Story of the ‘Barnbow lasses’ lives on

The Barnbow Factory was a vital cog in Britain’s war machine. Chris Bond looks at the crucial role played by the women who worked there and the high price they paid.

Bob Lawrence and his wife Jacki looking at photos of the 'Barnbow lasses'
Bob Lawrence and his wife Jacki looking at photos of the 'Barnbow lasses'

TODAY the site of the former shell filling factory at Cross Gates, in Leeds, is little more than wasteland.

Only the unnatural bumps in the ground and the concrete foundations concealed beneath dense thicket offer any indication that this was once home to a vast, sprawling factory complex.

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But during the First World War this site hummed to the sound of heavy metal and the machinery of war. At its height, the factory at Barnbow employed more than 17,000 people, 93 per cent of whom were women and girls.

It was not only the largest armaments factory in England it was reportedly the biggest of its kind in Europe and over the course of the war produced more than 566,000 tonnes of ammunition that was shipped abroad.

Bob Lawrence is chairman of the East Leeds History and Archaeology Society and his wife Jacki is its secretary and events organiser, and they are among those who have worked tirelessly to keep the story of the Barnbow Factory and the “lasses” who worked there during the war alive.

The decision to build an armaments factory at Barnbow was made in 1915 and by April the following year it was up and running. “It was like a mini town, the site had an internal railway and its own fire brigade with women making up most of the team,” says Bob.

With growing numbers of men being called up tens of thousands of women, including mothers and daughters, applied for jobs. Jacki says that some of those who got jobs were under age. “You were supposed to be at least 18 to work there but they did have girls who were younger. It was like the soldiers who lied about their ages when they signed up, the girls did the same thing.”

About a third of the workforce came from Leeds while others came from places like York, Harrogate, Wetherby and Pontefract. “They came here from all over Yorkshire because the wages were quite good with a basic wage of 22 shillings a week plus bonuses.”

The money might have been decent but it was gruelling work. There were three, eight hour shifts a day from Monday to Saturday and on Sundays they did 12 hour shifts with one Sunday off every three weeks. “The skin of the girls used to turn yellow which is why they were called ‘canaries’, not just at Barnbow but all munition plants.”

It was dangerous too, and on December 5, 1916, tragedy struck. An explosion ripped through Hut 42 leaving 35 women and girls dead, with many more suffering dreadful injuries caused by the scalding fire and water and flying shrapnel. “There were two sets of bags that went into the shells, an A bag and a B bag and somebody mistakenly put two B bags in and when it came to tightening the top it exploded,” explains Bob.

The scene afterwards was one of horror and devastation. “Some people were killed immediately, some died a few weeks later. There were reports of one lady who was decapitated and her head ended up on the ceiling. Some of the girls lost limbs and many of those who survived never got over it, and it shows that this kind of work could be just as dangerous as being a soldier.”

Edith Sykes was among those killed. She was one of those who had lied about her age and fate then conspired against her on that cold, winter’s night. “She was only 15 when she died,” says Jacki. “Her sister Agnes was supposed to be working that day but she had the flu so Edith went in instead and she got killed.”

Despite the death and carnage, news of the explosion at Barnbow didn’t become public until several years after the war. “It was all hushed up at the time because of fears about the effect it would have on morale. So there was nothing in the newspapers at the time. Even with the funerals the death notices just said, ‘as the result of an accident,’” says Jacki.

There was, as is often the case when disaster strikes, a hero that day. His name was William Parkin. With little thought for his own safety Parkin, a mechanic at the plant, rushed into the smouldering ruins of the hut to help rescue the injured. “There was scalding water, fumes and unexploded shells that could have gone off at any minute and he went in at least 11 times and each time he came back out with a girl on his shoulder.

“But despite his bravery he got no official recognition whatsoever, whereas today he would have been awarded the George Cross.”

The women, though, didn’t forget his heroics and they later presented him with an engraved silver watch as a ‘thank you’ for what he did, which his family still have.

The accident in December wasn’t the only tragedy to hit the factory. On March 21, 1917, an explosion killed two girls and on May 31, 1918, an accident in a mixing shed left three men dead and another 10 workers injured.

By the time the war was over 40 men, women and girls had lost their lives at Barnbow and many more had been maimed. It’s a sacrifice that sometimes gets overlooked, although Bob says it’s hard to overstate their role in the war effort. “If it hadn’t have been for these women taking over the men’s jobs then we would have lost the war, no doubt about it.”

It’s now almost a century since the workers at Barnbow were busy toiling away amid the daily thunder of machines. Today the site is veiled by tranquillity, but back then if you happened to be walking nearby you might just have heard the echo of this light-hearted song rising up from the factory floors:

We are the Barnbow Lasses,

we are the girls who make the shells,

we mind our manners,

we can spend our tanners,

and we are respected wherever we go.