A century on, Leeds marks a terrible tragedy on the home front

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It was a tragedy that devastated families across a Yorkshire city who were already facing up to the heartache of their loved ones being sent to fight in the First World War.

An explosion at a munitions factory in Leeds on the evening of December 5, 1916, left 35 women and girls dead after they had been drafted in to work at the site as part of the nation’s war effort.

Joan Corcoran at the ceremony.

Joan Corcoran at the ceremony.

And relatives of the victims of the notorious Barnbow munitions factory disaster gathered at the scene of the explosion in Cross Gates in east Leeds to remember their loved ones who lost their lives.

Wayne Levitt, whose great aunt Edith died in the disaster, paid tribute at the service held at Manston Park.

He said: “I think that is brilliant that people have come out in solidarity with them. It was women doing men’s work – more than men’s work – and I don’t think they get enough recognition. The feeling runs very deep in Cross Gates.”

Joan Cocoran, whose aunt, Jane Swift, survived the explosion but was severely scarred, said: “It was an absolutely wonderful tribute to them. Jane always hid her face. I never saw her.”

Barnbow Lasses Memorial Service at Manston Park

Barnbow Lasses Memorial Service at Manston Park

Most of the workers were women, drawn from a 20-mile radius. The majority came from Leeds, but some were from York, Selby, Harrogate, Wakefield, Tadcaster and Wetherby.

There were two further explosions at the factory, the first in March 1917, which killed two girl workers and the second in May 1918, which killed three men.

Owing to a Press blackout during the war, it was not until six years later that the full extent of the tragedy was made public.

At the ceremony, organised by East Leeds History and Archaeology Society and partner organisations, Lord Mayor of Leeds Gerry Harper said: “No account was made public at that time. The only clue that a tragedy had taken place was in the death notices in the Yorkshire Evening Post listed as ‘death by accident’.”

In tribute: More than 100 people turned out the ceremony.

In tribute: More than 100 people turned out the ceremony.

“This was a terrible, terrible tragedy for the people of this area and the women had given so much. It is only right that we are here to remember the cause of that horrible deaths that occurred that evening.”

Coun Pauleen Grahame, who read the names of the victims at the ceremony, said campaigning to have a memorial installed at Manston Park was one of the proudest moments of her time as a councillor.

Labour MP for Leeds East Richard Burgon, who read the names alongside Coun Grahame, said: “The First World War remains a horrifying warning of the impact of war and its catastrophic impact on ordinary people’s lives.

“This year we have rightly commemorated the loss of lives at the Battle of the Somme, where the Leeds Pals battalion took devastating casualties in just the opening minutes of the attack.

“But we must not forget the impact of the war at home as well. One hundred years ago, ... over 15,000 women were working in harsh conditions 
in the Barnbow factory supplying munitions to the British Army.

“I am delighted we now have a memorial in place in Manston Park, and that the story has been brought to a wider audience, through the Barnbow Canaries performance at the West Yorkshire Playhouse earlier this year.”

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