The Barnbow Munitions Workers by Frances Brody

Frances Brody shares the history of the Barnbow workers behind her novel Somewhere Behind the Morning, published under the name Frances McNeil.


Information plaques in Manston Park, keeping the Barnbow Workers’ memory alive

On a bitterly cold morning a year or so ago, a small crowd gathered in Manston Park,  Cross Gates to witness the unveiling of the new memorial commemorating the thirty-seven ‘Barnbow Lasses’ and three men killed in explosions at the Barnbow Munitions Factory in December 1916, March 1917 and May 1918.

The Barnbow workers were casualties of the Great War as surely as if they had been in the trenches. News of the factory explosions was kept secret at the time for security reasons.   Only notices of accidental deaths in the evening papers provided a hint of the tragedy that occurred on 5 December, 1916, when thirty-five women and girls lost their lives.

The First National Shell Filling Factory eventually covered around 400 acres, incorporating two farms.  The farms were necessary to supplement rations. Working with chemicals caused illness and yellowing of the skin. Drinking milk was thought to help and workers were encouraged to drink lots of it – provided by the Barnbow cows.  Employees were recruited from Leeds, Castleford, Wakefield and surrounding areas. As more men went to fight, women eventually comprised over ninety percent of the workforce, operating eight hour shifts around the clock.

Later the land became the site of Vickers Tank Factory. Now, houses have been built there and many streets named for those who lost their lives.


The memorial garden for the Barnbow Lasses in Manston Park, Cross Gates

In Manston Park, on that chilly day, local residents,  relatives of those who lost their lives, clergy, councillors, members of the East Leeds  History and Archaeology Society and children from nearby primary schools came together to ensure that those who died would not be forgotten. The ground surrounding the memorial was bare that morning. Children were invited to design a flower bed.

The 40 and the 64 buses stop outside the park. The memorial is near the gate. Further up Manston Lane on the right is the housing development where streets are named for some of the women. The Leeds Way starts a little farther on.

In my Frances McNeil novel Somewhere Behind the Morning  (2005),  a character who survives the 1916 explosion tells of her experiences. I couldn’t have guessed that a few years after writing the book I would be living so close to where those tragedies occurred.

 Launch of the sixth book, Death of an Avid Reader, will be on Saturday, 4 October in the historic Leeds Library that forms part of the backdrop to the story. This event is now fully booked.  During October and November, Frances will be signing copies at Waterstones stores in Harrogate, York, Huddersfield Kingsgate Centre, Wakefield and Leeds. Details on her website homepage  

Death of an Avid Reader by Frances Brody

Death of an Avid Reader by Frances Brody

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