In the centre of the now tranquil dunes of Pembrey Country Park sits the remnants of the site of several generations of Munitions Works.
The site itself, Pembrey Burrows, was perfect for the manufacture of munitions. It sat away from any sites of habitation, alongside the Great Western Railway line, and its soft sandy ground was ideal to build on as the concussion which would result from any explosion would be absorbed by the ground. The population of nearby towns such as Llanelli, Kidwelly, Pembrey and Burry Port provided an ample workforce, while Swansea was only a short distance by train.
Brief History of National Explosives Factory Pembrey
The factory was originally built in 1882 by the Stowmarket Explosive Company, on land leased off the Earl of Ashburnham. The first major disaster occurred on 18 November 1882, when an explosion killed seven workers.
The disaster caused the bankruptcy of the Explosive Company, which was succeeded by the South Wales Explosives Company, but in 1893 further misfortune struck when a fire broke out and destroyed much of the factory.
Following the outbreak of the Great War, production at Pembrey was ramped up remarkably. Alfred Nobel’s Explosive Company built a new factory in 1914 which covered 771 acres of Pembrey Burrows to supply munitions for the war effort. Its main purpose was the manufacture of TNT. Work began over the winter of 1914-1915 and TNT manufacturing began in July 1915.
TNT, Tri Nitro Toluene, was a dangerous substance to work with, apart from its explosive nature, as it was poisonous, due to the nature of its manufacture.
In industry, TNT is produced in a three-step process. First, toluene is nitrated with a mixture of sulfuric and nitric acid to produce mononitrotoluene (MNT). The MNT is separated and then renitrated to dinitrotoluene (DNT). In the final step, the DNT is nitrated to trinitrotoluene (TNT) using an anhydrous mixture of nitric acid and oleum. Nitric acid is consumed by the manufacturing process, but the diluted sulfuric acid can be reconcentrated and reused. After nitration, TNT is stabilized by a process called sulfitation, where the crude TNT is treated with aqueous sodium sulfite solution to remove less stable isomers of TNT and other undesired reaction products. The rinse water from sulfitation is known as red water and is a significant pollutant and waste product of TNT manufacture. (T. Urbanski: Chemistry and Technology of Explosives).
The resulting TNT was a bright yellow in colour. The women who worked in its manufacturing process were known as the ‘Canary Girls’, because their skin turned yellow and their hair turned orange or green. The damage inside them, to their organs, was invisible, as the yellowness of their skin masked any indications of illness due to liver damage, but would sadly become apparent during the war.
The site soon began to expand, and within months began manufacturing cordite (a propellant used in bullets and ordnance).
A contract had also been awarded to Nobel’s company to build a factory for the filling of shells, mines and torpedoes on the site and this work began in mid-1915. This expansion had the official title of National Filling Factory (NFF) No. 18.
On 1 January 1917 the factory was taken under the wing of the Ministry of Munitions, but was still managed by Nobel, becoming HM Explosives Factory 126. By now output of TNT was over 200 tons a week, while 225 tons of cordite per week was being produced and well over 4,000 men and women worked at the site, the majority being women, with many of these coming in by train from Carmarthen and Swansea, as well as the local workers.
Production of munitions continued at Pembrey throughout the war, and for a short while afterwards the factory was utilised for the disarming and recycling of vast quantities of unused munitions. Much of the site was dismantled and sold off in the coming years, but in 1938, with the possibility of World War rearing its ugly head again, the government proposed the building of a new, Royal Ordnance Factory, at Pembrey.
The new factory, Royal Ordnance Factory 34, was smaller than the old Great War one, but was built within its grounds. The factory manufactured ammonium nitrate, which was mixed with TNT to produce even to create an even more powerful explosive, called Amatol.
Again, after the war Pembrey was used to recycle surplus ammunition, and by the end of 1963 the site was up for sale, after being deemed as surplus to requirements.
The site was eventually cleared and is now home to Pembrey Country Park, a fascinating site which still contains many remnants from both world wars in the form of its various bunkers and various structures.
Tragedies at Pembrey Munitions Factory
Throughout the Great War a number of tragedies occurred causing the deaths and wounding of several people, mainly women workers. Within the fabulous confines of York Minster is a memorial recording the “Names of women of the empire who gave their lives in the war”, but even this is incomplete, as civilians who were killed as a result of the Great War are not commemorated as official war casualties by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. As a result the following may well be incomplete.
On 23 October 1916 a former worker at NEF Pembrey, Elizabeth Ann Jones, of Cardigan, died of jaundice contracted through contact with TNT. The 22-year old was the daughter of Mary Ann Williams, of Cardigan, and is buried in Cardigan Cemetery.
