Object of the Month – July 2013

July 2013 – Society of Women Welders badge, 1916 (NMLH.1992.655)

This rather stylish, brass-like badge, cast,  with a fine milled surface, depicts the ‘sparks’ of the Society of Women Welders badge, 1916oxyacetylene welding process, a relatively new engineering technology  on the eve of the World War 1. The outbreak of World War 1, being the first ‘Total war’, meant that thousands of British women, ultimately from all classes, were needed in the engineering, armaments and aviation  industries to take the place of the skilled male workers required in the  various theatres of war. Women welders however had already been working in these industries for a number of years prior to 1914. The Sopwith Aviation Company, founded in 1912 in Kingston upon Thames, employed predominantly women. Sopwith’s  female welders and engineers produced over 13, 000 aircraft between 1914 and 1918; included was the famous single-seat biplane fighter, the Sopwith Camel.

Women welders at Sopwith’s and other firms such as Napier’s and Menn’s, did not receive the same rate of pay as the male welders . This was the main reason for seeking to establish the Society of Women Welders (SWW), founded in May, 1916. Lacking knowledge, funds and premises, the women secured advice on how to organize from Mary Macarthur’s Women’s Trade Union League, financial help from the London Society of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), and shared an office with the Active Service Society of Women Motor Drivers (SWMD). Once set up and in negotiation with employers, the SWW secured an increase in pay from 8d to 9d an hour, bringing them closer to the male welders’ rate of 1s per hour. The SWW was ultimately not a large trade union, its membership being close to seven hundred.

Women Welders WW I_litho print 1917 by Nevinson, CRW (ARA)_holder IWM London_Cat Numb Art.IWM ART 693. IWM Non-Commercial LicenceInterestingly, the Society of Women Welders was middle class. This was due to the fact that the suffragist NUWSS, largely middle class and patriotic like many of the suffragettes in 1914, played a major part in building up the SWW. It did this by increasing its membership for the war effort, and  facilitating training in the skilled field of arc welding. The SWW was in fact an Active Service body, just like the SWMD, a Home front organization established by the Women’s Service Bureau. The WSB was the brainchild of Phillipa Strachey of the NUWSS. In short, from 1914 on the WSB provided a service for employers and the country as a whole, in time of direst need. Many of the female welders they trained and supplied were inevitably middle class ‘dilution’ welders or possibly ‘dilution officers’ in the welding sections of certain factories,  such was the need for ever more welders. Class divisions tend to dissolve in wartime.  The SWW President was the prominent suffragist and writer Rachel (Ray) Strachey (nee Costelloe), a remarkable figure who secured a mathematics degree at Newham College, Cambridge, and studied engineering at Oxford University in 1910. Ray Strachey herself was almost certainly skilled in arc welding. In 1914 Strachey was already highly committed to securing opportunities, equal rights and pay for women in the workplace, particularly in engineering. She was also a close friend of Virginia Woolf

The contribution of the Society of Women Welders towards Britain’s aircraft production during the Great War was but one reason among countless others why women, from the age of 30 upwards, were granted the vote in 1918. This Active Service society, little known but for this badge, wound up its activities in August 1918.

In 1928, women from the age of 21 upwards secured the vote.