Olive Yeates

Timelines: Ribbon of Remembrance Olive Yeates

Olive was born on the 29th August 1899 in Harrogate. The 1911 census shows Olive living at home with parents George and Miriam, and baby brother George (aged 1). Other than she would gain employment at Barnbow Munitions Factory little is known of her life.

Barnbow Munitions Factory, at Crossgates Leeds, was one of the new purpose built munitions factories to meet the demand for shells and ammunition. The factory was operational by December 1915, so it would have probably been around that time or shortly after that Olive started work there. It was a huge complex and at peak output was employing about 16,000 workers. The local train station was extended and would bring in workers from the surrounding towns and villages. It even had a farm producing 300 gallons of milk per day, with employees receiving a free daily milk ration.

Munitions work was dangerous. Barnbow ran 3 shifts a day and involved hard manual work involving the use of heavy machinery. Most of the workforce was women and young girls, attracted by the high wages on offer. Conditions at the factory were very hot, the raw materials toxic which would turn their skin and hair yellow in a short time. This led to the nickname ‘The Barnbow Canaries’. The uniforms offered inadequate protection against the dust which could prove deadly if settling in the lungs, even though masks were provided.

Olive worked in Room 42, as one of about 170 workers, where the fully loaded shells were brought to have a fuse fitted and the cap tightened by machine. At 10.27 pm, shortly after the evening shift began on Tuesday 5th December 1916, a violent explosion occurred. Thirty five women and girls were killed outright, including Olive. Many were maimed.
The incident was heavily censored and the full details were not published until 1925. However, it highlights the dangers that women had to endure in supporting the war effort.

The site of the factory was given Heritage Protection status in honour of the women who gave their lives.

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