Barnbow has been in our local news just recently, with a play written about it by local playwright Alice Nutter, and yet more commemorations and celebrations planned.
Barnbow was a munitions factory during the First World War. Located just outside of Cross Gates, in East Leeds, it filled shells (bombs) to meet the ever increasing need of the armed forces. It was labour intensive work and employed 16000 people by 1916. Surprising that such a huge operation was so little known about then? Well not really, the location of armaments factories were not were not publicised for fear of attack from the German airforce. But the people of east Leeds knew about it all too well.
Of the 16000, most were women. They received much better wages than they could in service or in other jobs. With overtime and shift work, women could earn up to £12 a week, which was a wage to be envied.
But working conditions were terrible and very dangerous. The factory was quite literally a powder keg waiting to explode. And on the night of Tuesday 5th December 1916 it did. 34 women and one man were killed outright, their bodies so mutilated, they were only identifiable by their ID tags. Many more were injured.
Once the bodies were removed, more girls and women came in to take their place and the work resumed that very night. Horrifying.
My great-grandmother, Amelia Stewart, was one of those killed. So I’m always interested in memorials and commemorations. But I’m also rather disturbed by our “celebration” of their “heroism” and their contributions to the war.
The loss of Amelia was enormous. My family later recalled the sound of the explosion being heard across Leeds. In their street, everyone stopped short, waiting news. So many women had taken work at Barnbow, and while the factory may not have been well known publicly, the workers’ families knew only too well the dangers there.
Amelia left behind 5 children, most of who were still children. Another life, another family, sacrificed on the alter of greed and arrogance that was the First World War. To me, commemoration of these women is about the pointless and disgusting loss of life not the “heroism” of war. The exploitation of women who desperately needed well paid work to support their families. My great-grandmother had spent far too many years living in poverty, having to do moonlight flits because they couldn’t afford the rent, struggling to feed her children. It must have been a relief to have a well paid secure job. But she paid the price with her life. What I feel is anger that so many women of our city were exposed to such incredible danger so that our leaders could bomb the hell out of other innocent families in other countries. So yes, we should commemorate them. But for me it will be with grief and anger at a world that thinks war is heroic.
This is my Granfather “Granpop” Jack Stewart, aged 17 and newly joined up to what was to become the RAF. The war ended before he saw active service. It will have been taken around the same time as his mother was killed. He was the oldest of her five children and had to step up to the plate to help support his family. I’ll tell you more about this remarkable man another time.