Category Archives: Munitions

Talk: Researching Your Great War Army Ancestors. (Includes details of my other 2020 talks)

Heads up about my forthcoming talk on 4 March at Leeds Central Library.

Based on my groundbreaking book The Greatest Sacrifice: Fallen Heroes of the Northern Union about rugby league players who died in World War 1, the talk investigates the stories behind some of the men. It will also be packed with tips for researching your own Great War Army ancestors.

The book, co-authored with Rugby League writer Chris Roberts, has received widespread acclaim, locally and nationally, in print and on radio. The reviews include:

The talk will take place in the Leodis Room, starting at 1pm. It will last for one hour, with opportunity to ask questions. Tickets are free and available through Ticket Source. You can also contact the library direct on 0113 378 5005.

This is one of a series of talks I give. The others scheduled for 2020 are:

  • Blogging for Family and Local History; and
  • The Home Front: the White Lee Explosion of 1914

For more details about these talks please contact me at: pasttopresentgenealogy@btinternet.com

That’s also the contact if you would like to buy a copy of the book. The price, including p&p within the U.K., is £14.99. It is also available direct from the publisher, Scratching Shed Publishing Ltd. It is also stocked at independent Leeds bookshop, Philip Howard Books. And it’s also available from the normal retail outlets.

The White Lee Wartime Disaster: Devastation across Heckmondwike, Batley and the Spen Valley

Just before 2pm on Wednesday 2 December 1914, a tremendous explosion occurred. It centred on the Hollinbank Lane area of Heckmondwike. The ferocity was so great it was felt 50 miles away. A yellow mist and smoke enveloped the area, and an awful stench permeated everywhere. It was the early months of the War and people feared a Zeppelin attack, or some form of enemy sabotage. Madame Personne, a refugee who had escaped war-torn Belgium, now living in the comparative safety of a White Lee cottage, fainted from shock.

Close to the epicentre of the blast, homes and workplaces suffered major damage: roofs and doors were blown off, crockery smashed, furniture was damaged, wooden partitions in buildings were torn down, gas street lamp lanterns broke and, within a three-mile radius, thousands of glass panes shattered. Many homes were rendered uninhabitable. The scene represented a war zone, more familiar in Belgium and France.

Arthur Barber described the damage to his home:

Our houses were wrecked, all the windows being out and the roofs broken through, and much damage done inside also….The kitchen door was blown straight off, and the pantry blown down, and the staircase was riven off the walls. The cellars are practically tumbling in. All the hen-pens were blown in pieces. And where all the hens are we don’t know it is impossible to sleep there, and we are staying with relatives.

Collections were raised to help those whose homes were destroyed. The thousands of sightseers who visited in the aftermath helped swell the coffers.

Whole swathes of Heckmondwike, Cleckheaton, Healey and Batley were affected, with stories coming in from across the area. A tram car travelling between Batley and Heckmondwike temporarily lifted off its tracks. A man was thrown out of his sick-bed. Some workers at Messrs. J & F Popplewell’s rag works on Hollinbank Lane were forced to leap for safety from the top window of the mill, as the roof tumbled in. Scores of windows in Belle Vue Street, Healey were blown out. The pupils at Healey school were showered with glass as the windows shattered. As a result, several children were injured, with one boy, John William Stone, requiring treatment in Batley Hospital. The school was forced to close temporarily for repairs. Even Batley hospital did not escape damage, with an operating theatre window breaking during an operation.

Shoddy manufacturer Joseph Fox was particularly involved. Driving his car in the Healey area, it lifted off the ground with the strength of the blast. He witnessed the plate glass window of Healey Co-op stores fall out (known today as Healey Mini Market).

Healey Mini Market today, the former Healey Branch of the Batley Co-op
– Photo by Jane Roberts

Fox was one of those involved in ferrying the scores of injured for treatment. And, returning to his Hollinbank Terrace home, he discovered his house was one of those buildings to have taken the brunt of the explosion’s impact. His wife’s maid May Thompson was in Batley Hospital with an eye injury caused by flying glass. The house, one of three in a terrace built originally for the Heaton brothers, still stands – now on Dale Lane.

