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Historical Perspectives

Employment during the Second World War

Dave Lyddon, Keele University

Unemployment had scarred the inter-war years and had blighted the lives of more than one generation of workers, particularly in the depressed areas. With rearmament in the late 1930s, the total unemployed had fallen by 1939 to about 1 million men and 250,000 women. By 1944 only 40,000 men and 14,000 women were officially registered as unemployed. War, as ever, had been a massive job-creation exercise.

The number of men in the armed forces rose from half a million in 1939 to over 4.5 million in 1945, with another quarter of a million in civil defence, the fire service and the police. With the absorption of unemployed men, there were 3 million less male workers in civilian employment by the end of the war than at the beginning. In the main this 'manpower' gap was filled by women. Hence the song:

'She's the girl that makes the thing that drills the hole that holds the spring
That drives the rod that turns the knob that works the thingumebob.
She's the girl that makes the thing that holds the oil that oils the ring
That makes the shank that moves the crank that works the thingumebob.
It's a ticklish sort of job,
Making a thingumebob,
Especially when you don't know what it's for!
But it's the girl that makes the thing that drills the hole that holds the spring
That works the thingumebob that makes the engines roar.
And it's the girl that makes the thing that holds the oil that oils the ring
That works the thingumebob THAT'S GOING TO WIN THE WAR.'

Women's paid employment rose from some 4.8 million in 1939 to over 7 million civilian workers by 1943 (the peak year) plus nearly half a million in the Women's Auxiliary Services and another 70,000 in civil defence, fire and police. (Female civilian employees included 750,000 part-time - 30 hours per week or less - workers in 1943, a figure that rose to 900,000 the next year, though only 200,000 of these were in the munitions and related industries. From April 1942 the government directed the work of part-time women to maximize the use of this extra labour supply.)

The biggest increase in female civilian work was in the metalworking sector (particularly in the munitions industries) where employment quadrupled from about 400,000 to 1.6 millions by 1943 (men's employment had also risen here, though more slowly, to 3 millions that year). The next biggest rise was in national and local government where the number of women workers more than doubled from 450,000 in 1939 to over 1 million in 1945. On the railways, by the summer of 1943, some 100,000 women had replaced the same number of under-25-years-old men who had been called up.

The amount of extra labour from overseas was quite small in comparison. Apart from the Irish already working in Britain, Irish men came to work in agriculture or as labourers in civil engineering while Irish women came into domestic and hospital service. Later, some 40,000 Irish workers were recruited direct from Ireland for the
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Employment during the Second World War by Dave Lyddon