Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:19 am
There is an exceptional little museum in the unassuming village of Eastriggs, in Scotland’s Dumfries and Galloway. The Devil’s Porridge Museum tells an unusual tale, of ‘the greatest factory on earth’, what it produced and the people that worked in it. It is a reminder of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The factory was called His Majesty’s Factory Gretna. Most people associate Gretna with Gretna Green, just across the border from England where, in times past, young eloping couples could marry without the parental consent then required under English law. The adjacent village of Gretna, however, is a modern creation, as is Eastriggs. They, and the Devil’s Porridge, were products of the First World War and their story begins some 500 miles to the south, in northern France.
At the end of 1914, the opposing armies on the Western Front were bogged down in a network of trenches that stretched from the English Channel to Switzerland. As part of an Allied attempt to resolve the deadlock, the British attacked at the Battle of Neuve Chappelle in March 1915, but were unable to exploit initial success due, it was suggested, to a shortage of ammunition. On 9 May, they struck again, at Aubers Ridge. It was a disaster. The preliminary artillery barrage was too brief and there were insufficient high explosive shells to particularly bother the German fortifications. The attacking infantry walked into a devastating curtain of enemy machine-gun fire and were mown down. Next, the wounded, lying helpless out in no-man’s land, were shelled by their own side. The British Commander in Chief, Sir John French, secretly briefed The Times’ war correspondent, Colonel Repington, that the reason for failure was a shortage of artillery shells – particularly high explosive shells, which were necessary to destroy enemy defences before the infantry were sent in. Interestingly, according to historian Martin Gilbert, French had specifically ordered artillery ammunition in the proportion of 75% shrapnel (best for use against infantry) and 25% high explosive. In any event, Repington and his employer happily exploited the intelligence they had been given: our boys were being let down and slaughtered due to a shortage of high explosive shells. Not only that, but it was suggested that the fault lay with poster hero and Secretary of State for War, Field Marshall Earl Kitchener. To do a proper job, Sir John also dispatched two officers to leak details to the leader of the Conservative opposition, Andrew Bonar Law, and the ambitious and critical Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George. There was certainly a shortage of shells: of the six million “that ought to have been delivered to the army by the beginning of May, only about a third had actually been supplied.” (Gilbert: ‘First World War’). The scandal forced the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, to form a coalition with the Conservatives.
As well as bringing down the last Liberal government in the United Kingdom, the Shell Crisis of 1915 resulted in the creation of a new Ministry of Munitions with Lloyd George as its head. The Ministry of Munitions had unprecedented powers, one of which was the construction of new, state-owned, munitions factories, including HM Factory Gretna. HM Factory Gretna was dedicated to the production of cordite – an explosive propellant used in munitions to launch shells and bullets from the cartridge and thence out of the barrel of the gun. The process of making cordite at Gretna involved mixing nitric and sulphuric acid with waste cotton to form nitro-cotton (gun cotton). This was blended with nitro-glycerine by female workers using wooden paddles – or sometimes their bare hands – in large stoneware bowls. It was this highly toxic, unstable, paste that was given the name ‘the Devil’s porridge’, by none other than Sherlock Holmes author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, when he witnessed what the girls were doing. The proper name for the mixing bows was ‘Thomson nitrating pans’, but they are inevitably referred to as ‘porridge pots’.
HM Factory Gretna comprised four sites covering an area of eighteen square miles from Dornock near Annan in the west, to Mossband across the border in England in the east. It was created from scratch on a site chosen for its relative remoteness from highly populated areas, but with good access to rail links – and it transformed this rural corner of Britain. At its peak, it employed 30,000 people; it had 125 miles of railway track to move product, supplies and workers between sites and included the two new townships created for the workers – Gretna and Eastriggs. Yet, apart from the towns, little trace of this massive complex now remains.
The Government called on expertise from across the Empire to plan and implement this vital project. It was masterminded by an American, KB Quinlan. Quinlan had been working in South Africa since 1901 and was an expert in explosives and their manufacture. Gretna was not his only project: he was appointed Director of Factories in the Explosives Supply Department of the Ministry of Munitions and, later, Lloyd George said of him, “It would be hard to point to anyone who did more to win the war than Kenneth Bingham Quinan.” The factory itself was run by John Charles Burnham, an explosives expert who returned from India especially to take up the position. The contractor selected to undertake the construction was S Pearson & Son, a firm that subsequently evolved into Pearson plc – owners of the Penguin publishing group and the Financial Times.
