National Shell Filling Factory  

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, 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.

Twenty-five 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.

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.

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. Rebuilding of the plant began immediately and full production was achieved just a month later, when workers actually broke their weekly output record.

The National Shell Filling Factory 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.

Learn more about events planned to commemorate the disaster: