Today is the 96th anniversary of the biggest explosion and the largest loss of civilian life this country has ever known, yet many people know nothing about it. That’s because it was essential to keep it quiet at the time, so as not to draw attention to the location of National Shell-Filling Factory No 6, Chilwell.
At around 7.10pm, eight tonnes of TNT detonated, killing 139 workers, and wounding over 250 more. The bravery of those who went straight back to help, or stayed, despite their injuries, to tend the casualties, was deemed worthy of the Victoria Cross, but sadly, it was never awarded. The survivors went back to work three days later, to ensure the supply of ammunition to the Front.
What ever you think of war, this demonstration of human bravery is extraordinary. I was interviewed on BBC Radio Derby yesterday, about the explosion and our play, Swan Canaries, which commemorates it, and I annoyed myself by saying the word ‘extraordinary’ throughout. ‘Find another adjective’ I thought, ‘you don’t get prizes for using the same one six times!’ But of course, it was the right word in many ways, because many of the workers would have seen themselves as ‘ordinary people’, yet when tested, they went ‘above and beyond’ what was expected. ‘It makes yer think’, as Mary says in our play.
So, perhaps there is no such thing as ‘ordinary’, as they say. We’re always hearing stories of acts outside normality, done by those who see themselves as average. All the more reason not to forget. For me, remembering is not only about paying a just debt of thanks to those who sacrificed for others, but also about acknowledging all human potential. Remember what others have done, because it may help you do great things, even when life is telling you you’re not up to it. Potential is an extraordinary thing – it just goes on giving…
Remember the Chilwell Workers – 7.10pm, July 1st,1918.