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Three West Bromwich sisters had lucky escape in factory blast

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: March 02, 2014

The three sisters - Elizabeth (Lizzie) Ingram, Aunt Annie and Aunt Eliza

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FOLLOWING your request for war stories I thought your readers would be interested in this lucky escape for three sisters.

My mother, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Ingram, was born on St Patrick's day 1895, into a large family. They lived near Oak Road in West Bromwich. She and her siblings went to Lodge Road school.

During World War One my parents were courting. Dad joined up and for some reason ended up in the Middlesex regiment. He was at Gallipoli, Salonica and other war zones, ending up in Constantinople (Istanbul as it is now). Mother's older sister Eliza had married a Yorkshire man and when the largest munitions factory in England opened in 1914 near Leeds she went to work there.

My mother and her younger sister Ann decided to join her and work there too. My dad's sister Violet packed up and went as well.

Barnbow munitions factory was huge. It has been called a city within a city. It had its own railway station with an 820ft platform and at the height of its operation, 38 special trains brought workers in for the three round-the-clock shifts, besides 15 ordinary trains.

Working conditions were awful. Handling explosives, the girls had to strip to their underwear and don all-enveloping overalls and caps. No hairpins were allowed and they wore rubber soled shoes.

They worked 8 hours a day 6 days a week and 12 hours on Sunday. They had one Sunday off every three weeks. There were no holidays. Food was rationed severely but, because of the nature of their work, the girls were allowed to drink as much milk and barley water as they wanted. Barnbow factory had its own farm with 120 cows giving 300 gallons of milk a day.

Mother and Aunt Annie worked in room 42, where their job consisted of filling, fusing, finishing off and packing shells. They worked in this room with about 165 other girls. Aunt Eliza was made 'Overlooker' on October 27, 1916.

She worked in a different department and she asked if mom and Aunt Annie could be moved to join her section.

She had just succeeded in getting her two sisters moved to join her section when there was a dreadful explosion in room 42 - the room they had recently worked in.

It was the night shift of Tuesday December 5. The shells were already loaded. The fuses had to be inserted and the cap screwed down by hand before being placed into a machine which revolved the shell and finished screwing the cap down tightly. There was a violent explosion, killing 35 women and injuring many more.

In many cases identification was possible only by the identity discs they wore. Most were dreadfully mutilated. It was blood, bodies and destruction. Steam pipes burst open and the floor was a mixture of blood, body pieces and water. Ignoring the danger, other workers rushed in to drag the injured to safety and within a few hours girls were volunteering to work in the same room to keep production moving.

Many rumours ran through Yorkshire about the explosion, but the whole thing was hushed up, although the bravery of the girls was noted in a special "order of the day" issued from British Headquarters in France by Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haigh, "to illustrate the spirit animating British women who are working with us in the common cause".

Aunt Eliza's grandson - my second cousin David, jokingly compares the three sisters to Blaster Bates. Mum and Aunt Annie were very small women. They both took a size two shoe.

I have found out most of the details of Barnbow by delving. Like the men, mother rarely talked about the war. It is all in the archives of Leeds Museum and now also in the records of the National Armoury, which is also in Yorkshire now.

Aunt Annie married a Yorkshire miner. Mother came back to the Midlands and married my dad.

Who knows? If Aunt Liz had not been made an overlooker I might not have been around to tell the tale!

I was surprised to find quite recently that you had printed the photograph in your amazing Bugle in July 29, 1999. The mystery is, however did it come into The Bugle's possession? I am intrigued.

Mary Hutchings,

25 The Birches,

Cheadle, Staffs.

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