The dangers of factory work

Workers in a munitions factory.
Workers in a munitions factory.

From the start of the Great War a shortage of artillery shells threatened the whole war effort and culminated in 1915 in the formation of a coalition government with David Lloyd as Minister of Munitions.

He galvanised the industry with the building of new munitions factories. One of these was near Gretna and was to become the biggest factory of its kind in the world.

Known as HM Factory Gretna, where today a museum dedicated to it is called The Devil’s Porridge, it stretched 12 miles from Longtown to Dornock, straddling the border and employing 20,000 people, mostly women.

It had four large production sites and two purpose-built townships to house the workforce.

The site was so large that it had its own power station and 125 miles of railway to transport materials. The townships had bakeries and laundries, even a police force. The bakeries made 14,000 meals a day and the laundry was cleaning more than 6,000 items daily.

By 1918 the telephone exchange was handling 2.5 million calls. A filtration/treatment works could handle up to ten million gallons a day.

In full production the site was producing 800 tonnes of cordite per week. It became known as the ‘Devil’s Porridge’ after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited a site and wrote: “The nitroglycerin on the one side and the gun-cotton on the other are kneaded into a sort of a devil’s porridge”.

The site was instrumental in the curtailment of alcohol sales through nationalisation of pubs and breweries so that the workforce could make it in and work as safely as possible.

Medical inspections were basic and it is disturbing to read reports of the limited protection workers had in dealing with the toxic chemicals. Nationwide more than 200 people lost their lives through accidents, explosions or poisoning from chemicals – as much a war fatality as any soldier, sailor or airman.

The women, ‘Munitionettes’, stood out on buses, trams and railways by the yellowing of their skin.

In January 1917 an explosion in a factory at Silvertown, London, killed 73 and caused more than 400 injuries. In the north east lives were lost in an explosion at a munitions factory at Birtley.

Women in their thousands had made a major breakthrough in the workplace during the war, but when they were not needed they went back, some reluctantly, to their homes and kitchens and to their returning husbands and sweethearts.

If you have information on any casualties of the First World War from North Tyneside contact or call into our office at B9 in the Linskill Centre, North Shields, Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm. Email