Welcome to Dalbeattie ...
The Tour begins at the approach to the Edingham Industrial Estate, near Edingham Farm. I am Richard Edkins
and I will explain what is known about the site as we go through it. This tour briefly examines the main structures
present - for the rest, go to the Interpretation section.
Approaching down the A 711 from Dumfries :
The first thing you see is a pillbox, with a long, low building below it, to the south side of the road.
As you carry further onwards towards Dalbeattie, you will see a cluster of factory and farm
buildings, then a second pillbox set in a chain-link fence. Through the trees, above the sheds of a
chicken farm, stand some structures like grass-covered volcanoes, with concrete-framed doorways. Then, as
you approach a junction, a big half-buried air-raid shelter can be seen in a field. This is generally
the most that people see of an enormous factory site a mile long, three quarters of a mile wide. Between
1942 and 1945, this factory and ones at Powfoot and Drungans produced a third of the cordite
explosive used by Britain's armed forces.
Administration and Guardroom :
As you turn off the A711 into the B793, look to your left, and you will see the concrete bases that once
supported the wooden administration sheds and the office staff canteen. This is outside the Factory perimeter,
a low security area. The concrete bases have had walls added and are used by the council to store road salt.
The big shelter in the field as you approached the junction, was probably for these office staff.
A little further on and on your right you will see Castle Cottage, with a concrete walled garden and a
shed-like building with five doorways. Up to a few years ago, Castle cottage was a flat-roofed building,
the Guardroom where armed Police controlled the main road gateway into the Factory site. The five-door
building, currently used as a shed and stable, was the Contraband Search Block where staff were searched for
matches, tobacco and other things that could cause a flame or a spark. A mistake with a burnt-out matchstick
cost one woman a £ 5 fine in 1943.
Nitration Hills :
The factory was in two identical parts - Southwick (Unit 1) and Edingham (Unit 2). We will
enter the Edingham section first, continuing down the B793 and then left into Edingham
Industrial Estate. From the B793 you can see the full height of the volcano-like Nitration Hills, in
which nitroglycerine was made. The brick building beside the upper hill was where acids were mixed, before
being pumped up to the highest of the Nitration Hills and reacted under controlled conditions in the Schmid
reaction units. The mix of acids and glycerine was very unstable and could explode very easily. In a crisis, there
were six different ways in which to dump the reaction mix from the reaction and wash units into a 2,000
gallon 'drowning tank' of water. The nitration building inside the hill, like others, had a thin roof and the blast from
an explosion would go up rather than sideways. The mixture of nitroglycerine and acids flowed downhill to a second hill,
where most of the nitroglycerine was removed, then to a third where the acid was washed from the nitroglycerine, the
washings going to a fourth hill (now demolished) where the remaining small amounts of nitroglycerine settled and
were run off. In a fifth stage, the wash water settled into a clay pond, whose lining had to be removed every so
often and burnt with the minute traces of nitroglycerine it held.
Burette Houses :
Even when dry and free of acid, the nitroglycerine was too unstable to use, so it was mixed with acetone -
nail varnish remover - before being put into tanks on wheeled trolleys and wheeled carefully across
to the Burette Houses - locally known as the 'Wet Mix' units. Parts of four of six of these
have survived at Edingham, dug into a slope opposite the Nitration Hills. They held lead-lined tanks heated
to about 40° Centigrade by steam-heated hot water. Nitrocellulose (guncotton) brought from Drungans was put
in the tanks, the acetone and nitroglycerine mix being slowly added and the whole turned to a jelly-like mass - the
Cordite Mixing, Pressing and Rolling Houses :
To reach these buildings we go through the farm gate beside the Milk Link warehouse site, once Caradon Stelrad.
The cordite paste was brought into these buildings - all in small rooms, to reduce the risk of explosions - then
mechanically mixed, rolled into sheets, pressed into blocks and finally extruded through dies to produce the fine
strands or 'cords' after which cordite is named. This process is more complex and dangerous than it appears - the
front of the building was designed to blow out in the event of an explosion, and above eight pressing units in the
broader of the two structures there were water tanks that could be dumped on the press and its operators in case of
fire or imminent explosion.
