Arthur and Annie Browning were the Grandparents of parishioner Pauline Stevenson. Pauline writes:
Arthur was born in 1885, so was 29 when the war started and Annie was a year younger, They were both born in Nottingham, but moved out to the suburbs – to 55, Imperial Road, Chilwell – not long after they were married.
Nottingham was well known for the manufacture of lace at this time. The Brownings were a family of smiths and mechanics and had moved to Nottingham from Devon early in the nineteenth century to work in the lace industry, manufacturing and mending lace-making machinery. As a sideline, he also repaired clocks, often using tools that he had made himself.
Arthur was a small man – five foot five and three quarter inches tall with a thirty one inch chest, according to his military records. He loved to read and encouraged a lifelong love of reading in me (I still have a lot of his books). He also enjoyed a drink, but prefer a quiet drink at home to a busy pub. While Annie Browning was not tall, she had an imposing presence. She was warm and outgoing, loved to socialise and liked a bet.
In 1914, Arthur was a married man with two small children – my mother Hilda, and Uncle Fred – so wisely did not volunteer. He was however, enlisted in February 1918 as conscription was extended to married men. Fortunately for Arthur, there was a need for mechanics to join the Royal Flying Corps. When he realised that the job set as an aptitude test could not be done with the tools he had been given, he had the presence of mind to say so. This was the answer that the examiner was looking for, so Arthur found himself in the Royal Flying Corps as an Air Mechanic Third Class.
Air Mechanics were ground crew, responsible for maintenance. Third Class was the lowest grade in the Technical Section of the RFC, so this would have meant supporting senior mechanics and carrying out tasks like swinging the propeller to start the engine and refuelling the plane.
This did mean that his pay increased to a princely 2s (10p) a day – a whole 6d a day more than a humble private got.
Arthur seems to have been posted to France quite quickly. We know this because we have a couple of silk postcards that he sent to Hilda and Fred from France. Hilda’s card was for her 11th birthday, which was on 11th April, 1918. At this point, a major German offensive was underway and there was no reason to think that the war would be over soon.
Arthur’s message to Hilda …must have felt like wishful thinking when he wrote it:
“Hope Daddy will be home for your next birthday”
At some point – probably in the summer of 1918 – Arthur’s propeller swinging went wrong and he suffered a broken arm. This meant a return to England and a spell in hospital. He did get some home leave at this point, but this was interrupted by a knock at the door and the presence of two policemen, who tried to arrest Arthur as a suspected deserter. Fortunately they soon realised their mistake and he enjoyed the rest of his leave in peace.
Arthur was discharged from what was now the RAF in February 1919, so spent just a year in uniform.
He went back to a quiet life in Chilwell and to his trade as a sewing machine mechanic. He never left England again and rarely left the Nottingham area before his death in 1960.
When Arthur was in the forces, Annie was also working to win the war.
As a wife of a member of the armed forces, Annie would have received a Separation Allowance and we also know that Arthur’s employer agreed to pay the family’s rent while he was in the RFC. Even so, Annie needed to earn to keep the family going.
Fortunately, there was a large employer in Chilwell, keen to employ women like Annie. This was National Shell Filling Factory no.6, one of several set up across the country after 1915 in response to a crisis in munitions production. Chilwell’s job was the production of high explosive shells and the factor produced some 19 million shells between January 1916 and November 1918. Most of the 6,000 workers were women, many from local textile factories. The women who filled the shells with TNT were often affected by their exposure to these chemicals which could turn the skin and hair yellow
Annie was put on the production line, but was trained to operate a crane, shifting filled shells around the factory. The factory ran round the clock, with alternate 12 hour day and night shifts. This meant that 11 year old Hilda was in charge of the house and eight year old Fred for much of the time, and that the children often had to be left alone in the house at night.
The Chilwell factory became nationally known on 1st July 1918 when eight tons of TNT exploded, killing 134 workers, many of them women. Only 32 of the bodies could be identified. The rest of the factory returned to work the following day and production had returned to normal within a month.
Annie was not directly affected by the explosion, but continued to work at Chilwell throughout this period.
A suggestion was made by the Ministry of Munitions that the Chilwell factory be collectively awarded a Victoria Cross. Although this was never implemented, Chilwell was known unofficially as “The V.C. Factory” after this. When the workforce was wound down at the end of the war, many of the workers kept the brass identity discs that they used to check in and out of the site and had them embossed with “The V,C,Factory” as a souvenir. I am pleased that we still have Annie’s disc today.
Annie left the shell factory at the end of the war, but returned there in World War Two, when it was as the Ordnance Depot. Annie had a very long life – always enjoying company – and continued to live at 55, Imperial Road until the 1980’s.