‘I looked towards Chilwell and I saw a wall of black smoke rising into the sky’

Chilwell resident Michael Noble looks at a dark event from the district’s wartime past…

It wasn’t over by Christmas. The extended duration of the war wasn’t entirely unexpected (eagle-eyed members of Kitchener’s New Army will have spotted that they’d signed up for ‘three years or until the war was over’) but it wasn’t necessarily planned for either. Several months of heavy shelling, with hungry guns well-supplied by rail, led to the rapid depletion of high explosive shells by early 1915. The resultant ‘shell crisis’ was a notable scandal in many combatant countries and in Britain led to political turmoil that saw the creation of a coalition government and the founding of a Ministry for Munitions, led by David Lloyd George.

Munitions workers at Chilwell
Munitions workers at Chilwell

Existing arms factories were brought under tighter official control and several new installations were created, among them No. 6 Filling Factory at Chilwell in Nottinghamshire. The dangerous duty of the filling factories was to take the explosive chemical compounds and add them to the empty shells that had been made for the purpose. The Chilwell factory, like many such places, was staffed largely by women, nicknamed ‘munitionettes’ or ‘canaries’, owing to their yellow complexions, caused by their absorption of poisonous chemicals.

The Chilwell factory was efficient (evidence suggests that Chetwynd was a hard taskmaster) and filled over nineteen million shells during the war. It was, nevertheless, dangerous work. Factory staff wore rubber boots in an effort to avoid making sparks that could set off a deadly conflagration. Rings and shoelaces were banned. You can never be too careful. Sadly, you can still never be careful enough. On the 1st July 1918 a massive explosion occurred, destroying much of the installation, killing 134 people and injuring 250 more.

A plaque at the burial site of the killed workers
A plaque at the burial site of the killed workers

The disaster had an understandable impact on those who survived it. It did not, however, break their spirit or commitment and the factory continued to produce shells, achieving its highest weekly output within a month of the explosion. The event was subjected to a thorough investigation and, while Chetwynd suspected sabotage, this could not be proven.

Of course, the factory did eventually cease production several months later when the Armistice was declared. The site is now owned by the Ministry of Defence and is home to the Chetwynd Barracks. a memorial to those who died in the explosion was erected in the grounds and still stands today. A plaque offers some details of the events of wartime, but like the factory staff themselves, remains focused on the output of shells:

Erected to the memory of those men and women who lost their lives by explosions at the National Shell Filling Factory Chilwell 1916 – 1918
Principal historical facts of the factory
First sod turned 13th September 1915
First shell filled 8th January 1916
Number of shells filled within one year of cutting the first sod 1,260,000
Total shells filled 19,359,000 representing 50.8% of the total output of high explosive shell both lyddite and amatol 60pd to 15inch produced in Great Britain during the war
Total tonnage of explosive used 121,360 tons
Total weight of filled shell 1,100,000 tons

If you’d like to find out more about the Chilwell Filling Factory, you can hear an audio recording of Emily May Spinks, recalling her time as a teenage employee and her memories of the explosion. A 30 minute documentary, The Killing Factories is also currently available on the BBC iPlayer.

The impact of the explosion
The impact of the explosion

The Oral History of the First World War

Michael discovers a war-memorial-webwonderful audio collection of wartime memories

We have mentioned before how the diminishing number of people who were alive during the First World War is having an impact on the role of memory in our understanding of it. Direct experience is becoming a rarer commodity and  those snippets that we do have are of tremendous value.

It’s a joy, then, to review the First World War collection at the East Midlands Oral History Archive (EMOHA). Based on a collection of 300 recordings made in Leicester in the 1980s, the archive has been listened to, catalogued and made available for listeners via Soundcloud.

Grouped under the headings ‘The Start of the War’, ‘Life on the Home Front’, ‘Death and Absence’ and ‘Aftermath’, the clips offer a personal insight into how the war was experienced by people in the Midlands. We can hear about peoples’ attitude to the Germans, ‘I knew the First World War was coming because my dad, right from when we was kids, was always talking about the Germans coming down the street’, about access to food in wartime: ‘The bread was almost black…there were a lot of shortages really…we had to make potato dripping for instance. My aunt was very good at contriving, she was a good cook’ and, dramatically, on unexpected Zeppelin attacks ‘All I heard was a thud on the door…the windows came in. Everything was in confusion’

A treasure trove. Have a listen for yourself.

The Military Boots Project

A Nottinghamshire artist has found a unique way of remembering those who served, and those who continuTrent to Trenchese to do so. Michael Noble takes a look.

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Some of the completed cotton strips

Joy Pitts is a multiple award-winning contemporary artist based in Nottinghamshire. She works primarily with garments, which she sees as expressive of our individual identity and way of life. Her work assembles these individual identities into a shared whole that represents the collection of individualities that we call society.

This concept has a natural mirror in the idea of war memorials that place individual names in a shared space. One of Joy’s current projects reflects this by seeking to gather individually-sewn names of servicemen and women and present them as a single art work on canvas that will depict a pair of military boots. The Military Boots project is a collaborative effort being undertaken as part of Nottinghamshire’s Trent to Trenches programme.

