Tag Archives: Munitions

Hannah Spash: Blown up three times

Men and women did not have to be at the front to be at risk in the Great War. Air raids and dangerous war work also threatened life and limb. Hannah Spash spent her late teens and early twenties as a munitions worker and was injured three times.

Hannah Spash was born in 1897, second-youngest daughter of blacksmith George and his wife Kate Spash. They had married in around 1883 and had 11 children in total. By the 1890s, the family were living in Camberwell, where the last six of their children were born.

Hannah Spash during the Great War (image from IWM Women at War archive)

Hannah Spash during the Great War (image from IWM Women at War archive)

In 1911, the family (parents and those last six children) were living at Alfred Cottage, Lower Abbey Road, Belvedere – between Woolwich and Erith in what is now South East London, but was then part of Kent.  Hannah and her younger sister Polly were too young to work, but their brother Isaac was an engine cleaner for the South Eastern and Chatham Railway Company (which had a monopoly on rail travel in Kent), one sister worked as a domestic servant and another in a laundry. Middle sister Lillian, though, had managed to get a job as a clerk to photographic slide manufacturer.

When the war came, Hannah was one of many young working-class women who took up munitions work. By the end of 1917, she had worked in three different factories and had had rather hair-raising experiences in each. In December that year, she met the King and Queen on a visit to her place of work. Her account of the meeting, and her career, was published in the press that week:


Hannah Spash, a happy-faced girl of 20, is one of the girl workers to whom the King and Queen spoke during a visit to a munition factory in the London area yesterday.

“The King asked me whether I liked the dangerous work better than any other,” she said later, “and I replied, to the King’s amusement, ‘Well, I have been blown up three times, your Majesty, so I have got used to it.’  And so I have.  The first time I was very lucky. A pot of a certain chemical dropped in my shed and the explosion blew an arm off the girl standing next to me, but I escaped almost unhurt.

“The second time the explosion blew up the table at which I was working, and it was wonderful that I did not have both legs blown off instead of having only a knee and foot dislocated and my face badly scarred. You can see the scars now.  The third time was when I was working in a gunpowder shed. The explosion blew the shed to pieces and killed two girls. I was flung out on to a field, and only recovered consciousness while being taken home.

“All the accidents happened in a year, and I had to be away three months after two of them, but I was always longing to get back to work. I am still on explosives.  Why do I like it? Well, I am very fond of a brother who is fighting in France, and I like it because it helps him and the others who are there.”

(Unnamed newspaper, 15 Dec 1917. Transcribed by Sue Light: link)

In January 1918, Hannah Spash was awarded the Medal of the Order of the British Empire “For courage and high example in countinuig her work in a filling factory having been on three separate occasions injured by explosions.”

Despite her apparent keenness to work in dangerous factories, Spash survived the war. In the early 1920s, she married Joseph Dawson, with whom she had at least one child. She provides an great example of the work done and bravery shown on the home front during the Great War.


Posted by on 21 September 2013 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners, Women


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A Bermondsey family’s war effort: the Holtons

We tend to think of families in the Great War in terms of the service of the sons, brothers or fathers in the armed forces. They were not necessarily the only ones to play a part, though – many women went to work in munitions or other jobs as more men left civilian life. One example of this is the Holton family who lived in Bermondsey.

In 1911, leather finisher James W Holton and his wife Sarah Ann (nee Longhurst) lived at 33 Marcia Road, off the Old Kent Road, with seven of their children, who ranged in age from 11 to 24. They had married on Christmas day 1883 and had a total of 16 children before James died in 1913 (Sadly, seven of their children had died before 1911, another two lived elsewhere).

The Holtons listed at 33 Marcia Road in 1911

The Holtons listed at 33 Marcia Road in 1911

Reginald George Holton, a 14-year-old errand boy in 1911, was working as a warehouseman in 1915 when he went to East Dulwich to enlist in the Royal Field Artillery. He was a 5 feet 4 inches tall, with a tattoo on his right arm. Before going to the front, he got in trouble for going absent without leave for a week in November 1915.

Part of Reginald Holton's service papers

Part of Reginald Holton’s service papers

Despite his indiscretion, he joined 167 Brigade’s artillery in France as a drvier on 12 December 1915 and remained on the Western Front for the next three and a half years. In May 1916, Driver Holton joined the D battery of 162 Brigade’s artillery.

Meanwhile Sarah Holton and her youngest daughter Ethel went to work for John Bell, Hill and Lucas, Ltd, making gas masks in their factory on Tower Bridge Road, Bermondsey. The company were pharmaceutical chemists in peace, so well placed to make gas masks to keep up with the advances in chemicals used in gas warfare in the Great War. They had opened their London Works on Tower Bridge Road in 1909.

According to the National Roll of The Great War, Sarah worked in the factory for three years (presumably from 1915 until the end of the war) and was joined there by 17-year-old Ethel from August 1917 until September 1918.

In the Holton family – like many others – at least three members took part in the war effort. Reginald drove for the artillery in France and Flanders, while his mother and sisters were making gas masks to counter the gas shells fired by his counterparts in the German artillery.

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Posted by on 16 February 2013 in Ordinary Londoners, Women


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