By Elizabeth McQuillan
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thought it “perhaps the most remarkable place in the world” and came up with the moniker “the Devil’s porridge” following his visit in 1918 to the massive secret factory installation, codename Moorside, built in the countryside around Gretna.
He was describing His Majesty’s Factory, Gretna and the cordite it produced. The workers had the dangerous job of combining nitroglycerin and gun cotton with acetone – which resulted in the lumpy and rather explosive porridge that was so essential for the war effort. During long, hard shifts, the workers produced 800 tons of the stuff per week.
Before the building of the factory, things were looking pretty bleak. The British army was experiencing huge losses of life on the battlefield during early stages of the first world war, with much of this down to a shortage of munitions.
Shells and guns required cordite to fire them. Production on the home front was less than adequate, and the British commander-in-chief’s view was that a shortage of munitions led directly to the failure of the British offensive at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915.
David Lloyd George campaigned, using his editorial contacts, to claim that the failing war effort lay at the feet of the War Office and Lord Kitchener. The Liberal government floundered and failed in 1915, with the emergence of a new government coalition. Within this government a new department was formed, the Ministry of Munitions, and Lloyd George was put in charge. He set about building the necessary factories.
Sheltered by the Pennine and Cumbrian mountains, and often shrouded in mist from the Solway Firth, His Majesty’s Factory was built at the remote location near Gretna. At its peak (including building of the site), there were 30,000 workers. Most of these were women, along with migrant workers from Ireland and all over the Commonwealth – attracted by the availability of longer hours and relatively high wages.
The biggest factory in the world, this huge site extended for over nine miles by two miles, straddling the English border, from Longtown in the east to Eastriggs in the west. The factory buildings were spread widely apart, in keeping with the dispersal principle whereby, in the case of combustion of the volatile commodities, any damage was self-contained and unlikely to result in a domino effect to the surrounding buildings.
It was also close to vital transport links (the Caledonian and North British railway connections), as well as the necessary coal sources and the foundries of northern England. Internally, the site had 125 miles of light-railway track.
Government-approved wooden townships were built in Gretna and Eastriggs to house the migrant workers, and here the workers would share beds and make use of the beds in shifts – “hotbedding” – to make best use of available accommodation. The complex had its own power station, telephone exchange, and bakeries to supply and feed the factory and its workers.
A journalist of the time, Rebecca West, visited the complex: “In the glare it showed that like so many institutions of the war it has the disordered and fantastic quality of a dream. It consists of a number of huts, some like the government-built huts for Irish labourers, and some like the open-air shelters in a sanatorium, scattered over five hundred acres; they are connected by raised wooden gangways and interspersed with green mounds and rush ponds.
“It is of such vital importance to the State that it is ringed with barbed-wire entanglements and patrolled by sentries, and its products must have sent tens of thousands of our enemies to their death. And it is inhabited chiefly by pretty young girls clad in a Red-Riding-Hood fancy dress of khaki and scarlet.”
It has been suggested that the workers were in need of a good drink at the end of a hard working day, and one might surmise that there would have been some serious partying with the “pretty young girls” who worked the gruelling shifts. The barbed wire and patrols were more likely there to keep out amorous drunks than German invaders. The local pubs were reputedly drunk dry on many occasions.
Without the building of the factory, the resulting huge industrial-scale production of the cordite and the workers who lived and worked on the site, the outcome of the Great War might have been very different.