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.

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The Civil War in the Library

The English Civil War took place from 1642 to 1651, and was a combination of military and political clashes between Parliamentarians (Roundheads), and Royalists (Cavaliers – led by King Charles I). They were primarily fighting over the nature of the government of England. The war was eventually won by the Parliamentarians, and Charles I was put on trial and executed on 30th January 1649.

The Battle of Leeds took place on 23rd January 1642, 374 years ago. Leeds was apparently of little strategic important (being much smaller than it is now). At that time, Briggate was the main street, and it still remains at the heart of the city centre.

Map of the battlefield. Reproduced from the Discovering Leeds website.

Map of the battlefield. Reproduced from the Discovering Leeds website.

Leeds, and the whole West Riding, had remained loyal to Parliament, but was then seized by the Royalist Sir William Savile, who had significant fortifications built to defend the town from recapture. In early 1642, Parliamentarian Sir Thomas Fairfax mounted a counter attack, marching his forces onto the site where the University of Leeds sits today. He sent a trumpeter to demand Savile’s surrender.

After Savile twice refused to surrender, battle was joined. The British Civil War Project states that a snowstorm was raging at this moment, although this isn’t mentioned in the limited primary sources I have read (of course that does not mean there was no storm). It certainly would have been an incredibly dramatic scene either way.

The battle lasted over three hours, and the Parliamentarians, led by Sir Thomas Fairfax, emerged victorious, with 600 prisoners. Apparently just 40 men were killed, a surprisingly low number for such bloody times. The Royalists were later decisively locked out of the North at the Battle of Marston Moor in July 1644.

Leeds Central Library boasts a huge collection of original tracts from the Civil War, bound into individual slim volumes. These tracts were issued by both Royalists and Parliamentarians, and were essentially reports on developments in the war. They seem to have had a propaganda function, as they were made available to a public audience. Browsing through them, it seems like the collection held at the Library mainly relates to events and developments in the Yorkshire area.

One such book, issued by Parliamentarians, and which directly relates to the Battle of Leeds is titled thus: A True and Plenary Relation of the Great Defeat given by my Lord Fairfax forces unto my Lord of Newcastle’s forces in Yorkshire, January 23. Which was the absolutest and considerablest victory that was obtained since the beginning of these unhappy warres

It was written by Thomas Crompton, a Parliamentarian who claims to have participated in the battle. He notes of the men fighting that day:

…most of them were but unexperienced fresh-water soldiers taken up about Bradford and Halifax but upon the Saturday before.”

It was also apparently the case that captured soldiers were released from custody after swearing an oath “never to fight again in this cause.”

To read more from this fascinating document of life in 17th-century Leeds, or to find out more about the Civil War in Yorkshire, come down to the library to check out some of these original pamphlets and books from the time. You can discover more about the Wing Collection by clicking here.

(The reference for the tract quoted here is: CIVIL WAR TRACT STC(WING) C7031. Ask in the Information and Research department on the 2nd Floor of the Central Library or call us on 0113 378 5005 to view this and other books from the Wing Collection)

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Image reproduced from our Leodis photographic archive

Commemorating World War I: Collections, Events & Exhibitions

by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

We are now roughly mid-way through the centenary of the First World War and the Leeds Library and Information Service continues to mark that anniversary with a series of regular events – including exhibitions, talks and workshops. Our most recent set of such commemorative offerings were timed to coincide with the national remembrance of the Battle of the Somme.

These events have been grouped together into a series entitled “Fragments of War: Leeds 1916”. Although several of these have now passed, some are still available – and you can see the full programme of events by clicking here.

One event that took place last week – and which proved highly successful – was our very first film screening in the library. This was the acclaimed adaptation of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, her autobiographical account describing her work as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse – and the shattering emotional consequences of the War on Vera and those close to her. We chose to show this film primarily for its timely subject matter – but also because one scene was filmed here in the Central Library itself.

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Before the screening, viewers were invited to peruse a curated browsing collection, containing items selected from our Collections and which were of relevance to the film and the broader themes of Leeds and WW1. These included such treasures as our 15-volume collection of news-cuttings covering events in the First World War as they affected Leeds; some representative letters from the 10-volumes of correspondence relating to the Leeds Flag Day Committee; R.H. Gummer’s classic account of the Barnbow Munitions Factory; scrapbooks of news-cuttings about the Leeds Pals; a manuscript copy of A.V. Pearson’s Summoned by Duty: Autobiography in Verse, a poetical account of the author’s experience in the 15th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment; and the Leeds volume of the Record of the National Ordnance Factories, which includes photographs of the factories, munitions workers and management. Full details of further locally-relevant First World War material can be found here. Click here to see a full list of books available by and about Vera Brittain.

