Please enable JS


Maori Home Front Blog Avatar
Sarah Christie
21 May, 2022

Munitions factories were important sites of Māori labour during the war. Despite New Zealand not having a large munitions and industrial base to build upon at the outbreak of war the increased production of ammunition and small arms  provided an avenue for drawing some young Māori women into the cities. The pervasive image of the female munitions worker is of the patriotic campaign icon ‘Rosie the Riveter’ from the American shipyards and aeroplane factories, but what was the experience of being a munitions worker like for young Māori women?




New Zealand relied heavily on overseas providers for much of its munitions. By the end of the war however New Zealand had increased its manufacturing capabilities to become self-sufficient in some small arms and managed to produce a surplus in particular munitions to aid the wider allied effort. Factories had been established, mostly in Auckland and the Hutt Valley in the 1920s and 1930s, to assemble cars from imported parts. The conversion of parts of the General Motors, Ford and Dominion Motor Company car plants into munition factories enabled New Zealand to produce a surplus of bren-gun carriers, mortars, hand grenades and small arms ammunition.[1]


The Colonial Ammunition Company was New Zealand's only dedicated ammunition company. Established in Auckland in 1885, and orginally called Whitney and Sons, the company produced ammunition for Australian and New Zealand markets from its Mt Eden factory. It had been a major government supplier in World War I and this continued in World War II.[2] Initially when war was declared production was extended at the Auckland factory, but as the war engulfed the Pacific Hamilton was assessed by the War Cabinet in January 1942 as a more secure location for the factory, as well as allowing for greater expansion of production. A large campus of 24 buildings was erected in East Hamilton along Dey Street, which included an administration block, laboratory, ammunition stores and canteen buildings. Production at the new factory was underway by June of that year. During peacetime the factory had employed 20 men and 55 women, by December 1943 it employed 789, 557 of whom were women.[3] The factory had always employed female workers (who cost significantly less to employ) but this dramatic increase required the mobilisation of female labour on a much larger scale.[4]




Young Māori women were both directed into munitions work and volunteered for it. The historical record does not provide a clear picture of the overall munitions workforce nor the proportion of Māori workers within it but it is evident from both written and visual sources that young Māori women were part of the workforces at both the Ford Motor Company and Colonial Ammunition. Over 15,000 Māori worked in essential industries during the war with 10, 000 directions made of Māori workers into specific jobs by from the National Service Department. Unfortunately these figures are not broken down by sex or industry so it is difficult to gage exactly how young Māori women ended up on the munition factory floor.[5]


Munitions work was one of the first industries in January 1942, along with power production, coal and gas supply, hospitals, and sawmills, to be designated an essential industry.[6] Men who were experienced engineers and metal workers were initially exempted from military service in order to ensure essential production was maintained. As demand increased with the war in the Pacific and greater numbers of men from the industry were called into the armed services, the government looked to recruit more women into the munitions factories. In February 1943 an expansion of operations in Wellington and Lower Hutt required the recruitment of an additional 345 female workers and by December 1944 there was an urgent call for an additional 100 female workers.[7]


To meet this demand defence contractors like Ford took out newspaper advertisements to entice young women into the factories. The Ford advertisment made a patriotic appeal for ‘200 More Women and Girls’ to become munition workers.[8] The advertisement leaned on women’s desires to support ‘our men’ and promised that ‘They’ll win the war if we all do our part.’ Alongside emphasising the importance of the work to the war effort, recruitment for munitions work also promoted the ‘excellent conditions.’[9] It was however, personal practicality rather than national patriotism that lead Mihipeka Edwards into working at the Ford Factory. Working at a woollen mill, she saw that a munitions job as offering more pay and better work environment with less noise and was keen to escape the woollen mill before industrial conscription rules constrained her choice.[10]


The National Service Department was keen to attract women like Mihipeka who chose to volunteerily take up munitions work. Some young women, like Maud and Peggy Parata from Whangarei, headed down to Wellington but despite public appeals there was a consistant shortage of labour for munitions factories necessitating the use of industrial conscription to maintain the labour force.[11] Young women aged 22 to 25 in the boroughs of Hamilton and Cambridge found themselves compulsively directed into wartime employment in July 1942, required to register for ‘work of national importance’ in order to supply the Colonial Ammunition Company with the additional workers it needed. [12] The shortages of munitions workers in Wellington in February 1943 and January 1945 inspired a nationwide campaign to encourage recruits with the threat that direction would be imposed on young women aged 21-30 if not enough volunteers were found.[13] Munitions work, along with hospital and tobacco factories became the biggest drivers of government directed inter-regional mobility for young women during the war.[14]


