Stirring up memories of the Devil’s Porridge in Dumfries

A new exhibition is to honour the bravery, commitment and self sacrifice of those who travelled from all over the Commonwealth to the Scottish Borders to make the Devil’s Porridge during World War One.

Uncover the true story of the Devil's Porridge in Scotland Correspondent magazine

Devil’s Porridge in Scotland Correspondent

In the early years of the Great War a shortage of shells needed for the front caused a national crisis forcing the British government to step up production of munitions on a massive scale.

The result was the the biggest explosives complex in the world straddling the border between Scotland and England. HM Factory Gretna, as it was officially named, stretched from Eastriggs in Dumfries, through Gretna and over the border to Longtown in England. It was nine miles long and two miles wide.

Hundreds of chemists, explosive experts and engineers were recruited from across the Commonwealth to organise and manage the production of cordite.

Full story and great images in Scotland Correspondent magazine

Two townships were specially built to house the workers, complete with cinemas, dance halls and the largest women’s police force in Britain at that time.

Of the workforce of around 30,000 almost 12,000 were women, many aged between 17 and 20, who had travelled from across Britain and beyond to do their bit for the war effort at Gretna. 

They were tasked with the dangerous job of mixing the highly volatile ‘devil’s porridge’ paste needed to produce the finished cordite used to propel the artillery shells.

It was Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle who first coined the phrase ‘the Devil’s Porridge’ during a visit to the site while working as a War Correspondent.

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Conditions in the factory were tough. Many of the workers forced to handle a combination of gun cotton, nitroglycerine and other chemicals used to make the cordite saw their skin turn yellow and their teeth fall out. Many, overcome by fumes, appeared permanently drunk.

A major new exhibition is due to open at the award-winning Devil’s Porridge Museum in Eastriggs this month looking at the contribution of people from the Commonwealth to World War One.

The museum, which is housed in a purpose-built interactive centre uses artefacts, information panels, film and audio, photographs and oral histories to bring the fascinating history of the area to life.

“We know of dozens of people who came from New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and Australia to work at HM Factory Gretna,” said Judith Hewitt, Museum Manager.

“Eastriggs is the Commonwealth Village. All its road names are from WWI and are the names of places in the Commonwealth such as Delhi Road, Vancouver Avenue, the Rand and Singapore Road.

“We will be hosting a mini Commonwealth games with the local school and hoisting a flag for different countries from the commonwealth outside the museum each day.”

The Museum is located on the B721 between Annan and Gretna with easy access from the A75 between Gretna and Dumfries and minutes from the M6 motorway.