The buildings at Barnbow have been demolished to make way for new housing, but the names of the streets there come from a dark period in the munition factory’s history.
The factory was built during the Autumn of 1915 to supply shells to the front. Shells manufactured by the Leeds Forge Company in Armley were transferred to Barnbow via specially laid railway tracks, and the platforms at Crossgates station were extended by 800 feet to accommodate the workers being ferried to the factory from places like Castleford, Wakefield, Harrogate and York, as well as all areas of Leeds. By December 1915 production was underway.
The workers were mainly women and girls, as men were needed to fight at the front. There were plenty of volunteers even though the work was hard and dangerous because the wages were good, especially as a bonus scheme saw some women taking home upwards of £10 per week, far more than could be earned as a domestic servant. The factory ran 24 hours a day, six days a week, with three 8-hour shifts. The workers wore buttonless smocks over just their underwear and had to cover their hair with a cap. Stray wisps of hair could easily get caught in machinery with severe consequences. Only rubber-soled footwear was allowed, and anything that could cause a spark (matches, cigarettes, metal objects, etc.) were strictly forbidden.
Despite rationing, the employees at Barnbow did have certain perks. Milk and barley water were always available as it was thought to help with the yellowing of the skin caused by the cordite used in the shells which gave rise to the nickname of ‘Barnbow Canary’. The factory had its own farm, which provided 300 gallons of milk a day to supply the 16,000-strong workforce. There was access to medical help too, with a doctor and dentist on the site. The workers needed to be healthy to carry out the heavy, dangerous task of filling shells, then adding fuses and tightening the caps.
Just after 10.00 pm on Tuesday 5 December 1916 several hundred girls began their night shift, filling and packing the four-and-a-half-inch shells. Filled shells were passed along to be fused and finished in separate huts. In Hut 42 something went terribly wrong and at 10.27 pm a massive explosion ripped through the building, destroying machinery and fracturing the pipes that carried steam around the factory.
Thirty-five women were killed and dozens more injured. Some of those killed could only be identified by the discs they wore around their necks. Despite the possibility of further explosions, others rushed in to help the injured. One such was William Parkin who went back in around a dozen times. He was rewarded for his efforts when the girls collected money to present him with an inscribed silver pocket watch. He received no official thanks for his actions until the new link road in Crossgates was named after him in 2019.
Although it was the biggest tragedy to hit the area, it was not reported at the time due to the need for wartime secrecy. The only clue was the number of death notices in local papers which said “killed accidentally”. There was little compensation from the authorities for the families of those killed. Those needing convalescence went to Weetwood Hall which was leased using money from the Barnbow Comfort Fund, much of which was raised by the surviving workers themselves.
After the end of the Great War, the story finally came out. Today there is a memorial to those 35 women, and others killed in two further explosions, in Manston park. One of them, Ethel Jackson from Colton, is mentioned on the plaques in the Lychgate at Whitkirk.
And their memory lives on with their names on the streets where the munitions factory once stood.