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Also on display were some posters and playbills from the First World War. The latter – including productions such as The Unmarried Mother – can be seen via the playbills section of our Leodis website, or by visiting the Local and Family History department. Some examples of First World War posters can be currently seen in the atrium of the Central Library, alongside a fascinating exhibition detailing the experiences of Leeds people during the War, including some poignant poetical responses to the conflict.

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Also to be seen in that space are some examples of First World War postcards made by visitors from the Peer Support Cultural Partnership.

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These were created in response to another of the treasures held at the Central Library: Edith Cliff’s Gledhow Hall scrapbook (officially known as The Great European War, Gledhow Hall Hospital). This wonderful collection includes photographs, newspaper cuttings, soldier’s artwork and other ephemera relating to the Voluntary Aid Detachment Hospital at Gledhow Hall. Some images from the scrapbook can be seen below and you can browse more images via our Flickr page. Further information about Gledhow Hall Hospital can be found on this blog here and here.

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The Gledhow scrapbook also made an appearance at a talk by Dr. Jessica Meyer of the University of Leeds. Dr Meyer spoke on Leeds Hospitals during World War I, specifically the different types of care found in each type of hospital, while also examining the long-term impact the war had on hospital provision for the city’s population. This talk was part of our ever-popular Lunchtime Talk series – further entries in that series can be found here. You can read more about Dr. Meyer’s research on her blog.

Visitors to our Information and Research department will find a small exhibition of First World War material from our lending archive. On display are contemporaneous books such as an edited version of Sir Douglas Haig’s Dispatches, featuring specially-prepared maps, sketch plans and portraits; volumes of poetry by John Masefield; and a complete facsimile of The Wipers Times, “the famous World War One trench newspaper”. You can see a fuller list of contemporary responses to the War period by clicking here.

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Finally, further poignant images are also available to view in the Local and Family History Library, where several panels detailing the burial sites of servicemen at Lawnswood Cemetery are currently on display.

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Fragments of War: Quieter Voices

  •  By Stuart Hennigan, Communities Librarian, and Ross Horsley, Local and Family History Library

World War 1 is famous for its poetry. More than that of any other war in history, the poetry of World War 1 has determined our perception of the war itself. Most people have read, or at least heard of, such luminary war poets as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen but, by concentrating solely on the works deemed to have more ‘literary merit’, we are experiencing only part of the poetic response to the conflict. At our Fragments of War poetry event at Leeds Central Library last Friday, we sought to give voice to some of these lesser-known poets and their perspectives. This week at the Secret Library, we’ll bring together those with a more local connection: a Leeds soldier, a Leeds schoolgirl, and a woman whose gravestone stands in Lawnswood Cemetery in north Leeds.

Norman Woodcock (1897-1987) was 17 when the war broke out. Leaving behind his childhood home in Little Woodhouse, he began five years of gruelling service that took him from the Gallipoli Landings to the final days of the Western Front. Though scarred by the experience, he went on to an extremely successful postwar career in public administration, but it was not until much later that he was able to discuss some of the horrors he had endured. The medium he chose was poetry:

Thoughts on poetry by Norman Woodcock

Thoughts on poetry by Norman Woodcock

Norman’s granddaughter, Susan Burnett, combined his handwritten memoirs with her own historical research to create the book On That Day I Left My Boyhood Behind, which can be borrowed from Leeds Libraries. She also shared with us the following poem from his collection:

The First World War

A long time now since the Great War began
And we started to lose our schoolboy friends
For it was the young ones who rushed to join
It was a case with them of not knowing
They had not heard the machine gun rattle
They had only read of men in battle
And the writers had no experience
Of anything bigger than a skirmish
A generation of men disappeared
Many of them too young to understand
But can any country lose them like this
Without the feeling of a great abyss
But our winning that war was not the end
Our negotiators were a poor blend
So the misery had to start again
And take more of the lives of our young men

You can learn more about Norman Woodcock’s extraordinary life story at Susan’s website.