At least 10,000 navvies, many of them Irish, were recruited to build the factory, the new towns and the required infrastructure. They started arriving as early as August 1915. One of their first tasks was to put up wooden huts for themselves and most of the factory workers to live in. The huts were laid out on a grid, like a camp, inevitably nicknamed ‘Timbertown’. This temporary hostel-style accommodation housed the majority of the single factory workers. A smaller number of brick-built houses were constructed for senior staff and families. The new planned townships of Eastriggs and Gretna were designed by Raymond Unwin, one of the founders of the Garden City movement, and included a hospital, bakeries, shops, dance halls, bowling greens, laundries, canteens and churches. Construction of the factory commenced in November 1915 and was so swift that production was able to start in April 1916. According to the Imperial War Museum, the factory was employing 11,576 women and 5,966 men by 1917 and producing 1,100 tons of cordite every week – more than the combined output of all the other munitions plants in Britain.
There were issues with some of the construction workers, some of whom may not have been entirely enthusiastic about Britain’s war effort. Drunken behaviour, some of it violent, escalated in and around the pubs of Annan and Carlisle. The Devil’s Porridge Museum tells of “one famous night, ‘The Night of a Thousand Whiskies’, a barkeeper in Carlisle lined up 1000 shots of whisky for the navvies to consume. They drank their drink and then roamed around the streets of Carlisle raising hell.” Navvies, and workers, were paid relatively well, were away from home, and pubs were an easy place to spend money. Their conduct was particularly unappreciated in the context of the war, when other men were away fighting, and dying. Unsurprisingly, there was talk of inappropriate sexual behaviour too (details withheld: this is a family website). In fact, concern about alcohol abuse and its detrimental effect on wartime production was widespread and, as early as the outbreak of war in 1914, one of the provisions of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) had been to limit pub opening hours. Taxes were increased on the sale of alcohol too. However, in 1916, a very special arrangement was introduced in the Carlisle-Gretna district. Under the ‘Carlisle experiment’, or State Management Scheme, the Government nationalised local breweries, public houses and off-licences in the area, including along the north Cumbrian coast, eventually as far south as Maryport. Beer was weaker, advertising greatly restricted, some pubs were closed, others were redesigned to encourage games and promote the sale of food. Pub managers were salaried, rather than their income relying on profits. The Government had already taken control of pubs around the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield, and the naval base at Cromarty Firth, but the Carlisle experiment was more far-reaching. And, whereas the other schemes ended after the war, State Management of pubs and breweries continued in the Carlisle-Gretna area – even building fourteen new pubs in the inter-war years – right up to the 1970s, when the Government sold the reputedly profitable business to private owners.
There was an intense recruitment campaign to obtain the necessary staff for HM Factory Gretna. The greater part of the workforce – possibly some 70% – was female. 80% of these were single and 62% were aged 18 or under. With their men facing disfigurement, maiming, blindness and death fighting on the Front, women were keen to do war work and volunteered in droves. Attracted also by the high wages – perhaps three times as much as they could earn as a millworker or farm hand, they came to Gretna from all over the country, but mostly the north, and with a myriad of accents. More than a third had been in domestic service. For the first time, many of them had enough disposable income to treat themselves to little luxuries. Even so, men were paid about 50% more. The work was advertised as “pleasant, healthy and not dangerous.” Despite HM Gretna having arguably the best working facilities of the day, this statement was disingenuous – or a complete lie.
