National Projectile Factory – Birtley

Belgian munitions workers posing for a photograph at the N.P.F. – Birtley 

Facility Type & Function:

National Projectile Factory (N.P.F.) – The manufacture of 5”, 6” and 8” diameter plus 60-pdr shells of several types.

Brief History:

This purpose-built factory was constructed on behalf of the Ministry of Munitions by Sir W.G. Armstrong Whitworth & Company who operated a similar existing works on an adjacent site. Construction of the site started in 1915 with limited production commencing late in that same year. The factory wasn’t officially opened or reached full production until 1916. It continued to operate until the end of the war in 1918. Thereafter the site continued to operate as a shell production factory until it was relocated to Washington, Tyne and Wear, in 2013 under its then owners B.A.E. Systems Limited.

In 1918 the factory employed 3,980 men and 288 women. Of all the N.P.F. in Britain during the Great War the one at Birtley was unique in that after it formally opened it was operated almost exclusively by Belgian refugees and Belgian war wounded soldiers who were unfit to return to front line service. The factory’s management was also placed under the administration of the exiled Belgian Government who restricted employment at the work to men only. Only a few women were employed on the site, and they filled only minor clerical positions.

A second munitions works, a Cartridge Factory, was located adjacent to Birtley’s N.P.F. This facility was largely staffed by local women. The two factories were sometimes refereed to as Birtley “A” and “B”.  Their respective workforces were segregated and security fences separated the two workshops. The combined site spread over 61 acres of land.

A plan of  Birtley Cartridge Factory (Birtley “A”  – smaller green factory to the south) and the N.P.F. – Birtley  (Birtley “B” – larger green factory to the north)  in 1918

The factory’s Belgian workforce lived in their own closed model village in Birtley, named Elizabethvilie after the then Queen of Belgium. In 1918 the community comprised nearly 6000 people of which 1200 were children. The fenced off township was fully self-contained and initially established on military lines with its own local government and gendarmes. However, opposition against the administration culminated in a serious riot in December 1916 resulting in army discipline being relaxed.

Elizabethville comprised 325, three bedroom, 342 two bedroom cottages, 22 timber huts, 24 hostels,for single workers. Some of the larger homes even had gardens.  In addition the township had its own Roman Catholic Church, primary and secondary schools, a 100-bed hospital, a cinema/recreation hall, and kitchen/dining halls,  laundries, bath houses and a police station. There were shops such as a butcher, grocer, dressmaker, draper, shoemaker, hairdresser, a covered market with hardware supplies, and a photographer. The township also had licensed premises, a British post office, a pig and poultry farm, outdoor leisure facilities and a Roman Catholic cemetery. Locally it was known as the “Belgian Colony” and its inhabitant the “Birtley Belgians”.

The following presentation details further details and contemporary images of Elizabethville.

In December 1918 the Belgian’s of Elizabethville were rather hastily  re-repatriated over the period of only a few weeks. The township was closed and handed over to the Ministry of Labour. In 1919 its contents were auctioned off. Some of the Belgian’s remained or returned to the area after the war and there are still families today who are their direct descendants.

Nearly all  former buildings belonging to the N.P.F. have now been demolished (i.e. post the site’s final closure in 2013). Similarly there only a couple of remaining buildings that once formed part of the “Belgian Colony” of Elizabethville.

Location Details:

Birtley, County Durham (now part of Tyne & Wear), England – National Factory Area No.1

Associated Token, Check & Pass Issues:

Type I

(Image Courtesy Gary Oddie)

Function: Canteen Token (Note 1)

Material: Brass

Design: Bi-facial with a plain edge

Shape & Size: Circular, 26.7 mm

Obverse:  Raised legend in both French and Dutch around upper field reads AU CHEVAL BLANC / HET WIT PAARD and in lower field ELISABETHVILLE / BIRTLEY . The denomination 1/- is incusely stamped in the centre field.

Reverse: Raised legend around inner field reads A. VAN DER VELDE, MAKER . NEWCASTLE-ON-TYNE

Date: 1916 to 1918

Maker: Van Der Velde of Newcastle-on-Tyne (Note 2)

Published References: Oddie, G. – “Revisiting the Birtley Belgians”. Token Corresponding Society Bulletin. Volume 9, Page 453.


Type II

Function: Canteen Token (Note 1)

Material: Brass

Design: Bi-facial with a plain edge

Shape & Size: Circular, 26.7 mm

Obverse:  Raised legend in both French and Dutch around upper field reads AU CHEVAL BLANC / HET WIT PAARD and in lower field ELISABETHVILLE / BIRTLEY . The denomination 6D is incusely stamped in the centre field.

Reverse: Raised legend around inner field reads A. VAN DER VELDE, MAKER . NEWCASTLE-ON-TYNE

Date: 1916 to 1918

Maker: Van Der Velde of Newcastle-on-Tyne (Note 2)

Published References: Gardiner, J. – Checks, Tokens, Tickets and Passes of County Durham and Northumberland. Page 3. Private Publication. 1996. – Not listed in this size and with this reverse type and denomination.


