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   Inside Out - East Midlands: Monday 10th February, 2003

WARTIME FACTORY DISASTER

Chilwell ammunition factory
EXPLOSIVES FACTORY | Chilwell made shells for the Somme

It was one of Britain's worst wartime disasters - an explosion at a Nottingham ammunition factory. Inside Out investigates the hidden story of the Chilwell blast tragedy.

It's the forgotten tragedy in which 134 Nottingham workers were killed, and dozens more injured. It was also Britain's worst ever disaster involving an explosion.

Although it happened more than 80 years ago, it's a tragedy that continues to haunt relatives of the victims.

The Chilwell ammunition factory blast was the biggest loss of life during a single explosion during the First World War. Amazingly it was a tragedy that was kept secret at the time.

Inside Out has obtained the report into the disaster that was even hidden from the man who ran the Chilwell munitions factory.

Bombs for the front line

Nottingham's Chilwell ammunition factory was the country’s most productive shell filling factory during the First World War.

Aftermath of the blast at Chilwell
The aftermath of the blast at Nottingham's Chilwell ammunition factory

It was set up by Viscount Chetwynd in 1915 to try and counter the superior German firepower in the trench warfare.

He chose a site near Nottingham that was flat with good road and rail links, but also in a dip to shield any explosions.

The site had to be kept top secret for fear of attacks by the enemy.

During the course of the war, the Chilwell factory supplied over half the shells fired, including most of those used in the bloody battle of the Somme.

The 'Canary Girls'

10,000 people worked in the Chilwell munitions factory including many women. They were known as the ‘Canary Girls’ who often worked up to 12 hour shifts for 30 shillings a week.

Employees at the factory often complained of chest pains, nausea and skin irritations resulting in workers being given masks, and ventilation being improved.

Deadly poisons were being handled by workers. Local historian Maureen Rushton tells us,“The chemicals some of them were using turned their skin yellow and their hair green.”

A devastating explosion

In July 1918 there was a devastating explosion in the mixing plant at Chilwell. 134 people died and 250 were injured by the blast that flattened much around the site.

The blast at the Chilwell factory
The explosion even broke windows in Long Eaton two miles away

Body parts were hurled into the air and landed in farmers’ fields.

Yet, at the time it was only reported in the newspapers as - "60 feared dead in Midlands factory explosion."

Most of the dead were put in a mass grave in Attenborough village without being named.

It was 50 years before a memorial was put up - and then it was inside an army base.

The human cost

We’ve spoken to a woman who lost her father in the explosion who remembers clearly the moment of the blast that could be heard as far away as the Vale of Belvoir some 30 miles away.

Memorial
Many relatives of the victims didn't even know there was a memorial

“I was the middle of seven children,” she says.

"My father had been wounded in the war and came back. He went to work at Chilwell. He was sent to his death and the family were left to fend for themselves."

"It tore us apart and only later in life did I find my brothers and sisters. If there’s a war now I hope the families of any casualties are looked after a lot better than we were.”

An explosive cocktail

So what was the cause of the huge explosion at Chilwell? Was it a tragic accident or could it have been sabotage?

In the early days of Chilwell, there had been several minor explosions as a result of struggles to perfect the chemical mix to go into the shells.

Chillwell - A History
1915
Viscount Chetwynd looks for a site for a munitions factory.
September 1915
1,000 men start building the Chilwell factory complex.
December 1915
King George V visits the factory.
March 1916
Shell filling begins at the factory.
1916
Battle of Somme.
1 July 1918
Eight tons of TNT explodes without warning, killing 134 people and injuring 250.
4 July 1918
Rebuilding of the Chilwell ammunitions factory begins.
November 1918
The Armistice and end of First World War.
1993
75th anniversary of the explosion. A memorial service is held.

Others think that the big blast was the result of sabotage by disaffected workers - possibly the electricians.

Maureen Rushton says: “I’ve heard rumours that the IRA or fifth columnists might have got in there.”

The Chilwell factory sent out most of the shells used in the barrage before the Battle of the Somme.

Many of the shells didn’t go off or damage the German front line as much as they'd expected.

Were there spies working in Chilwell? Or were they not getting the mixture in the shells right early enough?

The investigation

Scotland Yard was called into investigate. Lord Chetwynd told them he was convinced it was sabotage and went as far as naming the culprit.

The report was never published and Lord Chetwynd was never told what its conclusions were. Even today it seems that the truth is far from clear.

It seems incredulous that the biggest loss of life during a single explosion during the First World War took place not on the battlefields of France, but much closer to home in Chilwell.

85 years on, relatives of the blast victims are still looking for answers to the mystery of the explosion.

See also ...

On bbc.co.uk
History Trail

On the rest of the web
Chilwell Depot
Public Records Office
Imperial War Museum
Nottingham Family History - The Canary Girls
Ministry of Defence

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

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Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

Mrs. Gill Wilmot
My Grandfather George SAFHILL was a fireman at the Depot when the explosion occured. He was granted a commendation from Neville Chamberlain (later to become Prime Minister) which my Grandfather carried around in his pocket all his life.

Gladly I have inherited this document and will preserve it with pride as my Grandfather would have wanted. I would love to go and have a look around at any memorabilia but never seem to hear about open days until it is too late.

Maureen Rushton
The memorial was actually built in 1919 and unveiled on March 13th



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