Barbara Stainsby: A Munitions Worker to Blame for Her Own Death

Whilst blog posts have largely reflected our project sources and focus, and looked at mainline railways in the UK and Ireland, this doesn’t capture all of the railway activity – and dangers – in our nations. Plenty of railway systems were privately-owned and operated – like the coal railways which came to be part of the National Coal Board’s system (see this blog).

The difficult thing is that these systems existed outside the same structures as the rest of the railway industry, certainly in terms of accidents, meaning they often didn’t leave the same documentary record as mainline railways. That obviously makes it harder to research and write about those accidents and the people involved. But there are still ways it can be done – as this guest post, from Laura Noakes of the (fantastically-named) Devil’s Porridge Museum, explores.

The Museum focuses on the munitions factory set up at Gretna during the First World War. It’s fascinating in so many ways – and, like our project, they have a great interest in the people who worked there. They want to find out more about the women and men behind the work, and they are being collaborative about it, which is great to see. They’re running a series of ‘Wikithon’ events over the coming months, to get YOU involved and to get more information about the workers onto Wikipedia. The first is next week, on Wednesday 22 September, starting at 5pm. You can learn more and sign up here.

In the meantime, read on to find out how railways and Gretna came together at the munitions factory. Our thanks to Laura for this blog post.


From 1915 till the end of World War One in 1918, thousands of people flooded into the Gretna area on the border of England and Scotland. They came for one reason: to make munitions. Men at the Front were in desperate need of ammunition, and after the Shell Crisis in 1915, where Lord Kitchener publicly attributed the lack of bullets to troop deaths and casualties, HM Factory Gretna was built.

Two women munitions workers pushing a narrow gauge railway trolley loaded with paste, on the internal system at Gretna munitions factory.

Trolley taking paste from wash house, at Broomhills.
Courtesy: Devil’s Porridge Museum

The factory occupied a huge complex of buildings and land, spanning nine by two miles and stretching across the English-Scottish border. The location was chosen because it was rural—far away from cities often targeted by German airstrikes, and the misty weather common in the region provided additional camouflage if any Zeppelins happened to be passing by. However, it was also chosen because of its nearby railway links.

Carlisle was the closest city to the factory, and its railway system was well established, with direct routes to London and elsewhere. On the Scottish side of the Factory, routes linked the area to England as well as Glasgow, Dumfries, Edinburgh and Lockerbie. These railways were crucial to the factory’s success—the cordite that would be made at Gretna would need to be shipped to other factories across the country to be packed into shells.

The railway’s importance to HM Factory Gretna didn’t end there though. With thousands of people moving to the area to work at the factory, the railway was vital to get all these people to work. Munition workers commuted in from Carlisle in England and Dumfries in Scotland, as well as the many villages that surrounded the factory.

Busy platform at Gretna township station, with workers getting onto a homeward-bound train.

Munition girls going off duty at Gretna township station.
Courtesy: Devil’s Porridge Museum.

The factory’s size also meant that both people and munitions often needed to be transported within the grounds. This internal railway had 16 different stations for workers to alight, one for those living in Gretna Township, three for those travelling from further afield, and the final 13 were for those who needed to be transported to the area that they worked within the factory. There was a total of 80 miles of railway track within the factory area. Because at certain stages in the process of making cordite was highly flammable, in some areas fireless locomotives transported materials.

Small, battery-powered, narrow gauge loco at Gretna, with 3 women workers.

Electric (presumably battery-powered) loco on site at the factory. Would the woman by the cab have been the driver?
Courtesy: Devil’s Porridge Museum

With such a substantial and complex railway system, the chances of an accident occurring wasn’t unlikely. On 23 April 1917, Miss Barbara Stainsby, who had been working at HM Factory Gretna for only three days, was fatally injured as she tried to alight from a train at Broomhills (one of the internal stations), becoming pinned between the carriage and the station platform. She died from her injuries in an ambulance shortly thereafter.

Barbara Stainsby was born in Stockton on Tees in 1898, and it was there she spent the majority of her short life. She had a large family—4 sisters and 3 brothers by 1911. Her mother, Barbara, had died in 1910 at the young age of thirty-nine, leaving her father, John, a dock labourer, and her older sisters, Elizabeth and Mary Ann, who worked a laundry maid and day girl respectively, to support the family. Apart from this brief outline, we know little of Barbara’s life, and almost nothing of her as a person. She would have been 16 or 17 at the outbreak of war in 1914, and would have probably already started work, maybe in domestic service like her older sisters. Women and girls, some underage, travelled from all over the United Kingdom to work at HM Factory Gretna. It may have been patriotic pride that drew Barbara to work in munitions, or the wages. Women munitions workers were paid very well, a fact that was frequently commented on in the press. Those higher wages would have been a huge help to Barbara’s family back in Stockton. Like many working-class women, Barbara is almost invisible in the historical record; only her grisly death was deemed worthy of attention.

Even then, details of her death are crammed into a short column in the Dumfries and Galloway Standard, alongside notice of a forthcoming inquiry and three other deaths—Roberta Robertson, a fellow munition worker, and two miners. It does mention that Barbara was living at Queen Elizabeth House—one of the many hostels that women munition workers lived in in the local area—and that her ribs were crushed by the accident. Her cause of death is recorded as ‘internal haemorrhage’ and ‘shock’.

The inquiry, which occurred in June 1917, concluded that ‘no one was to blame for the accident but the girl herself.’ This conclusion was come to because there were signs exhibited inside the train carriages that warned passengers that exiting a train in motion was done at their own risk. The blame was further laid on Barbara in a claim for Workmen’s Compensation, which her father John had applied for. In this document, it was written that Barbara’s ‘serious and wilful misconduct’ had led to her accident. This was in reference to Section 2(C) of the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1906, which rendered employers not liable for compensation claims.

However, a circled question mark handwritten on the form suggests some uncertainty about this rather callous response to the compensation claim. It appears that the Ministry of Munitions and the Treasury Department came to a compromise on this point. They offered Barbara’s father a reduced amount of £20 compensation for her death, but did not admit liability for her death.


Laura Noakes

Dr Laura Noakes is the Research Assistant at the Devil’s Porridge Museum in Eastriggs, Scotland. She is working on a new project, ‘The Munition Workers,’ which focuses on finding out about workers at H.M. Factory Gretna in World War One. She has just completed her PhD thesis, which examined the relationship between the women’s suffrage movement and early women lawyers through detailed contextual consideration of two women: Elsie Bowerman and Chrystal Macmillan.

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