A series of explosions in a Bradford munitions factory 100 years ago claimed 40 lives and seriously injured countless others, including men from Skipton. Lesley Tate looks at how the disaster was reported at the time in the Craven Herald, restricted like all other newspapers by what details it could include.

AN exhibition is currently taking place in Bradford to commemorate the centenary of a wartime explosion which claimed 40 lives, injured around a hundred and caused extensive damage to surrounding homes.

The explosion was at the Low Moor Munitions Company, but when it was reported in the Craven Herald - there being Skipton men involved - the site was not identified, it being in the second year of World War One, when the reporting of such incidents was restricted.

The Low Moor Munitions Company originally produced picric acid which was used to colour carpets, but it was also a product of high explosives. The factory was converted to the production of munitions at the start of the war and had been expanded to cope with demand. The first of the explosions - on August 21, 1916 - was heard all the way over in York, and further explosions killed five of the 15 firemen and one of three police officers who rushed to the scene from Bradford and Odsal. Two firemen from Skipton were amongst the first on the scene, and were seriously injured, while a third was also in attendance, but escaped unhurt.

The Herald reported questions were raised in Parliament as to why the location of the factory had not been revealed, to which the answer by Dr Christopher Addison, the then Minister for Munitions, replied it was not desirable to identify the place, there being at the time, some 20 bodies that had been recovered, and the cause of the explosion yet to be confirmed.

Reporting on the explosion, four days after it had happened, on August 21, 1916, the Herald said the loss of life had been serious and that assistance had been rendered from surrounding towns. A report from the Press Bureau described how the explosion had begun with a fire outside one of the smaller magazines, which had then spread. Loss of life had not been as great as it could have been, the initial explosions warning those in the factory to evacuate. The Press Bureau said the munitions works had nevertheless been almost practically destroyed and that a quantity of rolling stock, in the nearby railway sidings, had also been destroyed by fire. In addition, many nearby houses had suffered their windows being blown out, but had escaped structural damage.

In Craven, news of the explosion was met with widespread alarm, particularly in Skipton when it became known three men from the town were members of the city fire brigade first called out to the disaster. Two, William Anslow, of Raikes Road, and Harry Blakey, of Keighley Road, were both seriously injured, while a third, George Metcalfe, of Brougham Street, escaped unhurt.

22 year old Anslow, was formerly an engine cleaner with the Midland Railway, and had served at the Front with the Duke of Wellington's Regiment. As a 'time expired' man, he had returned home and had been working on the railway for a short time before becoming a fireman with the city brigade - so named by the Herald, which was keen not to identify

Anslow was on the second fire engine to arrive at the scene and was almost immediately stunned by an explosion and thrown to the ground. He had been on the ground, unconscious, for some time when he was found by a search party. Anslow, it was reported was suffering from shock and had suffered severe burns to his face and hands, apparently caused by smouldering debris. He was taken to hospital where he was visited the next day by his parents, who reported him making good progress towards recovery. Blakey had been a fireman at a mill in Skipton and a Skipton fireman before joining the city fire brigade. As a reserve fireman, he was on the second fire engine to arrive at the scene, and was taken to hospital with gas poisoning. He had also temporarily lost the use of both his feet. The third Skipton man, Metcalfe, had luckily escaped injury. He had joined the city fire brigade at the same time as Anslow, and like him, was a time-expired Territorial, waiting to be re-called into service.

The fire from the explosions spread to the nearby gas works where the gasometer exploded. Explosions continued for the rest of the day and the whole fire took three days to put out.

The explosions and subsequent fires completely destroyed the factory and the gas works and a neighbouring factory was badly damaged. Around 50 homes had to be demolished and a further 2,000 were damaged, three schools also had to close. Train lines were damaged, 30 railway carriages were destroyed and a further 100 were damaged.

Although details of the disaster were not reported fully in the newspapers at the time, through word of mouth, thousands attended the funeral procession to thank the firefighters who helped and to pay their respect to those who died.

An exhibition commemorating the centenary opened at Bradford City Hall last month and will run until September 8. A service was also held in Bradford to mark the centenary, when all 40 victims were remembered with the re-dedication of a plaque on the statue of a fireman at West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue's headquarters in Birkenshaw.

It contains nine of the medals awarded by Bradford Council on behalf of the city, to the brave firefighters who attended the incident as well as the manager of the company, who led the works fire brigade but died as a result of the explosion. Also on display are items from the “Hayhurst” fire appliance which was destroyed in the incident and photographs.

Lord Mayor of Bradford, Coun Geoff Reid, said: “This is a fascinating exhibition commemorating the bravery of those firemen who put their lives on the line 100 years ago as do firefighters today. This tragedy is an event in Bradford’s history which should not be forgotten.”

Chief Fire Officer Simon Pilling said: “We have created this centenary exhibition in tribute to the firemen who so tragically lost their lives in the line of duty 100 years ago.

“Their bravery was in the true honour of Fire Service tradition and their names live on as we remember the ultimate sacrifice they made that fateful day in their bid to save others.”

Anyone interested in seeing the exhibition can go to Bradford City Hall reception or take part in the Sneaky Peeks Tours of City Hall on Wednesdays, from 2pm to 4pm until 7 September 7, and on Thursdays, from 1pm to 3pm until September 8.