Leeds nostalgia: Tragedy of munitions girls

WAR EFFORT: The Barnbow Munitions Factory in Crossgates.
WAR EFFORT: The Barnbow Munitions Factory in Crossgates.
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In the second part of our look back at the Barnbow Munitions Factory, which closed in 1918, we conclude the story of the fateful explosion which killed 35.

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.

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. 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”.

Yet the only clue to a tragedy having happened was in the death notices in the Yorkshire Evening Post saying, “ killed by accident”.