In June 1917 King George V established the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire and one of the first recipients of the Medal of the Order of the British Empire conferred for services in connection with the war was a 16 year old Birmingham girl, Dolly Gladys Vickers.
Dolly, was one of many young women who worked in the city’s munition factories. Teenage girls were particularly sought after as they had nimble fingers suitable for the delicate work involved in working with some components and also because the teenage body clock enabled them to be more alert during the early hours of the morning on night shifts.
But the work was often dangerous, across the country over 400 female munition workers lost their lives and thousands were injured. In Birmingham the number would have been higher were it not for Dolly’s brave actions. The records found so far don’t name the factory where she was working, or indeed the actual date of the occurrence. But what is clear from the official citations, newspaper reports and an article in the Birmingham, Moseley & Kings Heath Journal is that whilst working on fuses in one of Birmingham’s largest munitions factory one of them exploded in her hands. Despite being badly burned herself, realising the great danger that she, and her fellow workers were in, she carried the still burning fuse to one of the exits and threw it into a nearby field.
Dolly was presented with her medal at a ceremony at County Hall, Warwick by the Earl of Craven, the Lord Lieutenant of Warwickshire. Described as looking younger than her sixteen years and dressed in a white dress with a pink bow in her hair she seems to have made quite an impression. The images used in the feature in the Birmingham, Kings Heath and Moseley Journal and also to be found on postcards in the images of the collections at the Imperial War Museum would seem to have been taken at this ceremony and show her proudly supporting the medal.
The Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Sir David Brooks, was not able to be present at this ceremony but she was to be separately awarded by a specially produced medal in her home town in November 1918. It was emblazoned in enamel with the arms of the City of Birmingham, the edge consisting of laurel leaves enamelled in green and engraved on the rear with details of her bravery.
When asked why by the writer of the Journal feature why she worked in such a dangerous occupation her answer was simple: “In order to earn more money”.
So what happened to Dolly after the war? She left Birmingham in the summer of 1920 and migrated to Australia aboard the SS Orontes. She was followed a few months later by her mother, Dorcas, and younger sister, Dora and they settled in New South Wales. Her brother John appears to have died during WWI although more research is needed to confirm this.
Sadly Dolly is believed to have died on Christmas Day at Waterfall Sanitorium, a specialist facility for those with TB, situated just south of Sydney, NSW at the age of just 30.
Find out more about Dolly and other aspects of youth employment at the launch event for Birmingham Children of War on Monday 12th September 5-6.45pm in the Wolfson Centre, Level 4, Library of Birmingham.