Leeds nostalgia: Remembering the Barnbow victims

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a MEMORIAL to women who died in one of the worst homeland disasters of the First World War is to be listed by English Heritage.

The Leeman Road District First World War Memorial, York commemorates some of the women who died in the terrible munitions factory explosion at Barnbow, Leeds in December 1916.

At the time, the catastrophe was censored – even the Yorkshire Evening Post was only allowed to mention that some women had died but could not say how.

Now, almost 100 years after the incident, the women are to be remembered again.

Neil Redfern, principal inspector of ancient monuments at English Heritage, said: “Barnbow is one of those extraordinary stories which remains very evocative.

“I think it’s poignant that some of the new housing developments around there are naming streets after some of the women who died.

“The explosion came just after the terrible losses at the Battle of the Somme, which saw the Leeds Pals decimated. Now it was happening on home soil. The Government hushed it up at the time, it wasn’t reported until after the war.”

In fact, it was six years after the war ended the truth came out – that an explosion had killed 35 women and girls. Most of the workers were women, drawn from a 20-mile radius. The majority came from Leeds, but also York, Selby, Harrogate, Wakefield, Tadcaster and Wetherby.

In 1914, when volunteer workers were wanted for the sprawling factory set in countryside, over 130,000 applied – 16,000 were engaged at 28s per week. When a bonus scheme was put in place, the output of shells trebled, girls handling the explosives were 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. 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.

Barnbow factory had its own farm, with 120 cows producing 300 gallons a day.

At 10.15pm on Tuesday December 5 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 10.27pm a violent explosion killed 35 women and injured many more. In many cases, identification was possible only by identity discs worn by the workers. Most were dreadfully mutilated.

The memorial in Salisbury Road is now a Grade II memorial. It lists 70 men and three women.

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