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Harry Mills with Nephew Donald

Workers of the Week: Jean Anderson and Harry Mills

By Collections blog

Worker of the Week is a weekly blogpost series which will highlight one of the workers at H.M. Gretna our Research Assistant, Laura Noakes, has come across during her research. Laura is working on a project to create a database of the 30,000 people that worked at Gretna during World War One.

This week’s Worker of the Week features a married couple, Jean and Harry, who met at H. M. Factory Gretna. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence–we know of many people who met their future spouse on war work at Gretna. However, what is interesting about Jean and Harry is that Jean was Harry’s supervisor at Gretna. Jean and Harry’s grandson explained:

My grandfather was registered as B* during WW1, as he had defective eyesight. He was sent from his home in Stoke-on-Trent to work at the munitions factory in Gretna. His supervisor was Jean Anderson, whose family originated from Kirkpatrick Fleming, but were domiciled in Tilbury Road, Carlisle. The house is still standing and inhabited. Grandad married Jean Anderson and they moved to Stoke where they had my mother.

This photo was taken on Tilbury Road, Carlisle, in 1915. This road was where Jean Anderson lived at the time of her marriage to Harry.

Before the war, Jean worked as a farm servant, but became a munitions worked after war broke out. One of her sister’s, either Annie or Emily, may have played for the Mossband Swifts, one of the women’s football teams at Gretna. Interestingly, a ‘Miss Anderson’ is listed as playing as a forward for the Swifts in a match against the Carlisle Munitionettes in September 1917.

The image above shows Jean’s workers pass. Jean would have had to keep this pass on her at all times when inside the factory grounds, as it identified her as a munitions worker. Jean’s grandson also kindly shared with us the ‘Regulations Governing Employment’ given to Jean, which stipulated, among other rules, that she was not to be ‘worse for liquor in the establishment’ or ‘create or take part in any disturbance in the establishment.’

Harry Mills, Jean’s husband ‘was a pottery fireman who stacked the old bottle kilns in Stoke on Trent and fired them up to create the finished product. He would spend a few days and nights watching the fires and I think that is why his eyesight was affected. He was rejected for active service and registered as B1.’ Harry and Jean married on Christmas Eve 1917, and both gave their occupation as ‘munition workers’ on their marriage certificates.

Harry Mills with his nephew, Donald.

*This was a medical category used by the British Army to assess whether or not men were fit for military duties, and if so what medical duties they were fit for. Category B1 meant that the individual was ‘able to walk 5 miles, see and hear well’, and those in the B category more generally were deemed fit to ‘stand service on lines of communication in France, or in garrisons in the tropics.’ For more see here

Agnes Marshall Cowan.

Worker of the Week: Agnes Marshall Cowan

By Collections blog

Worker of the Week is a weekly blogpost series which will highlight one of the workers at H.M. Gretna our volunteers have researched for The Miracle Workers Project. This is an exciting project that aims to centralise all of the 30,000 people who worked at Gretna during World War One. If you want to find out more, or if you’d like to get involved in the project, please email This week, volunteer Steve Slade, tells us all about Agnes Marshall Gowan.

Agnes Marshall Cowan, who was assistant medical officer at HM Factory Gretna, was a pioneer of women in medicine and a longstanding medical missionary in China.

Agnes was born on the 19th April 1880 in Edinburgh, the sixth of ten children of Sir John and Lady Marion Dickson Cowan. Marshall was her paternal grandmother’s maiden name. Sir John was a successful businessman in the city and a leading philanthropist. His father was the Rev. John Cowan, who was a longstanding United Presbyterian church missionary in Jamaica.

In 1891, Agnes is at school. By 1901, she is a medical student at Edinburgh University. The first cohort of woman medical students had only been allowed into the University’s medical school in 1892. She graduated with an M.B. Ch.B in July 1906 and became House Physician at Leith Hospital. Later, she was appointed House Surgeon Eye Dept. Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh.

