Hayes Munitions Factory

t was about 1938 when my parents moved to Hayes and settled in North Hyde Road. In 1940 when I was five years old I started at Cranford Park Primary School in Phelps Way on the southern edge of the town. The school was then surrounded on its south and west sides by a very large unkept field that contained the concrete remains of many buildings.

These remains were in the form of concrete platforms about three feet high and each approximately the area of a tennis court, some square others oblong. They were well spaced apart with grass and brambles etc. between them. The whole area was literally open access from the school and despite it being the crisis years of WW2 we roamed freely across it. Many strange chemicals could be found there as well as such things as bullet cases and brass military cap badges.

In another area that resembled a dump, about three-quarters of a mile away from the school and near the canal we could dig up large chunks of yellow sulphur with which we made stink bombs. The field near the school with the remains of buildings became known to us as the “The Arsenal” as it was known to have been a “left over” from World War One and something to do with munitions.

In 1946, using the labour of German POWs, the area was built over with “prefabs" that have since been replaced by regular suburban houses. I continued to live in Hayes until 1966 and what went on in this area, to my knowledge, was never discussed or written about in the local press. Now living in Plymouth and retired, an email from an acquaintance in Southall contained a reference to an article about recent history in the area. That article referred to a WW1 Munitions Filling Factory that was built on a 200 acre site that encompassed the site of my old primary school and the fields and housing around it. I just had to find out more!

Munitions Filling Factory No. 7, Hayes Middlesex.

In 1915 WW1 was into its second year and already there was a critical shortage of shells and ammunition. To remedy this the government set up “The Ministry of Munitions” headed by Lloyd George and he immediately set about building a series of Munitions Factories including the one at Hayes Middlesex. Hayes was chosen because of its proximity to London, its transport links, the Great Western Railway, the Grand Junction Canal later known as the Grand Union Canal and two major roads leading to London, the Uxbridge road in the north and the Bath road in the south. The Factory site was on south-east corner of Hayes in an area that was then predominantly used for market gardening and fruit growing.

Hayes munitions factory

Area of Hayes Occupied by Factory
(Enclosed by red line)

The actual site was chosen on the 11th August 1915 by a Mr A. C. Blyth who later became the factory manager and by the 25th August the site had been surveyed and the contractors Higgs and Hill had started work on the railway sidings and factory buildings. By the 16th of October 20 buildings had been completed and another 87 were in various stages of construction. Thirty-five wagons of shell for filling were already being unloaded and the factory was regarded as being operational just 28 days after cutting the first sod. In fact the Hayes factory was congratulated on being the first National Filling Factory to start production. From that date on, construction, staff recruitment and training and production of filled shells went on hand in hand. One month later the factory had filled stencilled and packed 2,532, 18 pounder shells.

The Factory

By comparing the site plan with a modern day street plan, it can be seen that the site was bisected east - west by North Hyde Road. The area north of North Hyde Road now contains The Nestle´ Factory and all of the roads and other properties north and south of Nestles Avenue. To the south of North Hyde Road, everything between and encompassed by Cranford Drive and Roseville Road.

When complete the factory occupied 200 acres and consisted of 397 buildings, divided into five sections, surrounded by a corrugated iron perimeter fence that was nearly 5 miles long. The outer area of each section consisted mainly of stores that were located alongside railway tracks, the floor level of the stores was about four feet high the same level as a railway truck. They were regarded as dirty areas as they only handled the goods inward or finished munitions ready for dispatching. The inner areas of each section contained the many workshops, each about 75 feet from one another and standing on three feet high walls or columns. They were interconnected by raised wooden walkways on which ran narrow gauge railways. The workshops and interconnecting tracks were considered the clean areas and could only be accessed by passing through a “shifting houses” where all personnel changed into protective clothing and shoes. Once in the clean area it was only possible to move around on the ‘clean’ walkways or through workshops. Stepping off of a walkway onto the ground was regarded as a disciplinary offence.

West Section

Here 18-pdr shells were assembled also initially cartridge assembly was carried out but moved elsewhere after a while.

East Section

This section filled fuses, friction tubes and exploders and C.E. pellets were manufactured.

Cap and Detonator Section

This section had its own inner fence and its own guards at the entrances. Here Primer Caps and Detonators were made using highly explosive and relatively unstable mercury fulminate.

The Amatol Section.

These workshops were larger and more spaced apart and it is where shells were filled with Amatol. At first shells were hand filled by pouring in warm liquid Amatol, later machines were introduced that forced hot dry Amatol into the shells. Early on men did this work, but women took over as the war progressed. They filled 4.5inch to 12 inch shells and at the far end of the section, smaller workshops fitted the fuses and packed the shells ready for dispatch.

The Cartridge Section

Manufactured 4.5 to 9.2 inch also 6 and 10 pounder shell cartridges. In one working day, the combined day and night shifts of the factory could fill and manufacture 428,930 items.

At first all explosives needed were stored in the 5 magazines that were built amongst the orchards of the east Section. With the danger of aerial attack it was decided to build a bulk explosive store at Northolt. Twenty magazines were built on a secure 93 acre plot and each magazine could hold 100 tons of explosive. Road and rail links were made to the nearby road and Great Western and Great Central Railway. Daily deliveries of approximately 100 tons of explosive were made to the Hayes factory.

