Munitions Production In Leeds

Over the past two months I have been researching the March 1918 strike of engineers in the Leeds Shell Factories at Armley, Holbeck and Newlay. All the strikers were members of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE), the strike highlights what was happening to industrial relations and trade unionism in the Great War period. Whilst looking at this event I have found a number of interesting documents and records which have shone a light on Leeds during this period and particularly the city’s and its people’s role in the supply of munitions.

The picture of the Shell Bond at Newlay is from The Record of the National Ordnance Factories in Leeds 1915-18 by RH Archibald and the text is from The History Of The Ministry Of Munitions (Volume VIII Ch IV) which were published after the war.

Part two will look at the strike, its origin and its context, Part three will look at the individuals involved.


The National Shell Factory dates its existence from pre-Ministry [of Munitions] days, and to Leeds belongs the honour of having provided the archetype.

In the spring of 1915, in response to the need for further methods for increasing munitions output, various local Munitions Committees had organised themselves throughout the country. They represented in the main the smaller engineering firms, many of whom had acted as sub-contractors to the armament firms, but were not themselves equipped for making complete shell. The earliest method of employing the resources of these committees was to form a co-operative group of firms, each of whom could undertake certain processes resulting ultimately in the assembling of the complete shell.

In April, 1915, it was arranged that the Leeds Munitions Committee (who had a co-operative scheme under consideration) should visit Woolwich to see processes.

“They returned unanimously of the opinion that, in view of the difficulties as to machine tools, supervision, inspection and control the best method in a district was to select a suitable factory and concentrate tools, workmen, supervision, and inspection under one management on a non-profit basis, and while the factory was being equipped to send the management, together with selected skilled workmen to a properly organised ammunition factory for instruction. “


This idea of a national factory largely obviated the main weakness of a co-operative scheme, namely the difficulty of providing competent supervision and inspection on an adequate scale, and was accordingly approved by the Armaments Output Committee. On 7 May a draft scheme for the Leeds factory was approved in general outline, and the formal sanction of the Government to a revised form was obtained on the following day.

Once approved, the Board entered into an agreement with the Ministry, following in all cases the same model—that which was drawn up in May, 1915, between the Leeds Board of Management and the Government. The position of a Board of Management under its agreement may be thus summed up:

  1. The Board was authorised to rent suitable premises at a rent approved by the Government, whose sanction was also to be obtained for the erection of any new buildings or extensions.
  2. The Board could equip the factory with machinery either by hire or purchase. Any purchase of new machinery was to be referred to the Government, who was to be the owner or lessor of all machinery in use at the factory.
  3. The Board was empowered to engage labour and appoint suitable engineering, administrative and secretarial staffs, and provide necessary staff accommodation. No salary in excess of £500 per annum was to be authorised without the prior approval of the Government.
  4. The Government was to place all necessary funds at the disposal of the Board, and an auditor to the factory was to be appointed by and responsible to the Government.
  5. The Board offered their voluntary services to the Government, from whom they would receive technical advice and supervision. No member would receive any remuneration or profit in his individual capacity, but out-of-pocket expenses would be borne by the Government.


The conditions under which Leeds, the first of the National Shell Factories, came into being, have been indicated above. Credit for the initiation of the scheme was largely due to the Leeds Forge Company, who furnished the first site and whose representatives were included on the Board of Management. Five national factories were eventual set up in Leeds to manufacture shell and components and were all administered locally by the Leeds Board of Management.

With regard to their administration from head quarters, until the end of 1917 they belonged technically to the class of National Projectile Factories. They were, however, considered as Board of Management schemes and remained attached to the Department of Area Organisation until August, 1916, when they were transferred to the section dealing with National Projectile Factories. In 1917 one of the factories (Hunslet) turned over to the repair and manufacture of 18-pdr. guns, and in order to avoid dual control all the factories were transferred to the administration of the Gun Manufacture Department, and were known as the National Ordnance Factories, Leeds, from September, 1917.

The local administration remained the same throughout the war, though in 1918 the Board of Management was known as the Board of Control.

Altogether, over 1.5 million shells were produced by the Leeds factories, the output of the principal types to the end of 1918 being as follows: 4-5-in., 144,000; 6-in., 992,200; 8-in., 13,800; 9-2-in., 431,300; 12-in., 6,600; 15-in., 7,300. Large quantities of components were also produced and other work undertaken included the manufacture of 2-pdr. shell, 6-in. shrapnel shell, and mine sinker parts and the rectification of unfired shell and of shell recovered from the sea after proof at Shoeburyness.

The history of the individual factories was as follows:


This factory was the earliest to be established, the agreement between the Board of Management and the Ministry of Munitions being dated 20 March 1915. New buildings intended for railway carriage shops were rented from the Leeds Forge Company, whose officials worked the factory under the general control of the Leeds Board of Management. Additional buildings were erected by the Ministry at a cost of £47,000.

