Remembering the Barnbow Tragedy: 100 Years Ago Today

  • by Louise Birch, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

Leeds Central Library’s recent exhibition The Barnbow Story in Pictures used photographs taken from the munitions factory to give insight into the lives of the women who worked there. A selection of the exhibition photographs have been included below but, if you would like to see more, please go to www.leodis.org and search for ‘Barnbow’.

Set up during WWI by the Leeds Munitions Committee, Barnbow was a 200 acre site answering the need for shells vital to the war effort. The workforce of 16,000, mostly women, covered three shifts over a 24-hour period, six days a week. Holidays were unheard of, and the TNT poison that turned the skin of the workers yellow gave the women the nickname ‘Barnbow Canaries’.

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Women who previously worked in domestic positions flocked to work at Barnbow where wages far exceeded those of domestics, though were still lower than the rate that male workers received in the same role. With this increased income came a newfound independence and, along with it, highly dangerous working conditions. The location of Barnbow was kept a secret, reported only as a factory in the North of England by the press, the greater public unaware that here was the site of the most prolific munitions factory in the UK.

Below is an extract from the 1919 publication How the Shells were Filled: The Story of Barnbow, making public for the first time the details of the explosion that caused the deaths of 35 women and the greatest loss of life in Leeds…

“It is a trite saying that accidents will happen in the best regulated concerns. And, not withstanding all precautions, care, foresight, vigilance, accidents happened at Barnbow.

“Explosions occurred on three separate occasions while work was in progress. The first and most serious, was on the night of December 5th, 1916; […] The night shift had just started operations on 4.5 inch shells, when a shell, which had been placed in position on the machine for the purpose of having the fuse firmly screwed in, burst with a loud report, and other projectiles close at hand followed suit with disastrous results.  Now, however, was demonstrated the value of the sand bags and protecting shields […], as well as the wisdom of constructing the factory in isolated sections, for the effect of the explosion was confined to the building in which it occurred.  Naturally, great alarm was caused throughout the factory, but it was soon allayed. And the thousands of workers engaged in the other building resumed their duties with the utmost courage and cheerfulness possible in the circumstances.  Not only so, but within a few hours, when repairs had been completed, girls were found readily volunteering to work in the very room where the accident happened.  Meanwhile the injured were conveyed to the Leeds General Infirmary, and splendid service was rendered by the Factory Medical and Surgical Staff, nurses and other helpers. […]

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“Although, owing censorship, no account of the disaster appeared in the public Press at the time, the news travelled quickly, and, as a matter of hearsay, became much exaggerated. It was not possible, however, to exaggerate the admiration with which the workers’ conduct was regarded.  Here is Sit Douglas Haig’s tribute paid in a special Order of the Day issued from the British Headquarters in France:-

“The Commander-in-Chief desires to bring to the notice of the troops the following incident, which is illustrative of the spirit animating British women who are working with us for the common cause.

“One night recently a shell burst in a shop at a filling factory, in which the great majority of the workers are women. In spite of the explosion, the work was carried on without interruption, though several women were killed and others seriously wounded.  The remainder displayed perfect coolness and discipline in dealing with the emergency.  As the result of their gallant and patriotic conduct, the output of munitions was not seriously affected.

“The Commander-in-Chief feels sure that the Army will appreciate and be inspired by this splendid example of the loyalty and determination with which their comrades in the munition factories are helping towards victory.”

[Taken from: How the Shells were Filled: The Story of Barnbow, told now for the First Time, Published by Authority, Leeds, 1919. Available in Local and Family History, shelf mark: LQ 623 BAR]

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Due to government censorship and fears over morale, the explosion and location of Barnbow were kept out of the national press, and the obituaries of the women who died carried ambiguous references to “killed in accident” or “died suddenly”. Here are the names of the women who lost their lives in the explosion. Where possible we have included further information about them.