The drawing of the site shows the factory to be in open countryside, but by comparing the drawing with modern maps, I believe the magazine enclosure to have been sited in the urban area just south of Ruislip Manor station.

Both factories had security forces of approximately 200 men plus their own fire brigades. The Hayes factory also had its own Post Office and towards the end started growing crops in the spaces between workshops.

The workers

Initially there were many men on the staff, but these were soon mostly replaced by women, who as time went by took over more and more of the work initially thought to be men’s jobs. At its height the factory employed about 10,000 women mainly on shell production and about 2000 men mainly in supervisory, site maintenance and site security positions. The work that the women had to do was extremely dangerous and safety regulations and procedures were strictly enforced. The factory was divided into dirty and clean areas. General stores for goods inwards, where the empty shell cases etc arrived and stores where the finished filled shells were stored for shipment were regarded as dirty areas.

Workshops where the actual filling and most of the other procedures involved in producing the final shell took place were clean areas. Personnel working in these occupations had to change into protective clothing and shoes. Once in these clothes it was forbidden to step into a dirty area, such was the danger of explosion. Many of the materials they worked with were highly toxic and the women workers had a daily issue of milk to help combat the toxic effects of their working environment. The minimum age for a girl to work in the factory was 18 years, they were generally known as ‘munitionettes’ or ‘canaries’ as their skin turned a pale yellow through contact with sulphur.

Despite these precautions, in the entire life span of the factory, four women and one man were killed by explosions and four women died of toxic jaundice. The production workers worked a 9½ hour day and a 10 hour night. The three daily start times were 0630hrs, 0700hrs and 0730hrs, this was to avoid congestion on the transport infrastructure mainly the railway. Cycle sheds were also provided for the many workers who commuted by bike. Workers facilities included, changing rooms called ‘shifting rooms’, bathing facilities with plentiful supplies of hot water and canteens capable of feeding several hundred at a time. There was also a central medical centre with a resident doctor and a qualified dispenser, plus four other surgical facilities built in different sections of the factory.

The morale and spirit of the workforce was high, as was shown in March 1918 when the position on the Western Front was critical. The Army wanted more shells quickly, and in response there was no shortage of volunteers to work the Easter Holiday, some did so without pay.

The following ladies were awarded the O.B.E for their courage and devotion to duty.
Louisa Busby Gertrude Coles
Edna Goodenough Annie Holly
Alice Jackson Mabel Lethbridge
Violet Newman Annie Rose
Lily Smith Elsie Vincent

When the war ended in November 1918 the factory was rapidly decommissioned and by January 1919 there was only 1900 left, most of those left in the following weeks. Of the ladies mentioned above, Mabel Lethbridge wrote her autobiography “Fortune Grass” and in it she describes in some detail of her disastrous short stay at the factory. To get in she lied about her age which was just 17years at the time, a decision that led to her many later misfortunes.

She describes how the workers were recruited, processed, trained and assigned to their workshops. She was only there for three weeks before she was assigned to “Shed 22” in the Amatol section, where shells were filled with the highly explosive Amatol. She volunteered to work on a machine known to have been condemned as dangerous. On the day before new replacement machines were to be installed she was involved in an explosion in which she lost her left leg and had multiple other injuries. She recovered but had to leave her work at the factory and was later awarded the O.B.E.

Such was the financial compensation that she received as a result of lying about her age, that she spent several years in penury, but through hard work and determination managed to save enough money to start a small business.

The Principal officers of the factory were:
Managing director and Chief Engineer A.C.Blyth
Manager C.G. Langford
Accountant A.W. Greenwell
Engineer Heating Dept. S.G.Pepler
Mechanical Engineer H.Park
Electrical Engineer N.J.Wilson
Traffic Manager K. Goschen
Superintendent of Safety Services Major the Marquis De Bucy
Works Manager W.J.Gawn
Works Manager J.D. Pennington
Works Manager J. Cotton
Works Dept. W.R. Thomas
Superintendent of Motor Transport C.T. Dobson
Cashier W.B. Cheyney
Chief Draughtsman C.B.Alderson
Medical Officer Dr E. Christine Pillman
Superintendent Canteens Miss C. Cameron
Chief Lady Superintendent Miss E. G. Whitmarsh

Perhaps some of the current residents of Hayes may recognise one of the names above as a great, great grandfather or grandmother?


  1. A Short History of “National Filling Factory No. 7 “ Hayes Middlesex. By: Ministry of Munitions of War Published by: Harrison and Sons, Hayes Middx. Printer in Ordinary to His Majesty.

  2. Report on Hayes Filling Factories. (11/09/15 – 26/02/16) Dept. of Munitions Requirements and Statistics

  3. “Fortune Grass” by Mabel Lethbridge Published by: Geoffrey Bles

  4. Personal communication from: Hillingdon Council Local Studies Library, Archives and Museum Service.

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'Stepping off of a walkway onto the ground was regarded as a disciplinary offence...'

At its height the factory employed about 10,000 women mainly on shell production ..... the work that the women had to do was extremely dangerous and safety regulations and procedures were strictly enforced.

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