The original offer of the Board was to manufacture 20,000 18 pdr. shells weekly, working up to 40,000, but they were almost immediately instructed to turn over to 4.5 in. shells and steps were also taken in July to equip a 6 in. shop. In spite of their willingness, local firms were only able to contribute about 40 lathes to the original equipment of 250, as their machines were not suited to the type of shell. The output of 4.5 in. was intended to be 5,000 a week, but this was considerably exceeded.

Deliveries began in September, 1915, in November the promised rate was reached and by March, 1916, the weekly output was 10,000. Soon after this the plant was turned over to 6 in. on which the factory concentrated thenceforward. The original 6 in. shop was designed for 3,000, but in 1918 the total output averaged over 10,000 a week. The cost of the 6 in. shell was then £2.17s.l0d. and this represented a saving of £20,000 a month over the contract price of £3.6s.l0d.

A tool shop was established in connection with the factory. It supplied tools to all the Leeds factories and was extended in 1918 to include the manufacture of gauges.

After the factories were transferred to the Gun Manufacture Department the Armley Road Factory was known as National Ordnance Factory No.3. A certain amount of rifling of guns was done here until the end of 1917, when the work was transferred to Hunslet. Gun inspection was also carried out, and in 1918 one of three additional bays taken over from the Leeds Forge Company was allocated to the Inspector of Guns for the before and after proof inspection of guns tested at the Meanwood Range, which was under the control of the Leeds Board of Management.

There was no early difficulty as to labour, and a contingent of 40 or 50 men was sent to Messrs. Armstrong’s works at Newcastle to take three weeks instruction in shell and lathe work. In February, 1917, there were 1,471 men and 810 women employed in the factory and in October, 1918, the total number was 2,318, of whom 62 per cent, were women.

The capital expenditure on the factory to 31 March, 1918, amounted to £248,400.


Some time before 10 August, 1915, when Mr. Lloyd George interviewed the Leeds Board of Management, the Ministry had accepted their offer to erect a factory for the manufacture of 2,000 9.2 in. shells a week.

The site chosen was some seven miles from the Armley Factory, up the River Aire. The land was held under agreement with the Schoen Wheel Company, and all the buildings were erected by the Ministry, at a total cost of £78,000. The factory was controlled by the Leeds Forge Company.

First deliveries were promised by the close of March, 1916, but were delayed, the first shell being produced in April. At the beginning of 1917 an output of 2,750 shell per week was attained and during 1918 it averaged between 3 and 4,000. The factory was also equipped later for the production of 15-in. shell and in February, 1917, was turning out about 300 of this nature a week. The cost of producing 9.2 inch shells at the beginning of 1917 was £8.15s.11d., compared with the contract price of £10 17s. 6d. and of 15-in. shell £38 2s. 9d. as opposed to £40.

On the change of administration at the end of 1917, this factory became known as National Ordnance Factory No.1.  At the beginning of 1917, the factory employed 1,307 men and 639 women. In October, 1918, the total number was 1,792 women, being 50.4 per cent, of the whole. The capital expenditure to 31 March, 1918, was £230,600.


In 1916 the Leeds Board of Management established a further factory for the intended manufacture of 200 15 in. and 2,000 9.2 in. shells a week. Derelict premises at Goodman Street Works [previously occupied by Tannett & Walker] were taken over for the purpose under the Defence of the Realm Act, a rent of £582 per annum being paid for them.

The first 9.2 inch shell was produced at the end of August, 1916, and the first 15-in. a fortnight later, but the factory had hardly reached its maximum output early in 1917 when it was instructed to turn over to the relining and rifling of 18pdr. Guns.

Shell manufacture gradually ceased, though rectification of shells continued until the middle of 1918. The first repaired gun was produced in August, 1917, and a few months later the manufacture of 18 pdr. guns Mark II began, the ultimate capacity being 150 repaired and 200 new guns a month. The factory, which was known as National Ordnance Factory, No. 2, undertook the 18 pdr. Mark IV gun in 1918, and other work done included the rifling of 60 pdr. guns and of 6 in., 8 in. and 9.2 in. howitzers and the manufacture of 18 pdr. recuperators and 6-in. and 8-in. recuperator liners. At the time of the Armistice a new carriage erection shop, to deal with 18-pdrs. Mark III, was in the process of construction.

In February, 1917, before the change to gun work, the number of men employed in the factory was 1,563 and of women 960. The total numbers in October, 1918, were 1,750, of whom 397 (22.7 per cent.) were women.

 In March, 1918, output was delayed by a strike which began at Hunslet and spread to the other factories, involving practically all the workers and lasting for some days. The immediate cause was the dismissal of four men who had refused to carry out a foreman’s orders, but there had been labour trouble for some time, particularly at Newlay, owing to a prospective alteration in bonus.