On 7 November 1916 another former worker at the NEF Pembrey, Gladys Irene Pritchard, of Swansea, died of jaundice contracted through contact with TNT. Born Gladys Irene Harris at Swansea in 1886, the daughter of Henry and Jessie Harris, she married David John Pritchard on 4 March 1909. The couple had two children: Joseph Henry Pritchard, born 25 November 1911; and Victoria Lilian Pritchard, born 7 September 1914. Her husband David enlisted into the 14th Welsh, Swansea Pals, following the outbreak of war and had been killed in action at Mametz Wood on 10 July 1916. Sadly, within months Gladys was dead and their children were orphaned.
On 9 June 1917 yet another former worker at the NEF Pembrey died of jaundice after coming into contact with TNT. Esther Devonald was the wife of James Devonald, of 22, Ysgol Street, Port Tennant, Swansea. She was 33 years old when she died.
On 31 July 1917, an explosion at the NEF Pembrey killed six people. Despite an inquest, the cause of the explosion was never explained.
‘The first witness was Walter R. Moore, general superintendent of the department concerned. He described the place where the accident occurred, and said it was a building used for the purpose of a filial washing and filtering of an intermediate product. Dealing with the work of the deceased persons, he explained that Miles worked with the washer and prepared a solution, and a second duty—stirring the solution involved no danger at all. Davies filled lead bottles, and Brown and McCarty ran the material from the lead bottles into the bags. The deceased girls were employed conveying bags for certain materials on a bogey to that house and to similar houses, and also in taking them away.’
The Victims of the Explosion
John Davies, aged 41, married; Christopher McCarty, aged 22, single; George Brown, aged 29, married; William Edward Miles, aged 31, married; Miss Mildred Owen, aged 18; Miss Mary Watson, aged 18.
The two women, Mildred Owen, daughter of Thomas Owen, of 31, Bridge Street, Swansea; and Dorothy Mary Watson, daughter of William and Mary Watson, of 178 Port Tennant Road, St Thomas, Swansea, received the very rare honour of being buried in Danygraig Cemetery with full military honours. Their bodies were conveyed by horse-drawn hearse to the cemetery, escorted by their colleagues, wearing their uniforms.
Again, as they were civilians, the six casualties killed in the explosion are not commemorated as war casualties by the CWGC.
On 18 November 1918, a week after the Armistice, another explosion killed three munition workers when they were disassembling an 18-pounder high explosive shell. All three were women from Swansea:
Edith Ellen Copham was the 19-year-old daughter of Harry and Edith Copham, of 62, Prince of Wales Road, Swansea.
Mary Fitzmaurice was the 36-year-old wife of Mr. J. Fitzmaurice, of Sketty-crescent, Swansea, and the mother of seven children.
Jane Jenkins was just 21 years old.
All three women were buried with full military honours at Danygraig Cemetery, Swansea, yet sadly, again, being civilians, are not commemorated as casualties of war by the CWGC.
Even with the war at an end the deaths at Pembrey did not stop.
On 8 January 1919 Gwenllian Williams, the 21-year-old grand daughter of David Thomas, of 8, Water Street, Kidwelly, was killed in an explosion.
On 24 April 1919, Margaret Morris (nee Haycock), the 34-year-old wife of William Thomas Morris, of 4, Flats Strand, Swansea, died of Tuberculosis, probably contracted during her work at the NEF Pembrey. Sadly, her husband had been killed in France on 20 August 1916, serving with the 2nd RWF. Her death left at least another three known children orphaned.
On 9 May 1920, Elizabeth Davies, a 17-year-old from Sandfield House, Burry Port, was accidentally killed at the NEF Pembrey, becoming the last known Great War related casualty there.
Another woman, Elizabeth Foulkes, reportedly died at the NEF Pembrey, aged 28, and is buried in St. Michael’s Burial Ground, Ammanford, but at the moment I cannot identify her or find further details apart from the fact that she is commemorated on the Swansea Cenotaph.
The operation of the factory at Pembrey during the Great War was not all doom and gloom, however. A number of local workers gained honours and awards for their bravery during some of these explosions and incidents in the factory during the war.
For example, the London Gazette of 4 January 1918 published awards of the MBE to a number of people involved in one explosion. These awards were to:
Alexander Cornelius, of 19, Pemberton Avenue, Burry Port. For courage in having, on two occasions, saved a large amount of raw material in an explosives factory at the risk of his life.
Ben Davies, of 18, Russell-street, Llanelly. For courage and high example in remaining at work for an hour after being very painfully burnt on his hands, face and neck, and returning to duty for another five hours immediately after treatment.
Violet Annie Davies (aged 15), of 2, Glanmor, Llanelly. For courage in remaining at her post at the telephone during a severe explosion.
James Duffy, of Disgwylfa House, Pembrey. For courage in attempting to stop a fire in an explosives factory under exceptionally dangerous circumstances.
May Evans, of 69, Pencoed-road, Burry Port. For courage in assisting to stop a fire in an explosives factory at considerable danger to her life.
Jane Fisher, of 55, Water-street, Kidwelly. For courage in assisting to stop a fire in an explosives factory at considerable danger to her life.
