Book Reviews – The Low Moor Explosion

The Low Moor Explosion, August 21st 1916. A Mystery Explained? By Ronald Blackwell. Augmented Reprint. Published by the Low Moor Local History Group, 2016. 144 pages. A4 format. Illustrated.

Yellow Poppies. The Dead and those who received honours as a result of the 1916 Low Moor Munitions Explosion. By Barbara Reardon and Mary Twentyman. Low Moor Local History Group, 2016. 110 pages. A4 format. Illustrated.

On August 21st 1916, a series of explosions took place at the Low Moor Munitions Works which resulted in the deaths of forty people, six of whom were corporation firemen. It was wartime, and picric acid was produced at the works. The acid was reduced to a powder and bagged ready for transportation to shell-filling works elsewhere. The cause of the initial fire appeared to be either that a drum containing the powdered acid was not adequately insulated on its exterior surface and inappropriate handling of the drum by a worker caused picrate deposits to combine with the metal leading to combustion; or, that the drums, which were being transferred to a packing shed, were not covered on top as safety requirements stated and a spark or descending hot clinker from an adjoining part of the works could have come in contact with the open drum and caused ignition. The fire thus started in the drum entered the building where the stored picric then caught fire, leading to explosions all over the site. Hot flying debris landed on adjacent corporation gas holders, leading to their wholesale destruction and that of adjoining buildings. The accident investigators commented that the works were holding far more picric acid than its licence permitted. The company, though, was under pressure to produce as much as possible for the war effort.

In 1987, Ronald Blackwell wrote a detailed and comprehensive account of the accident, but his book has long been out-of-print and hard to obtain. Since its publication more details have been uncovered with much research carried out on the people who were killed or who were involved. As a consequence the Low Moor Local History Group decided to commemorate the centenary of the explosion by re-printing the book and to add these further details. The book has now been reprinted in its entirety with the addition of Blackwell’s article in the Bradford Antiquary of 1987, which gave a simplified account of the disaster and a revised list of the dead. Also added is are two new names, other new information, and the transcription of the citation recommending a bravery award that had been submitted later. Ronald Blackwell supported this augmented re-publication.

Since the 1980s new sources have become available, most notably census data and the ability to search some newspapers digitally, so it was decided to research details of the people who were killed in the explosion and those who received national awards for their bravery. Their stories are told in a separate publication, Yellow Poppies. The title relates to the fact that the people working in the area were often referred to as ‘canaries’ due to the fact that their skin often acquired a yellow tinge from the sulphur content of the acid, and also, of course, the poppy being a symbol for the war – the reason why explosives were being manufactured at Low Moor in the first place. Typically, each of the forty victims has a double-page spread giving details of their part in the disaster, their background, and information about their surviving families, with photographs. Similar treatment is given to a number of the firemen, managers and telephonists who were involved in the disaster but survived.  Finally there is information about the national and local awards for bravery that were awarded. The book is profusely illustrated.

Both authors are experienced in family history research and this marvellous publication demonstrates how much information can be discovered using modern research methods, despite the difficulties caused by wartime news restrictions. More importantly, it brings back life these brave and innocent people, of which Low Moor can be proud.

Bob Duckett


The publications can be borrowed from the library service or purchased from the publishers c/o 13 St Abbs Fold, Odsal, Bradford, BD6 1EL. Email:


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