In 1937 a new factory opened in Lower Darwen, Blackburn, to manufacture fuzes for the war effort. The factory employed 5000 workers at the height of the Second World War and sprawled over a massive site. The workforce was predominantly female, with a ratio of 3 men to every 200 women employed there. The factory was camouflaged from the air, but the Luftwaffe were aware of its existence but decided not to bomb it.
The workers were employed on two twelve hour long shift, seven days a week. Unsurprisingly, the workers whole lives revolved around the factory and recreational facilities were provided to keep the workforce happy. Competitions between factory workers were always popular, often with a trophy awarded to the winner such as this one:
The factory remained in use long after the Second World War, but the style of engraving on this trophy makes me think it is wartime in date. The cup is inscribed “Royal Ordnance Factory Blackburn Chrysanthemum Trophy”:
Mabel Dutton worked at another Ordnance Factory and describes the experience:
I started work at Risley Royal Ordnance Factory at near Warrington when I was 19 years old. I was told I had to go to work on Group One. That group was nicknamed the Suicide Group on account of the many workers who had been blown up, killed, maimed or blinded. I didn’t know it at the time but I would be working with highly explosive gunpowder for making detonators. On the first day, 12 of us from all over the place had to go into admin to be issued with a book of rules. There were three working shifts – Mornings; Afternoons and Nights.
Eleven went to Group Five Powder but I had to wait for a guide to take me to Group One.. It was then I noticed that she only had one hand and a finger missing off the other hand. I asked her what had happened and she made up some story or other. I later found out that she had had them blown off when she went to work on Group One.
I had to start on the afternoon shift which was 2 until 10 pm. I caught the bus from the Punch Bowl at Atherton to Leigh and then another bus from Union Street to Risley. Then we went on rickety wooden ones we called cattle trucks for about a mile to Group One. Outside, we had to leave our coats, shoes, bags, money, hairclips and anything metal in the Contraband Place and change into any old worn shoes, overalls and white turbans. I had bags, money, make-up, photographs and purse stolen many times. Even my own shoes.
On my first afternoon there, I was put in the Experimental Shop where we had to test the powder by weighing them on brass scales and sealing detonators one at a time. We had to wear goggles and leather gauntlets. One day I was given a red box to carry with one person in front and behind carrying red flags walking along the clearways, taking them to be stored in magazines to be used later.
I didn’t know what I was carrying .There was a massive explosion and I dropped the box and was shocked to see a young woman thrown through a window with her stomach hanging out. Luckily the box, which contained detonators, did not explode or we would have had our legs blown off. I was sickened. When I got home, I said to my sisters Alice and Phyllis, who had been waiting to see how I had fared : “I’m not going back there again”. They laughed at me because they knew I had to go again.
The next day I asked someone what detonators were like. They must have thought I was stupid because someone said: “Those are what you are making now.” I nearly fainted.
We had a nice canteen with good food but the cups they served the tea in were usually cracked. We pushed them off the table to break them and get new ones.
Sometimes, German planes came over dropping incendiary bombs and flares to light up the sky for the bomber planes. I had the job of banging on a big triangle to warn everyone to go into the shelter, then follow them in afterwards.
There were always sheep in the shelters from the fields around the works. In the dark, it wasn’t uncommon to sit on a sheep’s back and when they ran off, I often found myself covered in sheep muck.
I remember two Irish girls who worked with us came dashing in one night very upset and saying that they had seen two banshees on top of the workshop further down. We came in the night after and that shop had been blown up and a man from Car Bank Street in my home town had been killed and others had been injured.
There was also a ghost of a Madam Wetherby who had been murdered at Oakwood and she had been seen many times walking over the bridge from Group One – Five North.
One of the workers went a bit funny and fixed detonators under the toilet seats. Good job we had been told to lift them up with our feet and not sit on them.
On a lighter note, we had Max Factor officials from Hollywood with new pancake makeup and lipstick telling us how to use it. It was all free and we were glad of it because we could only normally get face-cream and lipstick now and again.
When we worked nights, some of us had a job to keep awake and someone gave us some pills that the RAF took to keep them awake on bombing missions. I had one and it kept me awake for days afterwards. I kept watch while the others had a nap.
There were Danger Building Inspectors who came round now and again to make sure we were wearing our goggles and we were warned of their approach by workers from other shops who used to whistle a certain tune.
We were issued with new uniforms – white trousers and a coat with a mandarin collar and buttoned down front. We all had to wear caps or turbans.
In the canteen we had concerts at lunchtime with artists from ENSA and sometimes the bosses would dress up and join in. If there was an explosion in the magazine or shops, we all had to go to the canteen for cups of tea and two cigarettes which we had to pay for. The other girls used to argue over my two cigarettes as up to then I didn’t smoke. One day, a young girl came into our shop to sharpen a pencil and she had just gone back when there was such a bang. Everyone ran to see what it was except me. She had walked in through the door when the explosion occurred. She put her hands on the wall. One of them dropped off along with the fingers of the other hand. She was also blinded. As they wheeled her past on a stretcher, her naturally curly auburn hair was white and straight. Seeing how shocked I was, the group nurse lit a cigarette and made me smoke it, supposedly to calm my nerves. She did the same the following day after another accident. It was the start of a lifelong habit.