By Tracy Wright, Durham College Journalism Student
When the opportunity came for Louise Johnson to work at Defence Industry Limited (DIL), she took it, with the blessing in the only letter she ever received from her father saying, “Go for it, it sounds like a great opportunity.”
This was a historical moment. In 1942, almost all jobs for women were in the home, taking care of the family. “Back then,” says Johnson, “you worked the farm and married the boy down the road.” But the Second World War changed that.
Men had been recruited to go to the Second World War, which lasted from 1939 to 1945. There was a shortage of workers, so women were needed to fill the jobs men would normally do.
Defence Industries Limited (DIL) was a shell filling plant, says author and historian Lynn Hodgson. Its main purpose was to build shells with explosives and have them crated then transported by cargo then rail and finally shipped to England to the men in field, according to Hodgson.
Louise Johnson was 21 years old, living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She was single and working at Saskatoon City Hospital in the nurse’s residence. Louise said she was lucky to have been at home when the call came from Civil Services (now known as Human Resources) about working at DIL.
DIL opened in the summer of 1941. It had 9,000 employees and 75 per cent of these employees were women, explains Brenda Kriz, Records and FOI coordinator for the Town of Ajax. The women came to Ajax from across Canada, as far away as Northern Alberta and Nova Scotia.
Before the Second World War, Ajax was not a city. It was all farmland. “It became Ajax, after the war,” says Hodgson, who wrote Ajax Arsenal of Democracy.
The women at DIL were called Bombgirls. Johnson, like the other women, did not know what to expect when she arrived in Pickering Township. When she was recruited, she was told the job was dangerous. She was assured she and the other 9,000 employees would be taken care of; they would receive housing and meals along with a uniform, and if they did not like it there, they would get a train ticket back home.
Defence Industries Limited was built in 1941 on 2,800 acres of land. “The land was expropriated from Pickering Township to create Defence Industries Limited,” says Kriz. This was the largest shell plant during the British Commonwealth, according to Kriz. The township of Pickering set up the factory to build bombs for the Second World War. Pickering Township, now Ajax, was considered the perfect location. It was away from residential areas and water supplies, which was very important because it required million gallons a day to support the site, says Kriz.
There were 600 wartime homes built as temporary residences close to the plant. “There was a community hall, movie theatre and a convenience store and a post office so you didn’t have to go outside,” according to Hodgson, who goes on to explain that “loose lips sink ships” and this is why DIL didn’t want workers speaking to the public about their job.
When the plant closed, the idea was the homes would be broken down and sent to Britain to help with the housing shortage there, but instead a town was established. Ajax was named after a battleship called HMS Ajax. Naming of the town came after the post office in Pickering Village could not handle the loads of mail sent there. For a post office to be in a town, the town had to have a name. A vote was held by to choose between Dilco, Powder City and Ajax, after the mythological Greek hero.
DIL had been in operation for about five years before Ajax got its name.
To get access to the plant, you would walk across the Bayly Bridge which is no longer there but you would have crossed over the 401 at Harwood and Bayly. This is how you’d enter the gates for DIL. From there you would take a bus that would bring you to the line where you worked. “At the end of your shift, you’d take the bus back over the bridge and then walk back to your residence,” explains Hodgson.
“There were four lines each line produce a different kind of shell,” says Kriz.
There was heavy security at DIL, Johnson recalls. “If you did not have a badge, you could not pass through the gates,” says Johnson. The whole facility was surrounded by barbed wire fence. Hodgson explains, “Security was very tight; the guards were armed veterans from the First World War.” For safety reasons, no matches were allowed on the property. If you were caught with matches, you would go to jail. One guy served 30 days in Whitby jail for smoking behind the line, says Hodgson.
Johnson worked on line 3. Here she measured cordite, which is another form of gunpowder. Her job was to weigh it on a scale and she had to be very precise. If not filled properly, the ammunition could either explode in transport or not detonate in the field. Work was in rotating shifts each week: eight hours a day six days a week. Each shift was represented by a different colour bandana: blue, red and white. Johnson’s was blue.
The only day off was Sunday and Christmas day. “On Sundays, you just watch the walls and cook dinner,” says Johnson.
Life at DIL was not just about work. Relationships were built there. “I met my husband at work,” laughs Johnson. “He was the cordite deliverer.”
Russell and Louise were married in 1944 and had one child, a daughter named Lynda. Russell died in 1965. “He worked hard, but was not a well man,” Johnson said.
With the end of the war, the need for shells ended too. The lines at the factory were shut down one by one. When it came to Johnson, she was called to the office and asked if she knew how to type. She said, “I could look for keys,” she said, “and make a stab at it.”
Johnson was assigned the task of typing quit slips. She placed her slip at the bottom of the pile and when the time came typed her own quit slip. She was the last production employee at DIL.
Johnson then went to Selective Services, now Employment Insurance, to receive her compensation. Johnson asked the lady behind the desk if she should comeback after her EI ran out. She was advised to not come back as there was no work for women.
Men were coming back from war. “It was a two-sided coin,” Johnson says. “The men left work to go to war and they came back.”
Not only were the jobs few, Johnson’s husband did not want her to work. She stayed home and took care of her daughter, who was eight years old. She did start working again and was able to work from home.
Johnson now aged 96, lives on her own in the same wartime bungalow she purchased with her husband.
Comparing the workforce for women from 1942 to now in 2018 Johnson says, “Hasn’t changed.”
As for DIL, “few buildings remain. But not many,” says Kriz. The original DIL hospital became Ajax/Pickering hospital. The original building was demolished in the late ’60s, according to Kriz. The Ajax Town Hall sits in the same place the DIL administration office was. “The heart of the community has always been on this site,” says Kriz. Without DIL, “There would be no Ajax a town born overnight,” says Hodgson.
The land where we stand is the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation.
Durham College‘s newspaper, The Chronicle, launches a new feature series called The Land Where We Stand, about the hidden stories that shape our region.
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