St Dennis WI Honours Women and ‘Canary Girls’ in Poppy Curtain

2022 is the centenary of St Dennis WI and, as part of the commemorations of this milestone, the current members of St Dennis WI decided to create a poppy curtain for their parish church. The hope is that the curtain will continue to be used for many years to come.

As well as the red poppies, two other significant items are featured – a statue of a woman in uniform and some yellow poppies. As the WI is an organisation for women, members of St Dennis WI thought it would be right for them also to commemorate the part women played during both the First and Second World Wars – those who joined uniformed organisations and those who filled vital roles in factories and jobs that had previously been filled by men. Below is some information about ‘The Canary Girls’ – and the reason for the yellow poppies.

The sacrifice of soldiers killed during World Wars One and Two is well-documented. But the efforts of munitions workers stained yellow by toxic chemicals is a story much less told. These so-called ‘Canary Girls’ risked life and limb to supply munitions to the frontline. In their droves they signed up to fill the gaps left by those called into service, taking jobs in transport, engineering, mills and factories to keep the country moving. But while those who swapped domestic life for the assembly line were spared the trauma of the trenches, their jobs were nonetheless fraught with danger. Munitions workers were prime targets for enemy fire, with sites routinely flattened by enemy bombs. Those who were spared such a fate were no less safe, facing daily peril by handling explosive chemicals that carried the risk of them contracting potentially fatal diseases. And for some, the effects of their work were immediately visible; a lurid shade of yellow that stained their skin and hair and earned them a nickname – the Canary Girls.

Though temporary, the effects of packing shells with trinitrotoluene – more commonly known as TNT – ran more than skin-deep. Of those who survived life in the factories, many were beset with health problems in later life. Some reported bone disintegration, while others developed throat problems and dermatitis from TNT staining. Others suffered more sinister illnesses – one of the most serious being a liver disease called toxic jaundice.

Working in the factories was seen by some as a “patriotic act”. About a million women worked at thousands of Ministry of Munitions sites during both world wars. But the number of those killed or seriously injured in the line of duty is not documented.

We thank St Dennis WI for this important history lesson, and for featuring women and, specifically, the Canary Girls in their poppy curtain.

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