Illustrations: Raphael Achache
That day'll haunt me for the rest of my life. 1 July 1918. There'd been a massive boost in workers in the months leading up to the explosion, near enough 10,000 of us all in all, so we knew our boys on the front line were due for a big, victorious push soon. Most of us used to work in the textile industry before the National Shell Filling Factory came to Chilwell. We were on rations, so when the offer came up for new work with more money and the chance to lend a hand in the war effort, we chucked the lace and cracked on. We even got a visit from King George V in the early days.
My husband Frank volunteered for The Sherwood Foresters Regiment not long after we first went to war in 1914. Such a brave man, he loved Blighty as much as he loved me and our son, so when I received a telegram informing me he was mortally wounded trying to save a fellow soldier in the Battle of the Somme, I tried to keep a stiff upper lip and distract myself with graft. It was hard, but tears weren't going to feed my little boy or finish off the Hun.
The longer we scooped Amatol into the huge shells, the more we turned a funny colour and the less we were repulsed by the pungent burning plastic smell. In the village they called us the Chilwell Canary Girls, our skin glowing yellow beneath our one-piece overalls and hair caps. No matter how much we scrubbed, it wouldn't come off, but we'd be damned if we were going to let that stop us.
The day it happened, we were all dripping with sweat from the hellish July heat. Our red-faced gaffer marched around, barking orders, making sure none of us fell asleep. They'd been bringing ice into the factory to bring down the temperature of the TNT and to make sure the machinery didn't overheat. As evening crept in, an almighty blast punched the air and the lights went out.
I shook violently in terror before dropping to my knees with my hands over my head, several deafening booms stabbing my ears. If they were to attack anywhere, it would surely be here, I thought. The lights flickered on and back off again as I waited to die for the longest seconds of my life. Rubble crashed to the floor around me as I ran to escape, moving towards the piercing screams. Grey smoke churned a morbid air as I caught fleeting glimpses of lifeless men embedded in mounds of steel and stone. I cupped my mouth and made for the door, tears streaming down my face.
The atmosphere outside fizzled with dust and panic, and people ran in and out of what remained of the building, trying to save whoever they could. My body froze as I saw parts of the factory in a helpless pile. That wasn't all that'd gone either – the police station, the garage, and a hundred houses around the factory were blown to smithereens.
To this day, we still don't know what happened – an overheated bearing, spontaneous combustion, sabotage – but what we did know was that eight tonnes of TNT had exploded, tearing half the place to shreds. The blast's impact had smashed windows up to three miles away, and a little girl said she’d seen bodies flying through the air. Although the papers read ‘60 feared dead in Midlands factory explosion’, more than 130 people died that night, only 32 of them identifiable. Many of them were dear friends, lost forever to the ruthless eruption. We buried the nameless in a mass grave at St Mary's Church in Attenborough. We received a letter of condolence from Sir Winston Churchill, and F.G. Kellaway, the Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of Munitions, commended us on returning to work the next day. We had no choice. In fact, the weeks after the explosion were our most productive. We were the highest-yielding filling factory in Britain during The Great War, packing over nineteen million shells – around half of all the high explosive shells that were produced in the country at that time.
Now the dust has settled, and poppies have sprouted to replace the bloodshed, my heart aches not just for Frank and all my fallen friends, but for every wife and mother who lost their loved ones. I'm still haunted by it, and although we all did what we had to do, I can't help thinking that we all should have stuck to stitching lace.
For more information on the Chilwell Canary Girls, check out Maureen Rushton's Canary Girls of Chilwell, available on Di and Saul Books.
Di and Saul Books website