Explosives Factory Maribyrnong, Melbourne

Response

This huge tract of 127 hectares on the banks of the Maribyrnong River was the site of the largest explosives factory in Australia at the height of World War II. While many of the buildings have since been removed, it is astonishing to reflect on the scale and type of manufacturing of explosive chemicals occurring during the war, so close to the heart of Melbourne. The site also highlights the important role that women played during the War.

A colourful oil painting of three women dressed in uniforms with hats and gloves stand at a workbench. Each woman is handling a cartridge and there are a number of tools in front of then. Soldering bay, cartridge bundling section, Explosives Factory Maribyrnong, by official war artist Sybil Craig. Source: Australian War Memorial.

The Explosives Factory Maribyrnong (EFM) was the centre of Australian munitions production during World War II, together with the Ammunition Factory Footscray and the Ordnance Factory Maribyrnong. At its peak in 1942, the site contained over 500 buildings.

The experience of World War I, when Australia was at risk of being cut off from its chemical supplies, and the rising global demand for munitions brought into sharp relief the need for Australia to readily and independently produce its own resources onshore and develop adequate stockpiles.

A black and white photograph of twelve uniformed women sitting around a large wooden table. The table is covered with large ammunition rounds and the women are placing these rounds into belts. Workers filling machine gun ammunition belts at the Ammunition Factory Footscray, 1939. Source: Australian War Memorial. A faded black and white aerial photograph of an industrial landscape with a number of buildings. A river runs through the image with the word Maribyrnong printed onto it. Aerial view of the Explosives Factory Maribyrnong, 1945. Source: Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

During World War I, the EFM made great strides in ensuring the ongoing Australian munitions production by persuading local companies to manufacture materials and substances that had formerly been imported. During this period the range and quantity of munitions produced in Maribyrnong expanded greatly.

Following World War I in 1921, the Australian Government established the Munitions Supply Board, which invested significant funds and established extensive laboratories in Maribyrnong to further enhance the scientific and technical capacity for munitions production in the time of war, particularly regarding the quality of materials and accuracy of measurement.

In the 1920s capital works were undertaken at EFM, and the other two major munitions factories in Maribyrnong, which modernised their technical and production capabilities. During this time, EFM also produced chemical products for private sale, such as paints and lacquers, which further established the site as a leader in Australia’s chemical engineering industry.

From 1935, new buildings were erected on site and production was doubled following defence assessments that war would likely break out in Europe by 1939. When the time came, EFM was poised as the largest and most sophisticated explosives factory in Australia. Furthermore, they had added 60 new chemicals to Australia’s chemical production capacity between the wars.

The story of the EFM also highlights the huge surge in women entering the workforce during World War II, and in particular, the munitions industry. As men would be called to enlist, the inclusion of women in the factory’s workforce was considered vital in meeting production demands forecast for the outbreak of war.

A black and white image of a uniformed woman with gloves standing over a bomb on a stand. She is holding a grinder to the bomb causing sparks. A woman employed at the Bendigo Commonwealth Ordnance Factory uses high cycle grinding to make a smooth area on a 250lb semi-armour piercing bomb case in order to conduct a hardness test, c1944. Source: Australian War Memorial.

From 1935, specific facilities were built on site to accommodate the large number of women that were anticipated to be employed. At the height of the war in 1942 the site employed over 8,000 people, of which women made up 52% of the workforce engaged in production and 45% percent of the workforce overall.

This was a stark contrast to an industrial scene which had previously been dominated by men prior to the war. However, despite the significant role of women in this vital war industry, the factory returned to an all-male workforce at the end of the war.

The everyday scenes at EFM were captured by official war artist Sybil Craig. Craig was only the third woman to be appointed as an official war artist during World War II and spent four months painting at EFM, primarily focusing on the women who worked there. Her bright and colourful oil paintings depict women performing a range of dangerous tasks and operating heavy machinery designed for men. Craig’s paintings strongly convey the repetitive environment of the industrial space in which these women worked.

A colourful oil painting of multiple women at work on a factory floor. A row of women stand at a workbench that extends from the foreground to the background. A large piece of machinery made up of belts and wheels being operated by women is also visible. Women working in the paper room, fuze and cartridge bundling sections of the Explosives Factory Maribyrnong, by Sybil Craig, 1945. Source: Australian War Memorial.

Following World War II, production slowed until the site’s closure in 1994. The site is now closed to the public and future redevelopment options are being reviewed. Those interested can find out more about the history of EFM through the nearby Living Museum of the West.

Located on the lands of the Woiwurrung (Wurundjeri) people.