Sitting on top of a bomb -
the unsung heroines of Risley ROF

Susan Wilkes
Best of British, (Jan 1999), p.44-45
(Reproduced with kind permission from "Best of British" Magazine)

In August 1939 Britain faced a desperate race against time to re-arm itself, ready for the coming war against Hitler’s Germany. The order went out for Royal Ordnance Factories to be built, away from the threat of German bombers in London, and preferably in areas of high unemployment.

Risley ROF, near Warrington (then Lancashire, now Cheshire), was one of several Filling Factories commissioned when war seemed inevitable. In such factories metal components were filled with explosive to make complete rounds of ammunition and bombs.

Construction began in August 1939. It took 18 months to complete, but bombs were produced from September 1940.

Risley was chosen because it was flat and often covered with mist. Dorothy Baker, who worked there in 1942/3, confirmed these conditions: "My husband, who was in aircrew flying Lancaster bombers, said it was impossible to pick out Risley from the air, and to verify this the factory was never bombed at all."

Staff from Woolwich Arsenal (where most ordnance filling was done before the war) helped to plan the site and train staff - more than 22,000 being employed by 1942. Nearly all the workers were women from Leigh, Warrington, Liverpool and Manchester. Some male workers were ex-miners from Leigh. The workforce was brought in by bus from nearby towns or purpose-built hostels at Culcheth and Padgate. Pay was good, a skilled worker being able to earn 49/- a week basic.

More than half a million bombs and more than a million mines were assembled at the factory, including the 22,000lb. bomb or ‘Grand Slam' which sank the German battleship Tirpitz in November 1944.

The site covered more than 1,000 acres of land, Dorothy remembering: "The factory seemed to stretch six miles. The powder 'groups' where all the work was done reached right up to where Gorse Covert and Risley Moss are now. The women and girls who worked in the groups were the unsung heroes of the war." 

The factory was divided into ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ areas. In ‘cleanways’, where detonators were filled, workers wore special clothing with no zips or metal components. Jewellery was forbidden except for wedding rings, which were covered up with sticking plasters and the ‘clean’ areas were constantly vacuumed so that no gunpowder particles could accumulate.

Filling shells was fiddly and dangerous. The women wore special safety gloves, and their faces were protected by a reinforced glass screen. Some workers, tired of wearing the heavy gloves, took them off - but the heat from their fingers could set off the explosive. Many girls lost fingers as a result.

The explosive powder gave many workers a condition called the 'coup'. Mrs. Bessie Buck, from Birchwood, worked as an Inspector in 1941. It was vital for every shell to he perfect. She explained: "Eventually we all became yellow — hair, face, hands, it wouldn’t wash off. My hair went blonde — I liked it and staved that way. We also got big boils on our skin from the powder."

Some of the shells were very heavy to handle: "I was examining 251b. shells and dropped one on my foot," she said. "I was limping, but I still went to work."

As security so important, workers in one part of the building were not allowed into other areas.

Mary Thorniley, from Woolston, who worked in the wages section in 1942. recalled: "We had to sign to secrecy and were searched every time we went in or out. Every Friday I took a tray with wage envelopes down to the Groups, often in the blackout, to pay the workers when their shift ended. The women all had yellow faces and hands."

The factory had its own internal railway network to carry goods and materials. To reduce the risk of sparks from the wheels setting off an explosion, the tracks were made of phosphor bronze.

Dorothy Barker drove lorries laden with explosives. "One night, in thick fog, with a hill load, the lorry got it's back wheels stuck on the railway lines," she said. "Luckily some Americans came by in a Jeep and towed the lorry off the track."

Nearby Risley Moss was used to test bombs and ammunition. Dorothy Barker said: "At night I would take the smokescreen cylinders up to Risley Halt (now Birchwood station. The workmen would test them to see how dense the smoke was".

Workers could relax in the canteen, where cigarettes were sold just one at a time so that no-one could be tempted to take one outside (any worker found with a match or cigarette in a Danger Area faced instant dismissal). Workers Playtime was held in the canteens.

Bessie Buck recalls that it was a friendly place to work: "Everyone was happy and agreeable. it was a lovely time apart from being a bit afraid of air raids," she said. "When there was the threat of one we had to go into the shelters. It was damp and cold, with just a single light bulb and a bucket in case we were there for a long time. Even though, it was cheerful."

At last the Second World War came to an end and the factory was closed. The site was taken over by the Admiralty, which in 1956 sold part of the site to the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority for its Northern Headquarters. The Admiralty left in 1961, and the site was left to rot — one of the largest derelict land areas in Britain.

In 1968 it was acquired by Warrington New Town Development Corporation. Demolition began in the 1970s - but the Factory’s 20 explosives bunkers or ‘magazines’ caused a major headache. Strongly built, with concrete sides, they were grassed over on top, and sheep grazed there during the war to help disguise them from the air.

They were so solidly built, in fact that it took twice as long to demolish the factory as it had taken to build it in the first place.

Four of the bunkers were close to the Universities’ Nuclear Reactor, so they could not be blown up. They were kept as landscape features, and can still be seen today at Birchwood Forest Park. The foundations of the other bunkers were covered with soil and lie beneath the park’s sports pitch and playing fields.

Risley Moss was developed into a nature reserve, and is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest, the home to many different birds, animals and rare plants and 11 species of dragonfly alone. The mossland is being ‘re-wetted’ to help return it to its original state.

Only the grass-covered bunkers remain as silent monuments to the unsung heroes and heroines who 60 years ago helped to win the war.

Return to ROF-Risley Home View image (200Kb): p.44, p.45

© Best of British
Reproduced with permission.