Michael Fitzpatrick, of 13, Charles Street, Llanelly. For courage in attempting to save part of an explosives factory at great risk of his life.
David George Morgan, of 22, Silver-terrace, Burry Port. For courage and high example in picking up and drowning a shell which had become accidentally ignited.
William Henry Price, of 42, Gate-terrace, Pwll-road, Llanelly. For courage in attempting to stop a fire in an explosives factory under exceptionally dangerous circumstances. He lost four fingers and practically the use of both hands, while his face was permanently disfigured.
Ivor Pugh, of Llanelly. For presence of mind and courage in carrying into the open at an explosives factory a bucket containing an explosive mixture, which had taken fire and threatened loss of life and damage to property. When it exploded he suffered from personal injuries.
Robert Roberts, of 16, Mansel-street, Burry Port. For courage in saving the life of a fellow-worker at a. fire in an explosives factory under exceptionally dangerous circumstances. On behalf of his co-workers Mr. Roberts was also presented by the Lord Lieutenant with a gold watch.
Lawrence Skinner, of 67, Coldstream-street, Llanelly. For courage in attempting to stop a fire in an explosives factory under exceptionally dangerous circumstances.
John Stewart, of 60, Jersey-road, Llanelly, For courage in remaining at work and seeing his job through after being severely shaken by an explosion at an explosives factory.
Albert Ernest Vass, of 40, New-street, Burry Port. For courage in stopping a fire in an explosives factory at grave risk of his life.
World War Two, 1939-1945
Despite being stripped, and much of its material sold off after the Great War, with the impending outbreak of another World War, the Government decided to re-commission the Munitions Factory at Pembrey. Work began in 1938 and continued into 1939 and involved the demolition of a large number of the surviving Great War buildings.
The factory was government owned from the start and was known as the Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) Pembrey. Production began in 1939 and it was one of four factories producing TNT, the others being Irvine, Drigg and Sellafield and it was the largest supplier of TNT, tetryl and ammonium nitrate, albeit in a smaller footprint than the original Great War factory.
At its peak over 3,000 workers were employed at the ROF Pembrey. Work continued after the war, with the factory being used to dismantle surplus ammunition. A brief resurgence followed the outbreak of the Korean War in 1952, but with declining demand for munitions, ROF Pembrey was closed and sold at the end of 1963.
Due to the limited information freely available for the World War Two period, little is known of any incidents in the factory during that period, but one incident occurred on 10 July 1940 which could not be kept from the public, when a German aircraft dropped a number of bombs on ROF Pembrey, killing a number of people and injuring many more. The known casualties caused by the bombing, all bar one killed or dying that same day, were:
William David Davies, aged 31. The son of George William and Mary Ann Davies, of 2 Bryn Terrace, Burry Port and the husband of Louvaine Davies, of Eithinman, Trimsaran Road, Trimsaran. He was an Air Raid Warden at the factory.
David Verdun Evans, aged 22. He was the son of D. G. and Amelia Evans, of Terminus, Cross Hands. David was injured during the bombing and died the same day at Llanelly Hospital.
Gwynfryn James Griffiths, aged 19. The son of William J. and Louisa Griffiths, of 4 Block, Penybedd, Pembrey.
James Havard, aged 64. Of Ashburnham Road, Pembrey, James was a Police Sergeant stationed at ROF Pembrey. He was seriously wounded during the bombing at ROF Pembrey and died on the following day, 11 July 1940, at Llanelly Hospital.
Samuel Frank Henry James, aged 54. Of 10, Wind Street, Llanelly.
Thomas Bagnall James, aged 51. Thomas was the Superintendent of Police at ROF Pembrey, and lived at 28, Greenway Street, Llanelli. Originally from Pembroke, he was buried in Pembroke Dock (Llanion) Cemetery. He had spent 24 years in the Police Force after beginning work as a Clerk with the GWR.
Joseph Lawlor, aged 55. The son of John and Winefride Lawlor, of Clonkeen, Maryboro’, Leix, Irish Republic and the husband of Mary K. Lawlor, of 64 Ardwyn, Garden Suburb, Burry Port. He had been mentioned in despatches three times during the Great War.
Edwin Wilton Matthews, aged 39. The husband of Edith Maud Matthews, of Bryn Boot Stores, Alexandra Road, Gorseinon, Swansea. Edwin was injured at the ROF Pembrey and died the same day at Llanelly Hospital.
Cyril Horace Pursor Owen, aged 21. The son of William Horace Owen and Kathleen Owen, of 20 Durham Road, Sidcup, Kent.
Oscar Llewellyn Randall, aged 54. The son of Charles and Susannah Randell, of 82 Elkington Road, Burry Port and the husband of Mary Randell, of Mount Pleasant, Craig, Burry Port. Injured at the ROF Pembrey and died the same day at Llanelly Hospital.
Benjamin Thomas, aged 55. The husband of Harriet Ann Thomas, of 18 Gordon Terrace, Llanelly.