Yet with demand for their labour high, young Māori women were able to have some control over where they directed their energy, and there was a fair amount of shuffling between different essential service roles. Eva Pulham was released by the Whangarei Tribal Committee from her essential war work at the hospital in order to be able to undertake work at a munitions factory in Wellington in June 1944.[15] After appeals were made in Gisborne at the end of 1944 for young women to work at the Ford Factory in Wellington, young women from the district who were working in tobacco-processing, also an essential industry, had ‘found their way into the munitions business.’[16]


The direction of young Māori women away from their home districts was not without contention. While Māori were exempt from military conscription they were included under the National Service Emergency Regulations that set up industrial conscription in early 1942.

Although the policy was that tribal committees and Maori Utilization Committees, which were established under the Māori War Effort Organisation, were to be consulted by the local manpower officers, in reality this was patchy and did not necessarily relieve the anxiety that Māori communities had over young women working far from home. Implimenting this labour redirection was not however a straightforward endeavour for government as Māori communities advocated for greater control over where their rangatahi were directed and raised concerns about the impact of life in the cities resulting in the introduction of Welfare Officers.[17]


As historian Deborah Montgomerie has outlined, the government approaches to incorporating Māori women into the wartime workforce were underlaid by ‘racial prejudice and paternalism’.[18] Farm and factory work were the industies in most need of labour, but they also fitted with a government vision of ‘suitable’ labour for Māori women who faced discrimination in accessing retail, office or professional work. Māori women were seen by wartime policy makers as ‘underexploited sources of labour’ that could be mobilised into the national labourforce according to wartime need.[19]




Scarcity of suitable accommodation for young female workers was one of the barriers to recruiting enough women into munitions manufacturing. Young women who already had whanau or other connections in the Wellington and Lower Hutt with whom they could board were accepted immediately for munitions work, while others were delayed while accommodation could be found.[20] The shortage of munitions workers in 1942-3 motivated the National Service Department to establish several hostels in the Wellington area for essential workers. The first was a hostel at Woburn in Lower Hutt, designed to accommmodate 360 young women, mainly munitions workers, constructed by the Housing Department in 1943. In 1944 two other hostels were opened to accommodate young women coming to work in the Wellington region, one was a former hotel at Oriental Bay with the other one in Lower Hutt. The Y.W.C.A. was contracted to run all three hostels and look after the ‘general welfare’ of the young women as well as organise leisure time activities with the aim of keeping them away from the temptations of the city.[21]


Despite the shortage of workers, racist attitudes played out within the administration of the hostels and limited the numbers of young Māori women who were able to travel to Wellington to help with the shortfall. A memo to the Whangarei manpower officer who had responded to the emergency call for munitions workers by sending eight young Māori women down to Wellington to stay in the Woburn hostel berated that ‘no further Maori girls should be directed’ to this type of work as it was seen by the author, as ‘undesirable that Maoris should be sent forward to this work as they are required to be accommodated in the same premises as European women.’[22]


Those moving to Hamilton to work at the Colonial Ammunition Company’s factory were accommodated in purpose built blocks of flats on Peachgrove Road. Flats accommodating two workers each were grouped together in blocks of eight.[23] Each flat contained a combined bedroom and sitting room and a small kitchenette with an electric range. Flats contained basic fittings and furniture including two beds, two chairs, tallboys, mirrors, lamps and shelves.[24] Young women were expected to provide their own sheets and blankets, crockery and cutlery and a pot for cooking in.[25] This could amount to a significant outlay for some whanau before young women had even received a pay check. Each block of flats included communal bathrooms, toilets and laundries. Seven shillings and sixpence was deducted from the young women’s wages to cover rent. A large recreation hall provided space to mix with other workers or grab a canteen meal. Buses were sometimes put on by the company to take workers to the factories but workers also recall working to and from their shifts in groups. Due to petrol rationing and few public transport options walking was the main source of transport, especially on precious days off.[26]




