The Chilwell catastrophe: Fatal explosion on the home front

On 1 July 1918, at 7.10pm, a catastrophic explosion tore through the National Shell Filling Factory at Chilwell, Nottinghamshire.

The blast killed 134 workers and injured 250 – the biggest loss of life from a single accidental explosion during the First World War.

Rubbe and remains of a destroyed factory building after the blast
A large part of the factory site was reduced to rubble after the explosion. © Historic England/AA96-03585.

Eight tons of TNT had detonated without warning, flattening large parts of the plant and damaging properties within a three mile area. The colossal blast was heard 30 miles away.

Eye witness, Lottie Martin, a worker at the factory, later recalled: ‘…Men, women and young people burnt, practically all their clothing burnt, torn and disheveled. Their faces black and charred, some bleeding with limbs torn off, eyes and hair literally gone…’

A destroyed factory building pictured after the blast
Many factory buildings were twisted and distorted by the force of the blast. © IWM HU96428.

Rapid action by the Works Manager, Arthur Bristowe – who tipped burning TNT from conveyor belt trays – prevented a further 15 tons of TNT being detonated by the spreading fires. In under half an hour the fires were under control and emergency services from across the region were arriving. Despite the workers’ extreme shock and the terrible destruction, repairs were swiftly carried out overnight enabling some of the next morning’s day-shift to start work again.

The Home Office Committee of Enquiry published its report into the explosion on 7 August 1918. The police undertook a separate investigation into suspected sabotage. Neither enquiry could conclusively identify the cause of the explosion.

Before Chilwell

Interior high explosive shell filling shed
Interior high explosive shell filling shed. This huge space was able to hold 600,000 filled shells and 100,000 shells ready for filling. © Historic England/AA96-03565.

The ‘Shell Scandal’ broke in May 1915, when the Times and the Daily Mail alleged that there were not enough high explosive shells to overcome the superior German firepower on the Western Front and that too many were defective.

Two months later, the Munitions of War Act was passed which included powers for the government to create National Factories to speed up and control production of ordnance. Factory No.6 at Chilwell was one, opening February 1916 for the filling of large calibre high explosive shells with TNT.

Ministry of Munitions

Crowds of workers stand precariously beside a train track, waiting for their train to the factory
Workers waiting for a train at the local Attenborough station, Nottinghamshire, to take them to the factory. © Historic England/AA96-03573.

The vast factory, which covered 194 acres (78 hectares), and eventually had 7,500 workers, was set up by Viscount Godfrey Chetwynd at the instigation of David Lloyd George, then head of the newly formed Ministry of Munitions. Chetwynd, who came from the automobile industry, had no prior experience of explosives production. He was a maverick and self-publicist who loathed red tape. He demanded, and got, a free hand to design and create the factory without bureaucratic interference.

King George visiting Chilwell Factory, surrounded by stacked munition shells
King George V (the queen’s grandfather) visiting the factory 15 December 1916. © Historic England/AA96-03620.

Chetwynd chose the site at Chilwell because it had good rail and road links, was conveniently located between the raw material producers of the north and the supply ports of the south, and could draw on the under-employed workers of the local textile industries. Against convention, he adapted existing machinery – for coal crushing, stone pulverising, sugar sifting – to prepare the ingredients for making TNT.

In keeping with his individualist nature, Chetwynd literally stamped his mark on the factory with the distinctive, self-devised crossed C’s of the Chilwell crest, adding the Royal Crown to imply a royal association with the government-owned factory.
Within a few months of the factory’s opening, it had filled a major proportion of the large calibre shells used during the Battle of the Somme (1 July – 18 November 1916). On the first day alone 250,000 shells were fired by British guns.

Women workers

A group portrait of mostly women factory workers
A group of the factory’s workers, the majority female. © MOD.

Women made up a large part of the workforce at the Chilwell factory.
They were nick-named ‘canaries’, as handling TNT could stain skin yellow. Some even gave birth to yellow babies.

Toxic jaundice was dangerous and 106 women died from it during the course of the war. As the potentially lethal effects of filling high explosive shells became better understood, munitions workers were issued with overalls, masks and caps to mitigate the dangers, along with washing facilities and good food.