Agnes pictured alongside her fellow 1906 female medical graduates. Source:

This photo of Agnes Marshall Cowan has been shared with us by a relative.


By 1913, Agnes is working as a medical missionary in Manchuria. In March 1914, she is based at the hospital in Ashiho, near Harbin, in northern China, an area described as where bandits rode through the country and harried towns and villages. She later works at the hospital in Mukden (modern day Shenyang). The hospitals are supported by the University of Edinburgh and the Church of Scotland and sponsored by charities in Scotland.

Agnes returned to Britain during the Great War and was appointed as assistant medical officer at HM Factory Gretna in April 1917. In May 1918 she was serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps and was attached as medical officer to Queen Mary’s Auxiliary Army Corps.

This graduation photo of Agnes Marshall Cowan has been shared with us by a relative.


Following the end of the war, Agnes returns to Manchuria in 1919 and is appointed to work at the hospital in Mukden. She returns to Scotland several times in this period and in 1934 is appointed a Member Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (M.R.C.O.G). Her work in Manchuria includes working at the Women’s Hospital in Mukden and lectures as a Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Mukden Medical College. This is against a background of political unrest in the region following the Japanese annexation of Manchuria in 1931.

Agnes is reported to have returned to Britain in 1939 in poor health, and died on the 22nd August 1940 in Cambridge. She was interred in the family plot in Grange Cemetery, Edinburgh.


Bridget Sweeney with two of her children Susan and Sheila

Worker of the Week: Bridget Sweeney

By Collections blog

Worker of the Week is a weekly blogpost series which will highlight one of the workers at H.M. Gretna our Research Assistant, Laura Noakes, has come across during her research. Laura is working on a project to create a database of the 30,000 people that worked at Gretna during World War One.

This week’s Worker of the Week is a sad one. I started researching Bridget Sweeney because of a birth certificate:

This is the birth certificate of Margaret, Bridget’s daughter, who was born in 1919. As you can see, Bridget was working as a cook in Newfoundland House, Eastriggs. This was one of the hostels for munitions workers at H. M. Factory Gretna. You can find out more about Bridget and Margaret’s birth here.

Bridget had been born in Ireland in 1897. She grew up in Donegal and her father worked as a farmer.[1] By 1919, at age 22, Bridget gave birth to daughter Margaret in Gretna. Bridget’s occupation on Margaret’s birth certificate is a cook. This shows the diversity of jobs at H. M. Factory Gretna. Cooks and domestic staff who worked at the hostels where munition workers lived were a crucial part of the factory’s mechanisms. Munition workers worked long hours in the factory, and many relied on the staff of the hostels for those home comforts!

Another interesting thing about Margaret’s birth certificate is that there is no father named, and it appears that Bridget is single. In 1919, single unmarried mothers were frowned upon by society. Bridget subsequently gave birth to three more children: Mary in 1921, Shelia in 1924, and Susan in 1926.[2] On Susan’s register of birth, for the first time a father is noted. This father was Robert Harkness, a farmer, and Bridget’s husband. According to Susan’s register of birth, Bridget and Robert married in September 1925. Shelia’s middle name was also Harkness, which leads me to think that Robert was also Shelia’s father as well. However, I can’t find the register of marriage between Robert and Bridget online, and in Robert’s register of death in 1961, he is recorded as ‘single’ rather than a ‘widower’[3] and in Bridget’s register of death, she is also recorded at single.[4] This makes me think that the two didn’t get married.