The Houses on Hollinbank Terrace (now Dale Road) which bore the brunt of the 1914 blast – Photo by Jane Roberts

But all this was overshadowed by the total devastation and carnage at the seat of the explosion, the Henry Ellison-operated White Lee chemical works. Situated on high ground off Hollinbank Lane, the firm moved in as tenants of the former Heaton family-owned chemical factory in 1900. Ellison’s were an established chemical manufacturer. They quickly obtained a Government licence to make picric acid, a major component of lyddite used for the manufacture of shells, in their newly acquired White Lee premises. They undertook this work for a couple of years until the end of the Boer War in 1902, when demand for the product slumped. They briefly re-opened the factory in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War, selling the picric acid to brokers. After this, demand tailed off once more and the works closed until August 1914.

Extract of Six-inch OS Maps: CCXXXII.SW and SE, revised 1905, published 1908 – National Library of Scotland – Adapted

The outbreak of the First World War proved a game-changer, with the Government’s need for picric acid for shell manufacture rocketing again. It was now a race to get the works ready to resume full-scale production, with buildings tarred inside and out, wooden floors covered with linoleum, and separating brick walls and rudimentary sprinkler systems in place. In total, the works comprised of five buildings in which the wet processes of picric acid manufacture were carried out. Four other buildings were used for drying, sifting/grinding, packing and storing the chemical.

Picric acid was regarded as safe in its pure state, but if it came into other substances, such as metals, it could form sensitive picrates which were dangerous. For this reason, production licences were required. Regulations limited the quantity of picric acid in any one area, ensured it was not confined and precautions had to be taken to ensure no foreign bodies were introduced to the production process. In order to avoid any ignition risk, no matches could be taken into the most dangerous areas, such as the sifting and grinding shed – so pockets were checked and sewn up before entry. Additionally, protective rubber overshoes had to be worn in these areas to prevent possible contamination by stones and nails. Commonly worn hobnail boots could be a particular issue, as they could cause sparks and, theoretically, the nails could be loosened by acid present on site. These objects could then contaminate the acid production, and potentially enter the grinding machines. The overshoes placed outside the doors to these areas, in theory, minimised the risk.

With all these precautions in place fire, not explosion, was believed to be the most immediate danger. If the fire was quickly put out to prevent the acid overheating, an explosion would be avoided.

On 2 November 1914 production recommenced at Ellison’s White Lee Works. On 19 November a government inspection found everything in good order, with only a few minor points identified due to the long period of building disuse. These were quickly rectified.

Labour was in short supply due to men enlisting, but picric acid production was not regarded as a skilled job. The company recruited a good, young analytical chemist from Cleckheaton, 22-year-old Bradford Grammar School and Leeds University educated Fred Wright. He had previously worked at the Barugh Benzol Works near Barnsley and, more recently, at the Benzol Works at Low Moor. However he had no previous experience with picric acid. He started work at White Lee only two weeks before the explosion.

Ellison’s also brought in a well-regarded employee from the Low Moor Chemical Works to act as foreman. 37-year-old James Nicholas had considerable experience of picric acid manufacturing.

The rest of the workers were recently recruited unskilled labourers, some starting on the day of the explosion. Because of the shortage of labour, these men worked across a number of areas of the production process, as required.

On 2 December, when the explosion occurred, 11 employees were on site. There were also several workmen engaged in construction, as the facilities were being extended to cope with the demands of the war. Unfortunately, these men were also caught up in the tragedy.

The afternoon shift started and production work was proceeding as usual. Wright and Nicholas worked in the packing shed, whilst three men were employed in the sifting and grinding room. At just before 2pm a massive blast occurred, centred on the sifting and grinding areas.

Buildings crumbled, a huge flash of flame soared into the sky, followed by dense clouds of yellow smoke. All that remained of the sifting and grinding shed area was a deep hole where the structure once stood. Peripheral works buildings were severely damaged, with any walls still standing being dangerously cracked. Surrounding fields were littered with masonry, smashed timber, pieces of machinery and roofing. Body parts were found for days afterwards. Containers holding liquid acid split, the corrosive liquid tracking down the hillside, which all added to the horrific scene.

Aftermath of the White Lee Explosion – Copyright of Kirklees Image Archive who granted permission for use in this blog post. Website http://www.kirkleesimages.org.uk/

One eyewitness, Leeds man James William Bellhouse working with a colleague on the roof of Robert Bruce’s William Royd cotton mill, stated:

The explosion made a tremendous row and blew us off the building. I saw a mass of flame, and the sky seemed to be lit up by a blazing red. A lot of debris were flying all up and around….

Bellhouse and his workmate were unharmed.

