Feature Extract: Sampling the Devil’s Porridge
We profile a fascinating museum which is located close to a former armaments building on the Scottish/English border.
Visiting the site of His Majesty’s Factory Gretna today is a beautifully eerie experience. The land is still owned by the Ministry of Defence but nature has reclaimed it. Sitting on the Solway Firth, it is now home to deer, pheasants and rabbits.
The lines of the narrow gauge railway can still be discerned, but the metal tracks have been lifted. There are ruined buildings, deep pits and unusual mounds covering some of the former workings. In its day, it was the biggest munitions factory on earth, employing 30,000 workers and dispatching 800 tonnes a week of cordite from 1917 – this was more than all the other munitions factories in Britain combined.
Close by is the Devil’s Porridge Museum, a dedicated centre that commemorates HM Factory Gretna, and explores the stories of the Solway military coast during both world wars and beyond. The museum has been grown by the community over the past 20 years; from a small exhibition in St John’s Church and via a large uninsulated industrial shed in Eastriggs to the fantastic modern interactive museum it is today.
Its dedicated team of staff and knowledgeable volunteers have played a vital role in helping to build this wonderful museum to ensure the story of HM Factory Gretna can be told for years to come. It uses artefacts, information panels, film and audio, photographs and oral histories to bring the fascinating history of the Borders area to life.
Vital War Work
The museum tells the story of the factory and the two townships built to accommodate the employees. People came from all over the empire to work at the site – there were explosives experts from South African diamond mines, chemists from New Zealand and Australia, Canadian engineers, 10,000 navvies mainly from Ireland, and J C Burnham, the superintendent of the factory who travelled from India. All came to the aid of their mother country and its war effort in Gretna.
Many of the workers were young women, the so-called Gretna Girls. They came from across Britain: many travelled daily from Carlisle, others moved from Ireland, the Lake District, the highlands of Scotland, Tyneside or the Isle of Man. The girls made the “Devil’s Porridge” (a term coined by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle after his visit in 1916). Hostels were built with cubicles for each worker, there were hostel matrons and the largest female police force in Britain, up to that date, to monitor and search the female workers for smuggled items.
Life at HM Factory Gretna wasn’t all hard work; there were cinemas, dances and sporting events. Romance also blossomed there – the marriage rate spiked in World War One and so many people found love during the conflict that comic postcards were made, commenting on the phenomena. The current exhibition at the Devil’s Porridge Museum is ‘Love in Wartime’, which focuses on the romance and scandals of the workers. “There are tales of love and loss” said museum manager Judith Hewitt, “as well as marriages and even trials for bigamy.”
Later Military History
The story of the ‘Solway Military Coast’ continues upstairs in the museum with an exploration of World War Two in the region. Judith commented: “We have objects from RAF Annan, Barnardo’s Boys (who were evacuated to local country estates) and we’ve a recreated 1940s house. We also look at the bombing of Gretna in 1941.” A new virtual reality experience explores the inside of Chapelcross nuclear power station where weapons grade plutonium was made for nuclear bombs.
Occasional organised trips around the historic factory site are also arranged. Judith explained: “We visit the old factory when we can and take groups around it in a minibus and these visits are really popular. You can see the site from the museum but access isn’t usually allowed so that intrigues people. There isn’t that much left to see from World War One, but it has a ghostly feel to it. The site was later used as a weapons depot and a lot of that is extant and quite impressive.”
“There isn’t that much left to see from World War One, but it has a ghostly feel to it”
So whether it is World War One or Two or the Cold War, there are so many aspects of the military history of the Borders to experience, and the museum is a great place to start. If you’re lucky, your visit might coincide with one of the regular talks by a guest speaker or special events – see the museum’s website for more details. www.devilsporridge.org.uk
For the full article, see the March issue of Britain at War – which is in the shops now.
Contact Details and Opening Time
Usual opening times: Monday – Saturday, 10am to 5pm; Sunday 10am to 4pm.
Address: Devil’s Porridge Museum, Stanfield, Annan Road, Eastriggs, Dumfries and Galloway DG12 6TF.
Telephone: 01461 700021.
Admission charge: Adults £6; concessions, over 60s, children (aged 5 to 16) £5. Family ticket (2 adults and up to 3 children) £15. School groups £3 (per student, by prior arrangement). Group bookings by appointment all year. Café on site and free WI-FI All the above information is correct at the time of going to press, but readers are advised to check with the museum before making a special journey.