They risked being blown up, disfigured, having miscarriages and suffering other life-changing injuries. They were known as the Canary Girls because their skin and hair were turned yellow by the deadly cocktail of chemicals – known as devil’s porridge – used in the munitions factories where they worked in secret.

Yet, the two million women who were largely responsible for keeping the allies armed through two world wars are the only group whose contribution to the war effort has no national monument.

But a campaign to have an official memorial to the forgotten heroines is gaining momentum.

The Canary Girl Memorial Project is run by a small group of women is hoping to attract a national backer for the memorial at the National Arboretum, near Lichfield in Staffordshire.

Great British Life: Women at a First World War munitions factoryWomen at a First World War munitions factory (Image: Supplied)

A petition to support the campaign, launched last July, has attracted more than 15,000 signatories and more than £10,000 has been raised. But there is still a long battle ahead, said project chair, Sandra Gold-Wood, from Sedbergh.

‘On Remembrance Day, we quite rightly honour those killed or injured on the battlefield. But these women also died, from explosions that were covered up at the time, or poisoned or had their hands blown off,’ said Sandra.

‘Their sacrifice was no less than many other wartime workers. Many of them paid the ultimate price: some died, others suffered long-term health issues, were maimed, or scarred from the work they did.

‘Their contribution was certainly no less than the land girls, who were arguably in less danger, yet do have a memorial. It doesn’t seem right.’

Great British Life: Sandra Gold-Wood with the canary wreath on Remembrance DaySandra Gold-Wood with the canary wreath on Remembrance Day (Image: Sandra Gold-Wood)

The committee approached the National Memorial Arboretum, whose stated aim is to honour the fallen, recognise service and sacrifice, and foster pride in the British Armed Forces and civilian community. It has 400 memorials already, but none to the Canary Girls.

The Arboretum has supported the project in principle, and the campaigners have started to raise the £300,000 they estimate they need.

But the project has been told they either need to get the backing of a national organisation or be designated a charity. The charity commission has ruled them out as they don’t help anyone alive now. And they are struggling to find a national backer.

An important breakthrough could come on April 28 when Sandra has been invited to lay a wreath to the Canary Girls at the Chain Makers’ Festival in Birmingham. The festival is organised by the Trades Union Congress to honour the female workers who went on strike in 1912 in pursuit of a decent wage. A lot of the same women went on to work in the munitions factories.

Great British Life: The work was very dangerous and many were injured in accidentsThe work was very dangerous and many were injured in accidents (Image: Supplied)

Now, Sandra is hoping the TUC will provide the national backing necessary for the campaign to succeed. She also plans to use the chain makers’ event to kick off a national tour to raise awareness of the project and the role played by the munitions’ workers, including several in Lancashire.

Sandra, a 76-year-old retired social worker, came across the story of the Canary Girls by accident during the 2018 commemorations of the centenary of the end of World War One.

She researched the background and was upset to find there was no national memorial. With the help of a few friends, she set up the project and has now launched a website to promote their campaign.

She has become such an expert, she has been engaged by Pen and Sword publishers to write two books on the plight of the munitions’ workers, one for each world war.

There were 200 or more munitions factories across Britain. Up to 90 per cent of the workers were women who volunteered or were conscripted to board away from their homes in remote and secret locations. In World War Two these factories were camouflaged to avoid enemy attacks.

Despite the hardships and dangers, the women formed vibrant communities, even having their own football teams which thrived until they were banned by the Football Association in the 1920s.

Great British Life: Adding nitroglycerine to bags of guncottonAdding nitroglycerine to bags of guncotton (Image: Supplied)

The Canary Girls’ contribution to the war effort was also instrumental in the road to social changes including suffrage.

The factories were instigated by Lloyd George as “Minister for Munitions” who urged men to take the colours and women to fill the shells, needed in massive quantities for the Western front.

The largest factory was at Gretna near the Scottish-English border, covering an area two miles wide and nine miles long. By 1917, this factory was producing 800 tons of cordite a week. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited the factory, he called the deadly mixture “the devil’s porridge”.

Around a million women were engaged in this vital war effort in each world war. Some were as young as 14-years-old. They were sent away from their hometowns and billeted near the factories, giving many a chance for financial independence and freedom from the restraints of home life.

Great British Life: Women at a First World War munitions factoryWomen at a First World War munitions factory (Image: Supplied)

They filled shells with a substance called cordite, made from a mixture of guncotton, nitro-glycerine and petroleum jelly. These volatile and highly toxic substances were made by hand in large vats and packed into the shells, also by hand.

The ministry commandeered factories throughout the four home nations, transforming them from making items for the everyday market into producing munitions, mainly shell cases, bullets, detonators, and poison gas canisters.

The experiences of the First World War meant that when World War Two broke out, the munitions factories were quickly reinstated and again a million women workers were recruited.

They faced the additional danger of German bombs and during raids had to cower in the dark when bombers passed over head.

There have been previous attempts to raise the profile of the Canary Girls. In 2013 an all-party Parliamentary committee was formed to commemorate the munitions workers, under the initiative of then South Stoke MP Rob Flello.

‘We got as far as recruiting a stonemason to make memorial with the help of the Arboretum. We did manage to persuade Royal British Legion to allow munitions workers to take part in the annual commemoration at the Cenotaph, which still happens,’ he said.

Great British Life: An artist's impression of proposed Canary Girls memorial. An artist's impression of proposed Canary Girls memorial. (Image: Barbara Hartley of Garsdale Design)

‘But the sticking point was the Government, who said they didn’t have any records of who worked in the munitions factory and wouldn’t fund the memorial. Before we could raise the funds, the 2017 election came along and many of the people involved, including me, lost our seats.’

And Sandra added: ‘There is still no proper or substantial memorial in the UK for these heroic women. It is my hope that with public support this can be achieved.’

A spokesperson for the National Memorial Arboretum said: ‘The Canary Girls played a hugely valuable role in the war effort, and we understand the strong desire for them to be recognised at the National Memorial Arboretum.

‘This proposed memorial would complement more than 400 memorials that celebrate our nation’s heroes, including, but not limited to, His Majesty’s Armed Forces, the emergency services, civilian charities and associations, and individuals who have risked their lives or given all for our country.

‘It is important to note that the National Memorial Arboretum does not commission or install any memorials, instead providing an inspirational space for sponsors to locate tributes to service and sacrifice.

‘A formal application from a memorial sponsor is subject to approval by our Memorials and Landscapes Committee, in accordance with our policies, and if successful the sponsor needs to provide specific funding for the memorial to be installed and maintained in perpetuity.’

For more information, go to