Barnbow Munitions Factory 1915-18 Back to the Main Historical Society page
Back to the Barwicker Contents page

Barnbow Munitions Factory 1915-18

from The Barwicker No.47

The declaration of war with Germany on 3 August 1914 created an urgent need for large volumes of arms/ammunition although few establishments, apart from Woolwich Arsenal, were involved in this work especially by mass production. Early initiative was taken by Leeds commerce and the city's major firms, with the newly formed Leeds Munitions Committee quickly promoting production of shells at Leeds Forge Company, Armley. Works at Hunslet and Newlay (Horsforth) followed suit. A directing board comprising six Leeds citizens, charged with the construction of the First National Shell Filling Factory, met in August 1915 and a site was selected at Barnbow between Crossgates and Garforth, part of the Gascoigne estate.

The main site, initially some 313 acres (later increased by extension to 400 acres), extended along the eastern part of Manston Lane, embracing two farms at Shippen and Lazencroft, with the North Eastern Railway along the southern boundary. Possessions cleared away from the site were sold by auction, with construction plant and material being quickly transported from Leeds.

Plan of the site

Click to see larger plan

The Ministry of Munitions architects were Messrs Reed & MacDonald and the main building contractor Wm. Irwin & Co. of Leeds. Groups of workmen, employed by the NE Railway Company, constructed a railway siding laying a main trackway into the factory complex. Platforms some 800 ft. long were built to the Barnbow Halt railway station with adjacent booking office just south of the main factory entrance. The extensive cartridge factory buildings were quickly assembled enabling filling operations to commence in December 1915, after three weeks preliminary trials. About 50 women were employed at this time, the work force eventually increasing to 16,000, 93% of them being women and girls. Rapid progress was made on building changing rooms, canteens, administration blocks and many necessary support facilities.

In autumn 1915, a small belt driven dynamo, obtained from the Yorkshire Agricultural Council's Manor Farm, Garforth, provided temporary electricity supply. Subsequently the Yorkshire Power Company erected a 10KV overhead line to a sub-station. This, together with a boiler house and heating plant, provided power for the heating and lighting of the whole premises. A water main, laid in the site in four weeks, from Stanks a mile away supplied 200,000 gallons of water daily, and a 90,000 gallon collecting and screening tank was built to collect waste, which was pumped to the Leeds Sewerage Works at Killingbeck. Coal was supplied by rail from Garforth Collieries Ltd. and Wheldale Coal Co.

Extensions were constantly undertaken and to increase storage for finished ammunition a separate site was procured in 1917 when 14 large magazines were built on Crossgates Golf Course. These would be in the vicinity of the Royal Ordnance Factory and now Vickers Works, where remains of large raised concrete platforms with brick end-walls were known to have existed in the inter-war years. All munitions production had to be examined and passed by the inspection department, before packing and storing. The inspection was supervised by Colonel Browne and Major Gorman, under control of the War Office. The Army Ordnance Department was responsible for the stores of finished ammunition. At the end of November 1915, a heavy gale completely demolished the 'A' Assembly Block and, ten weeks later in January 1916, three of the finished ammunition magazines were similarly damaged by high winds. As a result of the Ministry of Munitions' decision to install an AMATOL factory at Barnbow, instead of Otley, erection was begun in March 1916 of the melting house building - AMATOL 'B'. In April, the first batch of thirty 4.5 shells were filled, the output quickly increasing to 6000 shells a day, when the number of shifts was increased from two to three.

Inside the factory

In the AMATOL factory a total of 12,000 tons of tri-nitro-toluene (TNT) was mixed with 26,350 tons of ammonium nitrate to produce the highly explosive 'AMATOL' compound. In the cartridge factory 61,000 tons of propellent was made into breech-loading charges made up of NCT and cordite, the material having been weighed out in ounces and parts of an ounce. Working with cordite for long periods caused the skin of the operatives to turn yellow, the cure for which was drinking plenty of milk.

