I came across the story of a group of women who lived 100 years ago and I can’t stop thinking about them.
On 5th December 1916, at an ammunition factory in Leeds, 35 of them were instantly killed in an explosion. It was the first major loss of civilian women during the war.
Have you ever heard of the incident? I hadn’t until last week, when it was announced the government would give the site official protection as a historic monument. I also learnt that the deaths of these women were covered up, despite the fact the blast was heard for miles and the whole community knew the women and knew that they had died. The news was censored and no official explanation was given until six years after the war, eight years after their deaths. Some 16,000 women were employed to fill shells at the Barnbow munitions factory – known as the Barnbow lasses – and their weapons were used in the battle of the Somme. They were an essential part of the war effort, but then they were killed and forgotten.
As I went through the week, I couldn’t shake the story. Through the noise of Trump and fugitive gorillas, I found myself talking about them, planning a trip to the site where they had lived and worked and died, and kept looking at the grainy faces of the working-class women in heavy skirts, side by side, building the arsenal that would reshape Europe.
If we don’t know the women who came before us, can we say we really understand ourselves? So often it feels as though we live in the isolation of a Facebook page or an Instagram picture, but we’re not; we’re the afterword in another woman’s story
History has been so overwhelmingly shit at telling the stories of women – the few stories we hear tend to be about the pioneers, the chancers and the ones who broke the rules. And that’s great. But there is something so extraordinary about the ordinary stoic life of the ordinary woman that history hasn’t bothered to notice or remember. There is something so inspiring about the women who, as Michelle Obama said last week, “just rolled up their sleeves and got to work”. This silent, anonymous army who have witnessed and shaped our history – not by flying a plane for the first time or being the first woman in parliament – but by the simple courage, audacity and determination to just be and exist and get on with life.
The Barnbow lasses made me think of my own grandmothers, too. One an Essex girl, who found herself living in Tripoli, Libya and France with her army husband. And Kitty from Bolton, who went into service when she was just a girl and who washed her step every day, whatever the weather. In both ways, their stores are completely ordinary. My grandmother travelled, but she was an army wife and there were plenty of those after the war. And Kitty was not a million miles away – literally and figuratively – from the Barnbow lasses and was working to live. Both women – to the eyes of the historians, lawmakers, school teachers, filmmakers and so many – were ordinary.
Picture: National Archives
And yet all these women were extraordinary for the very fact they existed in a world that was against them – they struggled every day and didn’t complain, despite few rights, abusive husbands, few opportunities. And they are part of us because their stories are the backstories to our own. They paved the way, without perhaps knowing where they were going. This year, Alice Nutter wrote a play called Barnbow Canaries about the Barnbow lasses (one of the few places their story has been told). Talking to the BBC, she said: ”While it wasn't the first time that women were working, it was the first time they were earning proper money – men's money. The women who worked in the Barnbow danger rooms, some of them went from earning two shillings and sixpence in domestic service to three pounds a week. Men didn't earn that. It is really good money."
If we don’t know the women who came before us, can we say we really understand ourselves? So often it feels as though we live in the isolation of a Facebook page or an Instagram picture, but we’re not; we’re the afterword in another woman’s story – and that woman’s story is fast fading into the ether.
Now, we have every opportunity to record our very ordinary lives; in fact, there’s a whole legion of women recording what they had for tea and every other mundane detail of their existence. But perhaps I should be more forgiving, because I would love to scroll through the Facebook feed of a Barnbow lass. What would their status updates be? “12 hours on my feet. Time for a cuppa.” Or: “Haven’t heard from Tom. Hope he’s OK.” Or: "#neverforgetthebarnbowlasses #neverforgetthe35".
Recently, there seems to be greater acceptance in remembering the ordinary; the Hillsborough families finally got the justice they deserved and a long-overdue inquiry into the Orgreave disaster has been announced. Perhaps it’s because we’re starting to see through the bullshit of the Philip Greens and Mike Ashleys. Or, maybe now, with the internet, ordinary people finally do have a voice and their stories can’t be forgotten or ignored any more.
So, spare a thought for the Barnbow lasses and all those women who lived and loved and have been extraordinary just by virtue of battling through so-called ordinary lives. For anyone who attempts to complete the obstacle course of being a woman in a world still run by men is extraordinary in my book.