The Leeds Barnbow Lasses:


This is the story of the worst tragedy in the modern history of Leeds, West Yorkshire, 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.

The Workforce:

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.

The Explosion:

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.

At 10.27pm a violent explosion rocked the very foundations of Room 42, killing 35 women outright and maiming and injuring dozens more.

In some cases identification was only possible by the identity disks worn around the workers' necks; the machine where the explosion had occurred was completely destroyed; steam pipes had burst open and covered the floor with a cocktail of blood and water.

Despite the danger from further explosions, workers hurried into room 42 to help bring the injured to safety; William Parker, a mechanic at the factory, was one particular hero of the hour and he was later presented with an inscribed silver watch for his bravery in bringing out about a dozen girls.

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.

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