The Devil’s Porridge and Caerlaverock

The Devil’s Porridge Museum

Our stay in Hoddom over the May Day holiday gave me the opportunity to go somewhere I have wanted to visit for some time: The Devil’s Porridge Museum in Eastriggs, which tells the story of women munitions workers in the First World War. In 1915 Britain was losing the war through lack of ammunition, a problem which it fell to David Lloyd George to solve. As head of the Ministry of Munitions he commissioned new factories around Britain, the largest of which was at Gretna and Eastriggs where 30,000 people, including 12,000 women, worked in a factory 9 miles long. This became known as “the greatest factory on earth”.

And what about the name, Devil’s Porridge? The excellent Canary Girls site (which is raising money for a memorial to these women) explains it thus:

A substance called cordite was used to fill shells and was made from a mixture of guncotton, nitro-glycerine and Vaseline petroleum. These volatile and highly toxic mixtures were made by hand in large vats by female workers. In a short time, it turned their skin and hair yellow and they became known as the ‘canaries’. These women worked 12 hour shifts night and day and had very little if any training. The shells they filled with this toxic mixture were heavy and weighed between 10k and 50k. By 1917 the factory at Gretna was producing 800 tons of cordite per week.  Around this time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited the factory and it seems it was he who christened the cordite mixture, ‘the devil’s porridge’.

Nitrating pans

In recruiting women for this work, HM Factory Gretna management board stressed that it required “both attention and intelligence”, was “pleasant, healthy and not dangerous”, and that factory conditions were as “ideal as they possibly could be”. I leave you to make your own mind up about the veracity of these assertions (taken from info boards at the museum), but wages were high and, with their menfolk away fighting for their country, many girls and women probably wanted to do their bit for the war effort. Here are some of their recollections, again taken from museum info:

  • Sometimes the girls were drunk from the fumes of the cordite, and had to be taken to the sick bay to sleep it off (Mrs Cooper)
  • The particles of acid land on your face and make you nearly mad, like pins and needles only much more so, and they land on your clothes and make brown specks all over them, and they rot your handkerchiefs and get up your nose and down your throat and into your eyes (Mrs G M West)
  • Whiffs of acid would keep coming over every now and again, and used to fairly take your breath away. My gums were all poisoned with the acid and I had to have all my teeth taken out (Mary Ellen Halliday)

Pleasant, healthy and not dangerous? I don’t think so! The museum does tell other stories, but as a women’s history enthusiast this was the part that appealed to me most. Below are a few other exhibits: the Mossband Clock which originally sat on top of the factory’s Central HQ; the Animal War Memorial with particular reference to carrier pigeons, dogs and horses; Sir James, an original WW1 fireless locomotive designed to safely transport the devil’s porridge; and a mural opposite the museum.

After lunch in the museum café, we drove down the Solway coast to Caerlaverock where we went for a walk taking in an iron age fort, the medieval ruins of Caerlaverock Castle, and the earthworks of its predecessor, some pretty woodlands, and salt marshes. First we climbed Ward Law to reach the fort. The bluebells were out in the woods at the top, and the views were attractive, if a bit hazy.

We then made our way back down and headed for Caerlaverock Castle. As with many Historic Scotland properties, it remains closed for “high level masonry inspections” so we could only view it from the outside.

Continuing through woods behind the castle we came to the Old Castle Earthworks.

We passed this pretty cottage with its quirky garden sculptures.

Finally, we took time to explore the boardwalks of Caerlaverock Nature Reserve. The last image is a view back to Ward Law where we started our walk.

This was a lovely day out and I highly recommend both parts to anyone visiting the area. The following day, we returned home from our long weekend – but we were soon out visiting castles again. Next time, I’ll tell you about two we actually could visit inside.

PS thanks to all who enquired after our health after my last post. Current covid status: still testing positive, but very faintly in my case. Hopefully we’ll both be clear by the end of the week!

56 Comments »

  1. Working in the factory does sound like an awful experience. Just one more reason we shouldn’t have wars! I like the animal memorial, but it should be much larger and include all those animal victims (from domestic to wild) that get in the way of our desperate desires to kill one another.

    Sorry that the Covid is still lingering – no fun! They’re beginning the Omicron vaccines around here, so time for my 5th jab. Ugh.

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  2. “Pleasant, healthy and not dangerous,” the testamonies strongly suggests otherwise. I hope that you are feeling better, Anabel. Richard and I recently contracted COVID as well. (He is on Day 7 and still feeling lousy. I am on Day 3 and have a whole range of symptoms — except for loss of smell).

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  3. Hi Anabel – Devil’s Porridge … what an interesting name and so appropriate … 9 miles of factory … and what horrors from deciding to work there – I understand the reason why … to get paid and money for their family. I love the Caerlaverock area … and Ward Law – looks to be a great area to walk around and to see even if from a distance. I do hope that covid line will disappear very soon … cheers Hilary

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  4. You got good weather for it going by the blue skies in the photos. Remember seeing a programme about that factory. No surprise about the conditions as even by the 1970s and 1980s Health and Safety was still fairly lax. I remember being allowed/encouraged by my gaffer in the 1970s to crawl above still working giant machinery on a tall ladder and thin dividing wall, eventually one foot spread on the top of each moving machine to fix large lights that were still live. So many things that could have gone seriously wrong and been badly injured but that was the norm back then. You just got on with it.

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    • Yes, we’ve had good weather for all our trips so far this year! Very lucky. That sounds horrific what you had to do. Health and Safety is not the joke some people make out out to be. However, I will not be surprised if it starts “relaxing” again along with all the other “red tape” that protects workers.

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  5. Sorry to hear you have Covid – must have missed that on your last post! Gosh this place must have been dreadful to work in, I hate to think what the state of the health of those women was. Can’t imagine any of them living a long life.

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