Chilwell Shell Factory Disaster

During battlefield tours I have often spoken about the need, for the first time, of a ‘The Home Front’ during World War One, and how industry was required to support the war effort; and that the Great War was the first true war on an industrial scale.  All bought about be the sheer magnitude and demand of ‘modern’ weapons, that can for the first time be mass produced following the industrial revolution, and devour ammunition like never before.

Chilwell Shelling Factory 1917

Chilwell Shelling Factory 1917

The Home Front required a change in attitude, women were allowed to work in factories; indeed we had little choice as the bulk of our young men had volunteered and was now in the front line.  Until 1914 it was a case that women would only work ‘in service’ as cooks and maids or in they lived in the county as dairymaids on the farm.

With the increased requirement for ammunition following the ‘shell scandal’ when the entire British army almost ran out of ammunition, a number of Shelling Filling Factories were established around the country.  One of the largest was at Chilwell near Nottingham.  Its official title was National Filling Factory Number 6 and was responsible for filling some 19 million shells, about 50% of all shells fired. At the end of the war the factory site became an Army storage depot and today the area is split between a new modern housing estate and the army.

But shell filling in the Great War was not without its hazards, a large part of the factory was destroyed on 1 July 1918 as eight tons of TNT detonated in a blast that was heard over twenty miles away.

Following the Chilwell Shell Factory Disaster 134 people were killed, 32 of which could not be identified and are buried in a mass grave in the nearby village of Attenborough, a further 250 people were seriously injured. But the

Woman working in Chilwell 1917

Woman working in Chilwell 1917

factory spirit was not daunted, the very next day they were back in production, and by the end of the month reported the highest weekly production during the war; to which Winston Churchill, the Minister of Munitions sent a telegram:

“Please accept my sincere sympathy with you all in the misfortune that has overtaken your fine Factory and in the loss of valuable lives, those who have perished have died at their stations on the field of duty and those who have lost their dear ones should fortify themselves with this thought, the courage and spirit shown by all concerned both men and women command our admiration, and the decision to which you have all come to carry on without a break is worthy of the spirit which animates our soldiers in the field. I trust the injured are receiving every care.”

For security, and so as not to dent the war effort at home, it was simply reported at the time as  “60 feared dead in Midlands factory explosion.”

One week after the armistice was signed on 16 November 1918 the factory band played in the courtyard of Buckingham Palace, before marching to Downing Street to be met by the Prime Minister  David Lloyd George.  On 13 March 1919 a memorial to the many who died was unveiled by the Duke of Portland, by the entrance to the factory.