The story of the Harrogate teenage girl killed in the Barnbow munitions explosion

The Barnbow lasses at the munitions factory, near Leeds.
The Barnbow lasses at the munitions factory, near Leeds.

The name of a Harrogate teenage girl, who was killed in a munitions factory explosion in 1916, is immortalised alongside hundreds of others on Harrogate’s War memorial.

Olive Yeates was just 17-years-old when she started the evening shift at Barnbow Shell Factory near Leeds.

Born in Harrogate in 1899 to George and Miriam Yeates, Olive lived with her parents on Unity Grove before the War broke out in 1914.

Almost overnight, there became an urgent need to mass produce bullets, shells and other types of ammunition, but the existing factories around the UK were struggling to meet demand.

The Government commissioned brand new purpose-built munitions factories, including Barnbow, at Crossgates, Leeds.

The 200-acre site was operational by December 1915, boasting its own power lines and water supply and even its own farm, which reportedly produced some 300 gallons of milk a day.

New railway lines and longer platforms were built at the local train station to bring in workers from Leeds, Harrogate, York, Wakefield and other small villages.

With the men away at war, women and girls, were drawn to work at Barnbow by the high wages on offer, but the job was not without serious dangers.

Operating heavy machinery and handling unstable chemicals, Barnbow workers adhered to a strict dress code to limit the chance of explosions.

But the uniform couldn’t stop the toxic raw materials from causing workers’ skin and hair to turn yellow in a short time, giving rise to their nickname; ‘the Barnbow Canaries’.

And even with the best diligence, fatal incidents could not be avoided.

On December 15, 1916, Olive Yeates started the night shift in room 42 at Barnbow, with some 170 other workers.

In room 42 fully loaded shells were brought to have a fuse added by hand and the shell cap tightened by machine.

But shortly after the night shift had begun, a violent explosion was set off, killing 35 employees including 17-year-old Olive.

Many others were left with life-changing injuries but despite the devastation, production only stopped for a short while.

Bound by censorship rules at the time, the Yorkshire Evening Post was unable to report the full details of the incident and it wasn’t until 1925 that the full story behind the explosion was revealed.