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Heroes who gave their lives in factory disaster

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Geregistreerd op: 11-6-2007
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BerichtGeplaatst: 25 Mrt 2013 17:24    Onderwerp: Heroes who gave their lives in factory disaster Reageer met quote

The factory exploded on July 1, 1918

Churchill, who was Minister of Munitions, wrote:

"Those who have perished have died at their stations on the field of duty and those who have lost their dear ones should fortify themselves with this thought, the courage and spirit shown by all concerned both men and women command our admiration."

During the First World War, high explosives were filled into 19 million shells at the Royal Ordnance Factory in Chilwell Ė accounting for about 50 per cent of the nation's entire shell filling production.

It's easy to understand why the factory was built in 1915 when Britain was locked in a deadly struggle with the German Imperial Army.

In France, the British Army was fighting a losing battle against an enemy better equipped with greater supplies of high-explosive shells to rain down on hapless Tommies in the trenches.

As British attacks foundered, the national press lambasted the Government, and particularly the Secretary of War, Lord Kitchener, for the shortage of shells.

The answer was clear.

British industry had to be galvanised. More shells had to be made and filled.

The man they charged with the task of organising such a huge operation was Godfrey John Boyle, the 8th Viscount Chetwynd.

Seriously injured as a child, he had been educated privately, qualified as a civil engineer and headed for America, where he not only built bridges but also worked as a deputy sheriff in Texas, a bronco buster and a cornet player.

This was the man who perhaps did as much as anyone to ensure a British triumph in the Great War.

Munitions supremo David Lloyd George gave him the job and Lord Chetwynd set about it with unbridled passion and energy.

On August 24, 1915, he left Nottingham in search of a suitable site to build his factory.

He had travelled but a few miles through open countryside when he was attracted by the ideal lie of the land at Chilwell and he went no further.

In his book The Chilwell Story, Captain M J Haslam attempts to explain why Chilwell was chosen.

It appears the site, in the midst of open countryside, with a wooded hill on one side and a railway nearby, was perfect for Lord Chetwynd's vision.

He also had an ideal labour force available, provided from places like Beeston, Attenborough and Long Eaton, where there were lots of skilled men and women who had previously worked in local lace and textile factories.

From the start, large numbers of women workers were employed at Chilwell.

Exposure to explosives turned many women's skin yellow, and they became known as the "Chilwell Canaries" or "Canary Girls".

The site had to be kept top secret for fear of attacks by the enemy. Lord Chetwynd drew up his plans for the factory on a piece of newspaper.

When the Treasury demanded to see his plans, Chetwynd sent them a telegram which read: "Factory half built. Will send plans as soon as completed."

In fact, it took from October 1915 to March 1916 to build the huge factory through a desperately cold and wet winter.

The figures for materials are amazing Ė 107,500 tons of sand and gravel, 6,370 tons of steelwork, 11,000 tons of timber, 447 tons of glass.

The steel had been destined for a London hotel project but Lord Chetwynd found it, invoked the Defence Act and shipped it to Chilwell, along with ten million bricks and 90,000 sheets of corrugated iron.

By early 1916, shells filled at Chilwell were ready for action, a fact not lost on the Germans.

Lloyd George wrote in his memoirs of a January night when "a Zeppelin hunted up and down the Trent... trying to locate and bomb the factory, but without success".

It was the first of many such attempts to destroy Lord Chetwynd's vital war facility.

But the work continued. Soon 7,000 shells a week were being filled... and within months the figure had risen to 130,000.

A thousand young men from the London area, not called for active service, were recruited to work at Chilwell.

The Battle of the Somme began on July 1, 1916, and by the end of that day, 60,000 men were dead or wounded.

The bombardment from both sides continued into the autumn, when the British were able to count their casualties at 400,000.

It is said that practically every big shell fired by the British during the battle had been filled at Chilwell by the factory's 6,000 employees, including 2,000 women, all earning well above the national wages.

Such was the success of the factory, King George V paid a visit in December 1916 to see the facilities for himself Ė and a photograph later appeared in a German newspaper!

As the push for victory built up in 1918, Chilwell's workforce grew to 10,000.

They toiled through the hot summer to meet the demands of the military who were pounding the German positions with ever-increasing ferocity.

With the final bombardment for victory set for July 18, Chilwell's own army reached a fever pitch of endeavour.

