A group of Chilwell munitions factory workers in the First World War. Betty Sayers’ mum, Ethel Smith, is first left on the second row from the back and Ethel’s sister, Ann, is first left of the three girls on the back row.
In 1918, an explosion at Chilwell munitions factory killed 134 people, bringing tragedy to numerous families in both Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, where many of the workers lived. But one Derby family breathed a sigh of relief when two young women caught up in the horror escaped death. Sarah Powlson reports.
ON July 1, 1918, Betty Sayers’ mother and aunt had an amazingly lucky escape when a massive explosion ripped through the factory where they worked.
Ethel Smith and her sister, Ann, lived in Carrington Street, Derby.
During the First World War, the sisters, along with a number of other people from Derby, got up early every working day to catch the train to Attenborough, Nottingham.
Then they had to walk half a mile to the Chilwell munitions factory, the country’s most productive shell filling factory during the Great War which, two years earlier, had provided shells for the Battle of the Somme.
“They were ‘Canary Girls’,” said Betty, nee Rice, of Manor Road, Chellaston.
“That’s what they called the girls who worked at the munitions factory because the chemicals used there turned their skin yellow and their hair green.”
Betty said her mother and aunt would work their 12-hour shift and then complete the return journey to their home, getting back at about 8pm.
“Quite a few of the factory workers came from Derby,” said Betty’s husband, Les.
Both sisters were at work on July 1, 1918, when a massive explosion ripped through the factory, killing 134 people with more than 250 others injured.
The tragedy remains the largest number of deaths caused by a single explosion in Britain.
“My mum and my aunt were both blown through the roof of the part of the factory where they were working by the explosion,” said Betty. “But they both survived.”
Betty said her mum died when she was 92 and used to talk about her time at the factory.
“A lad of 14 applied for a job at the factory on the day of the explosion but was turned down in the morning,” said Betty.
“At lunchtime, he was contacted by the factory and told he could start, and he was killed that same day.”
Betty said her mum was given a medal after the tragedy which had been passed down through the family.