The Devil’s Porridge Museum in Eastriggs, Dumfries and Galloway, commemorates the story of His Majesty's (HM) Factory Gretna, a munitions factory which produced cordite in World War One - the the highly volatile mixture to create explosives was known as 'the Devil's Porridge'. 30,000 people came from all over the UK and beyond to work at the factory, and a large proportion of these workers—12,000 in total—were women. Many of these women were young, single and working-class, and living and working away from home for the very first time. Other workers, particularly the chemists and engineers, came from as far afield as South Africa and Australia.
The influx of people from all over the world led to two townships, Eastriggs and Gretna, being built to house them. Eastriggs is even today known as the ‘Commonwealth Village’ and many of the streets there are named after famous Commonwealth locations in tribute to the immigrant workforce. They were the ‘Miracle Workers’—involved in the process of making must needed munitions for the front.
This work was physically demanding and dangerous. Working with explosives sometimes led to fires and explosions, and some workers were injured or lost their lives at the factory. Women munition workers were doing jobs that they had previously been barred from doing, on account that it was unsuitable for their gender. The impact of war, with thousands of young men away at the front, rendered it necessary for women to take on new roles. In comparison to other jobs, such as domestic service, munitions work was well paid. As such, a study of HM Factory Gretna offers a fascinating historical picture of the First World War Home Front, the impact of a migratory workforce and the establishment of new townships, and the role of women’s work during the war.
Over one hundred years later, we only know the names and stories of a few hundred of these workers. The Devil’s Porridge Museum have recently embarked on an ambitious new project called ‘The Miracle Workers Research Project’, which aims to find out more about the 30,000 individuals involved HM Factory Gretna during the war. This project aims to investigate the lives of war workers that have previously been untold; sharing the diverse history of HM Factory Gretna and the surrounding areas of Cumbria and Dumfries and Galloway more widely.
Remote and in-person volunteers are using digitized resources from The Devil’s Porridge Museum’s archives alongside online historical research tools to uncover the stories of the people of HM Factory Gretna during the War. So far, volunteers have uncovered fascinating insights about the Mossband Swifts, one of the women’s football teams at the factory, as well as finding adverts for jobs at the factory posted in local newspapers. Our volunteers range from 14 – 80 years old, some are local to Eastriggs and others have never visited the museum, but all share in common an interest in historical research. Once restrictions due to COVID-19 ease, this project will pursue a hybrid approach. Volunteers who can travel to the museum will be allowed physical access to our archive and object store to conduct their research, whilst remote volunteers will continue to be supported online and will have access to digitized archival documents.
Further research is ongoing into the Mossband Swifts, who played matches throughout the war, often against teams from other munition factories in order to raise money for charities. The Swifts were captained by a ‘Miss A. Riddell’ and one of our volunteers is currently trying to find out more about her.
The Miracle Workers volunteers will share their findings via blogs, podcasts and The Devil’s Porridge Museum’s social media account. They will also upload biographies of the more notable individuals connected with Gretna onto Wikipedia, one of the world’s most widely read websites. However, Wikipedia has a gender gap—most biographical archives are written about men, and by men. We want this project to go some way to addressing this gap, by uploading accounts of notable women who worked at Gretna. Our volunteers will learn new digital skills in the writing of these Wikipedia entries.
So far, one of our discoveries has been the incredible life of Maud Bruce. Maud was a forewoman at Gretna and heroically helped to extinguish two fires at the factory. For her work, she was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1917. Maud lived to be 100 years old and was rumoured to be among some of the first people in Britain to receive plastic surgery. Maud’s great-grandson, now living in Australia, has shared even more fascinating information about his relative, including the fact that Maud later worked in Aycliffe Munitions Factory in World War Two. Maud became the first of our HM Factory Gretna women workers to have a Wikipedia article written about her.
This ambitious project will culminate in an exhibition and film showcasing the outcomes of our volunteer’s research and the stories they’ve uncovered. This project will not only raise awareness of the work of The Devil’s Porridge Museum and engage volunteers from the local community and all over the world in historical research, it will also further our understanding of munitions production and workers during World War One.
Laura Noakes is the Research Assistant at The Devil’s Porridge Museum in Eastriggs. She has just finished writing up her PhD on two early women barristers and suffrage activists, Chrystal Macmillan and Elsie Bowerman.