We are Canaries
singing through the shifts.
Back on the road
to family at home.
Skin dyed yellow
Creating the Centena
You can see her in the photo – she gazes directly out of the frame, upright and confident, with a hint of a rather inscrutable smile. This is Charlotte (Lottie) Mead and I initially knew nothing about her other than the image and the text below it, inscribed in a very elegant hand, “Lottie Mead who died of T.N.T. poisoning contracted on duty”.
Her story might be seen by some as small in the grand scale of War, but something about that phrase “on duty”, and her direct gaze combined with her outfit – a woman dressed in 1915 for physical factory work – intrigued me. Research revealed that Lottie was a munitions worker in her 20’s, a “Canary Girl”, in a London factory processing shells to be filled with TNT. The chemicals stained her skin yellow (hence Canary Girl), and slowly poisoned her, causing her death in her mid-20s on the 11th October 1916 in Kensington Infirmary, London. She died, leaving four young children behind, while her husband was fighting at the Front.
Those are the bare facts, but researching them led me to uncover more about the women in war-time factories processing TNT into shells, who daily ran the risk of explosions, health issues including poisoning and amputation, and bombings.
Lottie and many others died because of that work, “on duty”. Their deaths often went unpublicised to avoid disrupting morale.
Their collective name, ’Canary Girls’, risks making their efforts sound light and sunny and full of song. But whilst I’m sure that in the living of their lives and the working of their shifts, there was undoubtedly bonhomie, friendship, sisterhood even – a feeling of all pulling together, there was a very different bond in their small, yellow deaths kept hushed outside their family circles.
But there is something solid and positive about the fact that Lottie lives on, sings on if you will, in those bare facts, and that photograph safe in the Imperial War Museum collection (as others do), facing the world with her truth, her life and death. And she will continue to gaze out, strong and confident for many years to come, as if she’s just about to face her next shift in the factory.
The photograph and that gaze led me here to write about her, and her fellow munitions workers.