Whilst reviewing some photographic material, our Museum Assistant brought to light images of women working on the factory floor of the Royal Mint. These black and white photographs capture a time when the employment of women in coining operations was still relatively new. How did these women come to be working in production? What jobs did they do? And how has the role of women in the Mint changed over time?
For many years women at the Royal Mint were employed in strictly domestic or secretarial positions. In 1823 the Establishment List mentions a female office keeper and the intriguingly titled ‘necessary woman’ who would most likely have carried out cleaning duties for Royal Mint Officers.
Over the next 90 years very little changed. The 1914 establishment list shows that at the outbreak of the First World War the Royal Mint employed about a dozen women who together made up approximately 2% of the workforce. The role of the necessary woman was superseded by a group of Charwomen and two typists were employed, one of whom was Miss Gladys Kate Chandler, who moved to the Mint from the Board of Education in May 1913. She has a particular connection to the Museum as she assisted WJ Hocking, the first Curator of the collection, in his ultimately frustrated attempt to catalogue the Museum Library. Miss Winifred Ida Lewis arrived from the Board of Agriculture in June 1913, possibly being transferred to the Mint at the behest of the newly appointed Deputy Master Sir Thomas Henry Elliot who had himself been Secretary of the Board.
The attitude towards the employment of women changed dramatically during the Second World War. Royal Mint Annual Reports show that by the end of 1938 20% of the staff, those who were members of the Reserve and Auxiliary Forces, were called ‘to the Colours’. Many other men were diverted to ‘war work’ within the Mint such as producing munitions components, processing metals for bullets and manufacturing cartridge weighing and gauging machines.
The lack of manpower due to conscription and munitions work combined with the continuing pressure for coinage made for a very heavy workload for the remaining Mint staff. Furious night bombing of London also made production difficult and by 1941 it was recognised that something had to be done to ensure that the high output required from the factory could be sustained. The Deputy Master John Craig ‘decided to take a step which had not been found necessary in the 1914-18 war to employ women and girls for certain of the coinage operations’.
The employment of women in production began on 9 June 1941. This was obviously an extremely significant event in the factory as it is recorded in the Press Room Diaries not only as an ‘item of interest’ but in red ink and bold capital letters.
The introduction of women to the factory was evidently a success. In 1942 the Superintendent of the Operative Department hailed the employment of female labour as ‘an important innovation‘ and that year the coining department produced a record breaking 54 million pieces in one month. By 1943 Establishment Lists show that the employment of female operatives had reached its war time peak. 278 women were working in production and they accounted for 29% of the total workforce. Women would be expected to work night shifts and an official decision was made to appoint marshals to conduct women working at night to the appropriate shelter during Air Raids.
Women were now ‘engaged in the production of coins and medals, manufacture of machines, dies, seals, stamp plates, etc., and on the maintenance of machinery’ being acknowledged as ‘skilled engineering women.’ Ladies were rising up the ranks but it was obvious that they were separate from the men. They had differently coloured clocking in cards and female supervisors were only responsible for other women.
By the last few years of the war the urgent demands for overseas coins had been met and at the end of March 1945 the orders still outstanding did not warrant the previous output of production. In 1946 the women employed in the Coining Department were gradually replaced by men returning from war service and in May of that year the few women remaining in the coining rooms were transferred to the Medal Section to work on the manufacture of Campaign Stars. By 1950 the number of women involved in the production process had gone down to two and women made up only 7% of the total workforce.
One lady working in the Mint in the 1950s deserves special mention. Marjorie Fidler (nee Holdsworth) was born in 1936 and began working as an experimental assistant in the Assay Department in October 1954. Recent research, prompted by the memory of our Senior Research Curator who is also the Royal Mint’s longest serving employee, has confirmed that Miss Fidler also had a talent for cricket, being a top order batswoman for both the Surrey Women’s and the Civil Service Women’s Teams.
In the early 1960s the number of women employed at the Mint began to rise once again, not just in the offices but also in the factory. At first less than 20 but by 1968 there were 67 ladies working in production areas where women remain an important part of the Royal Mint to this day.