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Monday, 29 August 2016

Devil’s Porridge: the munitionettes who risked their lives to make it

My new murder mystery book, Devil’s Porridge, involves munitionettes who mixed the volatile substance known as Devil’s Porridge So, following on from my previous post about the munitions factory where they worked, I thought I might share with you some of my research into the women who produced the ammunition which helped to win the First World War.
Gretna munitions factory was a massive place which employed something like 30,000 workers, many of whom were the women and girls the newspapers had nicknamed munitionettes. These munitionettes risked their health and their lives in the munitions factories during the Great War, although no recognition was given to them at this time.
Cordite Section Mossband
HM Factory Gretna was established to produce Cordite RDB a propellant required for the manufacture of bombs. The end result, the cordite, was produced at the Mossband end of the factory site and resembled spaghetti. However, my novel, Devil’s Porridge, focuses on the opposite end of the site at Eastriggs where the devil’s porridge was mixed. This was the paste that was used to make the cordite.
Devil’s porridge was the name given to the paste which the munitionettes kneaded and mixed with their bare hands as if they were making a massive loaf of bread. The mixture they were kneading, in the large lead tubs, was gun-cotton and nitroglycerine, a highly explosive substance.
The name ‘devil’s porridge’ was coined by Arthur Conan Doyle, in an article, he wrote for the Annandale Observer, published in December 1916. He said: “The nitroglycerine on the one side and the gun-cotton on the other are kneaded together into a sort of devil’s porridge. The least generation of heat may cause an explosion. Those smiling khaki-clad girls who are swirling the stuff round in their hands would be blown to atoms in an instant if very small changes occur. The girls smile and stir their ‘devil’s’ porridge, but it is a narrow margin between life and death.”
Not only did the munitionettes risk their lives mixing the devil’s porridge, they also risked their health. Fumes from the acids they used affected their breathing and caused their hair and teeth to fall out, although I think there was less risk of their skin turning yellow which was caused when munitionettes worked with TNT (trinitrotoluene) and led to them being called ‘canary girls’. As far as I can tell, HM Factory did not work with TNT.
Some quotes from munitionettes:
“I remember once a girl was killed in the factory, up at Broomhills, the acid point. They said dirt had gotten into the gun-cotton and that was what caused it.”
“The acid plant was a nasty place. Whiffs of acid would keep coming over every now and again, and use to fairly take your breath away. My gums were all poisoned with the acid and I had to have all my teeth taken out.”
“We worked in three shifts and we went to work in trains with wooden seats. We changed into overalls and hats to cover all our hair and shoes that must not touch the ground outside where we worked.”
Munitionettes going into the railway station on their way to work
The munitionettes came from all levels of society and from all over the country, to work at Gretna Munitions factory, and afterwards, they returned to their previous lives because there was no longer a role for them in peacetime Britain. Their contribution to the war effort was soon forgotten and it is for this reason I have dedicated my new novel, Devil’s Porridge, to their memory.
Most of the action in Devil’s Porridge, takes place in Gretna township, one of the new towns built to service the factory workers, and in a mixing station at the Eastriggs end of the site, hence the name, Devil’s Porridge. I have incorporated munitionettes, Irish navvies, the women police who patrolled the factory, and I’ve thrown in a German spy for good measure. Naturally the sabotage, assassination, and murder elements of the plot are solely fictional, but quite a lot of factual information has been woven in, and I hope you won’t see the join between fact and fiction.
My next post will cover the two new townships, Gretna and Eastriggs. Following that I will do a post covering the involvement of the newly formed Women’s Police Service, and the ‘lady police’, at Gretna Munitions Factory.
Chris Longmuir
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Rosemary Gemmell said...

How fascinating, Chris - and it sounds horrific work! Look forward to reading Devil's Porridge eventually.

Chris Longmuir said...

I know, the research was fascinating, and I'm getting very good feedback from readers who have read Devil's Porridge. Some of them are saying it's my best book so far, although the other books are good as well.

Rae Cowie said...

Such an interesting post, Chris, highlighting a subject a knew nothing about. Looking forward to finding out more when reading Devil's Porridge.

Chris Longmuir said...

Thanks Rae. I hope you enjoy the book.