Letitia Henderson and a forgotten story from the First World War…

Larne war memorial

You will not have heard of her.

Letitia Henderson’s name will not be recognised among the millions who were lost in the First World War, whose centenary we have marked this year.

In total there were in the region of 20 million casualties in the war, approximately half of whom were civilians.

Among the civilians was a young Larne woman named Letitia Henderson.

Before the war came along, Letitia was well-known in the small town as pianist at local dances.

And in the era of silent movies, her role at Larne Electric Theatre was to provide music to accompany the action on the big screen.

She was the third daughter of Mary Jane Henderson of Mill Street, which was the old part of the town, an area of mixed shops and houses, and a mission hall called the Getty Mission.

Eventually Mill Street was levelled for development, later in the century.

But in 1901 the street provided a home for Robert Henderson (50) and his wife Mary Jane (45) and their five children.

Letitia, who appears on the census as Etta, was the eldest child, aged 21 in 1911, and her siblings were James (15), Margaret (10), Charles (8) and William (1 years old).

We do not know what occupations her parents had, but apart from William all the family could read and write and they belonged to the Church of Ireland.

In 1917, when Letitia dies, she is described in the local newspaper as daughter of Mary Jane Henderson, when it was typical to refer to a child through the name of the father rather than the mother, so it may be assumed that Robert Henderson was no longer at Mill Street and probably deceased.

In January 1917 the young Larne woman left the town, boarding a ferry which would take her on the first stage of her journey to the Morecombe and Heysham area.

It was there that she had obtained employment in a munitions factory.

It was also there that she would die.

There were over 8,700 companies and factories producing various sorts of munitions during the First World War in the United Kingdom.

A typical chain of operation was for a factory to manufacture empty shell cases and then send them on to another ‘filling factory’, where the explosives were added and a fuse fitted.

The factories had many women working in them, the war having resulted in many men going off to the front or otherwise being in service.

Women munitions workers in the canteen of the National Projectile Factory, Lancaster.
Women Munition Workers in their canteen at the National Projectile Factory, Lancaster. Photo from the archives of the Lancaster City Museum.

Generally fewer women were employed in the manufacturing sites, as shell forging was seen as being a man’s work. But in October 1918 of the 8,656 employees at the National Projectile Factory in Lancaster, for example, 47% were women.

The factory had been built in September 1915 and it supplied shells for the National Filling Factory at Morecombe, which a much higher proportion of women were employed.

This is probably the factory where Letitia Henderson was employed.

While working in the factory, Letitia and another work colleague contacted what was described as “an industrial disease” which was respiratory in nature.

When she was in the factory, employees were supposed to keep their masks on, suggesting perhaps a chemical aspect to the munitions which were being prepared.

At some point the girls had been eating sweets and it appeared that two of them briefly took off their respirators to get a new supply.

This looks to have been the simplest of actions that caused them to lose their lives.

A coroner’s inquest heard from the forewomen involved, a lady named Elsie Boddington, that Letitia Henderson had been a good worker and had observed the rules about not eating anything when amongst “the powder” which was being handled in the factory.

Another work colleague, Eunice Jones, said that she had seen some girls eating sweets but had not seen anyone taking off their masks to get a fresh supply.

Conditions of the factory were alluded to in that we learn from the inquest that there had been a plentiful supply of respirators, soap, towels and other things, with cocoa being available regularly for the women.

Jones told the inquest that she had never felt any ill effects when amongst the power concerned in the munitions.

A female medical officer at the factory had been called and she gave evidence that Letitia Henderson had been found to be suffering from jaundice and immediately sent to hospital, where she died on April 14, 1917.

In relation to the respirators she voiced her opinion that they were not very effective, saying that the girls laughed and talked, but she did not see how that could be helped.

The jury returned a verdict that death was due to poisoning accidentally contacted.

Letitia was just one of the forgotten casualties of the war, civilians who died serving in the war effort.

The Morecombe and Heysham War Memorial only has names of the men from the area who died in two world wars.

The war memorial for Larne and District used to sit at the far end of the town from Mill Street.

But it was moved in the 1970s to a quieter and safer location near St. Cedma’s Church, at Inver.

The old Mill Street would have been just across the river from it.

The names on the memorial do not include Letitia Henderson, a young woman whose death was every bit as connected to the War as the men from Larne who went to sea or joined the army.

A review of the names on the memorial is underway, however, and I have sent her name forward.

Maybe she will finally be recognised for her service in the Great War and remembered among the Fallen…

 

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