Demobilisation of munition workers

Delays in the process of demobilisation are causing an outcry in all parts of the country, wrote The Luton Reporter on Tuesday, January 7th, 1919. However, Mr H. G. Bovey, manager of Luton Employment Exchange, said no pains and time were being spared locally to expedite the efficient handling of an admittedly difficult problem.

Taking first the munition workers, Mr Bovey said there were in all something like 6,000 men, women, boys and girls to be demobilised in the Luton area, extending as far as Welwyn in one direction and Dunstable and Leighton Buzzard in another.

The process was that employers had to give the employee seven days' notice – in the case of the firm of George Kent Ltd, 14 days was given – and notify the Employment Exchange in advance of their intentions so that when the notice expired and an employee was thrown out of employment, the exchange were in a position to at once deal with the question of a placement in suitable employment, or alternatively providing the worker an out-of-work donation.

Jobs advertThose out of work were under an obligation to sign on for their donation policy two days a week, and each time they called at the office at Mill Street corner an order clerk was all out to try and get them into peacetime employment of a presumably beneficial and permanent character.

The employee could refuse an offer and it then became a question of whether the offer was a reasonably suitable one. If the worker and the official differed on the point it went to a court of referees to decide.

If the court decided that the offer was not suitable, it was open for the employee to go on drawing the out-of-work donation pending a more suitable placing. If, on the other hand, he decision was against the employee he or she ceased to have any further claim on the out-of-work donation unless they chose to go before and official umpire in London and succeeded in getting a reversal of the local verdict.

The procedure would seem on paper to be a pretty intricate and involved one, said The Reporter, but locally it was working out with comparative smoothness and mutual goodwill. Already something like half of the workers expected to be demobilised from local factories – something like 300 men and boys and nearly 3,000 girls – had been demobilised. One factor that had saved the situation locally had been about a thousand were so-called 'munitions imports'.

Said Mr Bovey: “There is no harm now in saying what could not be said some time ago – that after one or two of the serious explosions at Chaul End explosive works, particularly one which resulted in four fatal cases and others badly injured, such difficulty was experienced in getting hands from Luton, Dunstable, Leighton Buzzard and district that 'imports' were found absolutely essential.

“Altogether there have been about 3,000 girls brought into the district from all parts of the country, as far west as Cornwall and Devon, and as far north as Edinburgh, Glasgow and different parts of Ireland, and the fact that about a thousand of these have been returned to their homes has done much to ease the work of the local demobilisation officials.”

Another helpful factor had been the number of girls who had not waited to receive notice, but had left their war work of their own accord. Some took themselves off on the very day the armistice was signed, and that process was going on to some small extent up to Christmas. Mainly these were either girls who had entered munitions purely from a patriotic desire to be of service and had no need to continue in employment, or girls who had pre-war employment to return to at their pleasure. Here had been a good many of them, but naturally they formed a comparatively small percentage of the whole.

The Reporter said the rate of earnings made by munition workers had been much too alluring to cause the average worker to throw up the work with undue haste.

Locally there had been a large number of girls who had returned to the straw trade as machinists and finishers, to cardboard box making, and to the Waterlow's printing works in Dunstable. No difficulty was being experienced in getting girls to return to the straw trade, although there was a pretty general disinclination to make the move until after Christmas, and for this and other local industries the demand for vacancies outnumbered the supply.

Throughout the engineering trade in the district there was a state of unrest concerning what may happen as a result of the 'change-over,' and in the staple trade the employment of large numbers of additional female hands was being held up by the delay in the demobilisation of men in the forces. There were various large firms who were only waiting for the release of their pivotal men to make a start on increasing their output.

Outside the industrial field, said The Reporter, there were abundant openings for girls in domestic service, but the experience in Luton, as in other industrial centres, was hat girls would not take up domestic service after the high pay and freedom they had experienced in factory life.

“The trouble is that many of the demobilised workers are young girls who became 14 during the war and went straight away into munitions, so that the only wages they have experienced have been high wages. They have been offered domestic situations at salaries from £30 to £35 per annum with board and lodgings – a princely rate of remuneration compared with the average of pre-war days – but they instantly turn down such offers with some remark to the effect that they can get more by keeping on with the out-of-work donation of 25 shillings a week.”

But local difficulties were nothing compared with the task of effecting a speedy demobilisation of men serving with the forces. In this connection, figures were not permissible, but the number of soldiers to be demobilised in this area were likely to be more than double the number of munition workers, and so far no more than a comparative handful had found their way back into civilian life.

There were 23 clerks putting in long hours dealing the work which the applications for the release of soldiers entailed. And on Christmas Day alone, Mr Bovey himself had no fewer than ten soldiers who were due to return to France the next week up to see him, and, as a result of the steps he took, those ten men were all released the following Sunday, and instead of being back in France were in their old jobs.


Elsewhere, The Luton Reporter recorded that five old members of the Luton Borough Police Force were back in uniform. Constables Byron, Cooper and Wood returned to their patrol duties, and Pc Shaw to his work in the office.

Pc Causebrook, who had not arrived home in the best of health, returned to duty after a week's rest. Others were expected to return shortly.

But Pc Harbord had been in hospital for 12 months with a very bad leg wound, and Pc Stanbridge had the misfortune to be hit only two or three days before the armistice was signed.