The Canary Girls project was conceived during the global pandemic of COVID-19 as we combatted a deadly virus. My beloved city of London changed dramatically in a way that I had never experienced before. I found myself taking long, solitary walks through eerily quiet, deserted streets. I saw my city through different eyes, and somehow my perspective began to shift. I thought a lot about how times had changed and listened to people making comparisons with the Coronavirus crisis and the Second World War. My mother had been a nurse in London during WW2. She had kept a diary and I remember an entry describing her standing on the roof of her hospital beneath the barrage balloons as the German planes flew overhead.
I decided to embark on a personal project to keep myself busy and motivated and an idea began to take shape.
The Canary Girls project initially developed after seeing a photograph from the Imperial War Museum, of women at work in a Munitions factory in Park Royal, London. It piqued my interest, because my studio is based in this area and was once a Rolls Royce factory manufacturing luxury cars. Now it is home to many other creative artists and designers in a very different industry.
It seemed extraordinary to think that close to my design studio, on a similar factory floor to mine, women had been working with explosives. On one occasion much to everyone’s astonishment our entire neighbourhood had to be evacuated by Police as an unexploded WW2 bomb had been discovered just at the bottom of my road.
My work often begins with a photograph. An image that evokes a response. It asks a question, and my natural curiosity leads me down the rabbit hole to discover more and I find myself on a little journey of learning, and discovering all sorts of interesting facts.
I began to learn about the Munitionettes. Women who played a vital role working in Industry in Munitions factories sprinkled throughout the UK who were ‘doing their bit’ for their country. Munitions work involved mixing explosives, and filling shells and bullets with cordite.
The Canary Girls were British Women who worked in munitions manufacturing trinitrotoluene shells during World War One and Two. The nickname arose because of exposure to TNT which is toxic and repeated exposure can turn their skin an orange yellow colour reminiscent of the plumage of a canary.
These women worked with hazardous chemicals on a daily basis without adequate protection. Prolonged exposure to the TNT and sulfuric acid caused depigmentation and turned their skin yellow. Blonde hair could turn green, or black hair would turn red. As well as suffering cosmetic consequences these women faced risking explosions with every shell that passed through their hands. The working atmosphere was tense and the women were banned from wearing nylon and silk for fears of creating static that could lead to a rogue spark and detonate an explosion.
Imagine having to face this situation on a daily basis. These brave women who worked 12 hour long shifts faced danger every day. Whilst they worked with TNT which turned their hands yellow. It put into perspective my grumblings of a bad back, and my fingers burning from too much sewing!
I realise that these women were just doing their patriotic bit and were probably just getting on with their every day life in the best way that they could in order to get by. So I too, decided to do what I do best and make my hat collection and hope that I can touch some people along the way with the magnificent story of the heroic Canary Girls and then perhaps I too “did my bit” in my own little way.