In August 1915 the war had raged more than a year with little progress and few were prepared for the volumes of explosives used in France and Belgium. Lord Chetwynd, a successful businessman, was asked by the Government, to rapidly, regardless of cost, set up a large shell filling factory. Chilwell could provide the transport and resources required including many women previously working in the local textile factories.
Within one year of starting to build the factory, 1,260,000 shells were filled and, by the end of the war in 1918, 19,359,000 shells weighing 1,100,000 tons had been filled using 121,360 tons of explosive – 51% of the high-explosive shells produced in Great Britain.
Workers, mostly travelling to Attenborough by train, were well looked after with good wages, subsidised canteens and social events. However, the work was dangerous and exposure to explosives meant many workers’ skin turned yellow and so were called “Chilwell Canaries”.
A substantial part of the Factory was destroyed in UK’s biggest civilian explosion on 1 July 1918 when 8 tons of explosive went up. Around 140 men, women and teenage children
were killed, only 32 were positively identified, and 250 injured. The factory returned to work next day, and within a month achieved its highest weekly production!
A memorial to the dead was unveiled 13 March 1919 at the factory – a small obelisk above a massive pyramidal base. The unidentified bodies are in a mass grave in St. Mary’s Church, Attenborough where, in July 1920, another memorial was dedicated which deteriorated and was replaced in 2018 by a new memorial incorporating a replica of the sword on the original memorial.
Many employees helped the injured and showed great bravery. The British Empire Order was awarded to 17 people including 18-yearold villager Alec Clarke who under danger and without orders turned steam valves off to prevent boiler explosions. Local resident George Safhill, a fireman at the Depot was granted a commendation which he carried around all his life.
A plaque on the south tower of the bridge commemorates the six station staff who lost their lives in the war.