Bridget with two of her children

Bridget’s second oldest daughter Mary sadly died in 1944 aged just 22, in ICI Factory Powfoot, which produced munitions during World War Two. Her cause of death was listed as ‘burning (gunpowder ignition) suddenly.’[5]

Bridget’s story also has a sad ending. At age 29, after having four children in quick succession, she died in the Crichton Royal Asylum of ‘Exhaustion from Delirious Mania and Broncho-Pneumonia.’[6] The Royal Crichton in Dumfries was founded in 1838 by Elizabeth Crichton and was one of the last and grandest psychiatric hospitals in Scotland. Interestingly, and in another connection with H. M. Factory Gretna, Arthur Conan Doyle’s father Charles was treated there, as was Dora Marsden, feminist and suffragette.[7]


How Bridget ended up in the Crichton is still a historical mystery…


If you enjoyed this blogpost, you might like this booklet (available from the Museum online shop):

Lives of Ten Gretna Girls booklet


[1] ‘Bridget Sweeney’ 1901 Irish Census for Lackenagh, Rutland, Donegal, retrieved from

[2] ‘Susan Anderson Harkness’ Birth Register 1926 retrieved from; ‘Shelia Harkness Sweeney’ Birth Register 1924 retrieved from; ‘Mary Clark Sweeney’ 1921 Birth Register retrieved from

[3] ‘Robert Harkness’ 1961 Statutory Register of Death in the County of Dumfries,  retrieved from

[4] ‘Bridgit Sweeney’ 1926 Register of Death in the County of Dumfries, retrieved from


[5] ‘Mary Clark Sweeney’ 1944 Statutory Register of Death in the County of Dumfries, retrieved from

[6] ‘Bridgit Sweeney’ 1926 Register of Death in the County of Dumfries, retrieved from

[7] and

Agnes Ross McNaught.

Worker of the Week: Agnes Ross McNaught

By Collections blog

Worker of the Week is a weekly blogpost series which will highlight one of the workers at H.M. Gretna our Research Assistant, Laura Noakes, has come across during her research. Laura is working on a project to create a database of the 30,000 people that worked at Gretna during World War One.

This week’s Worker of the Week post comes from another family research enquiry. I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again, family enquiries are SO valuable for learning more about the workers of H.M. Factory Gretna, and this one is no exception.

Agnes Ross McNaught was born in and grew up in Edinburgh. Her father, Patrick, worked as an Iron moulder throughout her childhood.[1] Iron moulder’s were ‘foundry workers who made moulds for casting iron.’[2] Although iron moulder’s were employed in a number of different industries, the industrial, physical and highly skilled nature of Patrick’s occupation is clear, and provides a link between his work, and his daughter Agnes’ later work at H.M. Factory Gretna.

The Iron Moulders, a stained glass window by Stephen Adam, c 1878. Photo credit:

By the outbreak of war in 1914, Agnes was thirteen years old. Even at the end of the war, Agnes wasn’t legally an adult—she would turn eighteen in January 1919. This wasn’t altogether an unusual occurrence in munitions factories. Angela Woollacott has noted the predominance of teenage girls working in munitions, and Chris Brader argues that this was even more prevalent at H. M. Factory Gretna—with more under eighteen-year-olds working at Gretna than at other Government establishments.[3] This just goes to show that Agnes was one amongst many teenagers who left their homes and came to work at Gretna during the war. It must’ve been such a shock to the system to leave everything and everyone they’d ever known and travel to a town like Gretna or Eastriggs to live with other girls who were probably also young, single and working class.

Could Agnes have been doing work like this?

Like many other munition workers, and those who experienced the trials of living through World War One, Agnes didn’t speak much about her time at Gretna in her later life. Her granddaughter, Carol, stated that ‘this was certainly true of my granny, and she passed away in 1986 before The Devil’s Porridge museum was initiated and the questions could be asked.’

Because we don’t have an extant list of workers at Gretna, it is hard to say exactly what time of role Agnes did during the war. Carol stated that:


“My grandmother Agnes Ross McNaught worked there and as a young girl she was sent to Gretna from her home in Edinburgh and probably was there for most of the war years I believe that she would have been 14 or 15 years of age at the time.”


Despite this, knowing about Agnes’ time at Gretna helps us to build up our knowledge and understanding of workers at H. M. Factory Gretna. After the war, Agnes returned to Edinburgh and married in 1922.