The total capital expenditure on the factory to March, 1918, including the cost of converting plant to gun work, was £274,400.


Early in 1916 the Leeds Board of Management took over a factory for the manufacture of the No. 106 fuse from the Leeds Munition Company and transferred the work to premises adjacent to the Armley Road Factory, which were part of the works of Messrs. Jonathan Hattersley & Sons, spindle manufacturers, and were rented from the firm. A gallery was added to the north side of the Leeds Forge Company’s works, and this was at first used for assembling and gauging fuses and other components made by sub-contractors, but later this gallery was removed and the work was transferred to buildings rented for the purpose in Wellington Street and Sweet Street.  In 1918 the Armley Road Fuse Factory was known as National Ordnance Factory No. 4, Wellington Street as No. 5 and Sweet Street as No. 6. By the middle of 1918 the output of fuses from the three shops had reached 100,000 a week. The Armley Road Factory also made steel hammer castings, the output being about 40,000 a week and other components dealt with included primers, gaines, exploder containers, fuse hole plugs, etc., while primers and cartridge cases were also repaired.

In February, 1917, the labour employed on fuse work was 106 men and 774 women, while in October, 1918, of 1,470 employees 86.2 per cent, were women. The capital expenditure on the fuse department to 31 March, 1918, amounted to: £26,400.


The Filling Factory at Barnbow, near Leeds, was the first of the four Q.F. filling and assembling factories to be initiated by the Ministry during the summer of 1915. Its erection and control were in the hands of a Directing Board. The members of the Board were Joseph Watson, Esq., The Hon. Rupert Beckett, A. G. Lupton, Esq., Bernal Bagshaw, Esq., and T. L. Taylor, Esq.

The factory was laid out on a site of 296 acres, a mile to the west of Garforth Station, on the Leeds and Selby branch of the North Eastern Railway, and 5 miles due east of Leeds. Transport facilities were thus easily available, and it was not found necessary to find local housing accommodation for the workers. The erection of the factory began on 13 September, 1915.

According to the original plans the maximum weekly output was expected to be 200 tons of B.L. cartridges, 70,000 rounds of 4.5 in, Q.F. ammunition and 160,000 rounds of 18-pdr. H.E. shrapnel filled and assembled, and 80,000 primers filled and completed. Some experimental work was done in December, 1915, and early in January a continuous output began with the making up of 60 pdr. cordite cartridges. The first shell were filled in April, 1916, with 80/20 amatol block charges. Early in the year it was decided to incorporate with No. 1 Filling Factory the amatol factory which had been planned for erection at Otley. A new unit was therefore laid out, with a capacity for incorporating and stemming into shell 300 tons weekly of 80/20 amatol and 150 tons of 40/60 amatol melt. Construction began on 8 March, and the first shells were filled in the new unit on 18 April, 1916. More than a year later, after the efficacy of the ” hot mixed ” method of filling had been proved, a fresh extension was built on to the melt house with the necessary equipment for this type of filling, and by August, 1918, the weekly output of filled shell from this unit had reached 50,000.

At the end of 1918 the total output of the factory since January, 1916, amounted to 9,062,800 18 pdr. H.E.; 332,300 18 pdr. Shrapnel; 6,600 60 pdr. H.E.; 184,400 60 pdr. Shrapnel; 13,308,600 4.5 in. H.E.; 1,675,000 6-in. howitzer H.E., or a total of 24,569,700 shells. In addition 36,150,000 B.L. cartridges were filled and some millions of minor components. In the spring of 1916, a box factory was established on the site, where gun ammunition boxes were both manufactured and repaired, after use, for further service. A useful piece of experimental work was carried out at the shell filling factory in the reclaiming of waste amatol. By means of a special apparatus for separating and remixing the ingredients, it was found possible to reclaim an average of 10 tons of T.N.T. and 40 tons of ammonium nitrate weekly. As a result of this success, similar plants were established in other factories.

The labour required for the factory was largely drawn from Leeds, but considerable numbers came from York, Wakefield, Harrogate and other towns, as well as from many of the villages within a radius of twenty miles. The Lancashire cotton mills also provided a certain number. In March, 1917, out of a total of 13,315 workers, 12,150 were women and 1,165 men; while in October, 1918, the total number was 8,234, and the percentage of women 86.6.

The factory was unfortunate in experiencing a serious explosion in December, 1916, when a 4.5 in. shell burst, when being fired by machine, and set off others near it. Thirty-five women lost their lives, and many were injured. Two other explosions of a less serious nature occurred, in which five lives were lost.

The capital expenditure of the factory to 31 March, 1918, amounted to £813,200. The cost of building and equipping the box factory was an additional £260.