How one Merseyside town played a key role in the war effort

A site in one Merseyside town has an fascinating wartime history – and is unrecognisable to what residents know it to be today.

In 1934, the opening of the East Lancashire Road made Kirkby more accessible and though plans for an industrial estate were considered, the coming of war postponed industrial changes for a number of years.

Due to the threat of war, the government decided to build a munitions factory in Kirkby, with work beginning on the site in 1939.

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The Royal Ordnance Factory site, which was completed in 1941, was one of around 40 ROF's to be constructed at the time and over its six year use manufactured 10% of all munitions for the war effort.

To reminisce, we spoke to relatives of former ROF workers to find out what life was like on the site during the war.

Here we take a brief look back at the role Kirkby played in the war effort and what the site became in later years.

The Royal Ordnance Factory

Over a century ago, rural life in Kirkby had changed very little for decades.

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According to records office Knowsley ARK, the area was selected for a munitions factory due to availability of land, as well as transport links, such as the recently completed East Lancashire Road.

The urgency for a huge amount of land needed meant short notice was given to the occupiers of the 12 farms affected by the construction of the ROF site.

Compulsory purchase orders were placed on the 12 farms, with residents given two weeks to leave and up to 250 farmworkers were rehoused at Rushey Hey, with others moved to Melling, Aintree and further afield.

Telephone exchange switchboard, Royal Ordnance Factory, Kirkby, October 1945

Construction began in late 1939 and the Royal Ordnance Factory, which was completed in 1941, became a major employer in the town and had people travel from Liverpool, Birkenhead , St Helens and more to be part of the workforce.

It employed up to 20,000 people from across the region and on the site could be found an administrative building, an engineering machine shop, a tailor's shop, a treatment room, chemical laboratories, a loading bay, a canteen and more.

Hostel accommodation for up to 1000 people was built at Kirkby Fields and run by the Young Women’s Christian Association and 200 key worker houses were also built on the Park Estate.

Heroes of ROF Royal Ordnance Munitions Factory Explosion in Kirkby, Liverpool, September 15, 1944, receive their awards. (Left to Right) Foreman William James Panton (BEM and George Medal), Shop manager James Shanks Murdock (BEM and Georg Medal), Factory Development Officer Richard Arthur Samuel Bywater (George Cross and George Medal), Factory Superintendent Laurence George Gale (OBE), Mrs William Louis Fitzmaurice (who received the George Medal on behalf of her husband who is on special duty in Berlin), Shop manager Mark Victor Rowling (BEM and George Medal) and Roy Thomas William Edwards (George Medal) BEM is the British Empire Medal. 11 people were injured there was a total of 37 awards for bravery and distinguished conduct made by the King. Picture taken 19th September 19, 1945

Admin staff were said to be housed at Spinney Road and Spinney Close.

According to National Museums Liverpool, the factory was built outside the city to minimise the danger from explosions and resulted in long journeys to work for some staff members.

Filling shells was a hazardous job with a high risk of explosions and a number of workers were killed or suffered injuries. Skin conditions were very common from handling chemicals.

After dealing with the accidents and the fires that occurred, workers at Kirkby received 37 awards for acts of bravery.

"It was like living on a knife edge all the time"

In her early 20s, Edna Carter, nee Percival, would travel from Tuebrook to Kirkby to be part of the ROF workforce.

Edna's daughter Jill Ridgeway, 65, said: "She just said it was like living on a knife edge all the time. There was the odd explosion and loud bangs.

"She did her bit but my nan didn’t like the idea of her there.

Internal view of the engineering machine-shop, Royal Ordnance Factory, Kirkby. October 1945

"My mum's friend, we called her auntie, her name was Lil. She was my mum's extended family and they were sat next to each other or in front of each other.

"They walked to work half the time. There were no trams or buses because of the air raids the night before."

After the war, Edna moved to Kirkby to raise her own family in Southdene and Jill said the family have many happy memories and she is still in touch with childhood friends today.

"They were called the canary girls"

As a teenager, Anne "Nancy" Leonard worked at ROF Kirkby to do her part for the country during the war.

Daughter Anne Levey told the ECHO: "She was about 16 or 17 when she worked there and she lived on Scotland Road.

"She’d catch the number 19 tram outside the Rotunda Theatre, which is no longer there as it was bombed in the Blitz.

"When they got to Kirkby there was a special station opened which was for the ammunition people.

"She said it was a long journey from Liverpool which it would've been and if there was bombing the night before they’d still have to go to work the next day."

Anne "Nancy" Leonard from Scotland Road as a teenager, around the time she worked at ROF Kirkby

Anne said her mum would make hand grenades and witnessed people being injured in the process, but would have to continue with her work.

She said her mum and others were also referred to as "the canary girls" as the affects of trinitrotoluene – more commonly known as TNT – left their skin stained yellow.

Anne said: "The money was good she said and it was a dangerous job, but I think they were a different breed then.

"They did what they had to do and they were brave for their age. Most of the men went to war and they stayed to do this dangerous job."

Royal Ordnance Factory. Private M Webster with Private Elsie Bolton, both of Liverpool, working on a cardboard carton manufacturing machine which turns out 1200 boxes a day, at the new Ordnance Supply depot in the North of England. Circa November 1942

Anne said her mum and others at the time would always dress smartly for work and were very glamorous in their spare time going to the cinema.

In 1946, Anne's mum also attended a Farewell Night when the ROF was closing and the souvenir programme cost threepence.

She said she'd like to see a plaque or monument one day on the site to commemorate those who took part and thank them for their service.

Kirkby Industrial Estate

After the success of developments in Speke and Aintree , plans for an industrial estate in Kirkby were considered, but the Second World War delayed the progress.

In post-war years, Liverpool City Council bought the site for industrial development and Kirkby Industrial Estate was later born.

Expansion through 1950s and 1960s saw Kirkby Industrial Estate become one of the largest in the country, which played a key role in the development of the town – and by the early 1970s, the estate employed over 26,000 people.

Kirkby Industrial Estate, Merseyside, June 26, 1975

Many families in Kirkby still have links to the famous industries and companies that once stood or are still operating on the industrial estate.

A number of well-known brands made Kirkby Industrial Estate their home , from frozen foods brand Birds Eye, which established a factory in 1953, to Pendleton's Ice Cream.

Kraft, Hygena, Fisher Bendix, Hygena, Otis Elevators and Yorkshire Imperial Metals also set-up bases on the estate.

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Following the Second World War, the site at Kirkby Fields that had been used as a hostel for important munitions workers at the ROF became Kirkby Training College, a Liverpool Corporation facility operated to provide emergency training to teaching staff, which opened in 1948.

Once Kirkby Training College was no longer required, the site was acquired by the Malayan Government to be used as the Federation of Malaya Teachers’ Training College and was in operation from 1952 till 1962.

What remains of wartime past

Alongside Kirkby Industrial Estate, in the town stands 10 buildings from the Second World War, known as the Group 9 buildings, which form part of what was ROF Kirkby stand on Acornfield Road and Draw Well Road.

In March this year, plans were approved to demolish four of the wartime bunkers on Draw Well Road that had been "vacant and derelict for a significant period of time."

The site is not currently in commercial use and after the war and up until recently was used largely for storage.

Work is to start on the development of 80,000 sq ft of new business premises and Knowsley Council said: "Full consideration was given before making this decision; with English Heritage and Historic England being fully briefed and consulted before any demolition took place and there are no plans to demolish the remaining six Group 9 buildings."

Have you got any memories of ROF Kirkby? Let us know in the comments section.

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