‘I was talking to your mother after you were elected and she said to me, I wish our Eric would get a proper job.’
“My mother never really talked about the war as many people of that generation didn’t.
“She would watch the Service of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall with my grandmother.
“My grandmother lost her husband in the First World War, my mother lost her father, but it wasn’t talked about, it was a very different culture then.
“In a way, my mother was just an ordinary woman and it was an ordinary story, but a special story.
“You think of the deprivation, the hardship and the things that she and her colleagues did, I suppose they had to, it was the war.
“Their work was secret so they weren’t allowed to talk about it and the Canary Girls’ story has become forgotten history.
"But my mother deserves a statue. They all do.”
The Canary Girls project is currently seeking charitable status as the memorial plan will not be accepted if it does not have the backing of a national recognised body.
For more information about the statue campaign, and to make a donation, visit canary-girls.com