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Museum Profile – The Devil’s Porridge Museum
The Devil’s Porridge Museum possibly holds the accolade for the best-named museum in the world. It tells the story of HM Factory Gretna, the largest munitions factory on earth during World War One. So where does it get its name from?
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock fame, visited the factory as a war correspondent in 1916 and saw the munitions girls mixing cordite, an explosive, with their bare hands in massive pots. He reported that it looked like they were making ‘the devil’s porridge’.
HM Factory Gretna was built in response to the shell crisis of 1915. Chosen by Lloyd George, the site was nine miles long by two miles wide, stretching from Dornock in the west to Longtown in the east. The townships of Eastriggs and Gretna were built to house the 30,000 workers, including schools, hospitals, and recreational facilities. Construction only began in August 1915 but within a year the factory was producing more cordite than all the other factories in Britain combined. 12,000 of these workers were women and they came from all over the British Isles – 62% were under 18. They made a vital contribution to the war effort and the impact upon their lives was monumental.
This legacy and indeed the reason for the existence of Gretna and Eastriggs was largely forgotten until a display was formed in the back of a church in Eastriggs by volunteers in 1997. They later moved to a barn and finally, in 2014, to a purpose-built museum building. The museum achieved accreditation in 2018 and maintains a 5 star Visit Scotland rating, a phenomenal achievement given these humble beginnings.
Led by a board of trustees, the museum has 30 volunteers and a team of office staff comprising a Curator, Office Manager, Youth and Community Involvement Officer, and a Museum Assistant whose duties include research, digital marketing, and front-of-house.
Visited by 20,000 visitors a year, the museum generates income from ticket sales, the shop, café, and events. It also receives funding to assist with outreach and specific research projects. As well as delivering a varied education programme, the museum runs clubs for the local community including art, Gaelic and gardening, and seasonal events.
The rich collection of objects and archives continues to be added to – as well as HM Factory Gretna, they brilliantly explain the industrial history of RAF Annan, ICI Powfoot and Chapelcross Nuclear Power Station, successfully tying it with the social history of the surrounding area.
Highlights include Sir James, a fireless locomotive which was used to transport raw materials within the factory site; a chemical manual for HM Factory Gretna complete with blueprints used by the factory’s chemists; and an unassuming wooden lunch box which was used by a munitions girl. This later became the school lunch box of Sheila Ruddick, one of our late trustees. As a young girl, she disliked this old-fashioned box until her mother explained its history and that it had belonged to her great aunt. Sheila was an integral part of the museum until she passed away, and this object symbolises the museum’s centrality in the local community.
The archives contain letters, diaries, and memoirs from workers at HM Factory Gretna, but the most evocative items are autograph books. Filled with memories, poems, and sketches, they bring to life friendship and a sense of togetherness during a period of turmoil.
In 2021, thanks to generous funding from the Dumfries and Galloway Coastal Communities project, the museum embarked on an ambitious research project to collate as many Gretna workers as possible. A team of dedicated volunteers began to systematically research the lives of people who worked at Gretna, and along the way uncovered some fascinating untold histories. This work has been centralised in the Miracle Workers’ database on the museum website, the first of WW1 munitions workers to be available publicly and serves both as a lasting legacy for this project and as a knowledge base for those researching WW1 munition workers.
This formed the basis for the museum’s 2022 Disability: Past and Present project, which showcases the experiences of people with disabilities and chronic illnesses at HM Factory Gretna, as well as the wider contributions of disabled people to the war effort. This project has involved an accessibility audit, hosting a series of online talks with a disability historian and outreach work with local disability groups, culminating in an exhibition and published book, The Health of the Munition Worker: A Disability History of the World Wars on the Solway Military Coast. All are welcome to visit the museum to March 2023 to experience the exhibition.
Emma Gilliland, Curator, The Devil’s Porridge Museum