100 years ago, on 1 July 1918, there was a devastating explosion in a munitions factory in Nottinghamshire, where shells were filled for use in trench warfare. The disaster killed 134 workers and injured many more. One of our autobiographies, part of the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, contains an eye-witness account of the explosion.
The munitions factory had been set up in 1915 at Chilwell, which had good road and rail links, and supplied over half of the shells fired during the war, including most of those used at the Somme. Lottie Barker, the author of our autobiography, had joined the factory in April 1916 with a friend, Polly. They were known as ‘Canary Girls’ because the chemicals involved in the manufacture turned their skin yellow and their hair green.
The explosion was the biggest loss of life during a single explosion during the First World War but was downplayed at the time, less it lead to loss of morale. At the time it was only reported in the newspapers as “60 feared dead in Midlands factory explosion”. Most of the dead were buried in a mass grave in Attenborough without being named, and a memorial wasn’t erected for fifty years. The cause of the explosion was never made public.
Lottie had, fortunately, been at home doing the washing up when the explosion happened, and her autobiography describes the house shaking, and what she found when she ventured out to the factory.
You can find out more about Lottie Barker’s autobiography on the Writing Lives website and in this account in the Independent newspaper When corpses fell from the Nottinghamshire sky. There are further accounts of the canary girls in Edith Hall’s autobiography Canary girls and stockpots, also part of the Burnett Archive.
2:37 Lottie Barker ‘My life as I remember it, 1899-1920’
4 Edith Hall ‘Canary girls and stockpots’