Call for permanent tribute to Castleford ‘Barnbow lasses’ killed in WW1 explosion

Aged just 14, Mary Gibson was the youngest to lose her life in a World War One munitions factory explosion which killed 35 women and girls.

The tragedy at the Barnbow factory, in Crossgates, Leeds, remains the largest single loss of life in the city’s history.

Mary was one of five so-called ‘Barnbow Lasses’ from Castleford who died in the explosion in 1916.

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Castleford Civic Society is calling for a permanent memorial to remember to the vital contribution the town’s women played in the war effort.

Tony Wallis, councillor for Castleford and a member of the town\'s civic society, pictured on Nicholson Street, Castleford.Tony Wallis, councillor for Castleford and a member of the town\'s civic society, pictured on Nicholson Street, Castleford.
Tony Wallis, councillor for Castleford and a member of the town\'s civic society, pictured on Nicholson Street, Castleford.

The group is researching the five Castleford women and is appealing for relatives or members of the public to help them build up a picture of their lives.

Castleford councillor and civic society member Tony Wallis said he was particularly keen to know more about the life of Mary Gibson.

He said: “The fact that she was just 14 and just a child makes it such a terrible tragedy but I don’t think that many people are aware of it locally.

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“She must have lied about her age to get a job at Barnbow. There is no way they would have let her work there if they’d known how old she really was.

Thousands of women from Leeds and towns across Yorkshire flocked to work at Barnbow to work in the manufacture of the shells that were so vital to the war effort.
Image: Leeds Library and Information ServicesThousands of women from Leeds and towns across Yorkshire flocked to work at Barnbow to work in the manufacture of the shells that were so vital to the war effort.
Image: Leeds Library and Information Services
Thousands of women from Leeds and towns across Yorkshire flocked to work at Barnbow to work in the manufacture of the shells that were so vital to the war effort. Image: Leeds Library and Information Services

Thousands of women from Leeds and towns across Yorkshire flocked to work at Barnbow to work in the manufacture of the shells that were so vital to the war effort.

The hours were long and the work was arduous, noisy, uncelebrated and dangerous.

The chemicals used turned the skin of workers yellow, earning them the “canaries” nickname.

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Thousands of women from Leeds and towns across Yorkshire flocked to work at Barnbow to work in the manufacture of the shells that were so vital to the war effort.
Image: Leeds Library and Information ServicesThousands of women from Leeds and towns across Yorkshire flocked to work at Barnbow to work in the manufacture of the shells that were so vital to the war effort.
Image: Leeds Library and Information Services
Thousands of women from Leeds and towns across Yorkshire flocked to work at Barnbow to work in the manufacture of the shells that were so vital to the war effort. Image: Leeds Library and Information Services

But the wages on offer were far higher than many women could expect to earn at the time.

Described as a ‘city within a city’, Barnbow had its own railway station and employed 17,000 people – 16,000 of whom were women.

Because of its ever-increasing output, it became Britain’s premier shell factory and by 1918 a total of 566,000 tons of finished ammunition was dispatched overseas.

The factory’s workforce was required to fill the shells that would give Britain the firepower it needed.

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Mr Wallis said: “It’s not surprising that she may have lied about her age, given the poverty of working class families at the time.

“For Mary, there were more pressing circumstances, she was one of six siblings living with their parents in Castleford.”There were eight family members to support, including three younger than herself.”

At the time of the 1911 census Mary and her family were living on Nicholas Street, in the Half Arces area of the town.

The street is just a short walk to the town’s railway station where trains travelled directly to Barnbow.

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Mary was one 170 workers to start a night shift in room 42 on December 5, 1916.

Their work involved inserting a fuse into shells which already contained explosives.

There were about 150 women and girls in the room when the explosion happened just before 10.30pm.

Mary was among those killed instantly in the blast. Others later died from their injuries.

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The teenager’s death certificate lists the cause of death as “shock from injuries to her vital organs by accidental explosion of a shell in a fusing machine.”

The Ministry of Munitions later awarded her family £90 in compensation.

Despite the horrific loss of life, it was a tragedy that failed to make the headlines at the time.

The government, fearful of denting morale among munitions workers whose efforts were vital for victory, did not tell the public the bare facts of what had happened until six years later.

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The site was closed following the 1918 Armistice, having produced almost 47,000,000 shells – the last remaining buildings were demolished in 1933.

The other Castleford women who died in the explosion were Eliza Grant, 39, a mother of seven children, Maggie Barker, 17, Polly Booth, 21, Edith Levitt, 22 and Maggie Barker.

All the people who lost their lives in the incident are commemorated in memorials at York Minster and the Barnbow site.

Mr Wallis added: “Because of the reporting blackout at the time I think a lot of the human stories were lost.

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“Sadly we don’t even know if a photograph of Mary even exists.

“We would like to know much more about her short life and the lives of the other Castleford women.

“We are hoping there may be relatives or other people out there who know more about her story and and can help us build up a picture.

“These are real human stories that we feel more people in Castleford should be able to celebrate and know more about.”

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