The scale of fighting on the Western Front in the First World War surprised most military planners. Critics of the British government blamed it for a perceived shortage of shells at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in the early summer of 1915. In consequence a coalition government was formed in which David Lloyd George (1863-1945) directed a new Ministry of Munitions which built ‘National Factories’ in most parts of Britain to produce various kinds of armaments. The largest in area was a factory making explosives at Gretna on the border of England and Scotland. Construction commenced in November 1915 and the first propellant was produced in August 1916. It extended 2 km from north to south, and the production flow continued for 14.5 km from Dornock in Scotland in the west through new settlements at Eastriggs and Gretna over the border to storage depots at Longtown in England. The plant included installations for the manufacture of nitric acid and sulphuric acid, a refinery for glycerine, distilleries for either and alcohol and storage buildings for raw cotton. Nitroglycerine and gun cotton were blended to produce cordite, which was called ‘devil’s porridge’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), author of the Sherlock Holmes books, when he visited the site. At its peak the Gretna factory was producing 800 tons of cordite per week, and employing about 20,000 workers, many of them women recruited from all over Britain. Complains about the high wages paid and the propensity of the workers to spend them on alcohol led to the nationalisation of the public houses and breweries in the Carlisle region; they remained nationalised until the 1970s.
Many of the workers were accommodated in about 600 wooden huts almost all of which have been demolished or incorporated into permanent dwellings, but the permanent houses built in the villages of Gretna and Eastriggs and designed by Raymond Unwin (1873-1949), the pioneer of the Garden City Movement in Great Britain, retain marks of style and quality, with integral porches, porthole windows, hipped roofs and arcades linking semi-detached pairs. The former staff club, the most elegant building in Gretna, is now a hotel.
Most of the site of factory was cleared after a sale in July 1924, although the storage depots at Longtown remain in military use, and many earthworks can be seen in fields now used for grazing. The Devil’s Porridge Exhibition is a local initiative that maintains an exhibition open during the summer months displaying the methods used to manufacture cordite and provides a guide to the architecture and landscape of one of the most remarkable communities to have been created by industry in wartime. A fireless steam locomotive of the kind used in the factory is displayed outside the exhibition building.