35 Killed in explosion

The above is taken from an article published in the Yorkshire Evening Post on Saturday 20th April 2002, which we know to be accurate.

The worst tragedy that Leeds ever knew - in terms of people killed - never made the headlines. For the dreadful explosion that killed 35 women and girls occurred at the Barnbow Munitions factory, Crossgates, in the First World War. It was not until six years after the war that the public were told the bare facts for the first time. Most of the workers were women, drawn from a twenty-mile radius. The majority came from Leeds, but York, Selby, Harrogate, Wakefield, Tadcaster and Wetherby all provided a big quota.

In 1914, when volunteer workers were wanted for the sprawling factory set in countryside, over 130,000 applied for jobs. Some 16,000 were engaged at 28s per week. When a bonus scheme was put into production, the output of shells trebled and the girls handling the explosives were often taking between £10 and £12 home- big money in those days.

Barnbow was a city within a city. It had its own railway station with an 850ft platform, and at the height of its operations, 38 special trains brought workers in for the three round the clock shifts, beside 15 ordinary trains.

Working conditions were barely tolerable, because of the necessary restrictions. Workers actually employed in handling explosives had to strip to their underwear and don buttonless smocks and caps. No hairpins were allowed, no combs, and certainly no cigarettes or matches. All had to wear rubber soled shoes. They worked eight hours a day six days a week, and twelve hours on Sunday, with one Sunday off every three weeks. There were no holidays as such. 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 wished. Barnbow factory had its own farm, with 120 cows producing 300 gallons a day.

At 10.15pm on Tuesday December 5th 1916, several hundred girls and women had just begun their night shift. Their task consisted of filling, fuzing, finishing off and packing 4.5in shells. Room 42 was mainly concerned with the filling and between 150 and 170 girls worked there. Shells were brought to the room already loaded with high explosive and the work that remained to be done was the insertion of the fuse and the screwing down of the cap. A girl put in 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. This was what was happening in room 42 that fateful December night.

At about 10.27pm a violent explosion occurred killing 35 women and injuring many more. In many cases, identification was possible only by the identity disks worn by the workers. Most were dreadfully mutilated. Machine 2, where the explosion had occurred was completely wrecked. Steam pipes burst open and the floor was a mixture of blood and water. Ignoring the dangers, men and women alike hurried into room 42 to drag the injured to safety. Mr William Parkin, a mechanic, performed heroic deeds. So much so that the girls of the Northern Shell Stores at Barnbow later presented him with an inscribed silver watch for his bravery in bringing out about a dozen girls.

Within a few hours of the explosion, bodies having been taken out, girls were volunteering to work in the same room and production was only briefly halted. The bravery of the girls was even noted in a special order of the day issued from British Headquarters in France by Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, " to illustrate the spirit animating British women who are working with us for the common cause".

The order went on: "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." Many of the injured girls were later taken for a period of convalescence at Weetwood Grange, which had been leased for such a purpose, by Barnbow from the works Comfort Fund.

Yet, though rumour and counter-rumour ran through Yorkshire about the explosion, not one word appeared in the newspapers about it because of wartime restrictions. The only clue to a tragedy having happened was in the death notices in the Yorkshire Evening Post saying, " killed by accident".

There were two further explosions, one in March 1917, killing two girl workers and another in May 1918, killing three men. Barnbow was Britain's Premier shell factory and between 1914 and 1918 a total of 566,000 tons of finished ammunition was despatched overseas. Production ceased with the armistice.