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Remembering the Avonmouth mustard gas factory

Marco, Elena

Remembering the Avonmouth mustard gas factory Thumbnail


Elena Marco-Burguete
PVC, Head of the College of Arts, Technology and Environment



The women of the Great War had undertaken a predominantly domestic role until that point in time. This changed during these testing times, as women took the place of the men in the factories. There was an urgent need to produce large quantities of ammunition and the women made up the majority of the workforce. In the factories of Avonmouth and Chittening hundreds of women worked in perilous conditions to produce shells, but these shells weren’t just filled with explosives, they were also filed with Mustard Gas, H, H.S or even LOST as it was then referred to.

The gas brought back blind, scarred and breathless men from the front but both women and men were still prepared to use the filthy deadly weapon. It paved the way as being one of the earliest forms of chemical warfare, the beginning of the chemical weapon of destruction.

The Dichlorethyl Sulphide (H) - carbon, sulphur, chlorine and hydrogen- would be diluted with carbon tetrachloride and monochlorobenzene to create a brown gooey liquid that smelt like wild garlic or horse radish. This was used to fill thousands of shells to be used during the war.

The gas slowly penetrates deep into the respiratory system, after 12hrs the effects become visible. The ‘H’ destroys the DNA and dissolves the cells, liquefying tissue. While a deadly gas, it is also one of the first chemicals used in the development of chemotherapy.

Our LOST Secret

The LOST Secret is composed of four different pieces that capture the physical and psychological reality of a lethal weapon which is also a ‘cure’. It commemorates the sacrifices of the men and women that suffered the debilitating consequences of one of the most poisonous and deadly gases, both in the Avonmouth factory and in the trenches. It honours and celebrates the degradation of the human body for the honourable cause of the winning the war.

o The Creation of H has taken inspiration from the Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, which portrays God breathing life into Adam. Its reference to Michelangelo is made through the composition of hands; drawing on the paradox of the undeniable connection between the two beings, whilst at the same time being very separated from a mortal to a divine existence. The connection here lies in the production and use of H and its burning consequences, the separation through distance of the home front to the western front.

The trajectory for this piece was formulated through research of the subject. In the context of H (or Mustard Gas), a decision to intimately express the collective and respective processes of war felt from a male and female
perspective. Hands were chosen to express this, being a part of the human body that is most used in the act of manifesting our desires, displaying our character and a tool for social interaction. Delicately drawn in pencil, appearing boldly from a deep brown murky abyss; the colour of the all consuming H, they form a moment of emotion and connection drawn out of processes for creation of death. The almost porcelain hand expressive of the women working in the factory filling munitions with H is offering the lethal gas for use by the men in the trenches.

Commemoration is paid to those men and women who suffered together as equals for a common cause--- winning the war, even if it meant using one of the first chemical weapons ever produced. This memorialisation of those who died, offering their lives so fervently, is also a reflection upon our abilities to create and the responsibility for that creation and its intention.

Date: August 2014
Medium: Pencil and stain on paper

o The War Path commemorates the journey of the deadly gas from production all the way to the trenches. The mechanised and industrial factory process, taking place in Avonmouth is expressed in a 3D form on a base of wood, metal and oil as would be common in the factory. The gas then goes on a journey; much like the soldiers, all the way to the front line, beginning on the local railway of Avonmouth Docks. Through a collage technique mapping the trenches in France alongside the blueprints of the vessels used in the manufacturing process of the gas, the authors expose the ugly reality of the war. The efforts of those at home have also been commemorated with a hidden gas mask, for use during a gas attack by the enemy; the same types of gases being manufactured so close to their own homes.

Date: August 2014
Medium: Mixed media on wood

o The Death of a Cure explores the reality of the deadly gas, showing the degradation of the human body. By using a mixed technique of drawing and collage the exhibit shows the intentional and unintentional effects that will blind, scar and dissolve the human body. 3 people died at the Avonmouth factory from contact with Mustard Gas during various accidents, with many more deaths and serious injuries on the frontline after Mustard Gas attacks. Autopsies on some of these bodies led to the important discovery that their bone marrow had been destroyed. From this discovery, medical breakthroughs occurred through the development of the early forms of chemotherapy. The gas is not only portrayed as a chemical weapon of destruction but also as one of the first curative chemicals.

Date: August 2014
Medium: Mixed media on canvas

o The Factory of Death represents the crude reality of the working conditions within the Avonmouth factory. The factory not only produced the deadly gas but also caused death and long term suffering to the workers whose working conditions where determined by the contact with the deadly weapon. The inspirations originated from the conditions within the Avonmouth production sheds. The broken machinery parts that are to be used within the sculpture directly relate to the machinery inside the sheds and how pieces of ‘charging’ machinery would leak Mustard gas onto the floor around the workers. A quick fix would entail the use of old oil cans and rags to prevent further spillage. Due to these conditions, all employees at some point of working within the factory would fall ill and some would later die due to prolonged exposure.

The piece enforces the relationship between the emergency conditions enforced to produce the gas and the conditions this caused for the women behind the doors. The collage of ideas within the piece is enforced with the solidity of materiality, whilst the fluidity of the gas is composed across the piece, with the use of expressionistic compilations between multiple distinctive and paradoxical compositions. The mixed media nature tells a story, demonstrating different parts and roles that people had to play around the mustard gas production.

Date: August 2014
Medium: Mixed media


Marco, E. (2014). Remembering the Avonmouth mustard gas factory

Physical Artefact Type Artefact
Publication Date Aug 1, 2014
Publicly Available Date Jun 6, 2019
Keywords Avonmouth, mustard gas, Avountmouth mustard gas factory, war
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