  • Ethel Jackson of Leeds, died aged 20: Yorkshire Evening Post 9th December 1916 ~ Jackson – December 5, 1916 suddenly.  Ethel Agnes, daughter of Mr and Mrs W Jackson, New Row, Colton. (Today, Ethel Jackson Road on the old Barnbow site is named in her honour.)
  • M. Keyworth of Leeds, died aged 26: Yorkshire Evening Post, 9th December 1916 ~ Killed by accident. 5th Dec, aged 26.  Emmie, the third and dearly beloved daughter of Thomas and Eliza Keyworth, of Bennett Road, Headingley.
  • M. Alderson of Leeds, Martha died aged 27.
  • Katie Chapman of Leeds, died aged 41: Yorkshire Evening Post, 8th December 1916 ~ On Dec. 5, suddenly.  Katie aged 41, the beloved wife of John William Chapman, of 11, Rillbank Grove.
  • Gertrude Reid of Leeds, died aged 27: Yorkshire Herald, 13th December 1916 ~ The internment has taken place in the south of England of Mrs Gertrude Reed, who also met her death last week under distressing circumstance.  The deceased, who was 27 years of age, was a native of Staffordshire, and her mother, Mrs Houldcroft, resides at 87 Lincoln-street, York, she was a member of a very patriotic family.  Her husband, Private Geo. Reed, is a prisoner of war in Germany.  He was called up on the outbreak of war as a Reservist, and re-joined the West Yorkshire Regiment; he fought at the battle of Mons, where we was wounded and fell into the hands of the Germans.
  • Agnes L. Power of Leeds, died aged 36.
  • Elsie Martha Atkinson of Leeds, died aged 18: Yorkshire Evening Post, 8th December 1916 ~ Killed by accident, on Dec 5, Elsie Martha, aged 18, daughter of Mrs Annie and the late Mr John Atkinson of 2. Thornville Terrace, Burley, Leeds.
  • Mary B. Schofield of Leeds, died aged 42: Yorkshire Evening Post, 8th December 1916 ~ Suddenly. On Dec 5, 1916. Mary Amelia, aged 42 of 48 Potternewton Lane.
  • Florence Whiteley of Leeds, died aged 31: Yorkshire Evening Post, 8th December 1916 ~ Killed by accident on December 5. Florence aged 31, daughter of Mrs J. E. Naylor, widow of the late Ambrose Whitley, of 3 Danube Grove, New Wortley.
  • Amelia Stewart of Leeds, died aged 28: Died 25 days later in hospital from internal injuries, December, 30th 1916. (Today, Amelia Stewart Lane on the old Barnbow site is named in her honour.)
  • K. Bainbridge of Leeds, died aged 40: 40 years old at the time of her death, Kate was married with four children. Her husband William served with the West Yorkshire Regiment, but had become ill with pulmonary tuberculois and spent most of 1916 in hospital.  On December 6th, 1916 his doctor recommended permanent discharge with the following report:  “Not a result but aggravated by active service exposure. Permanent is getting worse.  Total incapacity. Very hard case.  Wife killed last night in Barnbow explosion, and he has 4 children, eldest 9.  He is extremely ill and urgently needs money.  Earnings – nil.”  William Bainbridge died Febrary 27th, 1918.
  • Edith Sykes of Leeds, died aged 15: Edith’s older sister Agnes also worked in Barnbow’s Room 42 but the night of the explosion Agnes was home sick with flu. Edith was injured in the explosion and taken to Leeds Infirmary where died several weeks later.  Her older brother Herbert was in the Army, based in York and borrowed a gun carriage from his Barracks to carry Edith’s coffin. It is possible that Edith lied about her age to work at Barnbow as birth records indicate she was 15 at the time of her death.
  • Ida Worslop of Leeds.
  • Mary Jane Blackstone of Leeds, died aged 35: Yorkshire Evening Post, 8th December 1916 ~ December 6, at 5, Thornville Terrace, Burley (from accident). Mary Jane Blackstone, aged 35, wife of Arthur Blackstone.
  • Helena Beckett of Pontefract, died aged 33.
  • Jane Few of Pontefract: Jane had married Charles Few only weeks before the explosion while Charles was home recovering from wounds suffered in France. Jane’s mother was too ill to attend the funeral but the local paper reported the funeral “became a demonstration of sympathy on a huge scale”.  Despite being unable to report the nature of her death Jane’s sister posted the following notice in the paper, “Sweet be your rest, sister dear, tis sweet to breathe your name, in life we loved you very dear, in death we do the same.” Today, Jane Few House on Ethel Jackson Road on the old Barnbow site is named in her honour.
  • Emily Sedgwick of Harrogate, died aged 39: Emily was not injured in the Barnbow explosion but died 2 years later. The coroner found her condition to be related to the shock she suffered in the 1916 incident.
  • Kathleen Eastment of York, died aged 17: Yorkshire Herald, 16th December 1916 ~ the first funeral was that of Kathleen Violet Eastment, aged 17, daughter of Mrs Eastment, a widow, residing at 11, Diamond-street, The Groves, York.  The deceased was of a kindly disposition, and her death is deeply regretted by a wide circle of friends.  She was an only daughter.  It is interesting to record that a brother of the deceased, Bombardier George Francis Furnell (25), is serving in his Majesty’s Forces.  He has been in the Army for 7½ years and was present at the funeral.  The service was conducted by the Rev. Father Chadwick and the coffin was draped with the Union Jack.
