The Parish Church of St George the Martyr, Waterlooville

In May 1915 David Lloyd-George was appointed Minister of Munitions to deal with the shortage of shells which was badly affecting army operations on the Western Front. On 20 August he asked Godfrey Chetwynd 8th Viscount Chetwynd, who was a qualified civil engineer, to design and superintend a new arms factory at Chilwell in Nottinghamshire. Just over 4 months later on 8 January 1916 the factory was completed and most of the shells fired in the Battle of the Somme were produced there. By the end of the war over 19 million shells had been produced at the factory, some 50% of the entire U.K. output.

Unfortunately this came at a cost. On 1 July 1918 there was a tremendous explosion around 6pm just as the Night Shift was coming on duty. Some 8 tons of T.N.T. blew up killing 134 workers and injuring 250, the largest loss of life of civilians in the war. Only 32 of the bodies could be identified. All were buried in a mass grave in St Mary’s churchyard Attenborough, a nearby village. After the war in March 1919 the Duke of Portland dedicated a memorial at Chilwell consisting of a small obelisk on a massive pyramidical base on which the names of the dead were inscribed.

Lord Chetwynd was convinced the explosion was the result of sabotage and he even named a suspect. Scotland Yard detectives investigated but no charges were ever brought. It is now thought that it was in fact an accident caused by a piece of machinery falling into the mixer and generating a spark.

Several bravery awards were made and the Works Manager Lt Arthur Henry Bristowe was awarded the Edward Medal and there was a campaign to award the factory the Victoria Cross in recognition of the bravery of the work force. Amazingly partial production resumed only 4 days later after the funerals at Attenborough. Just six months later the war was over and the factory was closed. Because of war time censorship little was reported in the press at the time and this tragic incident is hardly remembered today outside the Chilwell area and even fewer know of the mass grave in Attenborough churchyard.

John Symonds

Winter and Lent Edition 2015

The Chilwell Factory Memorial, Nottinghamshire