Some others had equally lucky escapes. A couple of men employed in the grinding area had not returned to work there for the afternoon shift. They had struggled to cope with the dust, despite covering their noses and mouths, and frequently opening the door. They survived.

Former Batley rugby league player Jim Gath of Wilton Street, Batley was on site to undertake work on the boiler. Minutes before the blast he decided to leave the boiler house to do some outside work. He had just climbed scaffolding when the explosion occurred. Covered by debris, only by sheer strength did he extricate himself, injuring his arm in the process. He remembered walking, then crawling, then nothing until he awoke in Dewsbury hospital.

William Sykes of Healey Street, Batley was working in the boiler house, which was demolished. According to reports at the time, concussed and dyed yellow by the fumes, he escaped too. However, this was not the whole story, and it did not end happily. Subsequent reports indicated he also sustained injuries to his legs and eyes. His health deteriorated and he died in July 1915. Coincidentally, his daughter Lizzie, working in the nearby Robert Bruce-owned mill, suffered a compound fracture of her right arm.

The blast killed nine men outright. Another died in Dewsbury hospital later that day. The men were as follows.

Percy Ashton, born on 26 October 1892 was the son of Willie and Elizabeth Ashton (née Barker) of Tidswell Street, Heckmondwike. He was a joiner working on construction of the new buildings. A popular member of Dewsbury AFC, he was buried in Heckmondwike cemetery. 

Heckmondwike Cemetery, Percy Ashton’s Headstone – Photo by Jane Roberts

Arthur Cooper, was born in Leeds on 19 February 1863. He married Martha Ann Wheelhouse in Leeds in 1885. A boot finisher for most of his working life, by 1893 he and his family were living in Lobley Street, Heckmondwike. He now had employment in the boot department at Heckmondwike Co-op. Sometime after the 1911 census he switched work to become a mason’s labourer for his neighbours, the Firth brothers. Initially amongst the missing, his body was found under rubble two days after the blast.

Albert Laycock Firth was a 51-year-old living at Lobley Street in Heckmondwike. He and his brothers Nimrod and Ralph were the stone masons erecting the new drying building. Ralph nipped back to their own Work’s yard prior to the blast, and heard the explosion. He identified his brother. Albert left a widow Elizabeth (née Briggs) who he married in 1893. The couple had three children in the 1911 census – Aked, James Albert and George.

Nimrod Firth the brother of Albert was 34 years of age. He also lived at Lobley Street. The son of James Firth and his wife Sarah Laycock, Nimrod married Lucy Wright in April 1913. He was identified through keys in his pocket. His funeral, along with that of his brother, took place at Heckmondwike Upper Independent Chapel.

James Nicholas was the works foreman. The 37-year-old was born in Herefordshire, but the family eventually settled in Cleckheaton. The 1901 census shows him employed as a picric acid labourer, so by 1914 he’d had at least 13 years experience of working with the chemical. Later that year he married Edith Emma Strickland. The couple went on to have four children – Harold Cookson, Eric, Edith Gladys and Laura. His brother John formally identified him. He was buried in Cleckheaton.

Clifford Thornton, a joiner from Boundary Street, Liversedge, only started building work at Ellison’s on the day of the explosion. Like Percy Ashton he was employed by Messrs. R Senior and Sons.  A 25-year-old single man, he was the only living child of John Marsden Thornton and his wife Betty (née Cordingley). He survived the blast, but died as a result of his injuries at 4.05pm in Dewsbury Infirmary. An active member of Heckmondwike Upper Independent Chapel and Sunday School, this was where his funeral took place.

Heckmondwike Upper Independent Chapel – Photo by Jane Roberts

Fred Wright, worked as the establishment’s analytical chemist. From Cleckheaton, he was the 22-year-old son of Walter Henry Wright and his wife Elizabeth Savoury. Walter Wright was well known in local musical circles, being the organist at Providence Place Chapel, Cleckheaton and a former conductor of Cleckheaton Philharmonic Society. His son was so badly mutilated he was identified by the contents of his pockets (including a gold watch, purse, and visiting card) and a distinguishing mark. Fred was buried in Whitcliffe cemetery.

The three men working in the grinding room were William Berry, George Terry and James Alfred Morton (some sources mistakenly name him as John Edward Morton). Only identified amongst the dead from various items of clothing discovered in the days after the explosion, the partial human remains found which possibly belonged to them were buried in a single coffin in Heckmondwike cemetery. Father O’Connor, the parish priest at Heckmondwike Catholic Church (now the Holy Spirit Parish) conducted the service for Morton. Father O’Connor later became the inspiration for G.K. Chesterton’s fictional detective Father Brown.

