British Munitions Workers Recruited from Canada in 1915

Was your ancestor one of 1,699 recruited from Canada to work in British munitions factories during the First World War? Details of this little known plan came to light while researching a British-born mechanic living in Alberta who returned to Britain for munitions work in 1915.

The idea of using skilled Canadian workers in British factories was proposed by Albertan A.C. Johnson in a letter to the British Chancellor of the Exchequer in late 1914 in which he stated:

“that there were in Canada some 100,000 unemployed, of whom at least a considerable portion were ex-employees of Woolwich Arsenal, Government Dockyards, or armament firms”¹.

Initially the suggestion received a lukewarm response but in April 1915 a Munitions of War Committee revived the idea. There were concerns, including the fact that Canada’s rapidly expanding munitions industry was likely to require many of these same skilled tradesmen. British authorities were also worried about wage expectations from Canadian labourers who were typically paid more than their British counterparts.

George Nicoll Barnes, M.P. in 1916. Source: Wikipedia

However these concerns were set aside and in May the Committee sent a mission to Canada led by William Windham from the Board of Trade and George N. Barnes, the former Labour Party leader and the then MP for Glasgow Blackfriars and Hutchesontown. They were accompanied by a technical team from the Royal Arsenal and Dockyards that would test potential recruits to ensure they were up to the standard required. Barnes and Windham met with the Dominion government in Ottawa before journeying by train to the country’s major industrialized centres. Prospective workers attended presentations where they were invited to apply for positions and, if they looked promising, were tested on their mechanical ability. This recruitment process was well documented in Victoria’s Daily Colonist newspaper and I’ve included clippings in the gallery below.

Successful candidates who agreed to a term of at least six months would receive passage to Britain and be paid a war-time wage equal to that received by British workers. They also received a small sustenance allowance to cover the period between leaving home and beginning work in Britain. Those that committed to the end of the war, or until their services were no longer required, would also receive free passage back to Canada.  The high cost of living in Britain prevented many men from sending money home to their families and so a separation allowance of $4.25 per week was eventually approved for married men with dependents in Canada.

Barnes and his team recruited throughout the summer before returning to Britain in late August, by which time many of the Canadian tradesmen were already at work in British factories. Barnes felt the mission didn’t secure as many qualified men as had been hoped but his experience in Canada was used to pen a pair of newspaper articles that discouraged British workers from emigrating. The People’s Journal articles from October 1915, entitled “Delusions of Canada Exposed” and “Immigrants Who Are Not Wanted” provided his analysis on the prospects of a better life in Canada. He raised some valid points although the publication of the first article on the same day that Lord Derby introduced his “voluntary conscription” scheme is, if nothing else, an interesting coincidence.

Meanwhile back in Canada the munitions industry was rapidly expanding and by 1916 qualified tradesmen were fully employed and women were being recruited in large numbers. Some of the men who ventured to Britain, especially those with families in Canada, may have regretted their decision however some would suffer more than most. My next article will tell the story of Anthony Baker, a mechanic whose encounter with a Zeppelin over Woolwich Arsenal would change his life forever.

¹ p18, History of the Ministry of Munitions Volume 1 Part II (Ministry of Munitions, 1922)

6 replies

  1. This is an excellent article filled with primary source docs. I had no idea that the UK was recruiting our citizens as workers as well as soldiers. This sheds another interesting light on immigrants to Canada and how they were viewed and treated here and then again in Britain.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the article and thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I was unaware of this mission until I began researching the soldier on behalf of his grand-daughter. I expect there were more than a few British-born workers that also saw this as an opportunity to reconnect with family back in Britain. Thanks again,


  2. Interesting! I’m sure many somewhat regretted their decision, but a job is a job and when you need to put food on the table, the decisions are sometimes made for you.

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