Before building started for a secret munitions factory at Langwith in September 1915, the area was already home to Langwith Colliery owned by the Sheepbridge Coal & Iron Company and the Langwith By-Product Plant. With these places of industry already in existence, it is easy to see how disputes could arise with the War Department’s decision to build a munitions factory. The reason for the location was because of the By-Product plant that produced the gas the factory would need for the chemicals produced for the sea mines used during the First World War, as well as its closeness to the London, Midland and Scottish Railway that already served these neighbouring industries.
It was the coal mining industry in the local area that had first established a need for the railway. Following the construction of the factory, it was used to take workers on special trains to the new factory. This was another source of contention with the local industries who saw the factory as a means of taking away their workforce. It had around 800-1100 staff working there and many travelled in, some from as far away as Kirkby-in-Ashfield. The workers were paid on average £3 a week, a lot more than other industries were offering. With these types of wages, many women sought munitions work as a means to improve their own standard of living and it was seen as an acceptable way for working class women to do war work in a way that they were usually excluded from participating in.
The By-Product Plant was given £1145, around £67,500 in today’s money, to purchase the neighbouring 27 acre plot of land on behalf of the War Department from the Earl Bathurst, with the excuse of helping the war effort. Of course the company was less than happy about a rival moving in next door, especially when they had little choice in the matter. Once building started it caused a lot of disruption for the By-Product plant as it went way beyond the deadline of being running by February 1916. The skilled workforce need to build the chemical baths needed for production couldn’t be found. Instead local women and 150 soldiers had to be trained for this. Production eventually started in October 1916 but there were still problems with the chemical process, meaning output was only running at the target levels from June 1917. With the full capacity up and running, the factory produced 2,173 tons of ammonium perchlorate between June 1917 and December 1918.
The local mining industry did somewhat influence life at the munitions factory. It took the example of events and housing provided by local colliery companies but not in quite the same generous ways. Dances open to all locals were provided in the onsite restrooms and housing was built, but only given to the management and chemists working on the site.
After the end of the war, the site gradually reduced production and staff levels until its eventual closure came in 1922. Little was known of the factory’s existence after that, let alone the friction it caused with the Sheepbridge Company, as all workers were forced to abide by the Official Secrets Act. Photographs of the site during its construction were also under this and were not made available at the National Archives until the 1960s or even later. With the closure of the munitions factory, its main source of income, the By-Product Plant decided to cease production and after its closure in 1927, the land was sold to the Sheepbridge Company to expand their workings at Langwith Colliery. It was thought the land was not worth building on and was turned into a tipping site. The building of the former munitions factory was demolished so that the land could be let to a Mr C. Glough to build a smaller factory.
The site of the former munitions factory and neighbouring By-Product Plant is now part of the Poulter Country Park. The people who died in the two serious accidents there are still remembered and one lady in particular, Cicely Eady, has an inscription on her grave stating she “gave her life for her country”.
Jenkins, D. E., Sheepbridge: A History of the Sheepbridge Coal & Iron Company (Old Whittington: Bannister Publications Ltd, 1995)
‘Langwith Munitions Factory’, https://livesofthefirstworldwar.iwm.org.uk/community/3966
Warrener, T., A History of Langwith, Nether Langwith and Whaley Thorns (Langwith: Design and Print Services, 2008)
Woollacott, A., On Her Lives Depend: Munitions Workers in the Great War (California: University of California Press, 1994)