William Berry transferred from Ellison’s Cleckheaton works two months prior to the blast. A labourer, he supervised the drying shed activities. 36 years of age, his widow Clara identified his overcoat. There was also his return railway ticket to Low Moor where he lived. Born in Halifax, he married Clara Hargreaves at All Saints, Salterhebble in July 1910. The couple had two children, Annie (b. 1911) and Arthur (b. 1913).

James Alfred Morton (38) was separated from his wife May, and living at Staincliffe. The  son of Cornelius and Bridget Morton, he was a miner by trade. However, in recent years he worked as a casual labourer, most recently for a gardener in Batley Carr. He only started at the chemical works on Tuesday. His brother, Joseph, could only identify scraps of his clothing – parts of his trousers, shirt, coat and red, white and blue striped tie. 

George Terry (22) of White Lee only started at Ellison’s on the Monday, previously working as a rag grinder in Batley. Initially his father wrongly identified one of the original bodies as his son, so badly mutilated was it. He was led away in a distressed state, only for others to realise the mistake. Days later, small strips of waistcoat and corduroy trousers belonging to George were identified by his widow Lilian. They had been married less than six months. She had left him at the gates of his work after lunch at 1.25pm on her way to visit her mother, and heard the explosion.

Commemorative Postcard from my Collection (note there is no image of James Arthur Morton who is wrongly named)

The official Home Office inquiry headed by Major Cooper-Key, Chief Inspector of Explosives, reported in January 1915. Although Cooper-Key found the wearing of protective overshoes was not strictly adhered to in the designated danger areas, crucially it was enforced in the sifting and grinding shed where the explosion occurred. He went on to conclude that Ellison’s complied with all the necessary regulations for picric acid manufacture, and could not be held responsible. Sabotage was also effectively ruled out.

He attributed the disaster to two factors. The ignition occurred in the sifting and grinding room, probably due to the accidental presence of a nail, stone or similar hard foreign body entering the grinding mill. Under normal circumstances this would have resulted in a spark and fire which would have been extinguished before the picric acid had chance to heat to explosion point. But the shed was extremely dusty, a situation exacerbated by the strong wind that day which constantly fanned the particles as the door opened and closed to try to let fresh air in. The initial ignition resulted in the explosion of this carbonaceous dust.

Although the White Lee explosion led to a review of picric acid manufacturing guidelines, it did not mark the end of accidents resulting from its manufacture during the war.

And the ten men who died on the day of the explosion, as well as William Sykes who died seven months later, are yet more local casualties of the First World War.

A plaque has been laid by the Spen Valley Civic Society to commemorate the event and those affected.

White Lee Disaster Plaque – Photo by Jane Roberts

Sources:

  • Multiple sources were used, including newspaper reports, the official accident report, censuses, civil registration indexes and parish registers.
  • OS Map reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html
  • Special thanks to Kirklees Image Archive for permission to reproduce their image of the aftermath of the explosion. http://www.kirkleesimages.org.uk/ This is a fabulous local pictorial archive. The images are subject to copyright restrictions.

Death of a Barnbow Canary: WW1 Munitions Work

The past few weeks have focused on those who served and lost their lives during the Battle of the Somme. But what about those closer to home whose efforts may have gone largely unnoticed?

In this blog post I’m turning my attention to another centenary. 21 July 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Barnbow munitions worker Ann (Annie) Leonard.

Ann Leonard

Annie Leonard

Annie was born in Morley in late 1891[1].  She was the eldest daughter of Leeds-born William and Emma Leonard (neé Dowd).  The couple married in 1890 and, including Annie, they had 10 children.  One child died in infancy but Annie’s other siblings included Edward (1894), Alice (1896), Walter (1897), Agnes (1900), Doris (1902), Ethel (1904), Elsie (1906) and Nellie (1908).  All but Annie and Edward were baptised at St Mary’s RC Church, Batley.

In the 1891 census William and Emma lived at Springfield Lane, Morley. William was a coal miner.  In 1901 the couple had five children and were still living at Morley, but their address had changed to New Park Street.  William was now a coal miner deputy. This was the official employed in a supervisory capacity at the pit with responsibility for setting props and general safety matters.