To recruit the large work force an employment bureau was opened at Wellesley Barracks, Leeds, the first batch of employees receiving one month's training at Woolwich. Training was subsequently undertaken at Barnbow and, after preliminary trials in December 1915, filling operations began, continuing thereafter without a break. One third of the workers came from Leeds, others from Castleford, Wakefield, Harrogate, Knaresborough, Selby, York, Tadcaster, Wetherby and many outlying villages. A system of three 8 hour shifts was adopted: 6.00 - 2.00 pm, 2.00 - 10.00 pm and 10.00 - 6.00 am. Work was normally on 6 days a week, with Saturday off every 3 weeks; no holidays being taken. In October 1916, with a work force of some 16,000, a new production bonus scheme was introduced which identified ineffective operations. Thereafter the number of workers declined to about 9,000 although 9 months later production had actually increased. Typical munition worker's earnings for a full week averaged 3.0s.0d and the girls who swept up waste for recycling (droppings after shell assembly) earned 1.17s.0d. a week. Workers in the danger/powder room received extra pay. At one period wages totalled 24,000 per week and it was claimed that the cost of producing munitions at Barnbow compared favourably with any other similar factory in the country.

The administration department was efficiently equipped with electric payroll, addition and calculating machines, with the large accounts department being divided into 13 sections. The directing board met at least once a month to receive reports and two members were on duty at Barnbow every day. The North Eastern Railway Company continued to operate 38 special trains (known as Barnbow Specials) every 24 hours, besides many regular services and employees were provided with free permits for home-to-work journeys. It was claimed that employees could be clear of the factory premises within 40 minutes of finishing work.

Three canteens were provided, the largest accommodating 4000 workers, at two sittings of 45 minutes duration and the AMATOL canteen served 1000 at a sitting. Kitchens were equipped with the most up-to-date appliances including electric cookers, potato peelers, mincing machines, large pudding and potato steamers, vegetable boilers and the like. A hot drinks buffet was available for people taking their own food. In 1916 some of the farm buildings were adapted to house 120 cows, tended by six girls, under the supervision of a qualified farm bailiff, the dairy producing 300 gallons of milk a day. Vacant land was cultivated for crops and in 1918 some 200 tons of potatoes were grown. A slaughter house and butcher's shop supplied fresh meat, pigs being fed on the ample amounts of kitchen waste from the canteens. A two foot gauge (Jubilee trolley) track, laid around the factory transported small loads, the motive power provided by 70 ponies which were led and looked after in the stables by girls. Heavy train loads were handled, increasing from 150 trucks a day in 1916 to over 600 trucks a day in Autumn 1918, when a maximum of eight locomotives hauled the trains to their destinations. When the war ended in 1918, 10,000 tons a week of munitions were moved, the total monthly tonnage of materials transported in and out of the plant being some 100,000 tons.

The garage

Two receiving stores were established, one at Royds Green (Rothwell), the other at Woodlesford, transport being provided by Army Service Corps motor vehicles. The factory's fully equipped garage maintained the transport passenger cars and ambulances which were driven by lady chauffeurs of the Women's Legion. The textile industry was involved in supplying vast quantities of material for exploder bags, smoke bags, silk cotton and sewing twine. Textile stores in Leeds, which supplied Barnbow, acted as the main distribution centre for all the filling factories in the country. Some six acres of floor space was used in the expansive warehouse premises near Wellington Street, Leeds.

Good ventilation of the work areas was essential, especially in the AMATOL factories and prior to the introduction of an efficient system, workers were limited to a fortnight in any rooms where TNT was used. All workers were required to pass a medical examination before employment (this was considered an added safeguard against claims imposing a burden on the compensation department. Those employed in danger zones were periodically medically examined. Particular attention was given to personal welfare. A lady superintendent, with a staff of welfare workers, was appointed to make regular visits to employees, either at work or during meal times. They also visited anyone on the sick or accident list or those absent from work for any length of time. Tennis courts were available for recreational purposes.

A staff of qualified nurses, supervised by the resident doctor and augmented by VAD workers, manned the various rest rooms and surgery. Two qualified dentists manned the dental surgery and apparently, operating days became busy once 'word got around' that patients could expect caring and skilful treatment. The fire brigade was one of the first units to be formed, originally with men but later girls were trained. Eventually 30 girls and 6 firemen, under the control of a skilled firemaster from London, made up the complement.

