In the mid 1800s the area around Witton was described as a “countryside of babbling brooks, smiling meadows and green trees, amidst which the song of the cuckoo was heard as early as in any part of rural England.” It was this open landscape that attracted the ammunition makers from nearby Birmingham, as the making of ammunition, with its use of highly explosive chemicals, was not the trade for a built up town. In 1859 the ammunition factory of Pursall And Phillip’s on Birmingham’s busy, built-up Whittall Street exploded killing 19 people, all but one being girls aged between 10 and 31 years. Women and girls were often employed to make ammunition as it was thought they were more dextrous, as well as more careful with the explosive materials. Due to the fatal explosion of 1859, Pursall and Phillip’s moved their manufactory to a site near the River Tame in Witton, their employee, George Kynoch, taking over within the next few years. Kynoch named the manufactory the Lion Works, using a lion as his trademark, and began to build the business from a few wooden sheds.
The business that became one of the greatest ammunition manufactories in the world was initiated with Kynoch at the helm and twelve young girls working alongside; they began by trundling a shed on rollers from the Birmingham factory to the new site, and building a new shed next door. Within five years the site had grown considerably, becoming a large manufactory consisting of workshops, loading sheds and a tall brick chimney. Kynoch concentrated on making the gun cartridges and left a confident 22 year old, called Mrs. McNab, in charge of making percussion caps; under her management the caps made at Witton developed a ‘world-wide reputation’ and in the early 1880s trade reached its peak at 449 million per year.* Under Mrs. McNab’s supervision there were no serious explosions in the percussion cap works, which is more than can be said for Mr. Kynoch’s cartridge works, which spotted the local newspapers with stories of explosions, injuries and deaths. There was, understandably, public outcry, but for the Victorians the dangers of industrial work were well known and the conclusions were that these tragic mishaps were accidental deaths in a process well known to be dangerous, and workers were well paid (for the period) for their work.
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A history of the Kynoch factory from 1862 to 1960 can be found here.