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Site of First World War Munitions Factory Where 35 Women Died in Explosion Given Heritage Protection

  • Protected site saw the first major loss of female civilian workers in England during the war
  • The death of the 'Barnbow lasses' was hushed up for fear of harming national morale and the recruitment of women, and the incident remained largely unacknowledged, even after the war
  • Large-scale recruitment of women to do hazardous work at such factories helped change the status of female workers
  • Barnbow provided a template for the design of all subsequent explosive factories, and produced a lot of the high-explosive shells used at The Somme

Barnbow National Filling Factory showing hut 42
Barnbow National Filling Factory showing hut 42 © The National Archives, ref. MUN5/155

The former First World War National Filling Factory in Barnbow, Leeds where 16,000 women were employed producing high-explosive shells has been protected as a scheduled monument by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on the advice of Historic England.  This protection recognises and commemorates the national importance of the factory and means that proposed development around the site can now be managed carefully.

Three separate explosions happened at the factory, the most serious on 5 December 1916. Thirty five women were killed and many more seriously injured by a blast in one of the shell fusing rooms. It was the first major loss of female civilian workers during the war and the worst disaster resulting in loss of life in Leeds' history. A further two were killed on 21 March 1917 and three men lost their lives in a blast on 31 March 1918.

Although the 1916 explosion was heard for miles around, the deaths of the women were not reported for fear of denting national morale and the recruitment of women. Even after the war the explosions remained largely unacknowledged. The women later became known as the 'Barnbow lasses' and have come to represent the Home Front contribution and the role women played in the war.

Women fusing shells
Fusing shells, believed to be in hut 42, Barnbow National Filling Factory © The National Archives, ref. MUN5/155

Heritage Minister, Tracey Crouch, said: "As we mark the centenary of the First World War, it's so important that we remember the sacrifices of those who supported on the home front - especially women. The Barnbow Lasses played such a vital role in the war effort and by scheduling this factory, we continue to pay tribute to their contributions and sacrifices 100 years on."

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said: "The First World War brought many tragedies. This one has not yet been fully recognised and commemorated. The death of the Barnbow lasses not only resonates today for the tragic loss of life but also represents the significant role played by women in winning the War. This led to a major national change in the perception of women at work. Barnbow is particularly poignant as the site of the worst disaster for loss of life in Leeds' history and it is thanks to the local community that the memory of these remarkable women and their extraordinary courage has been kept alive. It is very fitting that it is now protected as a scheduled monument."

Women munitions workers at Barnbow National Filling Factory
Women munitions workers at Barnbow National Filling Factory © The National Archives, ref. MUN5/155

Britain entered the First World War in poor shape to fight a prolonged campaign. Although the arms industry had increased production levels by 388% in the first nine months of the war, it was insufficient to meet demand and resulted in the 'Shell Scandal' of May 1915 which led to the creation of the Ministry of Munitions. It guided and controlled the country's efforts and the shift of the economy to 'total war' where civilians were involved in the war effort alongside military forces.

Leeds was already producing large quantities of munitions and local business leaders played an important role organising and prioritising this effort. Barnbow was the first National Filling Factory to be designed and completed. The design was innovative and provided the basic design template for all subsequent explosive factories.  It swiftly reached full production and a large proportion of the high-explosive shells used during the Somme were filled there.

Although most of the buildings were demolished by 1924, the remains of the factory show its near-complete layout and survive well as the site has not been redeveloped or ploughed out. The site lies next to the proposed East Leeds Orbital Road and an area of proposed housing development but Historic England has had constructive discussions with Leeds City Council and partners to ensure the protected site has been fully taken into account in plans for these developments.

Roll of Honour
Roll of Honour © The National Archives, ref. MUN5/155

Councillor Judith Blake, Leader of Leeds City Council said: "The role of Barnbow in the history of Leeds is huge, and the women and men at the former munitions works showed huge determination, fortitude and sacrifice which kept the city and the country going during the First World War.

"By giving the site heritage protection the story behind the Barnbow lasses can continue, helping preserve their legacy and ensure future generations understand the impact they had on lives today."

Jacki and Bob Lawrence of the East Leeds History and Archaeology Society, said: "We are delighted that the site of the No1 Shell Filling Factory at Barnbow has been chosen to be scheduled as an historic monument and will be preserved for future generations. As a society we have been promoting the story of the Barnbow Lasses for almost twenty years, and always felt it was important that the contribution, service and sacrifice made by these girls during World War One, should be made more widely known. Without their enormous effort to meet the demand for shells, the outcome of World War One may have been very different. This recognition of the importance of the site goes some way to recompense the many years their story remained in relative obscurity."

Footings of Barnbow shifting room
Footings of Barnbow shifting room © Historic England
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