The Canary Girls of Chilwell (30-9-18)
At the Heritage Group open meeting on Monday 24th September the story behind this intriguing was revealed by our speaker, local historian and author Maureen Rushton.
Maureen explained how in the First World War British troops fighting on the frontline were being overwhelmed by the volume of the ordnance being fired by the opposition. Lord Kitchener decided to increase the amount of artillery to be provided to our troops, and one of his actions was to order the building of a new shell-filling factory. Chilwell was selected as an ideal site, and after the issue of a Compulsory Purchase Order the factory was built at a cost of £3 million.
The man Kitchener put in charge of the Chilwell factory was Godfrey Chetwynd, later Viscount Chetwynd, and one of his first actions was to construct a circular road around the site to increase security. Our speaker pointed out that this was the first of a number of measures taken by Chetwynd without consultation with the appropriate Authorities!
At its height the workforce reached the 10,000 mark, comprising 6000 men and 4000 women. The rate of production of live shells from the factory was remarkable, so much so that it prompted a visit from King George V and his entourage. This visit was followed by numerous visits by notable dignitaries, much to the annoyance of Chetwynd who saw this as a hindrance to shell production.
Employees at the shell filling factory were well looked after. They were provided with regular meal breaks, and various sporting and recreational events were organised. However, although medical facilities and supervision were provided, exposure to the toxic explosive mixtures did take its toll. Besides a number of medical problems, Maureen explained that the handling of these materials caused skin to turn yellow, and black hair became green. Hence the term `Canary Girls`.
Although there had been several instances when small explosions had occurred during the shell filling operations, no-one was prepared for the disastrous event on July 1st 1918 when 8 tonnes of TNT spontaneously ignited. Tragically, 134 people died as a result of this explosion, while a further 250 were injured. The severity of this incident was felt in the surrounding areas, and even the level of the nearby river was temporarily affected. Investigations into the incident only led to speculation. Some blame was laid on a few electricians who had been recently dismissed, while others questioned whether the IRA was responsible. Production resumed very quickly and nothing was ever proved.
Many of the casualties could not be identified, and were buried in a mass grave in the churchyard in nearby Attenborough. A monument has been erected there as a tribute to those who died in support of the War Effort. Maureen Rushton`s story was both informative and moving, and was fully appreciated by the large audience who came to listen to her talk.