Agnes Borthwick Scotland United States

Biography of Agnes Borthwick

Agnes Borthwick at Georgetown (standing, centre)
Agnes Borthwick at Georgetown (standing, centre)

Agnes Borthwick (1889-1949) was a graduate of the University who became a works manager at the vast munitions factory, National Filling Factory No 4, at Georgetown in Renfrewshire during the First World War. According to Barbara McLaren, writing in Women at War (1917), "no woman's work... more directly furthered the prosecution of the war."

Borthwick was born in Greenock in 1889 to Thomas Borthwick, a grain merchant, and Jessie Reid, the daughter of the late John Reid,Inland Revenue, Greenock. Jessie Reid was Thomas Borthwick's second wife after his first wife, Magdaline S. Miller, died at 66 Newton Street in Greenock on the 30th of June 1886. Jessie and Thomas were married at St Paul's in Finchley, London on the 22nd of February 1888. Agnes was born the next year, on the 19th of February 1889.

Borthwick's family home was 66 Newton Street, Greenock. Thomas Borthwick was unfortunately deceased before Agnes began her studies at the University- he died at the age of 68 at the family home on the 25th of March 1902.Her sister, Jessie Sommerville, Thomas's eldest daughter, also unfortunately died on the 4th of June 1903. At the age of 18, Agnes enrolled as an Arts student at the University in 1907. She lived at Queen Margaret Hall, Bute Gardens, Hillhead throughout her studies. In her first year she took Maths and Logic. For her second French, Moral Philosophy and Latin. In her third she took English, Natural Philosophy and second year Moral Philosophy. She graduated with an MA Ordinary degree in 1910 but continued to study for honours. In her fourth and fifth year she studied Honours English whilst also taking classes in History and Law. She achieved Second class Honours in English in 1912.

After winning a research scholarship she went to the USA, studying at Bryn Mawr College, the University of Columbia in New York and Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is believed to have returned to the United Kingdom near the beginning of the First World War in 1914.

In November 1915 when the newly formed Ministry of Munitions appealed for women workers, Borthwick volunteered for training at Woolwich, on the theory and practice of shell and cartridge filling. In January 1916 she was sent as a forewoman to the filling factory which was then under construction at Georgetown-by-Paisley, beginning work with only 24 girls.Duties in this work included scrubbing the shops, cleaning the newly built blocks of buildings and unloading the trucks of empty shells, which arrived at the factory ready to be filled with explosives.

A short time later she was promoted to assistant works manager in the spring and to BL Works Manager in June 1916, before being appointed as Works Manager of Number 1 Factory in July.By the end of 1916 the original 24 workers had increased to 4000 girls- the only men employed by the factory a few engineers and mechanical experts. Work included the filling of 18-pounder shells and cartridges, packing of filled shells and trolleying to the railway, working in shifts of 'eight and threequarter hours.'

Agnes was then transferred to the larger No 2 Factory in April 1917 as joint manager with a male official, and in September became sole manager there. The number of women employed at Georgetown rose to as many as 14,000 before the end of the war, and Borthwick was in charge of more than half that number. The entire work of the factory was described as 'danger work' and indeed Borthwick admitted that 'until I came away from the factory, I hadn't realised how heavy and how unending the responsibility is.' Despite this, she was described as 'a girl...with a very quiet manner,suggesting a reserve of resolution and courage eminently necessary in her work.'

Borthwick married the engineer Symington McDonald in April 1920 at Fuinart United Free Church in Greenock. She died in 1949 at 94 Thirlestane Road in Edinburgh-confirmed by her sister, Alice Borthwick.


Archival Materials

  • 'Register of Dates of Birth of Graduates 1881-1915' (R3/1/1)
  • Matriculation Record 1907-1908 (R8/5/28/9)
  • Matriculation Record 1908-1909 (R8/5/29/9)
  • Matriculation Record 1909-1910 (R8/5/30/9)
  • Matriculation Record 1910-1911 (R8/5/31/9)
  • Matriculation Record 1911-1912 (R8/5/32/9)


  • Additional information kindly provided by Nina Baker


Agnes Borthwick
Works Manager

Born 19 February 1889, Greenock, Scotland.
Died 9 November 1949.
GU Degrees: MA, 1910; MA, 1912;
University Link: Alumnus
Occupation categories: works managers
WWI: View WWI Roll of Honour Entry
Record last updated: 5th Jul 2018

Country Associations

Scotland Scotland
Place of Birth

Scotland Scotland, Edinburgh
Place of Death

United States United States, No Region

University Connections

University Roles

  • Alumnus