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On 5 December 1916, an explosion at Barnbow Shell Factory in Leeds killed 35 female workers and injured many more. Today, the site of the factory is protected as a scheduled monument by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but at the time the accident was hushed up. In this guest blog post, Lives of the First World War Volunteer Ann Green shares her research to mark the centenary of this tragic event.
- The Barnbow Munitions Factory
Following the declaration of war in August 1914, there was an urgent need to mass-produce bullets, shells and other types of ammunition. Existing factories around the UK increased their production but could not meet the demand, and so the government commissioned new purpose-built factories to be built from scratch.
One of these was the 200 acre National Filling Station No 1 at Barnbow near Leeds, which was operational by December 1915. It was a huge site, with its massive buildings, its own power lines and water supply. New train tracks and longer platforms were built at the local railway station to bring in workers from Leeds, Harrogate, York, Wakefield and smaller nearby villages. It also had its own farm, producing 300 gallons of milk a day.
Munitions work was dangerous but essential. To meet its production targets, Barnbow ran 3 shifts a day. It was hard manual work involving the use of heavy machinery. The chemicals used were unstable, and the huge volumes of raw materials on site meant that management enforced strict dress and conduct rules to reduce the risk of explosions.
Most of the workforce were women and girls, attracted by the high wages on offer. Conditions at the factory were hot; the shifts were long; and the raw materials were toxic, turning workers’ skin and hair yellow in a short time, and earning them the name ‘The Barnbow Canaries’. The uniforms provided were inadequate to protect against the dust, which was particularly deadly if it settled in the lungs. Workers were provided with free milk and protective masks, which helped mitigate some of these risks but the dangers were ever-present.
Extract from Ackrill’s Harrogate War Souvenir, published in 1918
One of the employees that I have researched is Olive Yeates. Olive was born in Harrogate in 1899. The 1901 census shows Olive’s parents, George and Miriam, living in Skipton Road, Harrogate, while Olive was staying the night with her maternal grandparents, the Walkers, 4 miles away in Nidd Vale Terrace in Harrogate. On the night of the 1911 census, Olive was at home with her parents and baby brother, George (aged 1) in Unity Street, Harrogate.
We know that Olive Yeates applied for a job at Barnbow and that she was one of about 170 workers in Room 42 on the evening shift on Tuesday 5 December 1916. This room was where the fully loaded shells were brought to have a fuse added by hand and the shell cap tightened by machine.
At 10.27pm, shortly after the evening shift began, a violent explosion occurred in Room 42. Thirty five women and girls were killed outright, one of whom was Olive Yeates. Many of those who survived were injured or maimed. Other workers rushed to help, despite the risk of further explosions and the cap-screwing machine was completely destroyed.
Despite the carnage, production was only stopped for a short time. The dead and wounded were removed and other workers volunteered to take on their work in Room 42.
Due to censorship rules at the time, the Yorkshire Evening Post’s report on 7 December 1916 simply noted that 26 workers had been killed and about 30 injured in an explosion in a national shell factory in the North of England. Damage to the building was reported to be slight. Death notices posted by the workers’ families in local newspapers including one for 17 year old Olive Yeates, gave their cause of death as ‘killed by accident’, without stating when, where or how they died.
Detail image of part of the “Women of the Empire” memorial panels in York Minster. Image courtesy of Michael Newbury.
Details of the explosion were not published until 1925, when the press named the women and reported that their relatives were invited to apply for tickets for the unveiling of the Five Sisters Window in York Minster in June as a memorial to all women of the Commonwealth who lost their lives in the Great War.
One hundred years after the tragic accident, I have created a Lives of the First World War Community to remember those women, including Olive, who lost their lives at Barnbow. They all served their country well and will never be forgotten.
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