the outbreak of the First World War in November 1914 the British army
was ill prepared for the scale of the conflict and nowhere was this more
apparent than in the provision of artillery ordinance.
to that time the preferred weapon of the artillery was the shrapnel
shell, ideal for use against infantry but useless against trenches and
other fortifications, which were to become such a feature of the Western
Front from 1914 to 1918. Indeed, at the start of the war the Royal
Ordinance factories held almost no stock of High Explosive (HE) shells
which were needed to destroy the German trenches, barbed wire and such
naive idea prevalent when war was declared in August 1914 that it would
"all be over by Christmas" was, after the battles of Mons and
the Marne and the onset of trench warfare, shown to be wishful thinking.
The country prepared itself for a long and bloody conflict and the
government, led by Prime Minister Asquith, moved towards putting British
industry onto a ‘war footing’.
quantity of ammunition used on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918
was truly enormous. For example, during the 1917 Messines offensive
alone the British artillery fired 3½ million shells in just 12 days,
equivalent to a rate of 3½ shells per second, day and night. It is
estimated that Britain fired, in total, some 170 million shells during
the course of the war; yet in November 1914 many of the British guns on
the Western Front were said to have only one day's supply of ammunition
this led to what has become known as the 'Shell Crisis' of 1915, which
was brought to the public’s notice by the newspapers, especially the
Daily Mail and its owner Lord Northcliffe, and which resulted in an
acrimonious confrontation between press and government and culminated in
the fall of the Asquith Government; Lloyd George, the recently appointed
Minister of Munitions, becoming the new Prime Minister.
combat the crisis the government ordered a massive expansion of the
Woolwich Royal Arsenal, brought in private munitions companies, and set
up Government-owned National Explosives Factories and National Filling
all there were 12 National Filling Factories, which were munitions
factories specialising in filling various munitions, such as bombs,
shells, cartridges etc. with explosives. They didn’t make the shells
themselves, which were produced by specialist firms such as the Leeds
Forge Company at Armley, nor the trinitrotoluene (TNT) and other
explosives which were made in the National Explosives Factories, both
the shell cases and the explosives being transported to the filling
factories by train.
majority of the workforce in such factories were women, some 520,000 by
July 1916, the men being needed for duty in the armed services, and by
July 1916 British shell production of all kinds had risen to the
equivalent of 70 million shells per year.
work of filling shells was highly segregated, each part of the factory
carrying out a specific task. High-explosives, such as TNT, had first to
be heated to melting point and the resultant liquid poured hot into the
heated shell cases. The shells, already loaded with high explosive, were
then taken to be fused. The fuse was inserted by hand, screwed down and
then placed into a machine which revolved the shell and screwed the fuse
such filling factory was established in August 1915 east of Leeds on
part of the Gascoigne estate at Barnbow, to the north of Garforth
between Crossgates and Barwick-in-Elmet.
The site was huge, approximately 313 acres, extending from the bottom of
Barnbow Lane along the eastern part of Manston Lane, with the North
Eastern Railway along its southern boundary. Barnbow has been called
"a city within a city", with some justification. At its peak
it had its own railway station, Barnbow Halt; its own fire brigade; a
dairy to provide the workers with milk, which was thought to combat the
yellowing effect on the skin of working with explosives; and a farm
supplying fresh meat to the canteen. It had tennis courts, nurses, its
own dentists and work went on 24 hours a day in three 8 hour shifts:
6am-2pm, 2pm-10pm and 10pm-6am, 6 days a week, with one Saturday off
every 3 weeks.
the workforce totalled 16000, 93% of them being women and girls drawn
from Leeds, Castleford, Pontefract, Wakefield, Harrogate, Knaresborough,
Selby, York, Tadcaster, Wetherby and many of the outlying villages and
who earned on average £3 for a full week’s work with extra pay for
those working in the most dangerous areas.
of the ever present danger of an explosion workers actually employed in
handling explosives had to strip to their underwear, put on buttonless
smocks and caps and wear rubber soled shoes. No hairpins or combs were
allowed and, for obvious reasons, no cigarettes or matches.
42 at Barnbow was one of the rooms where 4.5" shells were brought
to be filled and fused by about 150 girls and women and at 10.27pm on
Tuesday December 5th 1916 they had just started the night
shift when a violent explosion occurred, killing 35 and injuring many
more. Most of the dead were dreadfully mutilated and in many cases
identification was only possible by the identity disks worn by each
worker. Machine no. 2, which was a fuse tightening machine and where the
explosion had occurred, was completely wrecked. Although steam pipes had
burst open and the floor was awash with blood and water, men and women,
ignoring the dangers, hurried into the ruins to drag the injured to
safety. A mechanic called William Parkin was amongst the rescuers and
the surviving girls later presented him with an inscribed silver watch
for his bravery in rescuing twelve girls.
was halted only briefly, many girls volunteering to go back and continue
the work and, due to the censorship of that time no account of the
accident was made public, the only clue to the tragedy being the many
death notices in the Yorkshire Evening Post that stated, "killed by
was not until six years after the war that an account of the tragedy was
bravery of the girls was, however, noted in a special Order of the Day
issued from British Headquarters in France by Commander-in-Chief, Sir
Douglas Haig which said: "In spite of the explosion, the work was
carried on without interruption and the remainder displayed great
coolness and discipline in dealing with the emergency."
were two further explosions at Barnbow, one in March 1917 killed two
girl workers and another in May 1918 killed three men.
was amongst the most productive of Britain’s filling factories,
filling some 24¾ million shells and completing a total of 566,000 tons
of finished ammunition between 1914 and 1918.
ceased with the armistice and by March 1924 the site had been returned
to Colonel Gascoigne. When, in June 1938 some parts of the estate were
offered for sale several parcels of land were described as "waste,
being areas occupied by the former munitions factory".
Today nothing remains of the Barnbow National Filling Factory except
faint traces of a railway track, winding through a landscape of grassy
humps and hollows, and a memorial to its dead situated on the central
reservation of the main road through Crossgates, where each victim is
remembered by a brass plaque set in the ground between blocks of stone.
Pontefract girls are amongst the names; Jane Few and Helena (or Eleanor)
Beckett, who may be the same Helena, daughter of John and Ida Beckett,
who was born in Castleford and in 1901 was living there with her
parents, age 11.
them, and to all the Barnbow Lasses who worked in such ever-present
danger, this article is respectfully dedicated.
©Eric A Jackson 2007
Also by Eric Jackson:
Pontefract Sessions House
Reports from the Courts
A Pontefract Battalion