War is a great engineer of social change and, with so many of the men away fighting, the First World War brought along some seismic changes in terms of women’s rights in Britain. Women were needed to drive trams, perform agricultural labour and work in munitions factories in the absence of their male counterparts. This next poem was uncovered by our Heritage Volunteer, Maureen Jessop, who has been indexing the Local and Family History Library’s holdings of Leeds Girls’ High School Magazine. It was published in spring 1917 but, sadly, we’ve been unable to trace the name of its author.

After Many Days

The War had last for fourteen years,
And women and maids were all in tears.
Not a man was left on British earth
But those who were under ten years from their birth:
This was the fruit of War, you know!

The church, of course, must still be full,
But without a preacher it was so dull!
Till one day, in the parish of Neverstandstill,
A woman’s form did the pulpit fill:
This was the fruit of War, you know!

This example was followed throughout the land;
And women at last got the upper hand.
They governed the country and piled on the tax,
Till at length through the world rang out the word “Pax”:
This was the fruit of War, you know!

The men from far countries came rushing back,
Only to find, – alas! Alack!!
That all was now changed since the time when they left,
For men of their rights had at last been bereft:
This was the fruit of War, you know!

Not a man was left who could raise his hand,
And control any woman upon the land;
For in pulpit and parliament women now stood,
And in pulpit and parliament stand they e’er would:
This was the fruit of War, you know!

Leeds Girls' High School, 1906

Leeds Girls’ High School, 1908. Photo from Leodis

Predating both of these poems was a piece by a Leeds woman that achieved recognition across the western world but is largely forgotten today. Originally published in The Spectator in September 1915, Christ in Flanders went on to become a bestselling pamphlet, which stayed in print throughout the war and was quoted in church sermons across the country by, among others, the Bishop of London. Its theme may be considered sentimental but the comfort it offered a generation of soldiers and their families is undeniable and, for that reason, it remains one of the most emotive poems of its kind.

Christ in Flanders

We had forgotten You, or very nearly —
You did not seem to touch us very nearly —
Of course we thought about You now and then;
Especially in any time of trouble —
We knew that You were good in time of trouble — 
But we are very ordinary men.

And there were always other things to think of —
There’s lots of things a man has got to think of —
His work, his home, his pleasure, and his wife;
And so we only thought of You on Sunday —
Sometimes, perhaps, not even on a Sunday —
Because there’s always lots to fill one’s life.

And, all the while, in street or lane or byway —
In country lane, in city street, or byway —
You walked among us, and we did not see.
Your feet were bleeding as You walked our pavements —
How did we miss Your footprints on our pavements? —
Can there be other folk as blind as we?

Now we remember; over here in Flanders —
(It isn’t strange to think of You in Flanders) —
This hideous warfare seems to make things clear.
We never thought about You much in England —
But now that we are far away from England,
We have no doubts, we know that You are here.

You helped us pass the jest along the trenches —
Where, in cold blood, we waited in the trenches —
You touched its ribaldry and made it fine.
You stood beside us in our pain and weakness —
We’re glad to think You understand our weakness —
Somehow it seems to help us not to whine.

We think about You kneeling in the Garden —
Ah! God! the agony of that dread Garden —
We know You prayed for us upon the cross.
If anything could make us glad to bear it —
’Twould be the knowledge that You willed to bear it —
Pain — death — the uttermost of human loss.

Though we forgot You — You will not forget us —
We feel so sure that You will not forget us —
But stay with us until this dream is past.
And so we ask for courage, strength, and pardon —
Especially, I think, we ask for pardon —
And that You’ll stand beside us to the last.

Sadly, the poem’s author, Lucy Whitmell, a former President of the Leeds Astronomical Society, did not live to see the end of the First World War. She died from a long illness in May of 1917 and was buried at Lawnswood Cemetery, where her gravestone notes: She wrote “Christ in Flanders”.

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The war memorial at Lawnswood Cemetery. Photograph courtesy of Andrea Hetherington

Still to come in our Fragments of War season, commemorating the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, are three more free talks:

  • Leeds Hospitals during World War 1 by Dr Jessica Meyer, 15 July, 1.00pm, Room 700, Leeds Central Library.
  • Home Front Leeds by Lucy Moore, 20 July, 2.00pm, The Compton Centre.
  • Rethinking the Leeds Pals by Tim Lynch, 22 July, 1.00pm, Room 700, Leeds Central Library.

Visit the Leeds Libraries Ticketsource page for more info and to book places. Also check out our previous post A Leeds Schoolgirl Reflects on WW1 to read about another war poem from the pages of Leeds Girls’ High School Magazine.