Recruitment material touted the good working conditions that young women would find in munitions factories. Absentee rates add some weight to their claims. For women in munitions work rates of unapproved absences were more than half that of workers in hotels and restaurants and a third of the rate for workers in textile and clothing manufacturing.[27] Young women worked long hours but could expect to earn £4 6s for a 47¾ hour working week.[28] This compared to housekeeping which paid approximately £2 or cafeteria work which could pay approximately £3, 8s.[29]


In order to allow for more flexible arrangements in wartime production the Labour government walked-back some of the employee protections they had introduced upon taking office.  The Factories Amendment Act 1936 had limited the work day in factories to 8 hours and the working week to 40 hours. It also sought to be protective of female labour by limiting their hours of work to between 8am and 6pm. In June 1940, in order to allow for shift work at the Colonial Ammunition Company the Government issued an Emergency Regulation order suspending these provisions in the Factories Act.[30] At the Colonial Ammunition Factories workers were split into two shifts, working from either 7am till 3pm or 3pm till 11pm six days a week with Sundays off. At one stage an extra nighttime shift of 11pm till 7am was added in order to meet demand.[31]


The work itself was often intricate and monotonous. Some female munitions workers got to learn new skills handling bigger machines, most of the machine engineering tasks however were still viewed as men’s work.  The government had exempted many experienced male metalwork engineers from military service, at least for as long as they could, in order to retain their services in munitions manufacturing.[32] At the Colonial Ammunity Company bullets went through seven stages of production and a lot of women’s labour was around quality control such as the repetitive tasks of checking casings for imperfections or inspecting whether holes that were crucial to the firing mechanism had been drilled correctly.[33] For those working in the powder rooms, packing explosives into grenades and mortars the work could be dirty and mundane, requiring a shower at the end of the shift to wash off any residue.[34] Working with explosives was also dangerous. In her work at the Ford Company Mihipeka Edwards volunteered to assemble grenades and mortar bombs and fill them with TNT, getting paid an additional £1 a week . This job was overseen by army inspectors and a scientist and required special protective clothing to be worn. Despite the danger they were constantly warned to be mindful of, there was moments of levity too as they sung songs to pass the time.[35]


On their precious days off young women enjoyed a range of leisure and patriotic activities. In Hamilton the Colonial Ammunition girls would go to church, do their chores or housework, walk into town or play in a range of sports teams that were organise by the company. Workers were also allowed to attend the Sunday pictures and dances put on at the Airforce and Army bases. Leaving for leisure further afield or to travel home to see whanau required special permission from the company and a train pass.[36] Māori wāhine were also involved in Māori patriotic work and involved themselves in cultural groups, both as a means of participating in the war effort and of forming community in their new locations. The Evening Post details at least one of the events, a farewell party, at which young Māori women from the Ford Company ‘entertained with songs and hakas,’ accompanied by Mr Love.[37]




With the end of war on the 15th August 1945 munition production was wound up. Factories converted back to producing cars and whitewear goods. The Colonial Ammunition Company continued to produce small arms ammunition but on a much smaller scale. As a result workers were released from their war service and were free to travel back to their home regions. Some young women took up this opportunity and returned home, but others opted to stay in the cities taking up roles in woollen mills, clothing, tobacco and biscuit factories, and hospital work, all still considered essential occupations.[38]


Image: C.A.C. Factory, Hamilton.  Record: HCL_09013.  Hamilton City Libraries Heritage Collection.


[1] J. Baker, ‘War Economy-Munitions,’ The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939-1945, 135-137, (accessed, 22 April 2022).

[2] Garry James Clayton, ‘Whitney, John,’ Ngā Tāngata Taumata Rau  Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Te Ara The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 May 2022).

[3] ‘War Munitions,’ New Zealand Herald, 18 December 1943, 9.

[4] Lynn Harris, A Little Further, A Little Faster: A nostalgic look at the Colonial Ammunition Company, its history and cartridges (Wellington: New Zealand Cartridge Collectors’ Club, 1981), 17.

[5] Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR), 1946, H-11a, 63.

[6] AJHR, 1946, H-11a, 31.

[7] AJHR, 1946, H-11a, 54-55.

