When greater perils men environ,
Then women show a front of iron;
And, gentle in their manner, they
Do bold things in a quiet way
Thomas Dunn English (1819-1902)
This little verse written by a 19th century American politician and poet is a respectful observance of how women have reacted throughout the ages when their men have been surrounded by danger, and as such is a fitting tribute to all the women and girls who worked at the No1 National Filling Factory at Barnbow during the 1914-18 War.
The decision to build an armaments factory at Barnbow was made in 1915, with work commencing in the August of that year. It was to be the largest undertaking of its kind at that time and even today evidence remains of its existence. Foundations can still be found concealed in dense thicket, and un-natural lumps and bumps in the ground are highlighted when the sun is low on the horizon. Throughout its existence the entire complex was managed by a Board of Directors made up of prominent Leeds citizens, two of which were in daily attendance on site all of the time. Board members included Mr Joseph Watson, Chairman, Mr T L Taylor, Deputy Chairman, The Hon Rupert Beckett, Mr Bernal Bagshave, Mr Arthur G Lupton and Major G Yewdall, Secretary.
The land chosen for the site was occupied by two farms at Lazencroft and Shippen, and was quickly cleared and made ready for building. The plans provided from Messrs. Reid & MacDonald, architects to the Ministry of Munitions, included 8 blocks of assembly rooms consisting of 56 working rooms, 4 large component stores, 9 explosives magazines, 14 fuse and gaine rooms and 8 finished ammunition magazines. changing rooms, canteen facilities and administration buildings were also included. Negotiations with the North Eastern Railway quickly resulted in a new railway siding within the plant and a track from the main line into the heart of the site. An additional station (or Halt) was built on the main railway line between Cross Gates and Garforth for the use of employees, with platforms either side over 800ft long.
Initially, the problems facing the workers developing the site were enormous. However, within four months, following preliminary trials, the first fifty female operatives had been employed and shell filling processes were in operation. An Employment Bureau had been opened at the Wellesley Buildings in Leeds and the first batch of female labour had been sent to Woolwich for training.
Towards the end of 1915, a small dynamo was acquired from Manor Farm at Garforth and connected to a temporary mains supply. This provided electric lighting when the daylight hours became shorter. The site also needed a good water supply, and Stanks was the nearest water source as the village was supplied from Leeds.
Within four weeks a connecting water main was laid providing 200,000 gallons of water a day.
Sewage disposal also needed immediate attention and a 90,000 gallon collecting and screening tank was quickly installed. This enabled sewage to be pumped to specially constructed septic beds at Leeds Sewage Works in Killingbeck. As work progressed, a Boiler House and Heating Plant was installed, and an electrical sub-station coupled to a 10,000 volt extra high tension main, ensured an efficient supply of electricity from the Yorkshire Electric Power Company.
The Ministry of Munitions soon became aware of the possible potential at Barnbow and it was decided to incorporate an Amatol Factory at Barnbow instead of at Otley. On March 8th 1916 building work began on a melting house which would be known as ‘Amatol “B” and this was completed within six weeks. As a result, the Chairman and Deputy Chairman on site reported ‘on 18th April – one day in advance of the promised date for completion – the first section of the plant was run up and thirty 4.5 shells were filled’. Two shifts per 24 hour day quickly changed to three and within a short time upwards of 6,000 shells a day were being filled.
The total population of employees soon reached almost 17,000, with 93% of the workforce being women and girls. By June 22nd 1916, after only five months of construction, two factories on the site were fully equipped producing between 300,000 and 400,000 shells a week. The Cartridge Factory was made up of six Assembly Blocks containing 42 workrooms, along with Bulk Stores and eight Magazines to store breech loading cartridges. In the Box Factory, gun ammunition boxes were manufactured and repaired by well trained female operatives, and these girls were capable of producing more than 50,000 projectile boxes per week. Yet this was insufficient, and during 1917 land had to be procured from Cross Gates Golf Club, where 14 large Magazines were erected for storage.
About one third of the female operatives came from Leeds and many also came from Castleford. Others came from areas such as York, Tadcaster, Harrogate, Wetherby, Knaresborough, Pontefract, Normanton, Wakefield and other outlying villages. The North Eastern Railway ran 38 special and 15 ordinary trains per day round the clock, with free travel permits being issued to all employees. The railway was also moving up to 1,500 tons of goods from the site per day.
The Employment Bureau had interviewed over 130,000 female applicants, and in October 1916, 16,000 people were employed at Barnbow. Tough production bonus schemes were installed which would weed out many operatives who found the pace hard, and within nine months the size of the workforce shrank to 9,000, even though production significantly increased. The outcome of this however would have serious consequences.
When dealing with highly volatile explosive materials, safety issues are of the highest priority and the factory had been built in isolated sections deliberately, to confine the effects of any explosions to the building involved. Sandbags and protective shields were also in use both on site and within these buildings, but on a cold December night in 1916 all these safety measures would be put severely to the test.
Tragedy & Heartbreak
The worst disaster ever to befall Leeds happened on 5th December 1916, when an explosion ripped apart Hut 42 at the Barnbow Shell Filling Factory and killed 35 girls and women. Many more were injured.
Mr William Parkin, a mechanic at the plant was walking nearby at the time. Selflessly, he entered the devastated hut 42 at least eleven times, each time returning with an injured girl. The scene was horrific, with dead and injured girls among the debris, scalding water, fire, and the risk of further explosions at any time. For this extreme act of courage William received no official recognition, but the girls later presented him with an inscribed silver watch in recognition of his bravery in saving the injured women.
On 21st March 1917 another explosion occurred which killed two girls, and again just after noon on 31st May 1918 an accident happened in a mixing shed which killed three men and injured ten other workers. On this occasion the shift was being changed or the casualties would have been much higher. One of the men was feeding a grinding mill when a roller skidded. Following regulations he stopped the machinery to clear the pan and instantly there was an explosion. The machine operator received serious injuries but miraculously survived, while three men working twenty feet away lost their lives.
It should not be forgotten that many workers who survived these accidents suffered physical and psychological injuries which remained with them for the rest of their lives. Some died years later prematurely due to injuries sustained, or by long term effects due to inhalation of chemicals at the plant, but there is no mention of these people on any Roll of Honour.
On November 11th 1918 the war ended. No one stopped the girls as they laid down their tools and left the factory, many of them joining the festivities and celebrations in the streets of Leeds. Everything came to a halt at the plant for two days before some girls returned to assist in final operations, which quickly led to the end of production. Before final disbandment, celebrations took place at many locations on site. Friends and comrades came together, this time to celebrate. They had worked together through the darkest days of the war, now it was over.
Machinery was removed from the plant and the site was taken over by the Central Stores of the Ministry of Defence to store surplus war materials. Some hoped the site would eventually be developed as a kind of garden city or perhaps a hospital in memory of the workforce, but this was not to happen. No development, no hospital, nothing.
The Leeds Country Way now runs through what used to be part of the Barnbow site, passing within yards of where hut 42 stood in 1916.
If one day you find yourself on that footpath, stand for a while and listen quietly to the breeze as it whispers gently through the trees…… A long time ago in the middle of a dreadful war, you would have heard the cheery laughs and a light-hearted song which once echoed over the place where you are now standing:
“We are the Barnbow Lasses,
we are the girls who make the shells,
we mind our manners,
we can spend our tanners,
and we are respected wherever we go”.
Bibliography: The Story of Barnbow by R.H.Gummer, Chief Engineer.

Related Article – Pictures of the 100th Anniversay Memorial service remembering the Barnbow Lasses


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