Material memories

About 1.5km from where I live, an area marked only by undulating ground and a few lumps of brick and concrete is the site of the No.1 National Filling Factory, Barnbow. Here, during WW1, some 16,000 workers, mostly women, filled artillery shells with explosives in a huge complex of huts, workshops, railway sidings and underground stores. Here, too, in 1916, 35 women were killed, and many others maimed, when Hut 42 exploded.

Now only a few walkers and runners visit the site, following a maze of footpaths that snake amongst untidy woodland and scrub. It is one of my favourite running routes. Being an archaeologist means that I always run of walk with my eyes on the ground. One of the footpaths leaves the area on its north side, striking out across a field towards another, much older site, that of long-vanished Barnbow House. It was beside this path, just outside what, according to a map of the Factory, would have been its northern boundary fence, I noticed, a couple of days ago, some potsherds in the plough soil.

The sherds are a fascinating and melancholy mix of decorated domestic pottery and a rather sinister vessel bearing a National Filling Factory logo and featuring the MoD “Broad Arrow”. Did the women bring their own mugs with them to work? I think they had to provide their own food, though there was a canteen for tea and presumably other beverages. Milk and barley water was provided to counteract the skin-yellowing effects of working with cordite (the women were nick0named “Barnbow Canaries”).

Sherds from plough soil just north of the site of Barnbow munitions works

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