The Royal Ordnance Factory
Bridgend South Wales
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A Personal Story by Mrs Brown

This is a personal account of one individual’s experience of war work in the Bridgend ROF known locally as the Arsenal between 1939 and 1942.

Gladys Barrington was born in 1918 the youngest daughter of a local shoemaker and repairer, she was one of eight children comprising of 3 boys and 5 girls that lived in a small house on Newcastle Hill in Bridgend.

Gladys who as the youngest member of the family had to run innumerable errands and help find work for her father still did well at school. Although she matriculated with good passes there was no way the family could send her to university.

So at the age of fifteen she went to work as a family maid for D.G. Williams – Wholesale Grocers in Bridgend, they paid her 5 shillings per week. Her working week started at 7.0am and finished at 6pm from Monday until Saturday evening with Sunday’s as her day off.

In July 1939 at the age of 21 Gladys was married to Joe Brown a specialist bricklayer who was involved in the construction of the Bridgend ROF and Swansea Airport. Like many other women at this time she remained at home looking after her husband and their house whilst he was at work.

At the commencement of war in September 1939 Mrs. Brown was asked to take in lodgers who were also involved in war work at RAF St Athan. It was not long after this that she received her conscription notice that gave her the option of either joining the armed services, the land army or working in a government factory.

Living near the Arsenal and being recently married she chose the latter and started working at the ROF in early 1940.

At this point in time Mrs Brown had only worked in domestic service so she had no previous industrial experience to prepare her for what was to come.

Mrs Brown was assigned to the Cordite operation as a principle inspector with the Chief Inspector of Armaments Section, she had no choice in this position, and it was her assigned job for the duration of her stay at the Arsenal.

In this role she was responsible for inspecting the finished linen cordite fillings, the gunpowder charges and igniters.

Training was usually provided by senior ROF employees, these came from other sites such as Waltham Abbey and the Woolwich Arsenal, in her case a Plumstead employee was the overseer.

Mrs Brown worked a rotating three-shift system of mornings, afternoons, and nights; she worked seven days of the week with no holidays, and her normal working week was about 45 hours.

The shifts were designated Red, Blue, and Green, Mrs Browns shift was Blue and her staff number was 177.

Pay was generally speaking good with some women earning more than their husbands were; this was also true in Mrs Brown’s case. Her job paid over £3-00 per week an exceptional wage for a woman at that time.

In her job there was no overtime payment, as overtime was not allowed in the inspection team. The shift team consisted of four inspectors with an area foreman.

One can imagine the trepidation that she experienced when she started working in this large industrial munitions complex.

Morning shift started at 7.00 am prompt, so it was early rising to get washed, dressed, then cook breakfast for her husband and lodgers as well as make her own sandwiches of Bransten Pickles, and Cheese for her lunch before leaving home to catch the bus into the Bridgend Arsenal.

Mrs Brown’s husband had bought her a bicycle for her 21 st birthday, and on fine days she would cycle to work.

Entry to the works was via a long tunnel at the end of this were barriers that were policed by the security officers, and everyone was checked for contraband such as cigarettes and matches. Quite a number were found even amongst the womenfolk, often cigarettes and matches were found stuffed into their hair. Other forms of contraband included jewellery, and alcohol.

Exiting the tunnel the workers boarded special single story busses with wooden slatted seats, theses bussed 40 or more workers at a time to their individual sections around the works.

Mrs Brown’s section was located in the Southern central area of the Waterton site approximately where the Sony Television Tube factory is located today. The Cordite building was a largish hanger shaped building, which had outer and inner doors at either end. The sides of the building were protected against blast by a black shale covering. The inner doors were made of big thick rubberised material these doors were only opened when the outer ones were closed and vice versa.

To her everything seemed to be made rubber or wood, the floor and workbench coverings were covered in rubber backed linoleum, and the tools, benches, trestles etc were made of good quality wood.

Although the lighting was good in this building no heating was provided so in wintertime warm garments had to be worn under the shop coats, Galoshes were worn at all times.

Empty artillery shells, igniters, primers and Cordite bags were brought in by the “Dillie Men” on low-level rubber wheeled trolleys called “Dillies”

On long benches work passed between operations from one stage to another, there was a Cordite bagging section that made the Cordite charges for fitting into the shells.

Additional charges were made up of gunpowder filled slotted tubes, and fitted to the shell casings, following that the igniters were added.

All of the work was inspected at each stage for defects and was either passed or rejected against rigorously enforced standards.

Mrs Brown was in charge of inspection in the ROF Cordite section making shells for the Army Artillery and Navy.

Extra-special attention was paid to the stitching on the Cordite linen bags; if the stitches were of the wrong size or shape the bag was rejected.

Each batch was recorded and clearly identified with the inspector’s own personal stamp “CIA 177” in Mrs Brown’s case.

Failed work was returned for rework to the relevant section, whilst work that passed was stamped with “LOT” numbers plus the inspectors stamp and then removed to the storage area’s on Dillies this time through the rear pair of doors.

At mid-morning there was a 15 minute break for a cup of tea in the canteen, then back to work until lunch time for a half hour break in the canteen.

There were many canteens on the site serving thousands of workers, the food was good and reasonably priced, although many like Mrs Brown brought their own sandwiches. Often the workers would be shown films of the war effort, with films showing the conveys being bombed, and sometimes they were shown films of the German aircraft being shot down – this usually brought loud cheers from the diners.

Other’s showing the despatch of munitions from the Arsenal and “ The Pathe' War News” were sometimes shown.

During the working day music was played in each building, and the radio programs were often interrupted with announcements.

Practice air raid sirens were conducted each month with different sirens for practice, and full alerts; and if the latter sounded workers would go straight to shelters.

Air raid shelters were provided outside most buildings, and each accommodated a dozen or so individuals. On air raid alerts the workers would go to the nearest shelter, however, Mrs Brown never felt afraid during her time at the Arsenal.

The workers did not consider these shelters adequate at the time, mainly because of their proximity to the explosive buildings.

First aiders were included in each group, including the Cordite section, they would deal with minor accidents, with site nurses and doctors dealing with the major accidents.

Mrs Brown made many friends at work and got along well with all of her work colleagues, there were some real characters amongst these, but not all relationships were so amenable.

Outside her circle she learned of many broken marriages, with women straying due to the liberation that their new-found independence and wealth gave them. Some went astray after their first big pay, and they were often courted by the free spending Americans when they arrived in the South Wales valleys.

Most of the women were between the ages of 21 and 25 although there were some older women in their 50’s working throughout the Arsenal complex.

There were a number of men employed in the Arsenal at this time, and these were generally speaking older men in their 40’s, or key workers, or those unfit for military service. A number of women didn’t like this, and were very bitter towards these men who weren’t in military service, many stating that they should be in the army.

In summer time it was very hot working in Cordite section as no cooling was provided in the building, and in sharp contrast to the winter she now had to dress in very light clothing under her White gown with it’s RED arm band.

Notwithstanding this Mrs Brown considers herself very fortunate as the Cordite inspection work was clean, and since there was no machinery in her department it was quiet except from the radio blasting out “Workers Play Time” and “Its that man again” - fondly known as “Itma”, and other BBC programs.

Most of Mrs Browns female work mates came from far and wide – from Maesteg, Aberdare, Mountain Ash and Pontypridd, they travelled in the main by train arriving at a specially created halt station at Tremains on a loop line. These journeys could and often took two hours – making for a particularly long day for the shift workers.

The Tremains Halt near the Hawain public house is no longer in use today, and the main Swansea to London line now passes through it. During the war it was on a specially constructed loop and it’s station had two platforms complete with bridges, with black walkways, with steps leading directly into the site via a security entrance.

Pay day was on Friday, and wage envelopes with their wages were delivered by hand, the wage packets itemised the number of hours worked and deductions such as income tax. Keeping the pay package safe was a problem as there was always the risk it being stolen.

Some of these young women couldn’t adapt to factory work and were so distressed that their service was terminated. Whilst others like Mrs Brown had no problems at work, although she does remember others quarrelling, and bickering a lot mainly about productivity with other women being bitchy and gossiping about others saying such things as – “she was carrying on with so and so”. Amongst 40,000 employees most of whom were young women it is more than likely that this represented the norm rather than the exception.

Mrs Brown remembers waiting in the pitch black out on cold and rainy nights for the bus to take her too work; this had no lights except for tiny holes in it’s main beam headlights that barely illuminated the road ahead. In the darkness it took ages to travel the 3 miles from her home in Great Western Avenue to the Waterton site.

Often she and many of the other workers could not sleep after their return home because of the constant disruption of the shifts to their sleep patterns.

There was no trade union representation at the Bridgend Arsenal and a special unit dealt with personnel matters, however, leave of absence had to be sanctioned by the foreman before the personnel department could be approached.

Mrs Brown’s elder sister also worked at the Arsenal in the High Explosives (HE) section as an overseer, and she would often relate her experiences to her older sister, about accidents involving explosives etc.

In 1942 Mrs Brown became pregnant with her first child, the baby was due early in 1943 and so she finished work 6 months before the birth. When she finished work at the end of 1942 her last day was like any other, in fact workers were starting and finishing daily, so this was a normal occurrence.

She enjoyed going to work, and loved it as she enjoyed the company of her work mates. Unfortunately it was at this time that Joe Brown’s deferment came to an end, and he was called up being posted to Dartmoor before seeing service with the “The 5 th Army Group Royal Artillery” in North Africa. The irony of this was that he was firing artillery shells made in the Bridgend Arsenal, many of which had been passed for use by his wife.

After 60 years Mrs Brown still has vivid visions of her experiences at the Bridgend Arsenal that remain with her to today, in allowing us the privilege of hearing her story we may gain a greater insight into the sacrifices made by her and many of her contemporaries.

For this we thank her

------//------

Joe Ludlow
Brackla
Bridgend

June 2002

 

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