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Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -
 View of Nitration Hills, Unit 2 (Edingham)

Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie
World War II Cordite Works

~ Index ~ Site History ~ Virtual Tour ~
~ Buildings and Functions ~ Manufacture of Cordite ~
~ The Workforce ~ Graffiti and Poems ~
~ Wildlife ~ Sources ~ Links to Other Sites
~


Virtual Tour of the Works :-

Key Points :-

  • Welcome and Introduction.
  • Nitration Hills.
  • Cordite Rolling and Pressing.
  • Railway Station, Canteen and other structures.
  • Stoving and Acetone Recovery.
  • Steeping/Drying Houses.
  • Magazines.
  • Loading Station.
  • Site Defences and Air Raid Shelters.


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 paste.

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.

Top

© 2006 Richard Edkins, Dalbeattie Internet.

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