Munitions work was physically hard and far from healthy. The girls working with the Devil’s Porridge were exposed to toxic and corrosive substances, which could burn skin and injure lungs. Acid fumes could cause gums to rot and teeth to fall out. It is common knowledge that the skin of female munitions workers working with the explosive trinitrotoluene (TNT) turned bright yellow and their hair a shade of ginger from the picric acid in the TNT. The toxic effects could lead to liver failure, anaemia and cause damage to the immune system. They were known as ‘canaries’. A doctor at the time told them, “Half you girls will never have babies, God help you.” Some of those that did gave birth to yellow children, though the skin eventually turned a normal colour. The inhalation of alcohol and ether fumes caused many girls to become intoxicated. There were other risks at munitions works, of course: loss of limbs, accidents with acids, with railways, even falling. Most significantly, there was, of course, always the risk of explosion. Jewellery, matches and metal fastenings on clothing were banned from factory areas to avoid the risk of a spark. For the same reason, fireless locomotives, powered by a reservoir of pressurised superheated water, were used to transport the Devil’s Porridge from the Dornock site to Mossband, where it was processed into finished cordite before being transported to shell filling factories across Britain. A surviving fireless locomotive, Sir James, is on display outside the Devil’s Porridge Museum.
All that said, HM Gretna seems to have had a far better safety record than other munitions works. Historic England says there were 600 deaths from accidental explosions in munitions works during WW1, which included massive explosions at Chilwell, Faversham and Silvertown that killed 137, 105 and 73 people respectively. I hope HE wouldn’t be so parochial as to exclude figures for the rest of Britain, but you never know. From what I can make out, there were less than ten deaths from accidental explosions at Gretna, but, shamefully, the absolute number of fatalities is unknown.
The Devil’s Porridge Museum is not only fascinating, and different; it is both a reminder and commemoration of the Munitionettes and their male colleagues, the unsung heroines and heroes whose contribution to the war was critical. The outcome could have been so very different without it. The museum also highlights what a moment this was in women’s history. Somewhere between 700,000 and 1 million British women worked in munitions factories during the First World War. It was a major contribution toward changing women’s place in society and achieving equality. The Museum highlights aspects of their lives at the factory, with a mock-up of a bedroom, reproduction uniform, photographs and anecdotes. Among the objects on display are several types of ‘on war service’ badges. The women at Gretna received a triangular brass badge; it instilled a sense of pride as well as giving priority boarding and fare concessions on public transport. It also indicated that there was nothing disreputable about the wearer travelling alone at night. For men, wearing one (like the one pictured) demonstrated they were not shirking. Until conscription in 1916, men out of uniform in Britain could be accused of cowardice and presented with a white feather.
After the war, HM Factory Gretna closed. Staff went home, or were made redundant. It seems to me that the only physical reminders of it now are the townships of Eastriggs and Gretna – and the Devil’s Porridge Museum. Although its main purpose is to tell the story of HM Factory Gretna, the Museum covers additional related and local events and places. There is, for example, a display about the Quintinshill Rail Disaster of 22 May 1915, when a troop train carrying men of the Royal Scots was involved in a horrendous collision near Gretna Green. At least 227 people died. The true number has never been established, but it is nonetheless the worst rail disaster in British history. Upstairs, the museum displays include more about the recent war history of this part of the Solway coast, including the continuation of the area’s role in munitions, stories of evacuees arriving during World War Two, life on the Home Front, the bombing of Gretna (which killed 28 people), the story of local RAF Annan and Chapelcross, Scotland’s now demolished first nuclear power station. It is fascinating, brought to life with personal accounts and packed full with a whole variety of objects, from a recreated 1940s kitchen to an engine from a Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft. It never ceases to amaze me, visiting museums, how much of this stuff we have.
Central to the museum is the Mossband Clock, pictured above. This used to decorate a small tower on Mossband House, the central HQ of HM Factory Gretna near Longtown. It has been restored by Smith of Derby, the same clockmakers who built it over a century ago.
What particularly impresses me about the Devil’s Porridge Museum is that it is essentially a community project, realised by a local history association, the Eastriggs And Gretna Heritage Group. The museum began as a small display in the corner of a church and now occupies a purpose-built, well-designed, building. It is a lesson for us all in community determination and organisation.
The Devil’s Porridge Museum is running a programme called ‘The Miracle Workers Research Project’, which aims to find out more about the 30,000 individuals involved HM Factory Gretna during the war. If you have anything to contribute, from photographs to old letters, do get in touch with them – here is the link to The Devil’s Porridge Museum website.
Finally – thanks to Ruth, who said the Devil’s Porridge Museum was the kind of thing A Bit About Britain would like. She was right.