Before the First World War the Royal Small Arms Factory employed 1851 workers. Weapons had been produced there since 1816. The work was comparatively well paid. The site had its own church, school pub and football team.
At the end of 1914 the factory employed 5,000 men. By June 1917 there were 7,040 men, 1,448 women and 1,095 ‘boys’ (9,583 total workers).
The war meant many men left to go and fight and women were employed to replace them.
The Short Magazine Lee Enfield .303 is perhaps the most famous product associated with Enfield. During the war the factory concentrated on producing this rifle. At its peak throughout 1916 – 17 6,000 rifles per week came out of the factory. In all 2 million rifles were made in Enfield during the conflict. The factory also modified and repaired Vickers machine guns.
The outbreak of war caused increased pressure on housing for the additional workers coming to the area. In 1915 the YMCA built 60 huts to house workers who couldn’t find lodgings in the area. Each man had a cubicle with ‘a bed and an easy chair’ costing 17s 6d per week (£38 today). They also built a canteen so that there was somewhere for workers to eat other than the pub
Right from the outbreak of war there was a campaign for temperance. Some wanted all pubs closed and total prohibition. Drunkenness cost money in lost production and shoddy work. Lloyd George increased the duty on beer and the alcoholic content was decreased. There was a ban on running up a slate or buying rounds for others. There was even a music hall song about the state of the beer:
Lloyd George’s Beer, Lloyd George’s Beer.
At the brewery, there’s nothing doing,
All the water works are brewing,
Lloyd George’s Beer, it isn’t dear.
Oh they say it’s a terrible war, oh law,
And there never was a war like this before,
But the worst thing that ever happened in this war
Is Lloyd George’s Beer.
Buy a lot of it, all they’ve got of it.
Dip your bread in it, Shove your head in it
From January to October,
And I’ll bet a penny that you’ll still be sober.
The importance of the RSA was underlined when King George V visited in April 1915.
There was some ill feeling in the area that young, fit single men were avoiding the armed services and ‘hiding away’ in the RSAF. Workers in the factory were issued with special badges to show they were doing war work. In 1916 orders were given to de-badge all unskilled and semi-skilled workers under the age of 41.
Industrial relations were not always good. In May 1917 600 members of the AEU went on strike. This was opposed by the Worker’s Union, who organised counter demonstrations. The strike ended within the month.
In January 1918 floods turned the area in a lake. The factory could only be reached by wading and work had to be suspended.
At 11 o’clock on 11th November 1918 the official notice came that the war was over. The RASF closed down and everyone came out to celebrate. The end of the war brought an end to overtime and some over-age men were given notice. The factory was ordered to concentrate on repair work only. By Easter 1919 the number of workers at the RSAF had been reduced to 2,700 from a war time high of 12,000