By 1906 the family had moved to Batley and the 1911 census gives their address as North Bank Road, Cross Bank. This remained the family address when Annie died.  At the time of this census William still worked as a coal miner deputy below ground.  19-year-old Annie, in common with many other local women, had employment in a woollen mill working as a cloth weaver.

War changed all this. Within weeks of its outbreak Annie’s eldest brother Edward, a former Batley Grammar School pupil with a talent for art, enlisted with the Leeds Rifles. He went to France in April 1915.

Around the time Edward went overseas the “shell scandal” debate raged at home, with the shortage of high explosives being cited as the reason for failure in battles and loss of soldiers’ lives. The war was lasting longer than anticipated; the number of men in military service was adversely affecting industrial and manufacturing output, including munitions manufacture; and the quantity of shells required was outstripping that of any other previous conflict. For example in the first 35 minutes of the March 1915 attack at Neuve Chappelle  more shells were consumed than in the entire 2nd Boer War.  There was a countrywide cry for “shells, and still more shells”.

The Government response was the 1915 Munitions of War Act with far-reaching Government powers in production. National Shell and National Projectile Factories were established, and National Filling Factories set up to fill these shell casings with explosives and attach fuses.

For_King_and_Country_Art.IWMART6513 (2)

IWM Public Domain image by Edward F Skinner. See Wikimedia Commons footnote.

Interestingly, shortly after his arrival in France, Edward wrote a letter home to one of his sisters, possibly Annie. It is particularly noteworthy for his description of German shelling.

Taking things all round, we have had a very quiet week as far as shells, etc, go. We had about the busiest day yesterday when the enemy started sending us shells and trench mortars over…..You can hear them whistle over, but cannot tell to a few hundred yards where they are going to burst.  They “don’t half” make a row when they burst. 

But the trench mortars are the worst. You can see them coming in the daytime.  They look like bottles coming at about the speed a man throws a cricket ball.  When they drop they are about 10 seconds before they burst; but when they do they shake everything for a good distance away.  Personally, I think they are the most terrible things they send”.

Leeds had taken an initiative early in the war in setting up a shell production factory at the Leeds Forge Company, Armley. In August 1915 they took it a step further and oversaw the construction of the First National Shell Filling Factory at Barnbow, between Crossgates and Garforth.

Covering 313 acres at first, but eventually extending to 400, by December 1915 filling operations commenced with the employment initially of around 50 women. Operations were expanded with the Ministry of Munitons’ decision to install an Amatol filling factory at Barnbow in spring of 1916. Amatol was highly explosive, formed by mixing tri-nitro-tolene (TNT) and ammonium nitrate.

Barnbow was now responsible for filling and assembling QF artillery ammunition (13pdr, 18pdr and 4.5 inch), shrapnel and high explosive (HE). Output soon reached 6,000 shells a day.

Once the war ended and secrecy restrictions no longer applied, newspapers published the following statistics for Barnbow shell production:

  • 12,000 tons of TNT were mixed with 26,350 tons of ammonium nitrate producing 38,350 tons of amatol;
  • In the cartridge factory more than 61,000 tons of propellant (NCT and cordite) were made up into breech-loading cartridges, the highest record for one week being 938 tons. This material had to be carefully weighed on scales into ounces and drachms, giving an indication of labour intensivity and precision[2].
  • Over 36 million breach loading cartridges were charged;
  • Nearly 25 million shells were filled;
  • Over 19 million shells were completed with fuses and packed into boxes;
  • 566,000 tons of finished ammunition was dispatched overseas;
  • If laid end to end the 18-pounder shells alone measured a distance of 3,200 miles, equivalent to the distance from London to New York

By October 1916 the workforce totalled around 16,000, although numbers subsequently declined to around 9,000. 93 per cent of employees were women and girls, with a woman/man ratio of roughly 16:1. About one third of the employees came from Leeds. Others were from Castleford, Normanton, Pontefract, Wakefield, Harrogate, Knaresborough, York, Selby, Tadcaster, Wetherby and surrounding areas.

In addition to railway lines for transporting raw materials and finished products, the North Eastern Railway Company operated 38 “Barnbow Specials” a day. These trains transported the workers to and from the site. There were also 15 ordinary trains.  The workers had free work travel permits.

The Barnbow girls employed on shell-filling earned an average of around £3 a week. However, when the bonus scheme operated some girls could earn as much as £10-£12. Compare this to the wage of a domestic servant who earned as little as two shillings and six pence a week.

