Scotland's 'miracle town' where thousands of workers produced Devil's Porridge for war

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It was described as a "miracle town" or perhaps even the most remarkable place in the world where tonne upon tonne of 'Devil's Porridge' - or high grade explosives - were made to fuel the Great War.

Not only did HM Gretna employ 20,000 people at its peak to make cordite for the frontline but it also launched an impressive social experiment that provided housing, entertainment, welfare and social care for its workers.

Women unloading nitrating pans at the factory. PIC: Courtesy of The Devil's Porridge Museum.

Women unloading nitrating pans at the factory. PIC: Courtesy of The Devil's Porridge Museum.

The factory, which included 12,000 women on its payroll, is also said to have gone a long way in shifting public opinion in favour of women's suffrage given the dangers and sacrifices made by its employees during wartime.

The factory was built after the Ministry of Defence bought up on a stretch of peat bog some nine miles long and two miles wide on the Solway Coast in 1915.

Thousands of construction workers, many of them from Ireland, created the plant in less than a year.

READ MORE: A blast from the past at Scotland's lost dynamite factory
Sherlock Holmes writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited the site in 1916 to write an account of the place that seemingly captivated the writer with its scale and ambition.

The dangerous work carried out at the plant by women, some who were injured, maimed and even killed while on shift, is said to have influence public opinion in favour of women's suffrage. PIC: Courtesy of The Devil's Porridge Museum.

The dangerous work carried out at the plant by women, some who were injured, maimed and even killed while on shift, is said to have influence public opinion in favour of women's suffrage. PIC: Courtesy of The Devil's Porridge Museum.

He wrote: "In the centre the colony a considerable nucleus of solid brick houses, which should be good for a century or more. Here, are the main offices, the telephone stations the club for the staff, the hospital, the cinema theatre, row of shops, and a cluster residential houses.

"Radiating out from this centre are a long line of wooden erections to hold the workers, cottages for married couples, bungalows for groups of girls, and hostels which hold many 70 in each. This central settlement is where the people live—north and south of it where they work."

READ MORE: How Scotland's lost industries can still be traced in the landscape
These vast wooden settlements became known as Timber Town with people living essentially under government surveillance, surrounded by barbed wire. To curb the temptation of drink, the state took control over five local breweries as well as nearly 400 premises, including public houses and off-licences, according to accounts, given the dangers of the working environment.

Conan Doyle described the "raw material end" of the site where a high nitric acid plant was located next to an even larger sulphuric acid installation.

A train loaded up with products for 'Nitro-Glycerine Hill' where gun cotton and nitro-glycerine was "kneaded together in a sort of devil's porridge," Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote. PIC: Courtesy of The Devil's Porridge Museum.

A train loaded up with products for 'Nitro-Glycerine Hill' where gun cotton and nitro-glycerine was "kneaded together in a sort of devil's porridge," Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote. PIC: Courtesy of The Devil's Porridge Museum.

In surrounding buildings, a scattering of buildings linked up the production process and served in stores for the necessary components to make guncotton - the building block of explosives - which is formed by dipping cotton in a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids and then removing the acids by washing with water,

From the plant rose a train line which took the highly-volatile products to 'Nitro-Glycerine Hill' where the gun cotton and nitro-glycerine was "kneaded together in a sort of devil's porridge," Conan Doyle wrote.

He added: "Those smiling khaki-clad girls who are swirling the stuff round in their hands would be blown to atoms in an instant if certain very small changes occurred.

"The changes will not occur, and the girls will still smile and stir their devil's porridge, but it is a narrow margin here between life and death.

"It is only constant order and care which keep the frontier intact."

The Devil's Porridge, Conan Doyle wrote, was fodder for Britain's 'hungry guns" with 800 tonnes of the explosive made at the factory every week - more than the rest of Britain's munitions factories combined,

Today, the Devil's Porridge Museum, which sits at the heart of the former industrial land, which is still owned by the Ministry of Defence, tells the story in full of HM Gretna.

Judith Hewitt, museum manager, said the factory was forged by the vision of David Lloyd George, then minister for munitions, who earlier led welfare reforms and was keen to entwine the state with social betterment.

Ms Hewitt said: "When they were building the factory, they were aware they were spending a lot of money and they had one eye to the future. They knew the war would end one day and that Britain would, hopefully, be victorious

"They wanted to create a model village, a modern township. One of the goals was also to show that the state could run a factory as well as a private individual could

"Lloyd George, before the war,was one of those who wanted the state more involved in private lives, such as education and housing. He had these ideas pre-war but hadn't the funds or the support to try them out."

Ms Hewitt said that, when the exchequer opened up during the war, Lloyd George found himself equipped with "a lot of power and scope" to develop HM Gretna beyond the traditional remit of that normally held by a minister for munitions.

There was also a determination that the skills and knowledge developed at HM Gretna would not be lost when the war was over, Ms Hewitt added.

The enterprise head hunted the best talent from across the British Empire, including scientists from Australia and a South Africa-based explosives expert , Kenneth Bingham Quinn,, who formerly worked for diamond company De Beers.

He went on to write 300 technical manuals based on the work carried out at HM Gretna.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's article helped to push the case for women's suffrage given the high female employee rate and tough and high risk conditions they endured. Many stories of women who lost limbs in explosions and fires at the plant have been recorded, Ms Hewitt said. Fatalities were also recorded.

Ms Hewitt said: "Prior to the war, Conan Doyle was opposed to suffrage...the more he heard about it, the more he was turned off.

"But when he saw the women working at HM Gretna, saw the contribution of the women, saw them working calmly amid great danger, he changed his mind.

"One of the great arguments against suffrage was that women didn't fight in wars so they couldn't have a say.

"But that argument was demolished by what was happening here, where women were maimed for their contribution to the war effort.

"The images of women working at he factory, and articles like those written by Arthur Conan Doyle, were very influential in turning the tide of opinion.

"Their effort at HM Gretna helped to secure the vote for women but the irony is that most of the women working here wouldn't have got the vote in 1918 as they were too young, too poor and unmarried."

Despite its long term vision, HM Gretna closed in 1921 with the houses sold off six years later with many of the brick-built properties still standing the test of time, much as Conan Doyle's evocative description of the Devil's Porridge and the war's hungry guns.