But it was cruelly interrupted on Monday, July 1, 1918.

It was a hot day. Ice had to be brought into the factory to cool the TNT, and regular checks were made to make sure the machinery wasn't overheating and that workers were wide awake.

But as the evening brought relief from the sultry temperatures, the nightmare unfolded.

One of the workers, Gladys Roper, said later: "There was a series of almighty blasts, the lights went out and then on again. It seemed that the whole place was falling apart."

Barretta Wood was rescued by another worker... despite the fact he had lost his right arm.

Alma Vaughan lost her home in the explosion which shattered hundreds of houses, and 11-year-old Kate Abdy watched as bodies fell from the sky.

In a few dreadful seconds, the mixing house, its extension, TNT mill and TNT stores were destroyed, along with a garage, canteen, police station and other buildings.

Eight tons of high explosive had ignited, creating a blast that was heard for up to 20 miles and capable of shattering windows three miles away.

At Long Eaton, a cinema audience was watching a film about an explosion and couldn't understand how it had created so much dust.

In all, 134 people were killed (of whom only 32 could be positively identified) and a further 250 were injured.

Winston Churchill, then Minister of Munitions, sent a telegram, which read: "Please accept my sincere sympathy with you all in the misfortune that has overtaken your fine factory and in the loss of valuable lives.

"Those who have perished have died at their stations on the field of duty and those who have lost their dear ones should fortify themselves with this thought, the courage and spirit shown by all concerned both men and women command our admiration."

King George V also sent his condolences.

But perhaps the most telling comments came from F G Kellaway, parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Munitions, who told the Times: "One can judge the courage of that great staff when he knows that next morning, out of 7,000 men and women, all but 12 put in an appearance and were ready to commence work again."

He concluded: "The French, who have a very sound instinct on matters of this kind, gave the highest military distinction in their power to the citadel of Verdun when it defeated the great German advance of 1917.

"I wonder why we should not emulate that example and give the Victoria Cross to this brave factory."

Whilst this award does not appear to have been made, the site was subsequently known as "the VC Factory".

The works manager, Lieutenant Arthur Hilary Bristowe, was subsequently awarded the Edward Medal on January 21, 1919, for his heroism following the explosion.

Alison McKenzie was on duty in the canteen on the night of the explosion. She later spoke of the horror of trying to help people caught in the wreckage as loose electricity cables dangled around her, spitting with death. She was awarded the OBE for her actions.

Alec Clarke, 18, also received the OBE. In the boiler house, a steam pipe had fractured, spraying scalding steam into buildings and onto the bodies of men lying injured on the floor. Clarke bravely went into the boiler house to switch off the steam valve.

The factory returned to work for the war effort the next day and, within one month of the disaster, reportedly achieved its highest weekly production.

A variety of causes were put forward for the explosion, ranging from an overheated bearing to spontaneous combustion and even sabotage.

The subsequent inquiry reached no firm conclusions. It favoured the theory that the initial detonation was caused by a piece of machinery falling into a mixer. But it did not rule out foul play.

By the end of the war, Chilwell was filling more than a million shells to contribute to the eventual allied victory.

On November 15, a thanksgiving service was held at the factory. Bravery medals were given out as the victims were remembered.

On November 16, 1918, the works band, founded by Lord Chetwynd, himself playing the cornet, played in the quadrangle of Buckingham Palace. They then marched to Downing Street and played outside No 10 and were congratulated by the Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

Chilwell, which had been Britain's most productive shell filling factory during the First World War, became a Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) storage depot in 1919.

A memorial to those who had died in all explosions at the site was unveiled by the Duke of Portland on March 13, 1919. The memorial became a listed building in 1988.

A ceremony was held in 1993 to mark the 75th anniversary of the catastrophic explosion at National Shelling Filling Factory No 6. Amazingly, survivors of the disaster attended to remember the 134 colleagues who died.

For more stories of the Chilwell disaster, Beeston Local History Society secretary Maureen Rushton produced a book called Canary Girls of Chilwell to mark the 90th anniversary in 2008. Copies are still available from Maureen on 0115 922 3008.
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Geregistreerd op: 11-6-2007
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BerichtGeplaatst: 25 Mrt 2013 18:22    Onderwerp: Reageer met quote

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