All the working floors in the cordite process buildings - and some of the paths between them - were covered in thin
acid-resistant gritless asphalt that prevented both acid damage and the risk of sparks. The staff wore special navy
blue uniforms with rubber boots or fabric slippers, with no metal to strike sparks. In some buildings, the asphalt
has degraded and broken up, in others it is buried under animal dung, farm scrap or animal feed, but in the remoter
areas of Unit 1 there are Cordite Houses in an excellent state of preservation.
Railway Station, Canteen and other structures :
Leaving the Unit 2 Cordite Houses, we proceed along the track parallel with the line of the old railway, until after
about half a mile we reach the bridge beside the Kirkgunzeon Lane Viaduct. Up to 1968, The old Dumfries to Stranraer
'Paddy Line' provided South West Scotland with a valuable rail freight and passenger service. Its closure lead to the
closure of many Dalbeattie businesses, a blow that the town has not really recovered from. By 1946 the cordite
factory had closed, the site being used by the Royal Navy to store ammunition, until in 1960 the site was sold off.
The Stelrad company ran their radiator factory until 1998, their big factory sheds now being used by Milk Link to store
dairy products. Stelrad used part of the land as a dump for waste lime and for thousands of crushed drums of solvents,
paint and other items. The site was so huge it absorbed the dump and Stelrad's benign neglect of parts of Unit 1 - the
Southwick section - preserved the cordite factory buildings and let nature re-establish the heathland that was here before
farming and industrial use.
Although now rather battered, the Unit 1 railway station area preserves the remains of other critical parts of the
works, long demolished in Unit 2. The track runs up between the main buildings. To the left, we have first an empty
area that may have been used for administrative buildings, now demolished and infilled with lime. Next to it is a
one storey windowless building that may have been a Fire Station or the works Control Centre, or both. To the right
is the shattered remains of what may have been the Boiler House, producing the steam needed to heat buildings and
provide heat for the manufacturing process. You will see the remains of hundreds of precast concrete pipe supports,
which took steam to buildings which were - in some cases - nearly three quarters of a mile away. All this steam was
heated by three wagonloads of coal every day.
The Canteen to the north of the Boiler House cannot now be entered because the internal damage from vandalism has
made it dangerous. However, the writer has visited it, making enough photographs to show that the upper floor had a
large workers' canteen with toilet areas for female staff, male staff and foremen. Nothing survived of the canteen
equipment, but at least the staff had the benefit of radiators. The ground floor of the Canteen block was used for
storage by Stelrad's and is in occasional use by the farmer. As it has a surprisingly strong ceiling, I suspect
this area may have had a double use for storage and as an air raid shelter.
Across the road from the Canteen are the heavy foundations that supported the huge Acetone Storage Tanks, and the
the (now unstable) Acetone Processing Tower. Removal of the equipment and steelwork has critically weakened this unique
structure, which will have to be demolished. Note from the photographs that the light fittings get their power
from external ducts - a spark from a damaged wire or light fitting could have started a serious fire.
Further up beyond the Canteen is the Railway Station, a building with floors of gritless asphalt. It was used to unload
nitrocellulose from Ministry of Supply Factory Dumfries, the Drungans works in Cargenbridge. Whilst not as sensitive as
nitroglycerine, nitrocellulose dust could explode and the whole station was kept clean. The station was only for freight,
not for passengers.
Beyond the Station building was the Stationmaster's Office, where accounts of incoming nitrocellulose, acids, glycerine
sodium carbonate and other necessaries were kept. It had a Fire Point in the hallway where a stirrup pump, sand buckets
and water buckets were kept. This was one of many Fire Points, essential in a works where one fire in the wrong place
could cause explosions that could kill hundreds of people.
The next buildings may have been workshops or stores, also accessing the railway platform. It is possible that one was
for sodium carbonate and the other for drums of glycerine, but as one building has signs of machine bases, that one
could have been a workshop.
Moving further along, the buildings enter a thicket of trees with some high walls and crumbling foundations - all that
is left of the Acid storage tanks and the Waste Acid Plant, supplying acid to the Nitration Hills along a pipeline 1200
feet long, then repreocesasing spent acid to use again. The railway sidings are full of rubble and scrap, but on the far
side are an Engine Shed for the shunting engine and a small building that may have been a railway maintenance workshop.