Mick texted to say he was on his way to Sainsburys and would we like him to pick up a Daily Telegraph for us. “Yes please”.
It was a grey windy morning. Storm took Max for a walk and got caught in a heavy shower so while they dried out we read the papers. When it brightened up Storm and I headed to the Lancaster City Museum at the Old Town Hall.
We were directed to a ground floor exhibition about the White Lund National Filling Factory. This was a local factory built during WW1 where shells were filled with TNT before being shipped out to the front line. The shells were made at another factory nearby.
The factory was huge, occupying a site of 400 acres, and employing about 6000 people, 80% of them female.
When the Ministry of Munitions acquired the 400 acre site, they were keen to maintain secrecy and their advertising for employees and suitable accommodation in which to house them was somewhat cryptic. They wrote to local residents to see if they would like to earn extra money by taking in lodgers.
The fear of explosion at the factory meant that staff had to wear a provided uniform with fabric buttons and staff were searched for matches and anything that might create a spark was removed. They used electric trains on the site to ferry the shells.
TNT poisoning was something that they tried to limit and staff were encouraged to drink plenty of milk and were given cocoa to drink before and after their shifts. However, we read of one girl who’d died of TNT poisoning as she’d sneaked some sweets in and as she’d popped them into her mouth during her shift, she’d also ingested the poison from her hands.
Fruit and veg was grown on the site and workers helped in the gardens and this no doubt helped with the problem of catering for such numbers.
In the Spring of 1917 Edward VII and Queen Alexandra visited the site to see the work being undertaken there and as the site was so vast a plan of where they would drive and where they would walk was drawn up.
On the night of 1 October 1917 disaster struck as a fire started and as this spread many explosions followed. The alarm was raised at 10.30pm and fortunately most of the staff were on their break which no doubt saved many lives. Miraculously only ten men died that night, and most of them were firemen trying to fight the fire, but there were many seriously injured casualties. The biggest explosion was at 3am and its force was felt as far away as Burnley. Fire engines, ambulances etc had come from miles around as word spread. There was a problem with the phone lines at the factory and so help didn’t arrive immediately.
The exhibition tells of the heroic efforts by people, both employees and others in the neighbourhood, trying to do all they could to save the factory. However despite their valiant efforts the factory didn’t operate again. Staff were paid off and were given two weeks wages when they were dismissed. The cause of the fire was never found and it is not known whether it was an accident or sabotage.
It was a fascinating exhibition. It is impossible to imagine the impact that a factory of this scale would have had on the economy, both when it was built, while it was running, and then after it ceased to exist. The factory manufactured about 15000 shells each week and the logistics of delivering those safely to the front line was not discussed but this must have been complicated given the utmost secrecy of the operation.
As we’d spent a long time learning about the White Lund Factory we only gave a cursory glance to the rest of the museum’s exhibits which told of life in Lancaster from Roman Times to present day. We’ll save the rest for another time perhaps.