Joy would like to invite  you to contribute to this project by stitching the name of those in your family past or present who have served or are serving in the Armed Forces onto a strip of cotton tape for her to add to the art work. She will provide the materials, you just need to provide the names and a little bit of your time.

Joy says ‘during World War One it was common for both men and women to sew; repairing clothing at home and in the trenches, embroidering messages to send to loved ones and sewing bandages. This project recalls these activities and invites you to make your own hand made acknowledgement to those who serve.’

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Cotton strips in blue

If you are interested in taking part, you can contact Joy directly here to request a stitch pack.

A Nottingham Library Remembers: Bromley House Library and The First World War 1914-1918

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Jeff Buggs’s story of 9 Albert Avenue, Carlton

The Bromley House Library is holding a series of events to commemorate the war. Michael Noble takes a look at what’s on.

The Bromley House Library has served the people of Nottingham for almost two hundred years and is, at the start of the twenty-first century, one of the few remaining subscription libraries in the country. Its appeal lies partly in its collection of around 40,000 books and also in its pleasant atmosphere, described as ‘tranquil and unstuffy’ atmosphere. Founded in 1816, the library has been situated since 1822 in Bromley House, a Georgian townhouse that is now Grade II* listed. Access to the library is usually limited to paying subscribers but it is opening its doors this autumn and inviting the public to pay a visit to see a specially-commission exhibition of First World War artefacts and to hear a range of guest speakers.

The exhibition, which has been generously supported by the Lady Hind Trust, has been mounted as part of Nottingham’s Trent to Trenches programme. It consists of items that have been kindly loaned by the library’s members in an effort to tell the ‘stories’ behind their families’ experience of the Great War.This creates a natural focus on the war as it was experienced by Nottingham people. This personal element is made all the more poignant by the setting of cherished objects alongside beautiful photographic images of their owners, some of whom gave their lives in the conflict.  A modern interpretation of the war is provided by local artist Janet Wilmot, whose works have been displayed to accompany the historical material.

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BHL collections, images and one of the War Bond Posters
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Part of the installation by Janet Wilmot

The exhibition is displayed in the Bromley House Gallery and in the main reading rooms, and is open to the public every Wednesday from 10.30am – 4pm In addition, the library has a diverse programme of subjects and speakers for Saturday lectures (£5.00 pp) and Wednesday lunchtime talks. The talks on Wednesdays are free but tickets need to be reserved in advance.

 

 

 

For further information about the programme and reserving tickets please contact geraldine.gray@bromleyhouse.org, or phone 0115 9473134, visit www.bromleyhouse.org or just pop in!

 

 

Autumn Roadshows 2014

Leicester Cards 2
A souvenir card from the First World War, displayed at our Leicester event

Michael Noble reports from the Hidden Histories Autumn Roadshow Programme

We’ve just completed our first round of roadshows, which took us to Nottingham, Leicester and Derby to share some of our work and ideas. We were very pleased to welcome members of community groups, interested individuals and staff from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the local councils who came along to listen and participate.

Our Principal Investigator, John Beckett outlined his idea of ‘Hidden Histories’ and explained that we were interested in examining the stories of people who took part in the First World War but who do not fit the conventional model of a Tommy. To illustrate his point he presented a picture of Wilfred Owen next to a similarly-posed portrait of a Daffadar (Sergeant) of the of the 14th Murray’s Jat Lancers of the Indian Army and asked the audience to name them. Many of the attendees could identify Owen, none could name the Daffadar. And neither could we. His, John pointed out, is a hidden history.

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Mike Heffernan presents his research to the audience at Leicester

We had the privilege of hearing from community representatives who wanted to share their ideas for commemorative projects. In Nottingham, Dr Irfan Malik presented the story of the Dulmial Gun (which we blogged about here) and described its importance to his family. Local artist Joy Pitts gave us an insight into her work and her ongoing Military Boots project and Eric Pemberton of the African and Caribbean organisation Banyan presented his painstakingly researched calendar, which he also brought along to the Leicester event. He was joined at Leicester by the Ramgarhia Social Sisters who have recently returned from a visit to the Empire, Faith and War exhibition and who have been inspired to create a tapestry work to tell the stories of the Sikh soldiers in the First World War. Also at Leicester was Roy Hathaway, who has amassed a collection of around a quarter of a million vintage cigarette cards, many of which feature soldiers and imagery from the war. Roy was kind enough to display some of his collection at the event. In Derby, we were joined by Daljit Singh Ahluwalia MBE and his wife Parkash, who are planning to develop a local exhibition of the Sikh contribution.

All three events featured a short talk given by one of our Co-Investigators. In Nottingham and Derby, Natalie Braber presented her work and answered the question of what a linguist has got to do with the First World War. In Leicester, Mike Heffernan gave a talk on the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission and the effort to memorialise the dead in an appropriate and fair manner.

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Some of Roy’s collection, displayed at Leicester

We were encouraged by the enthusiasm shown by the attendees and will be pleased to work alongside them as they develop their projects. If you were unable to come to any of the roadshows, but would like to get involved, please contact us for a friendly discussion.