A new exhibition which honours the role the city’s women played in the First World War will feature the story of Eliza Ellis, who together with her two sisters, survived the huge explosion which rocked Leeds’s Barnbow munitions factory on the night of December 5 1916.
Hundreds of women had just begin their shifts at the factory when the blast hit Room 42, where thousands of four-and-a-half inch shells were filled and packed, claiming 35 lives, and injurying many more. Among the survivors was Eliza Ellis, who days before had received a promotion which had led to her two sisters, Lizzie and Annie, being transferred away from Room 42 - a twist of fate which doubtless saved their lives.
Eliza was among those who rushed to help stricken colleagues and was later awarded a commemorative clock for her efforts. This will now take pride of place at the new ‘Women, Work and War’ exhibition at Leeds Industrial Museum - which opens on Saturday and runs until September 24 2017 - after it was loaned by her grandson David Wilcox, 71.
He said: “My grandma would never talk about what she did at Barnbow and we just took it for granted really.
“It wasn’t until years later that I realised she must have done something very heroic to have been awarded with this clock and what she must have gone through must have been quite horrific.”
He said: “As at this time of the year, grandma would never take me to a Bonfire, we had to watch from inside the house from an upstairs room. When I grew up, I realised why.”
David added: “It was an incredible step for women during the war because until then they had been working at home or in domestic service but they stepped in and proved they could do it just as good as men.
“I’m really looking forward to the exhibition, it’s been fascinating to find out more about my family history and this will be a tribute to grandma.”
Lucy Moore, project curator with Leeds Museums and galleries, had been putting Women Work and War together, working alongside local community groups including East Leeds History and Archaeology Society.
She said: “The First World War had an immeasurable impact on life in Leeds, affecting people of every age, class and background.
“Women were among those whose way of life was altered most profoundly, and the conflict saw them go from being on the fringes of work and industry to being absolutely pivotal to the war effort and public service.
“Like women across the country, the women of Leeds rose to the challenge, fundamentally changing the way they were viewed by society and laying down a marker for the women’s rights movement.”
Alongside the exhibition, Women, Work and War will see a series of workshops, tours and talks taking place throughout 2016 and 2017.
Coun Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, added: “This exhibition is a fitting tribute to the women whose determination, fortitude and sacrifice literally kept the city and the country going during the First World War.
“By giving people the opportunity to learn more about the stories behind those women, some of whom laid down their lives for the war effort, we can help preserve their legacy and ensure future generations understand the impact they had on our lives today.”
To find out more about Women, Work and War, visit www.leeds.gov.uk/womenworkwar