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Chesterfield MP recognises contribution of munitions workers in Parliamentary debate

Toby Perkins, Chesterfield’s MP, yesterday took part in a Westminster Hall debate in Parliament, called to recognise the great contribution of munitions workers to Britain’s war effort.  Munitions workers, most of whom were women, were essential to the war effort during the First and Second World Wars and their dangerous work in factories produced the ammunition used by soldiers on the frontline. In total, there were 1.5 million women employed making munitions.

While Armed Forces veterans, ‘Land Girls’ and ‘Bevin Boys’ have all been recognised for their contribution in war time, through special commemorative badges, no such official recognition has ever been awarded to the women who risked life and limb in the munitions factories.

You can read Toby’s full speech below:

“It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. This is not the first time, but it is exciting none the less.

This has been an excellent debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Robert Flello on his excellent speech and on the work he is doing to promote this issue. He started by reflecting that the debate was recognising some of the forgotten heroes. In as much as they have been forgotten by history, the work that the all-party group is doing and the speeches by hon. Members today are ensuring that they are forgotten no longer. We need to recognise the contribution they made. My hon. Friend reflected on the huge personal risks and sacrifices made by munitions workers, known as “canaries” because of the effects of their work with chemicals. I endorse the work of the all-party group. The Opposition should look to work with the Government and the all-party group on some of the more difficult issues to do with individual recognition.

Mark Reckless broadened the description of people who also served. When discussing this issue, we need to reflect on the many people who contributed in different ways to the war effort. Steps forward have been taken in recent years to recognise various groups, and the hon. Gentleman gave us a glimpse of other groups that we might choose to bring under this umbrella in the future. Perhaps inadvertently, he posed a challenge to my hon. Friend, as the description could continue to grow. At what point do we narrow it down? If we are asking for individual recognition, recognising that collective recognition that is long overdue—although there are real signs that it will be given—what work can the all-party group, with Government and the Opposition, do to try to narrow the description so that we can find out how many people are we talking about, how are we going to find them, who will do the work to see who will receive the recognition, and how we ensure that there is public confidence that a self-certification model will not demean the achievement in receiving it? Questions arise from the hon. Gentleman’s contribution.

My hon. Friend Nia Griffith reflected on the contributions and sacrifices of her constituents. She brought some colour to the debate, with her description of yellow-faced people swimming in a red river, which nicely brought to mind the massive personal sacrifice and contribution that people made. My hon. Friend Phil Wilson reflected on the fact that 90% of the workers in the factory at Aycliffe were women. More than 1 million women worked in munitions factories during the second world war. He alluded broadly to the way that history had, in various ways, written out women’s contribution to the second world war effort. As a society, we are belatedly recognising that contribution, and this debate helps in that process. My hon. Friend was also proud to talk of his respect for the Aycliffe Angels and the contribution they made to the war effort.

My hon. Friend Huw Irranca-Davies reflected on the importance of local munitions factories as employers in the pre-war years. He also reflected on the fact that the big immigration concern in the mid-1930s was whether people would come from Maesteg to steal all the jobs. As the world has shrunk, the issue has broadened out slightly, but it was none the less interesting to hear that concerns we still recognise today were alive and well in Bridgend in the 1930s. My hon. Friend Mr Brown made an interesting pitch for the tourism offer in his area. He made us aware that, today, we can still see evidence of what munitions factories were like, and many people will be interested in taking up his offer. He also reflected on the sacrifices made by workers at the time.

In discussing this issue and the fact that I would be contributing to the debate, I learned that my mother-in-law had worked in the Bryan Donkin factory in Chesterfield. The more we talk about this issue, the more we hear about people we never even realised had made a contribution. The BBC’s “People’s War” website included a contribution from the Derby action team about the war effort of munitions factory workers in Chesterfield. It mentioned that Chesterfield people kept a relentless black-out to ensure the factories were never bombed, although errant German bombers accidentally bombed the Chesterfield football ground and the Walton golf course. What the Germans had against Chesterfield’s sporting prowess, we will never know, but they did not manage to get to the factories.

The eminent war historian Simon Fowler has written about munitions workers, and one quote brings together very nicely some of the issues we have talked about:

“Britain could not have emerged victorious in 1945 without the help of the many who selflessly worked all the hours they could to provide the materials the British Army and Allied troops used to defeat the Germans… People were injured or killed while making munitions every day. Their recognition is long overdue. They played a key part in the War and it’s a scandal it’s taken until now, when there are not many left to see it.”

Many of us would echo those comments. In recent years, there has been not only renewed appreciation of the role of our heroic armed forces, but wider recognition by society and, I glad to say, the Government of those who served in many other ways. In recent years, we have taken huge strides forwards in recognising the contribution of the Bevin boys, the land-girls and the Women’s Timber Corps, and we also have the memorial to women who died during the second world war.

I entirely support the recognition that munitions workers received for the first time at the Armistice day parade at the Cenotaph, and I congratulate the Royal British Legion on that. I also entirely support the campaign for a national memorial at Alrewas. I hope and expect that there will be wide public support for the campaign my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South described.

I acknowledge the difficulty posed by the lack of adequate records, as well as the fear that individuals will, as a result, never get the personal recognition we all think they deserve. I hope that wider recognition will be granted as quickly as possible, given that the clock is against many of those who clearly deserve recognition. Her Majesty’s Opposition are more than happy to be involved in cross-party talks on practical ways to move things forward in a way that enjoys confidence and is effective.

This debate is a time for us to recognise the debt that this generation owes to all those who stood up and were counted in Britain’s finest hour. It fell to them to fight for the essential freedoms that these blessed isles have enjoyed for so long and, God willing, will continue to enjoy. When questions were asked of that generation, they answered—and then some. They saved lives, but they also saved the world from a tyranny so evil that even imagining defeat makes our blood run cold.

In recognising the contribution of all those who served in our munitions factories in this debate, we are also passing on the gratitude, respect and thanks of this generation to all those who heroically served and saved our country all those years ago.”

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I am Toby Perkins, Labour's Member of Parliament for Chesterfield. If you would like to get in touch with me, my office is open and can be reached by phone on 01246 386 286. I also hold regular surgeries so that constituents can meet me and I can take up their concerns. If you would like to make an appointment then please do contact my office. Thank you for visiting.

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