  • May Wortley of York, died aged 38: Yorkshire Herald, 16th December 1916 ~ The second internment was that of Mrs Mary Elizabeth Wortley, Beaconsfield-streett Haxby-road, with whose husband and family the deepest sympathy is felt, for she was the mother of ten children, seven of whom are under the age of 14.  The deceased was a daughter of Mr John Wilkinson, of Burton Stone-lane, York and the wife of Mr John William Wortley.  One of the sons, Alexander S. Wortley, aged 17, is serving in one of his Majesty’s ships.  He has enlisted for a period of 12 years.  The names and ages of the children are as follows: – Kezia (22), Alexander (17), Chas. William (16), Eleanor (13), Gladys (12), Ronald (11), Stanley (10), George (7), Leslie (6) and Mary (4).  The officiating clergyman was the Rev. F. H. Pritchard, Wesleyan Chaplain to the Forces.
  • Alice Smart of York, died aged 45.
  • Sarah Ann Jennings of York.
  • Mary E. Carter of York, died aged 22: Yorkshire Herald, 16th December 1916 ~ “Women Patriots: Funeral at York of soldiers young wide”. The funeral took place at York cemetery yesterday of Mary Elizabeth Carter, aged 22, daughter of Mr and Mrs Eshelby, 3, Fettergate-lane, Micklegate, York and wife of Lance-Corporal W. Carter, who met her death last week under tragic circumstances. There is one child, aged two years.  A brother is serving in France.  The deceased was of a genial disposition and was well liked by a large circle of friends.  She was formerly employed at Messrs. Rowntree’s factory.  There were pathetic scenes at the funeral, which was largely attended, a number of the deceased’s fellow-workers heading the cortege.
  • Elizabeth Mason of York, died aged 41: Yorkshire Herald, 16th December 1916 ~ The fourth funeral was that of Mrs. Elizabeth Mason, aged 41, who resided at 74, Rose-street, Haxby-road, York.  The deceased was a daughter of Mr and Mrs Thomas Booth, of 26, Union-terrace, York.  She had been married twice, and her first husband, the late Mr R. Bristow, was well known throughout the city.  The deceased is survived by her husband and five children, four of them under the age of 14, while the remaining one is 16.  The deceased was a hard-working woman, and her loss is greatly lamented by the bereaved family and parents.  The funeral was attended by a large number of Salvation Army girls, and the internment was preceded by Adjutant Kursley, who also conducted the committal rites at the graveside.
  • Lilian Ellis of York, died aged 19: Yorkshire Herald, 16th December 1916 ~ The death has occurred from injuries of Lilian Eva Ellis, a daughter of P.C. Alf, and Mrs Ellis, 8, Jubilee-terrace, Leeman-road, York.  The deceased was 19 years of age, and the eldest of five children.  She was a native of Thirsk, her parents only having resided in York for about a year.  Her father joined the York City Police Force after the outbreak of the war.  The deceased was formerly in service in Leeds and a member of the Girls Friendly Society.  Her death is regretted by a large number of friends.
  • Olive Yeates of York: Olive was survived by three children and a husband with tuberculosis. Rumours handed down by survivors reported that Olive was working on the shell that exploded. Today, Olive Yeates Way on the old Barnbow site is named in her honour.
  • Charlotte Fox of York, died aged 46.
  • Eliza West of York, died aged 53: Yorkshire Herald, 16th December 1916 ~ The third funeral was that of Elizabeth West, of 40, Trinity-lane, Micklegate, York.  Mrs West was 53 years of age, and her only son is at present at the front with the West Yorks. Regiment.  The burial rites were conducted by the Rev. F. A. Mann, the rector of St Margaret’s, York.
  • Maria Evelyn Rowley of Halton, died aged 19: Yorkshire Evening Post, 11th December 1916 ~ Rowley, December 5th, by accident.  Maria Evelyn Rowley, dearly beloved daughter of Maria Rowley, aged 19 years.
  • Ada Glassby of Harrogate, died aged 30: Today, Ada Glassby Court on the old Barnbow site is named in her honour.
  • Jennie Blackmore of Normanton, died aged 21: Today, Jennie Blackmore Way on the old Barnbow site is named in her honour.
  • Mary Gibson of Castleford, died aged 14: The compensation submission to the Ministry of Munitions list Mary’s age as 18 however birth records show she was actually 14 at the time of her death, and would have had to lie about her age to get a job at Barnbow. Mary contributed 21s 9d per week to support her father and five siblings.  They were granted £90 compensations.
  • Polly Booth of Castleford, died aged 21. Polly’s family were granted £90 compensation from the Ministry of Munitions for her death.
  • Eliza Grant of Castleford, died aged 39: Leaving 7 children aged 6 ~ 17, all now considered as in “Partial dependency of her income of 19s 6d”. They were granted £65 compensation from the Ministry of Munitions. A story passed down from Eliza’s descendants says that December 5th was Eliza’s day off however as she had completed all her housework before the last bus left for the factory she decided to go in on the advice of a friend. Eliza was killed as she arrived, walking through the door of Room 42 as it exploded.
  • Edith Levitt of Castleford, died aged 22.
  • Maggie Barker of Castleford, died aged 17: Today, Maggie Barker Avenue on the old Barnbow site is named in her honour.

workers

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Jill Sollars says:

    My grandmother should have been at work that night but did not make her shift. During the second world war my mother and 2 uncels worked there . My mother inspected gun barrels .

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