A massive thank you to Carol for telling us about Agnes’ time at Gretna.

[1] Agnes Ross McNaught, 1901 Census for Violetbank, Edinburgh retrieved from;


[3]  Angela Woollacoot, On Her Their Lives Depend, (University of California Press, 1994), p. 37-8, and Chris Brader, TimberTown Girls: Gretna Female Munitions Workers in World War 1, (PhD Thesis, University of Warwick) p. 21.

Ellen Harriet Capon

Trans Day of Visibility: The Gender Non-Conforming Munitions Worker

By Collections blog

Trans Day of Visibility and Trans History

Today is the International Trans Day of Visibility, an annual event to celebrate transgender people and to raise awareness of the continual discrimination trans people face in our world. As a museum, it is our responsibility to share history with the public, and we consider it important to recover the histories of people who maybe traditionally haven’t had their stories told. Trans and gender non-conforming people, like many marginalised groups, have often been left out of the popular historical narrative.

Trans history is a dynamic and growing area of research. However, historians have faced challenges in writing on this subject. Archival sources are often lacking, and even where there are sources many are ‘produced by people looking from the outside in—law enforcement officers, judges, newspaper reporters.’[1] Even labelling historical individuals as trans can be complicated; I have found both Susan Stryker’s and Emily Skidmore’s approaches helpful in the writing of this blog. Stryker uses the term transgender to ‘refer to people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth.’ Skidmore argues in her book True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Twentieth Century that ‘people have moved from one gender to another for a very long time. And transgender history looks at that movement.’[2]

The Devil’s Porridge Museum tells the story of H.M. Factory Gretna, and the thousands of munitions workers who lived at worked there in World War One (WW1). Although our focus is on Gretna, we also seek to tell the wider stories of munitions workers across the UK from 1914-1918. And one of those stories focuses on a person who, for a sustained period of time, moved away from the gender they were assigned at birth.

*A quick note to say that in the following section of this blog post, descriptions and terms used to refer to the individual at the time will be mentioned. These terms are not acceptable today, and may be triggering for some readers. However, I have included them because I believe it demonstrates the societal and historical context in which this individual was surrounded. I have also chosen to mainly refer to this person by their birth name, only because this was the name that this person went by for the majority of their life. In addition, I’ve also referred to the person using they/their/them pronouns, although quotations from contemporary newspapers do refer to them as ‘she.’*


Ellen Harriet Capon and Charles Brian Capon

I first read about Ellen Harriet Capon in Angela Woollacoot’s classic book on munitions workers, On Her Their Lives Depend. Woollacoot writes that Ellen ‘crossed-dressed’ and states that the story ‘is valuable because…it alerts us to the fact that there is still much we do not know about women workers’ sexual choices.’[3] I wholeheartedly agree with Woollacott’s assessment that Ellen’s story is valuable, but I think that it tells us about the complexities surrounding Ellen’s gender identity as well as her sexual choices.

Ellen Harriet Capon was from a large working-class family; they were the oldest of five siblings born to John, who worked as a warehouseman in a wool warehouse, and Ellen (nee Barker), who before her marriage had been a general servant.[4]

In 1914, the First World War broke out when Ellen was just fourteen. From the newspaper articles written about Ellen in early 1918, it appears that from 1916-1918, they worked in a factory as a wire-cutter under the name Charles Brian Capon.[5] Charles even had a military protection certificate in his name.

