This photo of my great grandmother Clara Ward was taken almost a century ago, and shows her in her munitions uniform. It tells a story of a young girl carrying out heroic work during WW1, literally risking life and limb as well as being slowly poisoned by the chemicals she had to deal with.
While I can’t be 100% certain, I think she was one of the “Barnbow Lasses” – the 16,000 strong, mostly female workforce at Barnbow Munitions factory in Leeds. About a third of the workers were from Leeds itself, but others were brought in from Wakefield, where Clara lived, together with Harrogate, Castleford and outlying villages.
Thirty-eight trains a day, known as the Barnbow Specials, carried the workforce to and from the factory, where they would work a shift pattern to keep the production line running 24 hours a day. They worked six days a week, with one Saturday in three off, and no holidays.
Working conditions were poor. As well as the long hours, food rationing was severe. Those working with explosives had to strip to their underwear and wear smocks and caps. Everyone wore rubber soled shoes. No hairpins, cigarettes, or matches were allowed. The risk of explosion was huge, and it did happen. In 1916, a violent explosion rocked through room 42, where shells, already filled with high explosives, had fuses inserted and caps placed on them. Thirty five women were killed and many more maimed and injured. Due to censorship, the news was never made public. There were other, smaller explosions too.
In addition, the cordite in the explosive would turn workers’ skin yellow, giving them the nickname the Barnbow Canaries. They often suffered stomach, eye and throat problems, and their babies were born yellow. The cure for the yellow skin was to drink lots of milk, and the factory had their own cows on site – 120, producing 300 gallons of milk a day.
|Shell assembly at Barnbow|
The women munitions workers did skilled jobs, in demanding and dangerous conditions, but after the war had to return to their roles at home, with little recognition of the work they had done. On the 100th anniversary of the 1916 explosion they did receive some acknowledgement, with a memorial and plaque commemorating those who lost their lives being unveiled in Leeds.
Clara married in September 1918, and to my knowledge she didn’t work again after the war. She died in 1965, six months after I was born. This photo is the only one I have of the two of us together. It was taken just a few weeks before she died.