Chilwell Shell Filling Factory Explosion

During the First World War Britain needed millions of shells to fire on the Western Front. Many of those shells were manufactured around the country and delivered to a specially built factory in Chilwell near Nottingham, where they were filled with explosives.

This was a highly dangerous operation. In the early evening on July 1st 1918 disaster struck. Eight tons of explosives detonated, tearing through the Mixing House and TNT Mill. It was one of Britain’s worst wartime civilian catastrophes, causing the biggest loss of life in a single explosion of the First World War. By the time the dust had settled over 130 people lay dead. Another 250 were injured.

The National Shell Filling Factory, Chilwell, had been the country’s most productive. It employed 10,000 people and from its creation in 1915 to the end of the war, over 19 million shells were produced there – more than half of those fired by British forces during the war.

25 of those who died in the blast were women. Women working on the site became known as Canary Girls because the deadly poisons in the explosives they were handling turned their skin yellow. They also left them with chest pains. skin irritations and feeling sick. These women worked a mix of 12- and 18-hour shifts for 30 shillings a week (men doing a similar job earned £2).

It is not known what caused the explosion but the damage was horrific. It broke windows in houses as far away as Long Eaton; the noise was heard 30 miles away in the Vale of Belvoir. Only 32 of those killed could be positively identified.

An appeal was sent out for people to go and help and horses and carts and even pedal cycles were used to move the wounded to hospital. People remembered traffic jams along the length of Chilwell Road, into Long Eaton and up towards Bramcote until gone midnight.

Despite everything, the remaining workers went to the factory at 6.00am the following morning to report for their shifts. The rescuers were still searching for survivors, so they were told to come back the next day. Though the end of the war was just five months away, munitions were still desperately needed at the front. Rebuilding of the plant began immediately and full production was achieved just a month later, when workers actually broke their weekly output record. 

The Minister for Munitions, Winston Churchill, wrote: “The courage and spirit shown by all concerned, both men and women, command our admiration, and the decision to which you have all come to carry on without a break is worthy of the spirit which animates our soldiers in the field.”

King George V also sent a telegram. The local MP suggested in Parliament that because of the heroic actions of several people over the course of the years, the Chilwell factory should be awarded the Victoria Cross. Although this did not happen, every employee did get a medal with the words “VC Factory” engraved on it.

Publicly, however, very little national recognition was given to what had happened. The government wanted to cover up the extent of the disaster so as not to affect war morale. It was reported in the newspapers as “60 feared dead in Midlands factory explosion.”

The remains of the unidentified bodies were buried in three mass graves in the churchyard at St Mary’s. The plots were marked by a series of flagstones and a small granite memorial with a blue plaque. On July 1st 2018 – a century after the tragedy – a new memorial was dedicated here at St Mary’s to commemorate the victims. There is a further more substantial memorial on the site of the original factory but this is still MOD land – the Chetwynd Barracks – and so has limited public access.