Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Devil's Porridge ...

... definitely not fit for human consumption!

Recently on a trip to the Dumfries and Galloway Solway coast we visited this fascinating exhibition which reveals a wartime top secret establishment. And an amazing secret it was too, because from just after the start of the First World War, due to a shortage of ammunition, some 30,000 women and men were recruited from all over the world to work in what was to be the most massive war factory ever, HM Factory Gretna, manufacturing munitions. The photograph above is one of the displays showing women making The Devil's Porridge - a paste that was a highly explosive mixture of nitro-glycerine and nitro-cotton. It was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes ... yes, there had to be a reason for his appearance ... who coined the term The Devil's Porridge, after he visited the factory in 1916 and saw the paste being made.

Yes, this is a fluffy white piece of cotton-wool and I bet you're thinking what has this innocent we ball of fluff got to do with the Devil's Porridge. Well, it forms the basis of the paste. The other ingredients were mixed, by hand, in huge cauldrons of cotton-wool, by the factory girls - and a really dangerous process it was too.

Here you can see a photo in the exhibition that shows some of the girls ready for a day's work. There uniforms, though hardly flattering, were special too - baggy, shapeless garments, including a mop cap, in a dull khaki green cotton, just loosely tied ... any other fastenings were not allowed. Buttons, hairpins, jewellery, etc., were just too dangerous, because if any dropped off and into the paste it became combustible.  

The dried Devil's Porridge paste was shaped into cordite what was then put into the shells and bullets that was used by British troops throughout that terrible war.  This photo shows the shrapnel that was also added to the shells - they look quite harmless but these small balls of mortar could do untold injury to a soldier on the receiving end of them.

To house all these workers, two new townships sprung up around the factory, Eastriggs and Gretna (not to be confused with the famous and nearby Gretna Green). They did not officially exist however because of the need for secrecy so were codenamed 'Moorside'. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with more writerly flair referred to them as the Miracle Towns, because of the speed with which they were built. That's not to say no thought went into the planning of the towns. They were designed by well-known and renowned architects of the day on modern Garden City principles so must have been lovely places to live then, as they still are now.

For those who love them, it's statistics time:
  • The factory was one of the largest factories ever built on Earth and stretched nine miles, from the outskirts of Annan across the border to Longtown
  • Its railway network was 125 miles of track with 34 railway engines
  • It had its own powers station supplying electricity to the factory and the townships, its own water treatment plant handling 10 million gallons daily, and its telephone exchange handling 2.5 million calls in a year
  • The factory bakeries produced 14,000 meals and 13,000 loaves daily
  • The laundry could clean 6,000 items daily

Aside from all the fascinating exhibits related to the workings of the factory there is also a film show that tells the story of evacuation of children, and, in some cases, their mothers, from Glasgow to Dumfriesshire and there are displays that give a taste of the experience on the home front. There's a newly created 1940s house and an original Anderson Shelter on show. Here are just a few more photographs taken which might be of interest.

Labour saving laundry equipment 1940s style

Sewing ephemera from the period
Recycling 1940s style

Even girls were encouraged to do their bit!
Cookery book to help the meagre rations go a long way
An adult's ration ... for a whole week!

The much cherished ration books

And if it wasn't bad enough being up to your eyes in dangerous war work, there were numerous nasty illnesses and conditions to look out for too. I can't imagine there are many cases of scabies and ringworm seen today.

And finally,

My DH looking very much at home with his 1940s wife - note she is wearing a floral cross-over apron over a hand-knitted jumper ... this was a practical way of keeping clothes clean and ensuring they lasted as long as possible, and with clothes being on ration too, this was essential. I remember my grandmother buying several of these aprons twice a year - spring and autumn - to see her through, as she put it. Sadly,as time went on, it became harder for her to find them in the shops - a fact that upset her greatly.

I hope you enjoyed this condensed trip round The Devil's Porridge exhibition and I hope that some of you will take the opportunity, if you are ever in the area, to visit it because it is well worth the trip. There is a website you can visit for further information ... you can find it here ... you will see that there's loads to see and there's a shop too.

After that, I'm off to have a much needed cuppa.


Sarpreet said...

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Marie-Louise said...

Really enjoyed your photos. It looks as if you had a great trip. We have been to Scotland so many times and yet never knew this existed - marvellous.