But the hours were long and the working conditions arduous, in part due to the nature of the explosive material the girls were working with. Nothing causing static and sparks was allowed: so rubber-soled shoes, smocks, caps only and no matches, cigarettes, combs or hairpins. Initially set up with two shifts a day, soon a three eight-hour round-the clock shift system came into operation. The girls normally worked six days a week with one in three Saturdays off. No holidays. No strikes.

But above all the work was dangerous. Not for nothing was the pay high (but not the equivalent of a man!) There was the very real risk of explosion, three occurring at the Barnbow factory during the war. But more insidiously, the women worked with toxic material, and were at high risk of poisoning.  The symptoms included nausea, vomiting, chest and abdominal pain, headaches, blurred vision, nose and throat problems. However the most obvious manifestation was the yellowing of the skin caused by toxic jaundice, earning the girls the nickname of “canaries”.  Newspapers regularly advertised a skin product called Ven-Yusa aimed at preserving the complexion, and the “munitionettes” were a specific target-market for this product.

image

Ven-Yusa advert – The Yorkshire Evening Post, 11 July 1916

 

 

Milk was also thought to counteract the yellowness. So besides its three canteens, Barnbow had its own farm with crops and animals. Its 120 cattle produced 300 gallons of milk a day. The workers were allowed to drink as much milk and barley water as they wanted.

Despite the hard toil and dangers there was no shortage of women willing to apply for this work. Recruitment of such a large workforce over such a short space of time meant the opening of a new office at Wellesley Barracks, Leeds specifically for the task. One of the early employees Mrs Edith Haigh in an interview with theYorkshire Evening Postin 1939 described her interview as follows: 

“When I applied for work a woman interviewer asked me if my nerves were good, and told me to breathe deeply so that she could see how my lungs were. “Are you afraid of shells?” she asked. “I don’t suppose I shall be,” I said. “You are willing to undertake it?” “Yes, I’ll take it, whatever it is.”

It was this working environment Annie entered. As well as patriotic duty, perhaps her brother’s service and letter about shells had some influence.

With preparations for the Battle of the Somme, increased shell production was imperative. Annie was employed as a filler and stemmer at the factory. Explosive powder was poured, or “stemmed,” into the shell casings. A mallet and wooden drift was then used to compact the powder.  Elsie McIntyre filled shells at Barnbow. She described the work as follows:

“We had to stem… when it first opened in the early part of the war, we had to stem the powder into shells with broom handles and mallets.  You see, you’d have your shell and the broom handle, your tin of powder. And you’d put a bit in, stem it down, put a bit more in, stem it down. It took you all your time to get it all in. It was very hard work”.

Annie had not been working there long, but on 25 June 1916 she returned home complaining of sickness. Her face took on the typical yellow hue associated with munitions work. The family called in Doctor Fox. They also consulted a specialist. All to no avail. Annie’s condition worsened and she died on the morning of 21 July 1916.

Within hours of Annie’s death, her grieving family received more tragic news, with a wire informing them  Edward had not been seen since heavy fighting on the 2 July. He was officially reported as missing.

Annie’s inquest was heard behind closed doors on 27 July. Her death was recorded as “Misadventure. Acute yellow atrophy of the liver contracted at her work at the factory at Barnbow near Garforth”.

image

Annie Leonard’s Death Certificate

At this very difficult time for the Leonard family, with their daughter’s death and their deep anxiety about Edward’s fate, they still took the trouble to publicly thank people for their support, writing to the “Batley News“. Their letter was published on 29 July 1916 as follows:

Mr and Mrs Leonard and family desire to take this opportunity to offer their deepest thanks, and express our most heartfelt gratitude to neighbours, friends and relations for their kindness and consideration, and most of all for the help and sympathy extended to us in this our hour of double trouble. We also send our thanks and sincere gratitude to the compatriots of our late daughter Annie working in the Barnbow Munition Factory, for the way in which they have shown their love for one who was only amongst them for such a brief time.

We earnestly desire our neighbours, who have shown such a love as is seldom found even in one’s own family, to accept these brief words of appreciation, in as much as it is impossible to express our deep feelings at such unassuming love, help and friendship shown by all. We therefore ask all to again accept our thanks.

Besides being such a wonderful tribute to friends and neighbours, it highlights the support and camaraderie of Annie’s fellow Barnbow workers.

