Barnbow Canaries

You may remember Alice Nutter dressed as a nun with a fag in her hand as part of anarchist band Chumbawamba. Ten years ago Alice left the band and began a new career as a playwright. Her latest play is something close to the hearts of most of us in the East Leeds area, a play about Barnbow called ‘Barnbow Canaries.’

“Even though I’ve lived in Leeds since the early eighties, I hadn’t heard of Barnbow until an idea was put to me by West Yorkshire Playhouse artistic director James Brining. I went off to do some research and realised it wasn’t just a story of the biggest disaster to hit Leeds but a story of Leeds working class women in the war and how they were morally shafted at the end of it.”

For those not familiar, Barnbow made ammunition by the shed load in World War One. As most of the men were either too young, too old, in the trenches or in coffins, the manufacture was left in the capable hands of local ladies, the ‘Barnbow Lasses.’

Barnbow-canariesAlice-Nutter“They were paid about £3 a week, when the average wage at the time was about 2/6. All the women and girls working in the factory were supposed to be between 18 and 38 but some lied about their ages to get work there because of the financial freedom it would give them and as well as having money in their pockets, there were very few men about to tell them what to do.”

Despite the new found freedoms, life was hard and the work was demanding and dangerous. Between 1916-18 there were three accidents, the worst of which was an explosion on 5th December 1916 which claimed the lives of thirty five women who worked in Room 42 and were nicknamed ‘Barnbow Canaries’.

Nobody is quite sure if it was a trigger mechanism or a mixture of chemicals which caused the explosion. The tragedy was never really made public so as not to affect morale both at home and on the front line. Although the blanket ban of secrecy was lifted six years later, none of the Leeds women who died ever got obituaries or recognition. One of the girls Edith Sykes was only 15 when she was killed by the explosion. Many more were injured and maimed and needed to go in convalescence homes, which was paid for by their fellow workers chipping in. No help was forthcoming from the government.

“The Barnbow Canaries produced and packed the shells. They worked with a chemical called TNT, which carried serious health issues, including turning the skin yellow, hence the nickname. The factory actually had its own dairy farm and there was a mistaken belief the endless supply of milk would help turn the skin back to its original colour. There were other side effects, both irritative and toxic, apparently the government became aware of the health risks in 1916 but didn’t address the situation.”

After the war ended, the suffering of the Barnbow Lassies continued, many were dogged by ill health and out of work. Meanwhile, the government reneged on a deal made with the Suffragette movement when the war began, which promised all women the right to vote when things got back to normal. In return, the Suffragettes had stopped their agitation and used their influence to get behind the war effort. Sure enough, when the war ended, women got the vote but only if they were over thirty and were property owners, which ruled out virtually all working class women.

“When the women took on traditionally male jobs, it was classed as ‘For the Duration,’ which meant for as long as the war continued or was necessary. After the war most of the women were made redundant and found themselves back where they started, only worse, they’d experienced freedom of some kind, they had done high risk work and earned little recognition, now they were told it would be unpatriotic to take a job a man could do. And the final slap in the face, they weren’t granted the right to vote for another ten years. The deaths and the sacrifices weren’t properly recognised till the 1990’s when East Leeds Local History group started to delve into Barnbow.”

Talking with Alice about the hardships suffered by the Barnbow Lassies made us glad we live in more enlightened times…
A local workforce and community shafted by a British government? Surely that’s never happened in our lifetimes.

A piece of history set in your own back garden,
the whole of East Leeds should turn out for this.





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