Type III

Function: Canteen Token (Note 1)

Material: White metal (zinc) alloy

Design: Bi-facial with a plain edge

Shape & Size: Circular, 33.1 mm

Obverse:  Raised legend in both French and Dutch around upper field reads AU CHEVAL BLANC / HET WIT PAARD and in lower field ELISABETHVILLE / BIRTLEY . The denomination 3D is incusely stamped in the centre field.

Reverse: Raised legend around inner field reads A. VAN DER VELDE, MAKER . NEWCASTLE-ON-TYNE

Date: 1917 to 1918 (Note 1)

Maker: Van Der Velde of Newcastle-on-Tyne (Note 2)

Published References: Gardiner, J. – Checks, Tokens, Tickets and Passes of County Durham and Northumberland. Page 3. Private Publication. 1996. – Not listed in this size.


Type IV

NO IMAGE AVAILABLE

Function: Canteen Token (Note 1)

Material: White metal (zinc) alloy

Design: Bi-facial

Shape & Size: Circular, Approximately 25 mm

Obverse:  Raised legend in both French and Dutch around upper field reads AU CHEVAL BLANC / HET WIT PAARD and in lower field ELISABETHVILLE / BIRTLEY . The denomination 1D is incusely stamped in the centre field.

Reverse: Raised legend around inner field reads A. VAN DER VELDE, MAKER . NEWCASTLE-ON-TYNE

Date: 1917 to 1918 (Note 1)

Maker: Van Der Velde of Newcastle-on-Tyne (Note 2)

Published References: Gardiner, J. – Checks, Tokens, Tickets and Passes of County Durham and Northumberland. Page 3. Private Publication. 1996.


Type V

NO IMAGE AVAILABLE

Function: Canteen Token (Note 1)

Material: White metal (zinc) alloy

Design: Bi-facial

Shape & Size: Circular, Approximately 25 mm

Obverse:  Raised legend in both French and Dutch around upper field reads AU CHEVAL BLANC / HET WIT PAARD and in lower field ELIZABETHVILLE / BIRTLEY . The denomination 4is incusely stamped in the centre field.

Reverse: Map view of the Great Britain within raised legend around which reads A. VAN DER VELDE, MAKER . NEWCASTLE-ON-TYNE

Date: 1917 to 1918 (Note 1)

Maker: Van Der Velde of Newcastle-on-Tyne (Note 2)

Published References: Gardiner, J. – Checks, Tokens, Tickets and Passes of County Durham and Northumberland. Page 3. Private Publication. 1996.


Type VI

NO IMAGE AVAILABLE

Function: Canteen Token (Note 1)

Material: White metal (zinc) alloy

Design: Bi-facial

Shape & Size: Circular, Approximately 25 mm

Obverse:  Raised legend in both French and Dutch around upper field reads AU CHEVAL BLANC / HET WIT PAARD and in lower field ELIZABETHVILLE / BIRTLEY . The denomination 6is inclusley stamped in the centre field.

Reverse: Map view of the Great Britain within raised legend around which reads A. VAN DER VELDE, MAKER . NEWCASTLE-ON-TYNE

Date: 1917 to 1918 (Note 1)

Maker: Van Der Velde of Newcastle-on-Tyne (Note 2)

Published References: Gardiner, J. – Checks, Tokens, Tickets and Passes of County Durham and Northumberland. Page 3. Private Publication. 1996.


Type VII

NO IMAGE AVAILABLE

Function: Canteen Token (Note 1)

Material: Brass

Design: Bi-facial

Shape & Size: Circular, Approximately 26 mm

Obverse:  Raised legend in both French and Dutch around upper field reads AU CHEVAL BLANC / HET WIT PAARD and in lower field ELIZABETHVILLE / BIRTLEY . The denomination 6is inclusley stamped in the centre field.

Reverse: Map view of the Great Britain within raised legend around which reads A. VAN DER VELDE, MAKER . NEWCASTLE-ON-TYNE

Date: 1917 to 1918 (Note 1)

Maker: Van Der Velde of Newcastle-on-Tyne (Note 2)

Published References: Gardiner, J. – Checks, Tokens, Tickets and Passes of County Durham and Northumberland. Page 3. Private Publication. 1996.


Notes:

1.  These tokens appear to have been used as a form of refreshment token given to the Belgian workers at the N.P.F. in Birtley and which could be exchanged for food or drink at Eliabethville’s central communal dining rooms which could seat up to 2,500 people. The third of these dining rooms, named the “Cheval Blanc” (i.e. White Horse), opened in 1917. It seated 700 people and was furnished and decorated to give  an authentic “Bruxelloise” cafe-restaurant atmosphere. It was licenced to provide live music (Gardiner, J. 1996).

The location of the “White Horse” can be clearly seen in the contemporary plant of the N.P.F. and Elizabethville below. It is the large blackened H-shape building towards the south of colony, to the east of the police station (Gendarmerie) and Laundry (Buanderie).

A photograph taken inside the White Horse  in 1917 gives a clear image of the location where these tokens were used.

Inside the “White Horse ” in Elizabethville, Birtley, 1917

2. Van Der Velde & Company were a well-known North Eastern check and token maker based in Newcastle-on-Tyne.


 

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