West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
 
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Pontefract Local History

THE BARNBOW LASSES

ERIC JACKSON

At 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.

Up 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 like.

The 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’.

The 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 left!

Ultimately, 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.

To 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 Factories.

In 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.

The 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.

The 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 down tightly.

Once 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.

Eventually 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.

Because 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.

Room 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.

Production 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 accident".

It was not until six years after the war that an account of the tragedy was published.

The 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."

There were two further explosions at Barnbow, one in March 1917 killed two girl workers and another in May 1918 killed three men.

Barnbow 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.

Production 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.

Memorial to the girls of Barnbow shell factory 1914-1918

Two 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.

To 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


 

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