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Historical Perspectives

munitions industries. A small number of West Indians was also brought over, to be trained before starting work; Learie Constantine, the famous West Indian cricketer, was made a welfare officer to deal with their problems.

By the end of the war, 130,000 Italian and 90,000 German prisoners of war were also working. They were mainly employed in agriculture and other outdoor work. When, in the spring of 1944, Italy ceased to be an enemy, the range of work for Italian POWs was extended - but on the understanding no British labour was available, and if the local trade union branch did not object. The German POWs continued to require armed escort but this was relaxed in the potato harvest of autumn 1944.

Once the large programme of factory and camp construction just before and at the beginning of the war had nearly been completed, building workers were seen as an important supply of male labour - both for the forces and the munitions sector. There had been 1.3 million workers in building and civil engineering in 1939 but, with the ending of private building, this had fallen to under 1 million in 1942. Churchill wanted their numbers further reduced to 500,000 by the end of 1943. The demands of housing American GIs slowed this down and numbers did not drop below 600,000.

The prefabricated floating (Mulberry) harbours and breakwaters needed for D-Day and its aftermath in 1944 meant scouring the country for carpenters, scaffolders and steel fixers as well as training other building tradesmen. No less than 1,000 firms were involved in contributing to the construction of the Mulberry harbours. Simultaneously, the demand for scarce building labour increased with the need for repairs to the damage caused by flying bombs in London.

The distributive trades (both wholesale and retail) were another potentially large source of labour. The 1.9 million men (including employers and self-employed) in these trades in 1939 had halved by 1945. By contrast, the number of women working in this sector remained at around 1 million through the war but this disguised the withdrawal of, first, those in their twenties and, then, those in their thirties, who were replaced by school leavers and older women. With fewer staff available in larger shops and a proportion of the small independent shops shut down when their owner was called up, queuing became a feature of most women's lives.

With the reduced output in many traditional industries, the normal route into employment for many boys and girls was disrupted. Thus by 1945 there were 40,000 fewer boys in coal mines than in 1938 and 50,000 fewer girls in textiles. Furniture manufacture and tailoring saw significant drops in boy labour while clothing manufacture and laundries saw a similar decrease for girls.

With the loss of imports caused by the war, employment in the Lancashire cotton industry, after an initial rush of service orders, started to contract quickly. Workers left in droves, attracted by higher pay in war industries. The Royal Ordinance Factory at Chorley in Lancashire employed 35,000 workers at its peak and workers did not want to leave, despite long travelling times for many. In September 1943, the Ministry of Labour had to call for registration of women who had formerly worked in cotton, as there was now a shortage of female workers to produce manufactured cotton for parachutes and other essential supplies.
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Employment during the Second World War by Dave Lyddon