Leeds street to be named after hero of Barnbow factory explosion disaster

A new road at the Thorpe Park retail and office development in east Leeds is to be named in honour of a World War One hero.

The Barnbow Lasses memorial in Manston Park
The Barnbow Lasses memorial in Manston Park

William Parkin Way and the William Parkin Bridge over the nearby railway line will pay tribute to a man who saved lives after the Barnbow munitions factory disaster in 1916.

Parkin, a mechanic, ran into the factory in an attempt to help the workers, most of whom were women. He dragged 12 of them to safety.

His family have been invited to the unveiling of a plaque on Friday at 11.30am, the anniversary of the tragedy.

The Barnbow lasses

The massive explosion at the purpose-built shell-filling factory between Crossgates and Garforth killed 35 women.

Although many armaments production sites were pre-war factories that had been converted to manufacture munitions, Barnbow was built during World War One specifically to fill shells to be sent to the Western Front. It became the most productive British shell factory, and it had its own railway sidings which was used to transport both staff and supplies.

There was a water main, changing rooms, a dairy farm and a canteen on the 200-acre site, but due to security concerns its existence beyond Leeds was kept secret.

Around a third of the workforce came from Leeds, with others recruited from York, Castleford, Wakefield, Harrogate and Pontefract. They worked a 24-hour three-shift system across six days of the week, and 130,000 people applied for 16,000 jobs. The gender ratio ended up being 93 per cent female as male workers left to fight.

The Barnbow Lasses earned around £3 per week, but could also receive 'danger money' of up to £12 if they were handling explosives. There were 38 trains per day that transported the staff to and from the factory. Former Arsenal and Huddersfield Town football manager Herbert Chapman was one of their supervisors.

Working conditions were terrible - those handling shells had to strip to their underwear. Cigarettes were banned, and there were no holidays. Food was rationed, but milk from the on-site farm was provided. The workers were sometimes called 'canaries' because the cordite they were touching turned their skin yellow.

Several hundred women had just begun a night shift on the day of the explosion, December 5 1916. Around 170 were in Room 42, where fuses were added to fully-loaded shells and then capped. This was done by hand.

A violent explosion rocked the room, killing 35 women outright and injuring many more. The dead were identified by their identity tags. Production was only stopped for a brief period while the bodies were removed, but soon resumed.

The accident was not made public, but death notices referencing the explosion did appear in local newspapers. The full facts did not emerge until six years after the war ended.

There were two more explosions at the factory in 1917 and 1918, and a further five people died.

There are memorials to the victims in Manston Park and Crossgates Road.

The site continued to be used for industry, and was also an ordnance factory during World War Two.