Ellen was charged with ‘masquerading in male attire’ at Lambeth Police Court on January 18th 1918.[6] They’d only been discovered upon turning eighteen, having attended a recruiting office in Brixton.[7] Men over eighteen would have been conscripted into military service, but Ellen informed the recruiting office that ‘they could not call her up, because she was a woman.’[8]

Ellen was described in the many newspaper reports as ‘is a sturdy girl of 18, her brown hair, now cut short, curls round her head and sets off her chubby face, making her pass very well for a handsome boy of refined features.’[9]

Ellen stated to the arresting sergeant that: ‘I did it for a bit of daring. My mother is seriously ill. I thought I would earn more money as a man than as a woman.’[10] This is a pretty clear statement of Ellen’s motivations for assuming a male identity—that the extra wages would provide much needed additional income for the Capon family. The arresting officer even asked Capon ‘“Have you any other reason for wearing men’s clothes?” She replied, “No.”’[11]

This seems like clear evidence that Capon’s two years presenting as a man was simply one of necessity, making a misogynistic capitalist system work better for them. However, I think other points complicate this interpretation of Capon’s story.

Ellen Capon’s arrest made headlines around the world, and multiple newspaper stories characterised them as ‘the girl-boy’[12] and said they were ‘masquerading as a man.’[13] Like with many other examples of gender non-conforming people in the past, Ellen’s story was mediated by the press and the court system, as their arrest and subsequent conviction was played out in the media. However, Ellen also gave interviews about their experience, to a News of the World Reporter and to a Lloyd News Representative. In these interviews, Ellen tells their story in their own words.


‘Asked as to whether she had any difficulty in keeping up her role as a boy, Miss Capon said there was none. She went to the city every day, nobody being any wiser. “But I have got quite used to boy’s clothes.” She said, “Really now I hardly know myself in skirts. I have got some of the wirework to do at home, and I shall continue that work until I can get on the land. I am anxious to do all, because the land girls wear special uniforms like what I have been used to of late.’[14]


This quote is revealing in a number of ways. Firstly, it speaks to the totality of Capon’s identity as a man from 1916-1918—they presented themselves publicly ‘every day’ as one. It also shows that there was some reluctance on Capon’s behalf to resume the cultural expectations of women—that of wearing skirts. Capon didn’t associate themselves as someone who wears skirts. They also clearly stated that they aspired to work in an industry that allowed girls to wear trousers in the future. Capon’s years of presenting as a man had clearly made them more comfortable with wearing trousers as opposed to skirts. Whilst I am no way arguing that this is conclusive, or even persuasive evidence, that Capon considered themselves a man, I am arguing that Capon’s statements reveal that their conception of their gender identity was complicated. As with Stryker’s approach to trans history, Capon moved away from the gender that was assigned to them at birth. This ‘move away’ may have only been for a limited time. However, it appears to have been a significant move—both for the numerous newspapers that reported on the story and for Capon themselves. Capon’s arrest was an event worth reporting on – a munitions worker who was assigned female at birth successfully presented as male for a significant amount of time without being discovered.


Capon told the News of the World reporter that:


‘I cogitated for a long time, and finally I determined to become a ‘man…I was only brought into constant daily contact with one other employee and he was a man, and we called each other ‘mate.’ He never suspected that I was a girl; at least I have no reason to think that he did so. We were working just as man and youth would do, consulting each other on business matters and carting on at our special job. I enjoyed the life very much, and did my share of the work after I gained competency just as an experienced male hand would have done…I got so accustomed to being a ‘man’ that I never felt awkward in male company. My boyish appearance disarmed suspicion.’[15]


Capon’s statements—that they presented as male because of the increased pay, that they ‘determined’ to be a man, that cutting off their hair was a ‘feminine sacrifice’ and they ‘enjoyed the life’ [of a man]—all reveal the complexities that were involved in the construction of gender identity for Capon.

In the end, Ellen was ‘bound over to be of good behaviour for twelve months’[16] and fined £10.[17] In the historical records I’ve uncovered, it appears as though Ellen Capon lived out the rest of their life by presenting as a woman. In the 1939 register, they were still living on Camden Hill Road, where they’d grown up, alongside their siblings. [18] Ellen worked as a ‘lampshade wire worker’ and was recorded as a female. Ellen died in 1978 in Plymouth.

