- Some of the munitions girls who were working at Chaul End around the time of the explosion. Injured Eva Poulton may be among them.
Censorship meant that little more was revealed after the Beds & Herts Saturday Telegraph published the above authorised statement from the Press Bureau on March 2nd, 1918, about an explosion in a Home Counties munition factory. What was not revealed at the time was that the explosion had occurred at the Chaul End national fuse-filling factory of George Kent Ltd the previous day.
And while the statement said the majority of injuries were slight, The Luton Reporter on the following Tuesday did reveal that three of the six unnamed injured girls had since died in hospital. The Luton News made no mention of the deaths when it published two days later, the day on which a fourth girl died. The explosion turned out to be the worst single accident at the works in the time it was in operation. A total of ten munition workers died there during the course of World War One.
The George Kent Roll of Honour subsequently named the four victims of the Friday, March 1st, 1918, accident as May Constable, Lillian G. Harris, Kate Tomkins and Florence Warnes. The one paragraph article in The Luton Reporter said one unidentified girl had died on the Sunday night following the explosion, the second on Monday and the third on Tuesday morning. The fourth death then occurred on Thursday, March 7th. The deaths may have been the result of burns and blood poisoning.
A subsequent County Court hearing in Luton revealed that Kate (Norah) Tomkins died on March 3rd, Lillian (Lilian Gertrude) Harris on March 5th and May (Mary Emma) Constable on March 7th. Florence Warnes, who did not feature in the cases, consequently had died on March 4th, based on the Luton Reporter paragraph.
Lilian's mother was awarded £115 damages (£15 forthwith and 15 shillings a week from the invested balance); May Constable's family £100 (£50 plus £3 a month); and Norah* (Kate) Tompkins's widowed mother Caroline, of Lanes End, Heath and Reach, £60 (£15 plus £2 a month). [*Family history records consistently give the 17-year-old's first name as Norah or Nora.]
Lillian's family was the only one to live locally. A death notice published in The Luton News (March 14th, 1918) read: "HARRIS - March 5 at the Bute Hospital, Luton, Lily, the beloved daughter of Mr and Mrs Harris, of Bedford Road, Houghton Regis, aged 23". Lillian is included in the burial register of the old Houghton Regis Baptist Church.
The 1911 Census shows that Lily was daughter of farm labourer Joseph Harris and his wife Anna, of 25 Bedford Road, Houghton Regis. Lily was then employed on gumming at the Waterlow printing works in Dunstable.
Another Houghton Regis girl appears to have been among the injured on March 1st. Eva Elizabeth Poulton, of 72 High Street, Houghton, later received a telegram from Buckingham Palace, via George Kent's, which read: "Their Majestys the King and Queen command us to convey to you their concern at the accident that had occurred and the sympathy in the suffering you have undergone. Desire to be informed of your progress." Nothing appears to be recorded about Eva's injuries, although she survived to marry Russell Bliss in 1927 and both lived in Houghton Regis until their deaths within six months of each other in 1984.
A report appeared in The Buckingham Advertiser and North Bucks Free Press (March 23rd) of the semi-military funeral of May Constable, daughter of Thomas and Mrs Constable, of 74 Aylesbury Street, Fenny Stratford. She was buried at Fenny Stratford Cemetery.
Defence of the Realm Act restrictions prevented newspapers from publishing details of the explosion. One journalist set out his frustrations - and seemingly those of readers wanting to know more about the Chaul End incident they knew had happened - in a poem published in the Saturday Telegraph on March 16th. The lament read:
When your favourite paper you search
For special latest news
And find you've been left in the lurch,
Don't start to us abuse.
All we have heard, or all we've seen,
Must not be told to you,
For D.O.R.A. is the ruling queen
Of Press and public too.
A King may come, a Queen may go,
By thousands recognised,
But just why so we cannot show
Until we've been advised.
Explosions, strikes and kindred things
Apt to engender woe
Must wait until the Press wire sings,
'Released by Press Bureau'.