Working at the M/S Factory Dalbeattie :
The thousands of men and women who worked at Ministry of Supply Factory Dalbeattie have lived and died for the most part
without recognition or acknowledgement. As indicated on the site index, this has triggered the writer's decision to make
the website and carry out the necessary research. Although only a handful are still alive in 2006, it is worth the effort
gathering their recollections and recording those here.
About the Workforce :
2,000 women were recruited to work at the explosives factory, together with 200 men. They came from as far away as
Glasgow and Newcastle, lodging in and about Dalbeattie, although the shortage of billets resulted in some lodging as far
away as Dumfries and Gatehouse of Fleet. The scientific and technical staff (all men) were mainly trained at ICI Nobel's
Ardeer factory; some were career explosives workers others (for example, the Acid Plant manager George Nicholson) were
university students and men of similar technical backgrounds.
The high number of workers - 2,200 - is explained by the 24-hour three-shift system of working, so at any one time there
would be 700 - 800 staff on duty.
Mr. David Nicholson, manager of the Unit 1 (Southwick) Acid Recovery Plant in 1942-1943, recorded the following
shift pattern : 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Office staff such as Mr. Ferguson worked daytime
shifts. It also appears that the staff did not work 'fixed shifts' (i.e. 11 till 7 seeing no daylight) but that shifts
were staggered during a month. Mr. Nicholson's papers also confirmed Ena Bolton's comment that staff only had a half hour
in the canteen (messroom), so she and her friends used to cross the marshland on the steam pipe bases as a short cut to
their canteens, being a good half mile away.
From various sources (including Jean Burnie and Katherine Mounsey) it is clear that staff worked a 48-hour week with only
one day off in the week. Staff worked the staggered time shifts, but were organised partly according to where they lived or were
billeted. There were references to a 'Dumfries Shift', a 'Dalbeattie Shift' and a Kirkcudbright and Castle Douglas Shift'.
Age vs. Beauty :
From the memories of Ena Bolton, one of the blending and packing staff, the women were assigned to duties according to
age and health. The older women - 'The auld maids in P6' - were employed in the more hazardous and fume-laden areas of
'Wet Mix' and cordite milling, whilst the younger women who had not had children yet were employed in Blending and Packing.
Training for the women staff was what might be called today 'induction and in-service', although in the less-skilled
tasks the safety training had to be kept in mind in case boredom caused accidents.
The remarkable Katherine Mouncey (born Robertson) told the writer that Blending and Packing workers could start at age 18,
but Press House workers had to be at least 21.
The technical staff - the 'hill men' on nitration, the 'acid men' at the acid plant and the 'wet mix' staff in the Burette
Houses - did have protective clothing and were in the most danger from sudden fire or explosion. The 'Wet Mix' women also
had protective clothing and masks, as did those in the cordite milling area. Blending and packing women wore navy blue
over-gowns and gloves whilst handling the cordite. The runners or 'shovers' at Dalbeattie wore dark blue serge trousers and dark blue
jerseys, Katherine Mounsey confirming that the Press House staff also wore that uniform.
The colours date back to the 1890s Ardeer colour-coding of staff uniforms, where the men in the Nitration Hills wore red,
the searchers for contraband wore dark blue with red facings, the 'runners' or explosive carriers wore dark blue, the
smokeless powder (cordite) men wore light blue and the women all wore dark blue uniform dresses or jackets and skirts.
Whilst it has not been established that all these colours were used at Dalbeattie, the dark blue certainly was. By the
1930s laboratory staff wore white coats, so it may be that the Hill men were able to avoid wearing red. The munitions women
in the H.M. Factory Gretna near Eastriggs in 1915 wore khaki dresses with red facings under their aprons, but Dalbeattie
was in a later time and an ICI Nobel establishment.
No metal fastening such as steel buttons could be worn, neither were staff allowed to wear any footgear with metal
cleats or fittings that could strike sparks. Staff in the most critical areas wore fabric slippers or rubber boots, to
further reduce the risk of a lethal spark that could cause a fire. Nobel women workers in the 1890s had to braid their hair
but the 1915 girls had mob caps and the Dalbeattie women were told to keep their hair short, as there was a risk that
long hair (even if braided on the head) would catch in drive shafts or other machinery. Hair pins, Kerbigrips, metal
suspenders, metal combs, brooches, rings and ear-rings, were all prohibited contraband. So, too, were matches, lighters
and any form of rolled or smoking tobacco. The severe rules were the result of industrial accidents that had caused death
and injury at Ardeer and elsewhere in the early days of Nitroglycerine and Nitrocellulose manufacture.
