The Failed Otley Filling Factory

The voluminous archives of the Ministry of Munitions at the National Archives would surely allow us to examine the unfinished Otley Filling Factory in great depth and detail. This short article outlines the general scheme and provides basic foundations for further research.

In 1915 the Ministry of Munitions requisitioned 108 acres of land around Midgley Farm for the construction of the ‘Otley Filling Factory’. This enormous undertaking was devised by the Min. Mun. to alleviate the shortage of artillery shells during 1915. The 10th (Otley) battery of the 4th West Riding (Howitzer) Brigade (TF) witnessed the shortage of ammunition first hand, their 5″ howitzers rationed to 5 rounds a day.

Designated ‘National Filling Factory 15’, the Otley site was designed to fill artillery shells with the high explosive Amatol. Initial plans for the filling of 6″ and 8″ heavy artillery shells were shelved in favour of the 18lb guns and 4.5″ howitzers of the field artillery. The Ministry expected a quarter of a million 18lb shells would be filled at Otley every week. This was a drop in the ocean as far as artillery rounds were concerned. Ammunition expenditure during the first world war was enormous, just short of 1 billion 18lb rounds were fired on the Western Front alone.

OFF logo 1 - Copy
Date Stamp for the Otley Emergency Filling Factory as it was initially known; later becoming ‘National Filling Factory 15’.

The job of finding a site for the factory fell to the mercurial Colonel Strange. His first proposition for the use of Otley Golf course put the club house in a predictable spin. Easily attached to the railway line and with access to the town workforce, the site at the end of West Busk Lane seemed to present the club bunkers as the obvious choice. Cardinally opposed to the golf club, a site focused on Midgley Farm down East Busk Lane was instead suggested as an alternative. The colonel sidled off down the east end of the town and the golf club scheme was dropped.

The low-lying land around Midgley Farm is notoriously wet, the medieval field names of Miggilmyr, Fowle Cawsey and Toad Holes clear indicators of conditions on the ground. The placename ‘Midgley’ is interpreted as ‘midge infested clearing’ (though Smith also translates the ‘midge’ element as ‘manure’ in Placenames of the West Riding – take your pick). How well this land would take the construction of an enormous factory was highly questionable.

The Farnley Estate had previously purchased Midgley Farm in 1874, and a requisition order landed on the desk of estate agent W.P. Richardson in November 1915. Requisition was rarely undertaken without remuneration and terms were agreed by lease ‘until the tenancy shall be determined’ – in other words ‘for the duration’.

Tenants already living on site had no choice but to vacate the premises. Given that Major F.H. Fawkes was only ever payed £5 for a half-years rent by the Ministry, the optimistic claim of £300 compensation from R.T. Gray of nearby Brickfield Cottage was never going to materialise. Tenants Cooper and Harrison, along with four cows, four horses and twenty sheep, were evicted – their only recompense on eventually returning to the farm apparently being a slight reduction in rent.

You can walk the length of the Otley Filling Factory by following the public footpath down East Busk Lane and along the field path to Caley, coming out opposite Knotford. All the fields you walk through from the railway embankment onward were requisitioned, but the only visible sign of occupation are the overgrown and pock-marked railway sidings connecting the site to the NER line. The sidings were built of colliery tippings from the Yorkshire coalfield, proving a valuable fuel source during the coal miners strike of 1921. Up to 50 tons of coal were suspected of being taken off the site by ‘scratters’ using flat carts and donkeys. As it transpired, this was about as much use as Otley ever got from the factory.

The sidings are best seen on the O.S. 1:25 000 map ‘Lower Wharfedale and Washburn Valley’ as a vague green lump protruding from the old railway track at SE224452 – you will also see them clearly using satellite imagery in online maps.

Empty shell-bodies were to be brought up to the site by railway where they would be dismantled and pre-formed cylindrical Amatol blocks inserted by hand. Filled shells would then be shunted back down to the factory they came from in the first place and put back together. This was obviously a hopelessly convoluted scheme, and a far better system was developed by the filling factory at Chilwell, where machines would press-fill Amatol directly into the ammunition, without the need to totally dismantle the shell.

Much of this work was to be done by local women, employed through the factories offices at 41 Boroughgate. Miss Amy Forster of 26 Orchard Street applied for a job at the factory in February 1916. Her pay was 5d per hour, working Monday to Friday 7:45 to 5:30, with a half-day on Saturday. Miss Lebbon, the works overseer, was despatched to Woolwich arsenal for training, though no-one had thought to tell Woolwich she was coming. Accompanied by Miss Whitehouse and Mrs Davey, they presented themselves to an exasperated Miss E.H. Pratt at Woolwich Arsenal. Miss Pratt immediately fired off a curt letter to Mr. Macnamara, clerk of works in his lodging at the Summercross, asking if he was going to send an extra 17 women to make up the class of 20 she had specifically asked for.

The scheme collapsed in March 1916. Press-filling was the preferred method, and the immense factory at Barnbow in Leeds was the favoured site. Cutting its losses, the Min. Mun. abandoned Otley, leaving the dismantled railway sidings as the only sign they had ever been there at all. An anonymous Wharfedale author recounted the story thus:

when perhaps somebody thought enough money had been wasted – how much, nobody at present dare say – it was admitted that the land was damp, the hands were dismissed and the grand factory is now idle, empty and derelict. Everybody who knew the district knew that the land was damp, and had known it for years. But the person who authorised such a vast expenditure either did not know, did not care, or did not trouble to ask. Anon., March 18th 1916.

MUN 4/1413 – 1560, papers relating to the Otley National Filling Factory, National Archives, Kew.
47D75/6/series, Farnley Estate Papers, West Yorks. Archives, Morley.
DD161/22/series, Fawkes of Farnley Collection (second deposit), Munitions Factory papers, Yorkshire Archaeology Society, Leeds University Library.
‘Filling Factory That Otley Lost’, Yorkshire Evening Post, Thurs. 4th September 1919.

©S. Riches 2019.