The destination for history

Disaster at the Chilwell shell-filling factory


On 1 July 1918 an horrific explosion tore through the mixing house at the shell filling factory at Chilwell killing at least 130 men and women and injuring many more.

The mass grave where the remains of most of the victims of the explosion are buried (there are some disputes as to the number of victims, in part because the blast was so violent, many bodies could not be identified) is in St Mary’s Churchyard, Attenborough near Nottingham.

The exact cause of the explosion was never fully discovered.

What I can do is to try to tell some of the story leading up to it, for my grandfather worked there as a supervisor in the neighbouring melt house.

We have to roll back to the autumn of 1914. The British Expeditionary Force, which had crossed to France that August, had been decimated in the early mobile action of the Great War. By the autumn, trenches had been dug from the Channel to the Swiss border and the opposing armies faced each other as they would for the next four years.

The British army was highly professional and well trained, but hopelessly ill equipped for the artillery war that faced them. The War Office had assumed that experience from the Boer War and the defence of the farther reaches of Empire would fit the bill, but this was a wholly new type and scale of war. Monumental quantities of high explosive, many millions of tons, would be fired by each opposing side.

Woolwich arsenal, which had equipped the army for as long as most could remember, simply didn’t have the capacity to produce enough guns, and, far more so, enough ammunition.The War Office did have a plan ‘B’. They had arrangements with the big five heavy engineering companies: Vickers, Armstrong, Beardmore, Hadfield and The Coventry Ordnance Works and placed orders for guns and ammunition.

There was still a massive shortfall. In the autumn of 1914 the army on the Western Front was being rationed in the number of rounds they could fire in a day.

The scandal, for it was a scandal, reached the breakfast tables of the British public in the spring of 1915. It had already rumbled around the Cabinet table. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, eventually persuaded the Prime Minister that there should be a Ministry devoted solely to munition production and that he would lead it.

Lloyd George set about his task and gathered round him ‘men of push and go’, men used to industrial methods, for this was a war on an industrial scale.

One such ‘man of push and go’ was Viscount Chetwynd who was charged with finding a suitable site for a massive factory devoted to filling shells with explosives.

Chetwynd knew nothing of shells and nothing of explosives, but he understood efficiency and economy of effort. He was shocked at how inefficient Woolwich was with their tried and tested but old methods. He looked at how other industries mixed powders, for that was the essence of the process. He saw how the French did it. He then built an experimental plant at Chilwell and from there a whole factory that would fill most of the rounds fired on the Western Front.

Other changes though were needed. Young men had gone off to war, many of whom were skilled engineers. Those left behind were either old or unskilled or simply too few in number. The old engineers and their employers resisted any ‘dilution’ of their workplace, but eventually relented and allowed the unskilled to be let in and taught simple production line skills. There were though still too few. Lloyd George turned to the only alternative:


Before 1914, women simply did not figure in manufacturing other than in light and poorly paid work; their place was considered to be at home, in service, in shops or in the classroom.

The suffragettes had been fighting for the vote for fifty years; now they argued for the right to work for the war effort. Mrs Pankhurst met Lloyd George. Arguments raged but women, eventually, entered the factories. Changes though were needed: separate toilets and the provision of canteens as many of the women were malnourished.

Women proved themselves far more than able. In many places, they outperformed their male colleagues.

Women entered engineering factories and were trained in working machinery. They were particularly adept at the more delicate tasks: optical instruments for example. Many went to France, not only as nurses.

Women who came to work at Chilwell proved themselves highly capable. They were also the first to exhibit, with their yellowed skin and green hair, the harmful effects of handling TNT. Some became ill; some died. Conditions were revised.

TNT though was dangerous in other ways. It was liable to explode in some conditions and several awful disasters occurred, not only at Chilwell  but at other shell factories around the country.

It wasn’t only accidents; sabotage was an ever present risk. My grandfather kept a letter detailing the threat and how it might be countermanded.

The war memorial at Chilwell honours the munition workers who died alongside those from the subsequent ordnance depot and barracks who also fell in the service of their country.

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