[8] Girls at the time referred to young, mostly teenage women who had left high school, which could be after 14 until 1944 when the school leaving age was raised to 15.

[9] ‘Ford Motor Company of New Zealand Limited: Wanted; 200 More Women and girls for Munitions work,’ 1944. Alexander Turnbull Library, Eph-B-WAR-WII-1944-01, (accessed 19 May 2022).

[10] Mihi Edwards, Mihipeka: Time of Turmoil Ngā Wā Raruraru (Auckland: Penguin Books, 1992), 87 and 135.

[11] ‘Meeting - 3 June 1944,’ Whangarei Tribal Committee Maori War Effort Minute Book, MSY-6078, Alexander Turnbull Library.

[12] AJHR, 1946, H-11a, 133.

[13] ‘Women Required for Munitions Work,’ Northern Advocate, 2 February 1943, 4; ‘Munitions Work-Women to be Directed,’ Otago Daily Times, 5 February 1943, 6; ‘Industrial Call,’ Gisborne Herald, 12 January 1945, 2; ‘Quick Comb-out- Urgent Munitions Work,’ Nelson Evening Mail, 9 January 1945, 4.

[14] AJHR, 1945, H-11a, 33.

[15] ‘Meeting - 3 June 1944,’ Whangarei Tribal Committee Maori War Effort Minute Book, MSY-6078, Alexander Turnbull Library.

[16] ‘Girls in Industry,’ Gisborne Herald, 18 April 1945, 6.

[17] Deborah Montgomerie, The Women’s War: New Zealand Women 1939-1945 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2001), 97.

[18] Montgomerie, The Women’s War, 68.

[19] Montgomerie, The Women’s War, 68.

[20] ‘Women Required For Munition Work,’ Northern Advocate, 2 February 1943, 4.

[21] AJHR, 1945, H-11a, 42.

[22] NSD memo, 30 August 1944, quoted in B. Angus, ‘Women War Workers Hostels’, in Montgomerie, The Women’s War, 98-99.

[23] Marjory Carey, ‘Working in the Ammunition Factory in Hamilton,’ Historical Review 43, no.2, 103.

[24] ‘Memo – C.A.C. Hostels,’ For: The Manager, State Advances Corporation New Zealand, From: Assistant Branch Manager, State Advances Corporation Hamilton Branch Office, 5 April 1946, Housing: Colonial Ammunition Company Staff – Hostel at Hamilton, AEP2 W5727 22618 Box 547, 1062/0008, Alexander Turnbull Library.

[25] Kushla Haene, ‘You Will Report...An Oral History of Two Women’s Munition Factory Experiences During WW2,’ Historical Review 59, no.1 (May 2011): 5.

[26] Haene, ‘You Will Report,’ 5-7 and ‘Memo – C.A.C. Hostels,’ For: The Manager, State Advances Corporation New Zealand, From: Assistant Branch Manager, State Advances Corporation Hamilton Branch Office, 5 April 1946, Housing: Colonial Ammunition Company Staff – Hostel at Hamilton, AEP2 W5727 22618 Box 547, 1062/0008, Alexander Turnbull Library.

[27] AJHR, 1945, H-11a, 82.

[28] ‘Munitions Work,’ Otago Daily Times, 5 February 1943, 6.

[29] “Advertisements – Column 3,” Otago Daily Times, 25 November 1942, 1; ‘Advertisements – Column 5,’ Evening Post, 22 October 1943, 2.

[30] “Ammunition Production,” Waikato Times, 6 June 1940, 8 and Factories Amendment Act 1936, (accessed 22 April 2022).

[31] Haene, ‘You Will Report,’ 7.

[32] AJHR, 1946, H-11a, 31 and 54.

[33] Haene, ‘You Will Report,’ 7.

[34] ‘Wartime Love,’ Southland Times, 23 April 2012, (accessed 22 April 2022).

[35] Edwards, ‘Mihipeka,’ 136.

[36] Carey, ‘Working in the Ammunition Factory in Hamilton,’ 104 and Haene, ‘You Will Report,’ 9.

[37] ‘Farewell Party,’ Evening Post, 4 July 1944, 8.

[38] ‘Munitions Manufacture,’ Waitako Times, 20 August 1945, 4.

Get In Touch