Memorial calls for more Barnbow munitions factory blast victims

Tony Wallis
-Credit: (Image: LDRS)


Residents in Castleford researching the Barnbow munitions factory explosion which killed 35 women and girls have called for a permanent memorial to remember those who died.

The Castleford Civic Society have been researching the five so-called 'Barnbow Lasses' from Castleford who died in an explosion at the factory in 1916. This includes 14-year-old Mary Gibson, who was the youngest person who died in the explosion at the factory, which was located in the Crossgates area of Leeds.

Now, the civic society is calling for a permanent memorial to remember the contribution of the women from the town to the war effort. The group is researching five women from Castleford who died in the explosion and is calling for any relatives or members of the public to get in contact so they can help find out about their lives.

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

Castleford councillor, and civic society member, Tony Wallis, said he was hoping to hear 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.

"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."

Many women worked at Barnbow factory
Many women worked at Barnbow factory -Credit:LDRS

Thousands of women from across Yorkshire worked at Barnbow, where shells were manufactured for the war effort. They worked long, difficult hours which often went uncelebrated.

Some of the chemicals used in the manufacture of the shells turned the skin of the workers yellow, which earnt them the nickname "canaries". The wages were often far higher than other jobs women were able to get at the time.

Barnbow itself was described as a "city within a city" and had its own railway station. A total of 17,000 people were employed there, with 16,000 of them being women.

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It became Britain's premier shell factory due to its output and by 1918 566,000 tons of ammunition had been sent overseas. The factory workers would work to fill the shells which the British Army used during the First World War.

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."

According to the 1911 census, Mary and her family lived on Nicholas Street in the Half Acres area. This is just a short walk from the train station which travelled direct to Barnbow.

Mary Gibson's 1911 census record
Mary Gibson's 1911 census record -Credit:LDRS

On December 5, 1916, Mary was one of 170 workers on the night-shift in room 42. There, they worked to insert a fuse into shells which contained explosives.

Around 150 women and girls were in the room when the explosion took place, just before 10.30pm. Mary was killed in the blast and others later died from their injuries.

According to Mary's death certificate, she died from "shock from injuries to her vital organs by accidental explosion of a shell in a fusing machine." Her family were given £90 in compensation from the Ministry of Munitions.

Despite the tragedy, the news did not make headlines at the time due to wartime censorship, with the government worried about denting the morale of munitions workers. They did not tell the public the full details until six years later.

In 1918, an Armistice was signed, although fighting continued for a number of years afterwards in many places, and the factory was shut down. It produced almost 47,000,000 shells and the last buildings were finally demolished in 1933.

Barnbow Factory
Barnbow Factory -Credit:LDRS

There are memorials at York Minster and the Barnbow site which commemorate all the women who died. Mr Wallis added: "Because of the reporting blackout at the time I think a lot of the human stories were lost.

"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."