In addition to the mains water supply from Stanks, a 300,000 gallon storage reservoir was built, the remains of which can still be seen to the north of the site, and connected with two fire pumps, one of which was driven by steam engine in case of electricity failure. The Cock Beck, which ran through the area, was dammed to create three 'stand-by' storage ponds for fire fighting purposes, creating nearly as much water storage as the reservoir. An electrically operated steam siren was fitted for emergency alarms and a system of sprinklers and drenchers fixed in all the magazines and danger areas, as were fire-proof doors. Raised earthworks surrounded all buildings containing explosive material and these were later to prove their worth. A barbed wire fence surrounded the factory boundary, with guard posts at all entry points, including Barnbow Lane to the north, and a police permit house stationed on Manston Lane, near Lazencroft Farm.

The Main Gate

The main factory entrance was between Shippen House Farm and the railway station, incorporating a permit office, pay office and covered waiting room. An 'internal' guard, comprising units of the Royal Defence Corps, of mainly time-expired ex-service men, maintained a 24 hour patrol of the security fence and the superintendent of police with three inspectors controlled male police, whilst a lady superintendent had charge of police women for female search purposes. All personnel were required to wear identity discs and to carry permits, searches being regularly undertaken. Danger areas were under constant surveyance, with 'safe' areas reserved for smokers. There was a complete press blackout of the area.

The effect of the explosion

Explosions occurred on three occasions, the first and most serious in one of the fusing rooms on the night of 5 December 1916, when 35 women lost their lives. The injured were taken to the Leeds General Infirmary, aid being provided by the factory medical staff, the ambulance corps and the voluntary motor transport section. Residents of Lazencroft Cottage, at the time, are understood to have witnessed crowds of workers, many with yellowed faces, rushing along Manston Lane, all in a state of great distress. The second accident, three months later on 21 March, 1917, killed two girls and in the third accident on 31 March, 1918 (a time when the King and Queen were visiting Leeds), three men lost their lives. In the traumatic aftermath of these incidents, girls were found readily volunteering to resume work in the danger areas, once repairs had been undertaken.

Due to censorship, no account of the accidents was made public; however Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haigh in a special order of the day issued from the British HQ in France, paid tribute to the devotion and sacrifice of the munitions workers. A Roll of Honour, 'They Died Serving', records the names of all factory workers who lost their lives in the three explosions. The name of Ethel Agnes Jackson, who was killed in the explosion in December 1916, heads the list of wartime casualties on the roll of honour in the Colton Methodist Church.

At the end of hostilities on 11 November 1918, all work stopped for the first time. The grand totals of munitions production were :-

B L Cartridges of all sizes completed 36,150,000
Shells filled 24,750,000
Shells completed with fuses and packed 19,250,000
Tonnage of finished ammunition despatched overseas 566,000

Strikes were unknown at Barnbow. The factory was subsequently taken over by the Central Stores Department of the Ministry of Munitions, initially being used for storing immense quantities of surplus war material. Much of the dismantled plant, materials, including textiles, army clothing, blankets, etc. were disposed of to private firms.

By March 1924 the site had been returned to Colonel Gascoigne, who submitted a claim to the War Compensation Court for the occupation of his estate by the factory. In June 1938, sections of the Lotherton and Parlington Estates were offered for sale under the direction of A D F Gascoigne. The lots included 'The well-known mixed farm - Lazencoft Farm' (Tenant J Wilson) and Shippen House Farm (Tenant F Wilson). Several parcels of this land were described as 'waste', being areas occupied by the former munitions factory..

In June 1994, Barwick Historical Society on a guided walk of the area, were able to discern traces of the railway track winding through a landscape of countless humps and hollows; the scene 80 years ago of so much intense wartime activity. For this article I have drawn on 'The Story of Barnbow' (How the Shells were filled) by R H Gummer. I thank Mr Douglas Laycock, Garforth, for generous advice and notes and Leeds Library & Information Services for the photographs.


Back to the top
Back to the Main Historical Society page
Back to the Barwicker Contents page