‘Doing her Bit’ – A Carlton China munitionette and her shells

Contributed by Alexander Nicholas Shaw

I began collecting English heraldic souvenir ware, more commonly known as ‘crested china’ when I was an undergraduate. These small porcelain models (typically no more than four inches in height) were a popular working class souvenir in Britain from the 1890s to 1930s. The style was pioneered by Adolphus Goss of his father’s porcelain firm W. H. Goss, a company that already manufactured small pots using a fine ivory porcelain. Heraldic coat-of-arms of the towns where the piece would be sold were applied by a two-stage process of transfer printing and hand colouring.

Adolphus realised the potential for producing a broader range of souvenir models. They began with miniatures of ancient artefacts found in local museums and soon expanded to include notable buildings, monuments and regional symbols. These models were in line with late Victorian taste and were targeted at the lower middle classes who perhaps already collected Staffordshire or other figurines. W. H. Goss only sold their wares through one authorised dealer in each town.

Before long, many other porcelain manufacturers started copying the Goss designs and producing lower quality crested china. The range of subjects broadened to include models of animals, comical figures, household items, transports and inventions. By the Edwardian period, crested china had become a popular working class souvenir as the railways carried the masses on day trips or holidays for the first time. In total, over 150 separately imprinted (but often organisationally related) companies manufactured crested porcelain models.

During the First World War, many manufacturers turned to military themes representing the latest military technologies and the men and women ‘doing their bit’ for the war effort. Perhaps surprisingly given the terrible slaughter occurring in France and Belgium, the British public had an insatiable desire for small porcelain models of machine guns, soldiers, aeroplanes, tanks and even the very bombs that were falling on their own homes. There is something particularly ghoulish about the model of a zeppelin bomb ‘dropped on Bury St Edmunds’ when it is found decorated with the Bury St Edmunds crest.

Currently, my favourite piece is this Carlton China munition worker. Carlton was the first big competitor to Goss in the 1890s and after Arcadian, produced the largest First World War themed range. The Carlton munition worker (or ‘munitionette’) is one of the most decorated of the First World War figures. More common figures of soldiers, sailors and nurses are seldom so painted.

She has been transfer printed and hand-painted with the crest of Northleach (a town I have never visited) and two slogans: ‘shells and more shells’ and ‘doing her bit’. The munition worker is a relatively rare figure and it is more usual to find one whose paintwork has faded or whose stack of shells was never painted to begin with. My munitionette is in immaculate condition and I was surprised to acquire her for a bargain price at auction.

She is a lovely piece of social history and a reminder of the vital role played by women on the home front. Her hair is tied back in a hairnet: a necessary precaution when working amongst dangerous explosives. By the time of the armistice in 1918, over 700,000 British women had become ‘munitionettes’ working in hazardous conditions to frantically produce and fill small arms bullets or artillery shells. Many suffered from TNT poisoning which turned their skin yellow and earned them the nickname of the ‘canary girls’. War work was an important contributor to women finally gaining a limited vote in 1918. Speaking to a gathering of women workers in August 1918, Prime Minister David Lloyd George said that:

‘If it had not been for the splendid manner in which the women came forward to work in hospitals, in munition factories, on the land, in administrative offices of all kinds, and in war work behind the lines, often in daily danger of their lives, Great Britain and, as I believe, all the Allies would have been unable to withstand the enemy attacks during the past few months’.

I bought my munitionette when working at the Royal Armouries Museum and living in Leeds. At the time, I had recently curated the museum exhibition ‘Goodbye to All That? Legacies of the First World War’ at the University of Leeds. I spent an enjoyable year researching women’s war work and its post-war impact and was keen to acquire a crested china model of a relevant subject. The only two war-related female figures were nurses (of many varieties) and the munitionette. I was most attracted to the munitionette. Whilst nursing was a popular vocation for middle-class women, the ‘canary girls’ represented the working masses, and they did an exceedingly dangerous job. In January 1917, the Silvertown munition factory in London exploded from an accident and 73 people were killed. Moreover, I was then working at the UK’s national museum of arms and armour and it made sense to buy the shell-filling ‘canary girl’.

The two shells I always keep displayed alongside her bear the crests of Leeds and Sunderland: my home city when I bought the munitionette and my home city of today.

One day I will acquire a shell with the crest of York, the home of my youth, but I await the time that I can find an example representing a more unusual model (such as that of an anti-aircraft or incendiary shell).