In late September 1916 the Leonard family received a further War Office communication. This updated the previous earlier information that Edward was missing.  It was a bitter blow. He was now officially reported killed.  Directly and indirectly the Battle of the Somme had claimed the lives of two of William and Emma’s children. Their eldest son fighting; their eldest daughter producing the shells required in the conflict.

The government was aware of the dangers of poisoning resulting from munitions work before Annie’s death, yet tried to play it down. They were keen to ensure an adequate labour supply to work in the munitions factories. In May 1916 the work was categorised a dangerous trade, but initially little happened in the way of regulations.

Investigations into the poisoning risks continued and in August 1916 “The Lancet” published the work of two female doctors, Drs Agnes Livingstone-Learmouth and Barbara Martin Cunningham. They were medical officers in munitions factories who studied the phenomena for a number of months. They produced a raft of  recommendations including 21-40 age limits for TNT workers, provision of washing facilities, mandatory regular medical examinations, and moving workers elsewhere after 12 weeks.  Following this, regulations were established with full-time doctors appointed to all large factories and part-time ones to the smaller operatives.

The topic of TNT poisoning also grabbed Parliamentary attention. In October 1916 Mr Anderson asked whether the Home Secretary was aware that of the 472 cases of industrial poisoning reported during the nine months to September 1916, 120 occurred from toxic jaundice, and that of the 62 deaths 33 were attributable to this cause. He asked how many of these were due to TNT poisoning. Mr Brace, Under-Secretary at the Home Office said of these 95 of poisoning cases were a result of TNT, and the number of deaths was 28. He went on to say “Every step is being taken by my department, in concert with the Ministry of Munitions, to investigate and deal with this disease.”

In November 1916 Mr Brace was again obliged to state that 41 workers in the UK had died in the six months to 31 October 1916 from either TNT poisoning or inhaling poisonous fumes.

But criticism of the measures taken to safeguard health continued. Echoing the cause of death verdict reached in Annie Leonard’s inquest, on 11 November 1916 Gertrude Ford in wrote in “The Daily Herald”:

Since we last “observed” the world of women there has been another death from TNT poisoning; followed by another assurance from the Home Office that only some sort of “mistake” or “misadventure” was responsible. A properly administered Act, of course, leaves no loophole for “mistakes” that spell death to the workers affected by its operation. The accompanying assurance that everything will now be done to safeguard the health of the munitions-makers is an implied admission of the. If now, why not earlier?

Yet even in December 1916 the Government was asserting the danger from TNT poisoning “seems to be much exaggerated in the popular mind”.  However, the tighter regulations did begin to take effect and the death rates reduced. It is difficult to say with certainty the number of munition worker deaths attributable to poisoning. Some state as low as 109, while other estimates put it in the region of 400.

Annie is commemorated on the local Carlinghow memorial, at St John’s Church. She is one of 1,400 women whose names are inscribed on the oak screens of the National Women’s Memorial  at York Minister.  Her brother Edward, who has no known grave, is commemorated at Thiepval. There is a family burial plot at Batley cemetery, where both are remembered on the now broken headstone.

On 21 July I intend visiting the grave to pay my respects.

Batley Cemetery Leonard

Annie and Edward Leonard’s Headstone in Batley Cemetery by Jane Roberts

A footnote to this story. Annie Leonard is not on the Batley War Memorial. Annie’s brother Walter did write to the Batley Town Clerk as follows:

Re. War Memorial

Dear Sir

With reference to the above I should like to draw your attention to the omittion [sic] of my sister’s name from the roll of honour.

She was the only Baltey [sic] girl who gave her life for her King & Country, and is on the roll of honour at Carlinghow St. John’s and Carlinghow Working Men’s Club, so I think it only fair to her and her folks that she should be placed amongst the Baltey [sic] Roll of honour.

She worked at the Barnbow Factory and was poisoned by T.N.T. poisoning.

Hoping this will meet your approval.

Yours Faithfully

W. Leonard

Her name ANNIE LEONARD

The letter was annotated with a large ‘No’. It is retained in the West Yorkshire Archives (Kirklees branch).

Sources:

[1] Birth registered in Q4 1891 Dewsbury 9b 580
[2] One-eighth of an ounce

GRO Picture Credit: 

Extract from GRO death register entry for Annie Leonard: Image © Crown Copyright and posted in compliance with General Register Office copyright guidance