The War Children Who Were Born YELLOW: Children of Explosive Factory Workers During WWI

By | May 17, 2017

The First World War left a taint on everyone - but for some it happened more literally than others.

Gladys Sangster is one of Britain's last surviving 'Canary Babies', born yellow because her mother worked on the Home Front pouring dangerous chemicals into shells.

She has long since lost her yellow glow, but claims it affected many of  the children born where she still lives in Banbury, Oxfordshire.

More than 1,500 people there worked in National Shell Filling Factory Number Nine on the outskirts of Banbury during the Great War.

As many of them were women, they became known as the 'Canary Girls' when their skin became tainted by touching chemicals in the TNT powder they poured into bombs.

Traditional gunpowder had been replaced by materials such as cordite and sulphur which were mixed by hand despite being dangerous to human health.

The women's skin would break out into hives, their hair would be discoloured.
Less well known was that the same yellow colouring would apparently happen to their children - who were dubbed the 'Canary Babies'.

'Nearly every baby was born yellow,' she said.

'Mum said you just took it for granted it happened and that was it. You were tougher in those days than what they are today!'

Glady's mother Mary was in charge of a full team of women at the factory in Banbury, one of the largest of its kind in the country. Mary Sangster brought in a doctor to examine her daughter, but was told there was nothing she could do - and the colour faded within a short time.

It seemed none of her family ever investigated whether there was a long-term risk to her health, but as far as Gladys Sangster knows she suffered no ill effects.

Jane Markham, a researcher on the project, said: 'The chemicals that turned the women's skin yellow seemed to be very particular to the women who were working at close quarters to explosives.