News black out on devastating explosion

One hundred years ago this week 10 people were killed by a fire at munitions factory in Lancashire. But the tragedy remained unreported for almost two years as wartime censors banned details of the White Lund explosion being made public. Luke Antipas reports

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 28th September 2017, 3:12 pm
Updated Wednesday, 4th October 2017, 3:24 pm
Collecting explosives for shells from the stores at White Lund
Collecting explosives for shells from the stores at White Lund

The sound of explosions could be heard up to 40 miles away as fire engulfed the sprawling munitions factory on the edge of Morecambe.

Flames ripped through the building and the disaster claimed 10 lives, including four firefighters dispatched to the scene on the evening of October 1, 1917.

But just one vague line in the following day’s Lancashire Post recorded the devastating blaze with no mention of the lives lost or even the scene of the tragedy.

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First report of the White Lund munitions disaster in the Lancashire Post of January 25, 1919

It simply stated: “The Ministry of Munitions announces that a serious fire and an explosion has occurred at a munitions factory in the North of England. Much damage has been caused to the factory.”

It was not until January 1919 that further information regarding the disaster, including the gallantry awards handed out, started to be appear in the nation’s newspapers.

Such were the restrictions of publishing at the time even the coroner’s inquest, conducted by Neville Holden and Colonel HD Wilson, was prevented from being published.

Firth Dole, 32, James Inglesent, 38, Thomas Beck, 39, John Crowther, 37, Frederick Leslie, 38, Henry Taylor, 26, William Topping, 27, Ernest Duester, 26, and Herbert Peterell, 26, were nine of the fatalities along with one man who could not be identified.

White Lund blaze heroes Thomas Coppard, Thomas Kew and Abraham Graham

The complex, now part of a large business estate, covered 400 acres consisting of 150 buildings, many with armour plated walls designed to deflect explosions upwards, and employed in excess of 3,000 staff, more than two-thirds of them women.

Following the incident, the workers were paid their week’s wages, along with an extra fortnight’s worth as they would be inevitably be without work for the foreseeable future.

Opening in 1916, The White Lund Munitions factory, officially known as National Filling Factory 13, played an instrumental part in supplying troops on the Western Front.

King George V and Queen Mary visited the factory in Morecambe, and its partner factory on Caton Road, Lancaster, in May 1916 to show their appreciation of the effort made by the men and women working at these plants to assist in the war efforts.

A power house which survived the explosion at White Lund, Morecambe, in 1917

Shells were manufactured at Caton Road then transported to White Lund where they would be filled with a mixture of TNT and ammonium nitrate.

At around 10.30pm on October 1, 1917, the deafening sound of the factory’s fire alarm flooded the canteen where most of the staff were on their break, a potential reason as to why the death toll was not as high as it could have been as the canteen was situated away from the production line.

It was only 15 minutes before the first explosion in a factory containing more than 20,000 shells at the time, and over the course of the next 36 hours, each and everyone of them would explode, either on their own or in large, devastating clusters.

The largest of the blasts was heard at around 3am as far as Burnley, more than 40 miles away from the factory.

First report of the White Lund munitions disaster in the Lancashire Post of January 25, 1919

A total of 20 fire brigades from across Lancashire were summoned to help tackle the inferno, including squads from Preston, Bolton, Blackpool and Kendal.

Red hot shrapnel was fired across the area, with residents reporting chunks landing in Quernmore and Scotforth, more than seven miles away; while windows were smashed by falling metal as far away as Lancaster.

Thomas Kew, railwayman at the factory, will always be remembered for his heroism on the fateful night, having probably saved the lives of hundreds, if not thousands.

Off duty and at home eating supper after a trip to the cinema, Kew heard an explosion which he, unlike many others, ran towards, facing a barrage of flames and flying shrapnel in the process.

He and his shunter, Abraham Graham, were responsible for shifting around 50 train carriages filled with both empty and filled shells away from danger which, if exposed to fire or extreme heat, could have exploded with catastrophic proportions.

Kew and Graham were not finished there, though, and proceeded to enter the burning building to contribute to fighting the flames, putting out a fire in an engine shed, remains of which can be found on the site today.

White Lund blaze heroes Thomas Coppard, Thomas Kew and Abraham Graham

The pair spent three days at the scene working closely with police and fire brigade to do all they could in helping those injured.

For their outstanding acts of bravery and selflessness, undoubtedly saving numerous lives, Kew and Graham were awarded the Edward Medal in silver, the rarest civilian gallantry medal awarded in England.

Said to be rarer than the Victoria Cross, only 25 Edward Medals in silver were awarded, four to people involved with the life-saving efforts of the White Lund disaster, including to Kew and Graham.

One of the medals was also presented to Thomas Tattersall, the firefighter who discovered the first juncture of flames, as well as molten TNT running down walls, which eventually exploded in a huge fireball, hurling him from the building in a blast which knocked plates from dressers in Sandylands three miles away and yet, remarkably, he survived.

Sergeant Thomas Coppard, the police officer overseeing the rescue attempts, received the fourth honour awarded after this disaster and his medal is on display at the Lancaster City Museum.

The honours for the efforts of those trying to courageously mitigate the damage did not stop there, as eight King’s Police Medals were awarded to the officers involved.

In 1953, Thomas Kew was awarded two tickets to witness the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, a heart-warming sign that the then 73-year old’s actions would forever be appreciated and remembered.

The cause of the blast, to this day, remains unknown, with several theories and perspectives put forward from different parties.

The police, following several investigations without any concrete success, theorise that it was ‘almost certainly’ a discarded cigarette or match which triggered the fire, but nobody was held to account for such a careless act.

Staff were searched on a daily basis to ensure they did not bring any items on to the premises which could potentially start a fire, including matches or firelighters, and were prosecuted if they were caught doing so, working in such a volatile environment.

Some suspected the incident was down to espionage, that it was blown up by German spies, or even that the blast was the result of an attack from a German Zeppelin, but both carried little credibility.

This disaster at White Lund was not a one-off; a similar but much worse incident occurred at National Filling Factory 6 in Chilwell, Nottinghamshire.

This explosion, also kept secret due to wartime restrictions, killed 134 people injuring several hundred more, with a large quantity of the dead being buried in a mass grave in Attenborough, Nottinghamshire, due to the fact they were unidentifiable.

White Lund itself suffered another explosion in 1920 which took the lives of 10 workers, this incident was put down as an accident and the cause was never established.

The legacy of the old munitions factory is still felt today, with First World War shells still occasionally found in White Lund, a poignant reminder of what once lay there.

A power house which survived the explosion at White Lund, Morecambe, in 1917