In the fields of Grimsbury in south east Banbury, close to where thousands of cars pass on the M40 every day, lies the earthwork remnants of one of the town’s contributions to World War One.
What was once a National Filling Factory (No.9), this area was scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 – by the Secretary of State of the time – as a site of national importance.
National Filling Factories were essentially a series of units linked together by a light railway, where local workers filled shells with lyddite (a high explosive containing picric acid) under extremely dangerous conditions. Production of filled shells began in April 1916 and ended in 1924, but at the height of the war it gave employment to 933 men and 548 women.
When demand for lyddite declined by September 1917 as the army switched to TNT, sections of the factory were converted to filling naval mines and shrapnel shells and, early in 1918, part of the factory was given over to the filling of chemical shells with mustard gas. It was closed in 1927 and once decommissioned it was then dismantled under order from the Ministry of Munitions. Germany sent Luftwaffe planes to bomb the area behind the Bowling Green pub in the 1940s since the enemy feared it had been reactivated.
There was a smaller satellite depot on the nearby Middleton Road during 1919, which was reactivated in WWII. Twenty WWII anti-tank phosphorus grenades and a small number of WWI phosphorus grenades were dug up by developers and defused by the army in 2012, leading to evacuation of the area.
The Remains of the Site
In 2014, broadcaster Jane Markham’s Podcats production company produced a video for Banbury Museum about the site. The BBC has since picked up the story and has included it as part of their World War One at Home series of stories. In partnership with Imperial War Museums and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the series depicts how WWI affected the people and places of the UK and Ireland.
Courtesy of Banbury Museum and Podcats, Dale Johnston the Events and Exhibitions Manager at the museum, walks us through the ghostly remains of the factory, beside what now runs the M40 motorway. There’s also footage of the workers at the time, along with descriptions of how the factory operated.
Video by Podcats Productions Ltd. YouTube/PodcatsUK
Location of the Factory
The M40 motorway now cuts through the site, with Grimsbury to the west and Warkworth to the east. The site is now a protected monument and on private land, so no attempts should be made to try and visit the site, without prior arrangement and consent.
There were many women working in the factories during WWI, helping to fill the jobs lost when the men went off to fight in the war. They had the unenviable job of being in one of the most dangerous workplaces you could imagine. Some workers in these factories lost limbs or even their lives when explosives were accidently set off.
Gladys Sangster – who features in the video above – is one of the oldest surviving ‘Canary Babies’, whose skin at birth was a shade of yellow. This was due to the dangerous sulphuric chemicals and liquid explosives used to build munitions for the war effort.
Here’s an edited transcript of a recording made with Gladys, whose mother worked at the factory in Banbury, and Dale Johnston from Banbury Museum.
“National Filling factory No.9 was built on fields near the pub The Bowling Green, in Grimsbury, on the outskirts of Banbury. It started filling shells in 1916.”
“I was born when the war was still on, and I was yellow, and that’s why they, we, new babies we were called Canary Babies.”
“I’m Dale Johnston the Events and Exhibitions Manager at Banbury Museum. Gladys Sangster is one of the members of our Times Gone By reminiscence group. Her mother used to work at the filling factory and while she was working there, she had Gladys – this was 1917. She was one of the Canary Babies, because her mum had been working with the chemicals at the factory.”
“Every women that was pregnant, nearly every baby was born yellow.”
“Many people will have had babies with jaundice, but this is chemically induced yellow colouration of the skin.”
“Well it gradually faded away. Mum said you just took it for granted, it happened and that was it. You was tougher in those days than what they are today.
“They were not allowed to wear anything metal. They couldn’t wear hair grips, they couldn’t wear the shoelaces with the tabs on the end. Everything that they wore, if it had any metal in it, they all had to be taken off and everything had to be tied up with tape, the ordinary white tape.”
“Anything that could have created a spark would have been very dangerous, so whatever they arrived in, everybody had to get into their khaki outfits. So everyone in the factory had their own uniform of sorts. They’d have know that if anything went wrong, they were in trouble. Of course they had the danger of air raids – and if there’s an air raid going on you don’t want to be in an ammunition factory.”
“One day, one of the bosses, he said; ‘Mary? If there was a raid on now’ – the planes, they’d started with the planes then – ‘what would you do?’. Because she was in charge of so many women (chuckles), she turned around and said to him; ‘If they’ve got any sense, they’d do the same as what I’m going to do’, and he said ‘What’s that?’. She said; ‘Run like hell across those fields away from the bombing.’ She burst out laughing as she said it because of course, we all pictured mum running across these fields, to escape the bombing.”
Visit Banbury Museum for further information on the town’s history.
As the world remembers the fallen on the First World War Centenary, we’ll end on the famous and much loved poem The Soldier, by Rupert Brooke;
‘The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke, 1914
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.