Factory workers finishing large shell munitions with paint or varnish
Hundreds of workers – women and men – finishing shells with paint or varnish to prevent surface rusting. The filled shells would be taken to the ports by rail. The fuzes would be screwed on at the front. © Historic England/AA96-03619.
Portait of a woman munitions worker in protective clothing
Female Chilwell munitions worker in protective clothing, 1916. © Historic England/AA96-03562.
Female Chilwell munitions workers lower 6-inch howitzer shells into position
Female Chilwell munitions workers lower 6-inch howitzer shells into position, 21 August 1917. © IWM Q30040
Postcard titled ‘Britain at War: Making Munitions.’  The caption heading is ‘The Hall of the Million Shells’.  Part of it reads: ‘…Women drive the cranes that gather up bunches of shells from any part of the building and lower them, with absolute precision, to their appointed places in the trucks…’
Postcard titled ‘Britain at War: Making Munitions.’ The caption heading is ‘The Hall of the Million Shells’. Part of it reads: ‘…Women drive the cranes that gather up bunches of shells from any part of the building and lower them, with absolute precision, to their appointed places in the trucks…’ © Wayne Cocroft.

High explosive shell production

Portrait image of Viscount Chetwynd (centre front) with senior production staff displaying a sign listing the total number of shells the factory produced over the course of the war.
Viscount Chetwynd (centre front) with senior production staff displaying a sign listing the total number of shells the factory produced over the course of the war. © Royal Armories.

Despite the devastation of the explosion, the Chilwell factory became the most productive shell filling factory of the war. Just two months after the fatal blast, the factory filled 275,327 shells in one week, – a record number. By the end of the war it had produced more than 19 million shells – over half the total British shells fired on the Western Front – along with thousands of mines and bombs.

The Memorials

Memorial cross to those who died
Memorial cross (since removed) originally erected at the mass grave of those who died in the explosion, St Mary’s church, Attenborough, Nottinghamshire. © Historic England/AA96-03570.

Of the 134 dead, 25 were women. Only 32 of the fatalities could be positively identified. The victims were buried in a series of mass graves at the parish church, a short distance from the factory complex.

An obelisk memorial flanked by munitions shells supporting a protective chain barrier
The Chilwell Memorial, Chilwell, Nottinghamshire. Unveiled 13 March 1919. Listed Grade II. © Andy Jamieson.

This concrete memorial, flanked by actual shell casings, was built where the explosion was thought to have occurred. It commemorates not only the 134 workers killed in explosion, but also others who lost their lives at the factory in earlier accidents. It is unusual in that, beneath Viscount Chetwynd’s crest, the inscription not only carries the names of the dead, but in addition lists the achievements of the factory.

A memorial bed was also endowed in Nottingham General Hospital in the name of Chilwell Munitions Workers.

Works Manager, Arthur Bristowe, was presented with the Edward Medal (the industry equivalent of the George Cross) for his heroism, and twelve of the factory’s workers – eight men and four women – received the British Empire Medal for acts of bravery.

Further reading

8 responses to The Chilwell catastrophe: Fatal explosion on the home front

  1. A.K.A. Demik says:

    I cannot visualize what “the distinctive, self-devised crossed C’s of the Chilwell crest” looked like, nor can I find a representation in Google. Any images?

    Like

    • Apologies, there should have been two images included of a lamp post and tally disc bearing the Chilwell crest, but they seem to have disappeared! We’ve added those back in and they should be visible now.

      Like

  2. Noel G says:

    Reblogged this on NoelG and commented:
    It is the pictures of the vast warehouses of shells, six hundred thousand of them, that is most shocking: that they could all be fired in just two or three days.

    Like

  3. Jay Ann Knox says:

    Would it be possible to get copies of some of the photographs you have used, please?
    My great grandfather was killed in the explosion, but he was one of those identified and is buried somewhere in St. Johns Churchyard, Carrington. His name is on the memorial at Chilwell.

    Like

  4. Arran Linton-Smith says:

    This needs to be updated as the mass grave has now been renovated and there is a new cross!

    Like

  5. Patricia Smith says:

    Was the old cine film that was found ever developed . My grandma worked at the depot and on the day of the explosion she had just got home when it happened. A very lucky escape

    Liked by 1 person

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