Banbury shell filling factory played vital role during First World War

MHBG-19-04-12-Horace Lester'Horace Lester who worked at The National Filling Factory
MHBG-19-04-12-Horace Lester'Horace Lester who worked at The National Filling Factory

INDUSTRIAL aspects of archaeology can assume importance both in and on the fringe of towns. This is true of a site close to the M40 and exit 11 (Banbury) that has been identified by developer Barwood as an appropriate location for the erection of industrial/distribution buildings.

At a recent meeting of the Cherwell District Council planning committee the final decision about this proposal was deferred because of land disturbance commensurate with previous existence of a part of National Filling Factory No.9, which played a vital role in the First World War.

Production of filled shells began in April 1916 and at the height of the war gave employment to 933 men and 548 women. The particular significance of these works was revealed by local historian Ernie Lester when he wrote a substantial article for the Banbury Guardian issue of January 13, 1983. In this he reproduced recollections of working lives gleaned from records kept by his father Horace Lester who worked under manager Capt H.W. Snowball.

Because of the nature of the work, this industrial establishment was positioned well away from the town and in the fields beyond the Bowling Green Inn on Grimsbury’s Overthorpe Road. It had good connections with the LNER railway which went eastward out of Banbury’s Merton Street Station.

It is hardly surprising that remains have survived as such a works had to incorporate blast proof walls, concrete foundations and mounds to prevent the spread of fire. Down the years contamination has been suspected from time to time, whilst another perceived hazard was buried shells.

Ernie Lester relates a delightful story about a Mrs Elkington who regularly handled shells as part of her job at the factory and could never eliminate from her mind instructions concerning safety measures. Her fear of explosion was so great that when one day she dropped an especially large shell the poor lady fainted. Contrary to her fears the factory did not go up in flames. According to another employee, John Powell of Easington, rejected shells were removed from the site and disposed of elsewhere.

Despite the obvious risks, the reports by Horace Lester suggest that employees worked very much in harmony. One shift would partly fill shells ready for their successors to complete the job.

Throughout their work there was always the risk of skin discolouration, hence the title ‘canaries’ given to the female workers. Ernie quotes a remark by his father to the effect that ‘he was not really proud of having produced mustard gas to harm other human beings.’

In a then confidential memorandum sent to Horace Lester on May 18, 1917, Captain Snowball makes the suggestion that, after the war, the factory might be used for another manufacturing purpose. He requests that discussions should take place with Lester’s subordinates and coupled with this a sense of urgency. Clearly Snowball believed that the factory’s location and infrastructure were such as to merit some kind of industrial presence.

In the event the factory closed in 1924 but well before then employment levels had dropped. By 1919 they were down to 100 men and 72 women.

A gradual stripping down of plant and machinery took place in the years leading up to the Second World War. Some bombs dropped behind the Bowling Green in 1940 led to speculation that Germany had become suspicious that the National Filling Station was active once more. However the land was no more than a training area for Army and Home Guard.

In the context of Banbury’s history this makes this particular site of more than usual interest. Already known about are features relating to water supply. In mediaeval times towns experienced changes which were part of the search for economic success.

At the same time legacies in the shape of spaces and buildings were not lost. Post cattle market Banbury needs to establish new key locations for employment and skills.

If at the same time we can record a past landscape then this will help to retain our town’s Banburyness.