Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the North
Robert Bullock
Features Writer
10:46 AM 5th December 2016

The Day The Canary Girls Stopped Singing

photo - Imperial War Museum
photo - Imperial War Museum
Known affectionately as the 'Canary Girls', the women and girls who produced the bombs, bullets and shells that helped win the First World War lived with the constant threat of death and sometimes paid as high a price as the 'Pals' on the front line for their devotion to duty and nowhere more so than here in Yorkshire.

December 5th 2016 marks the centenary of the Barnbow Munitions Factory disaster of 1916 when thirty-five lasses were killed in a terrible explosion in Room 42 of the Yorkshire site known as National Filling Factory No. 1.

Barnbow was the first of the modern munitions factories which were purpose built and of a modern design intended to keep the danger of explosion to a minimum.

Soon after the commencement of hostilities it was discovered that neither Kitchener's army or Churchill's navy had enough shells to wage war beyond Christmas. There was a severe shortage of munitions and so the Government tasked a group of business men, including successful Leeds Soap manufacturer Joseph Watson, to construct state of the art factories to win the war. Barnbow, located close to the Greengates area of the city, was the first of these purpose-built sites.

Waging war on an industrial scale the National Filling Factory No1 employed up to 16,000 people and by the end of the war had sent 566,000 tons of ammunition overseas for the war effort. Working in terrible conditions workers filled 36 million breach-loaded charges and 25 million shells.

Although the work was hard and dangerous the site set a precedence for welfare with a purpose-built doctor's surgery alongside free dental care, a creche and even a tennis court for those ladies not too exhausted after an eight-hour shift.

photo - Imperial War Museum
photo - Imperial War Museum
Feeding so many workers a healthy diet was a priority and the site had three canteens with the largest able to seat 4000 workers. Barnbow even had its own farm with 120 cows which produced over 300 gallons of milk each day, as workers were encouraged to drink milk to counter the effects of the dangerous chemicals they were working with.

Over 93% of the workforce were women and Barnbow had only been fully operational a matter of months before tragedy struck on the night of Tuesday December 5th 1916. That night 170 women were in Room 42 filling four and a half inch shells when at 10.27pm an explosion killed 35 women and injured dozens more.

Even though Room 42 was an inferno, witnesses recalled women from other rooms rushing to the assistance of their friends and to help the Barnbow Fire Brigade, which also consisted of many women.

Although wartime censorship prevented the event becoming common knowledge, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haigh at the front line in France in a special order of the day, paid tribute to the devotion and sacrifice of the Yorkshire munitions workers.

A century on commemorating this tragedy we are reminded not only of the vital role women played in winning the war, but the ultimate sacrifice made for King and Country by these brave Yorkshire lasses.

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