The Devil's Porridge

(H.M. Factory Gretna)

Devil's Porridge Exhibition, Eastriggs
©2022 Gazetteer for Scotland

Devil's Porridge Exhibition, Eastriggs

A fascinating community initiative located beside Daleside Equestrian Centre at Eastriggs, the Devil's Porridge is a visitor centre and exhibition that explains the remarkable wartime experiences of this part of Dumfries and Galloway. Located here was HM Factory Gretna, an immense military-industrial complex, at the time the largest munitions factory ever built. Begun in great secrecy in 1915, yet stretching 9 miles (14 km) from Dornock in the west to Longtown over the English border in the east, it was located well away from German bombing and prying eyes but close to existing railway links and the Canonbie and Sanquhar coalfields. The site included 'new towns' at Gretna and Eastriggs, housing a workforce of 30,000, together with an administrative centre also at Gretna.

Early in the First World War, the Government realised Britain could lose due to a lack of ammunition, which was required in quantities never before imagined, and there was a public outcry. Thus, Gretna was built, to a remarkably tight schedule and at the massive cost of £9.3 million, to make cordite for bullets and shells.

Cordite had been devised in 1889 by Sir James Dewar (1842 - 1923) and English scientist Sir Frederick Abel for the British Ordnance Committee as a powerful, stable and predictable propellant for bullets and shells. The process involved the manufacture of a highly explosive mixture of nitro-glycerine and gun-cotton, a paste referred to as the Devil's Porridge by author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when he visited HM Factory Gretna under conditions of great secrecy in 1918. In addition to cordite, the plant also manufactured all of the necessary components, including nitric acid, glycerine, alcohol and ether. Because many of these were very dangerous, the individual buildings had to be well-spaced on the site. The highly unstable explosive nitro-glycerine was produced at the western extremity near Dornock, while the finished cordite was extruded as spaghetti-like strings - in varying diameters to suit the different types of ammunition - at the eastern end of the site. Within each building were complex chemical plants, including boilers, furnaces, stills, retorts, storage tanks and mixing machines, together with an intricate network of connecting pipelines. By early 1917, the production of cordite had reached 800 tons per week.

The scale was fantastic: it had its own railway network with 125 miles (201 km) of track and 44 railway engines, drawing 600 goods wagons daily; a 10.5-MW power station providing electricity for both factory and townships; a water treatment plant handling 10 million gallons per day; a telephone exchange that connected 2.5 million calls in 1918; kitchens which baked 13,000 loaves and made 14,000 meals daily, and a laundry that could clean 6000 items every day.

The munitions workers were mostly female. However, to cope with the drunkenness amongst male labourers, strict regulations were instigated and the State Management Scheme controlled all public houses in the area, with specially-designed weak beer supplied by the Carlisle State Brewery. Remarkably, this arrangement continued until 1972, fifty years after the munitions factory was dismantled.

Opened in 1997 within St. John the Evangelist Church in Eastriggs, the Devil's Porridge visitor centre moved ten years later to its current location overlooking DM Eastriggs, a large ammunition store which now occupies part of the old factory site. Decorated with large murals, the centre also has a replica First World War trench together with exhibits on the Quintinshill Rail Disaster and life on the home-front, with a reconstruction of a state-managed pub and a typical Eastriggs red-brick house, dressed with furnishings from the 1940s to tell the story of the evacuees who came here during World War II. The contribution of SW Scotland during that period included the military port at Cairnryan and the innovative Mulberry harbours which were towed to France after D-Day.

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