In 1914, North Lanarkshire was a hotbed of industrial activity. Over 40% of Scotland’s coal and the vast majority of Scotland’s steel was produced here. Local companies produced cranes, trains, beams, and tools that were exported all over the world. As a result the area was incredibly important to the war effort.
At the outset, North Lanarkshire steel no longer faced competition from the cheap state-subsidised German plate that had flooded the British market prior to 1914. Local giant Colvilles grabbed the opportunity – with government support – to take over the large independent steelworks of Clydebridge and Glengarnock, seizing a near-monopoly of the industry in Scotland.
Local works made pressings for shells, caterpillar tracks for tanks, and a variety of components for guns large and small. Steelworks like Dalzell saw a huge boost, with the Clydeside and Belfast shipyards demanding ever greater quantities of steel plate for the nation’s ships. By 1918 Dalzell’s workforce increased nearly 80%, to 5,000 employees. The Scottish Iron & Steel Company (with support from the Ministry of Munitions) began the construction of a new steelworks in Coatbridge in 1916 to boost wartime production. Northburn Steelworks, as it was known, wouldn’t begin production until after the war.
Other contracts were lucrative for North Lanarkshire firms. With the Royal Navy converting from coal to oil power for their ships, Motherwell Bridge installed a huge complex of workshops and oil containers for the Admiralty at their Rosyth dockyard. Motherwell Bridge’s sales increased over 230% by the end of the war.
Despite the huge military demand for men during the First World War, many of the industries key to the war effort, such as steelmaking, needed to retain as much of their workforce as possible in order to meet production targets. A large number of men were kept in the local heavy industries that were key to the war effort.
Conscription was used as a more effective way of managing industrial manpower than enlistment, with the idea being that it would prioritise recruiting from less skilled or easier replaced occupations. In high street businesses, men of recruitment age were almost entirely replaced by women.
In the factories, women were were drafted in to fill gaps in the workforce, including in growth areas such as munitions manufacture. By the end of the war, Lanarkshire’s heavy industries were still overwhelmingly male, although 6% of Dalzell Steelworks’ employees were female by 1918, most of whom were in artillery shell manufacture.