This is the story of the worst tragedy
in the modern history of Leeds,
in terms of people killed, a story that never even made the news headlines
when it happened.
WWI created an unprecedented and urgent
need for large volumes of arms and munitions and although Leeds did
not have much of an arms industry at that time, the City Fathers, together
with established manufacturing companies, decided to build one from
scratch and quickly created the Leeds Munitions Committee; shells produced
by the Leeds Forge Company at Armley would also be filled and armed
within the boundaries of the city.
A governing board of directors comprising
six local Leeds men was established and tasked with overseeing the construction
of the First National Shell Filling Factory; they met in August 1915
and selected a site at Barnbow, between the Crossgates and Garforth
areas of Leeds, to construct a factory the size of which was described
as ‘a city within a city’.
Back in 1915 things happened at a slightly
faster rate than it does today and by August shell production had started
in the new Armley factory and within months the factory was producing
more than 10,000 shells per week.
The Barnbow Site:
At the site, railway workers laid tracks
directly into the factory complex to transport raw materials into, and
finished goods out of, the factory; platforms over 800 feet long were
added to the nearby railway station in order to bring the workers directly
to the factory gates and massive factory buildings were quickly constructed
enabling shell filling operations to start by December 1915.
The frantic, but well organised, construction
in the autumn of 1915 included the erection of overhead power lines
to bring electricity to the site; this, together with a boiler house,
provided power for the heating and lighting of the whole factory; a
water main laid in just four weeks, delivered 200,000 gallons of water
daily; rapid progress was also made on the infrastructure buildings
including changing rooms, canteens, administration blocks, etc; the
site would eventually extend to cover some 200 acres; there was however,
a complete press blackout of the area due to security concerns.
In order to recruit the large work force
required to operate such a facility, an employment bureau was opened
at Wellesley Barracks in Leeds; with one third of the workforce eventually
recruited from Leeds, other workers came from nearby Castleford, Wakefield,
Harrogate and many from the outlying villages; a 24-hour three shift
system was introduced that operated 6 days a week and by October 1916
the workforce numbered 16,000; as the war continued and the death rate
on the battlefront increased, so did the gradual replacement of male
with female labour increase, until the Barnbow workforce was comprised
of almost 93% women and girls.
At that time a typical munitions worker's
earnings averaged £3.0s.0d, however, when a bonus scheme was put
into production, the output of shells trebled and the girls handling
the explosives were often taking home between £10 and £12,
a lot of money at the time; all aspects of the operation appear to have
been efficiently run with the latest electric payroll systems including
calculating machines being introduced; 38 trains per day, known as Barnbow
Specials, transported the workforce to and from the site and employees
were provided with free permits for home-to-work journeys.
Working conditions on the other hand were
barely tolerable; workers employed in handling explosives had to strip
to their underwear and wear buttonless smocks and caps; they all had
to wear rubber soled shoes, and hairpins, combs, cigarettes and matches
were all strictly forbidden; the hours were long, conditions poor and
holidays simply did not exist!
Food rationing was severe, but because
of the nature of their work the employees were allowed to drink as much
milk and barley water as they wanted; Barnbow even had its own farm,
complete with 120 cows producing 300 gallons of milk a day; working
with cordite, a propellant for the shells, for long periods caused the
skin of the operatives to turn yellow, the cure for which was to drink
plenty of milk.
It was just after 10pm on Tuesday, the
5th December 1916, when several hundred women and girls had just begun
their night shift; their tasks that fateful evening consisted as they
normally did, of filling, fusing, finishing off and packing 4½
inch shells; room 42 was mainly used for the filling and between 150
and 170 girls worked there; shells were brought to the room already
loaded with high explosive and all that remained was the insertion of
the fuse and the screwing down of the cap; a girl inserted the fuse
by hand, screwed it down and then it was taken and placed into a machine
that revolved the shell and screwed the fuse down tightly.
After the Explosion:
Within a few hours of the explosion, after the bodies had been removed,
girls were volunteering to start work again in room 42; the production
was stopped only briefly; many of the injured girls were later taken
for a period of convalescence to Weetwood Grange, which had been leased
by Barnbow from the works Comfort Fund.
Due to the censorship of that time, no
account of the accident was made public; however in a special order
of the day issued from the British HQ in France, Field Marshall Sir
Douglas Haigh paid tribute to the devotion and sacrifice of the munitions
workers; the only clue to a tragedy having happened was in the many
death notices in the Yorkshire Evening Post that stated, “killed
by accident”; it was not until six years after the war that the
public were told the facts for the first time.
There were two further explosions at Barnbow,
one in March 1917, which killed two girl workers and another in May
1918, which killed three men; a Roll of Honour of war dead, in the Colton
Methodist Church, includes the name of the only Colton girl who died
in the accident, a certain Ethel Jackson.
Barnbow was Britain’s premier shell
factory between 1914 and 1918 and at the end of hostilities on the 11th
November 1918, production stopped for the first time; by that time a
total of 566,000 tons of finished ammunition had been dispatched overseas.