Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Greatest Factory on Earth

Yesterday I made a return visit to the Devil's Porridge exhibition in Eastriggs. It's a fascinating place. If you've never been, I recommend it! The exhibition remembers the men and women who built and worked at HM Factory Gretna, 'the greatest factory on earth', in munitions production in the first world war. The Devil's Porridge is run by friendly volunteers. The website is here.

One reason for making a second visit is that, since I was last there, the museum has a new addition. This is Sir James, one of fourteen fireless locomotives which worked in areas of the factory where any sparks might cause an explosion. These locomotives were steam powered, and charged at various points in the factory. Sir James was built by Alexander Barclay, Kilmarnock, and was in service at HM Factory Gretna in 1917-18. In 1924 it was sold by the government to the Metropolitan Electric Power Supply Company to work at Brimsdown Power Station in North London, where it was given the name Sir James. In 1975 it was moved to Fleetwood Power Station. In 1982 it joined the collection at the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway, and last year, 2011, it came home! It's in a sorry looking state but I was told that cosmetic restoration is planned.

There were some forty miles miles of standard gauge railway, and thirty-six miles of sidings, inside the factory grounds, as well as nearly fifty miles of narrow gauge. HM Factory Gretna stretched for nine miles west from Longtown, along the Solway coast. The function of the factory was to produce cordite, the propellant for artillery shells.

This is the main tableau inside the museum showing women workers mixing the guncotton and nitro-glycerine, the 'Devil's Porridge', the name being coined by Arthur Conan Doyle in an article written in December 1916 in the Annandale Observer.

The mural at the rear is by Hugh Bryden (commisioned by Friends of Annandale and Eskdale Museums) and gives an idea of the extent of the works. The various processes involved in the manufacture of the cordite were well spread out to minimise the consequences of accidental explosion. The western end of the factory at Dornock (Eastriggs) had the plants for producing the nitric and sulphuric acids, the nitroglycerine and the guncotton. At Mossband near Longtown there was the ether plant and the drying stoves. The finished product, cordite, was then transferred offsite to be assembled into the cartridge cases of artillery shells at munitions works elsewhere in the country.

Some 30,000 were involved in building the works, and it was staffed by 20,000 workers, the majority of whom were women. The townships of Eastriggs and Gretna were built from scratch to house these.

If you are interested in social history, there are walking guides available for both Eastriggs and Gretna, covering the important sites in these new townships and passing the buildings that have survived the past nearly one hundred years. For example, the photo above is one of the three blocks of the Gordon House Hostel (named after Gordon of Khartoum), in Gretna. In front of this building, where the grass is, there was the railway line that linked the Glasgow South Western main line at Gretna Green to the factory rail network.

The Devil's Porridge exhibition also has a detailed WW2 exhibit. I wonder if my own contemporaries will have fond memories of the toilet roll shown in this case. This is the 'Government Property' version of the Izal product ('medicated with Izal germicide') that we had at primary school. Could also be used as tracing paper!

I had forgotten all about this 1950s pastime until my memories were revived with this exhibit of bobbin knitting. And I've now discovered that 'spool knitting' is well recorded, see here.

The war over, HM Factory Gretna soon closed. The fittings were sold at auction, the factory buildings demolished. Some of the land remained in government hands through WW2 until now. The future of the munitions storage depot at Longtown is uncertain, see here, and that at Eastriggs has been mothballed. That's part of the Eastriggs site above.

Eastriggs remains securely fenced off, and off limits to the countryside explorer and industrial archaeologist!

Photos © Skip Cottage

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