The rules were very strict on 'De-Matching', no lighters or boxes of matches being permitted inside the Factory. The
danger was not merely from the batches of explosive but also from any loose dust from the cordite or the nitrocellulose.
All staff had to be searched at the Gatehouses' Search Rooms before entering the fenced-off perimeter.
Punishments for infringing the Regulations were severe. According to one lady at an 'Open Day', she had a burnt-out
matchstick she used for scraping the last vestiges of lipstick from its container. On one day she left that matchstick in
her overalls and it was found in the Search Rooms. Despite her innocent mistake, she was reported and sent in front of the
Sheriff Court. She was fined £ 5, then equal to two weeks' wages.
David Lochhead of Castle Cottage, built in the old Edingham Gatehouse, reported that there was a large quantity of ash in
his garden. He had been told that the contraband was openly bonfired, maybe as a warning to others, beside the Search Rooms.
According to a former Blender at Ardeer, Helen Ritchie, contraband also included anything metallic or abrasive - rings,
brooches, suspenders and kerbigrips were all regarded as hazardous.
Hazards to Life :
The most obvious dangers to human life lie in the fires and explosions that could kill or injure staff and destroy the
products needed to fight Nazi Germany. Less obvious - and not as clearly realised at that time - is the effect prolonged
exposure to the cordite could have on the staff. Acetone has a similar effect on the body to alcohol and nitric acid vapour
from the cordite milling and pressing was very destructive to teeth. Long term exposure effects were not clearly understood,
although a few far-sighted workers did take action to help themselves. Ena Bolton recalled that a colleague working in
'Wet Mix' (blending nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose) who later became a nursing sister, drank huge quantities of lemonade
during and after her shift when at the Canteen. This sensible precaution would have helped to flush the poisons out of her
body, maybe accounting for her survival into her eighties.
Again referring to Helen Ritchie's recollections at Ardeer, men and women in the Press Houses became addicted to the
acetone fumes and this caused at least one death. A less lethal tale was of a woman who lost both her clothes and her
inhibitions and started dancing on a table in the staff mess room (canteen). Dalbeattie appears to have been both more
self-controlled and better-supervised.
Although the age placement of workers inevitably meant that the women in the more hazardous jobs died years ago, the
suspicion has to remain that the workers paid for their duty with an impaired health and a shorter average lifespan. One
would have to see whether there were more chemically-induced cancers, liver problems, heart problems and probably hair and
skin disorders. It would also be necessary to rule out factors such as stress, smoking and contamination by other chemicals.
However, it is possible to say that the munitions workers' task risked their lives not merely whilst on shift and in
wartime but afterwards as well.
Staff Entertainments :
According to David Ferguson, formerly working in the administrative section, the Dalbeattie Factory staff never were
subjected to 'Every Night Something Awful' ENSA, the Entertainment for National Service Association. Instead, organisations
such as the YWCA and the staff's own enterprise filled in the off-duty hours. A hutment in Maxwell Park ('The Daniel') near
the site of the present Blair Youth Centre, provided entertainments and refreshments, as a counter to the age-old Dalbeattie
involvement with pubs. It was felt by some that the Factory girls' morals and morale was endangered by being billeted so far
from home, but in fact there were many successful courtships and weddings, such as the Watsons, Nicholsons and the Knoxes,
produced by the Factory.
Amongst the entertainments, the girls themselves used to sing whilst doing the blending and packing, resulting in the
formation of impromptu choirs and music nights. Mr. Ferguson recalls singing two songs in one revue, whilst in Christmas
1944 the staff presented 'Aladdin' in the Dalbeattie Upper Town Hall. A news-sheet covering Dalbeattie and the powder works
at Carsegowan was produced subsequently, with letters of goodwill from the managers and photographs of staff and the
Stand Down and 'Farewell to Shift Two' :
From the words of Ena Bolton, it appeared that the Factory was rapidly run down after VE (Victory in Europe) day and
closed soon after VJ (Victory in Japan) day. This was simply because there was no demand for the cordite and other
plants had the peacetime task of producing ammunition. Being who they were, the munitions workers went out with a
flourish; graffiti on the walls of one building recalls the relief at an end to war and a poem 'Farewell to Shift
Two' was written by one staff member, recalling the human side of explosives manufacture. Being given that poem
- 'Farewell to Shift Two', writer unknown - by Matthew Taylor was the trigger for the writer in starting
Memoirs and Accounts :
Memoirs of former staff and what they told their relatives are being recorded on this site as an ongoing project.
Please go to Staff Memories for a list of the online information.
Roll of Honour :
Site visitors with information are invited to contact email@example.com, preferably with contact
information such as name and phone.
I look forwards to discussing your family involvement in M/S Factory Dalbeattie and RNAD Dalbeattie.
- Richard Edkins.