This interpretation is of course complicated by societal attitudes towards gender non-conforming people, as well as the inability of surviving sources to capture records of those who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth. As can be seen by Ellen’s case, much of the evidence for trans and gender-conforming people’s existence in the past came from court and legal documents—written about them not by them–and in many cases, criminalising their gender expression. Whilst this post is not intended to impose our current understanding of trans identities onto the past, there is an equal importance to the recovery of people with variant gender identities across history. Like other marginalised groups, trans people’s histories have been actively suppressed.

Ellen Capon’s story is not only important to enrich our understanding of munitions workers during WW1 or the experiences of people whose gender identity changed at points in their lives, but also to illustrate the complexities of identities. Ellen may have presented as a man because, as contemporary newspapers posited and as they said in interviews, male workers got higher wages than women and the Capon family was in need of the additional income. Equally possible is that Ellen’s experience’s while presenting as a man for two years complicated their understanding of their own gender identity and changed the way they navigated their world—by aspiring to continue in job roles where they could wear trousers and be more ‘masculine.’ Ellen could have, as the sparce historical records suggest, lived out the rest of their life as a woman. However, these records and a societal pressure to conform to the norm may not have captured the complexity of Capon’s gender identity.

Trans and gender non-conforming history needs to be told, in all its complexities. Ellen was one of thousands of munitions workers during WW1, and their story is important to our understanding of the historical context. For resources on gender identity, click here.


Further Reading on Trans History:



[3] Angela Woollacoot, On Her Their Lives Depend, (University of California Press, 1994), p. 39.

[4] John William Capon, 1911 Census Return for 5 Camden Hill Road, Upper Norwood, retrieved from; Ellen Barker, 1891 Census Return for Willesden, Middlesex, England, retrieved from

[5] ‘Two Years as a Male Factory Worker’ Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 19th January 1918, p. 2.

[6] ‘Two Years as a Male Factory Worker’ Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 19th January 1918, p. 2.

[7] ‘Two Years as a Male Factory Worker’ Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 19th January 1918, p. 2.

[8] ‘Girl’s Masquerade’ Lancashire Evening Post, 19th January 1918, p. 3.

[9] ‘Her role as a boy’ Larne Times, 26th January 1918, p. 6.

[10] ‘Two Years as a Male Factory Worker’ Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 19th January 1918, p. 2.

[11] ‘A Girl’s Masquerade’ Westminster Gazette, 19th January 1918, p. 3.

[12] ‘The Girl-Boy’ Liverpool Echo, 21st January 1918, p. 3.

[13] A Girl’s Masquerade’ Westminster Gazette, 19th January 1918, p. 3.

[14] ‘Her role as a boy’ Larne Times, 26th January 1918, p. 6.

[15] ‘Girl’s Masquerade’ Ashburton Guardian, 9th April 1918

[16] Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 28th January 1918, p. 4.

[17] ‘Masqueraded as Man’ The Tewkesbury Register, and Agricultural Gazette, 2nd February 1918, p. 3.

[18] ‘Ellen Capon’, 1939 Register for Camden Hill Road, retrieved from;

Postcard of a cockerel, which reads "The boss of the shell factory at Morecambe."

Chicken Postcards

By Collections blog


This postcard was recently sent to us by one of our friends on Facebook and has an interesting story behind it. We have some similar postcards in our collection, the shell/egg/chicken pun seemed to have amused people in the First World War.

Today’s postcard from my collection is, at first glance, a Comic card from the North West seaside town of Morecambe.  It shows a rooster who is more gallous than your average Glaswegian and who is strutting his stuff in the farmyard.  The farmyard is his domain, and this is emphasised by the title of the card which is “The Boss of the Shell Factory at Morecambe”.  This card dates from c.1917 and I would ask you to bear in mind that in those days society would draw close links with ‘male’ and ‘boss’ and ‘female’ and ‘subservient.’  The suggestion on the card is that the rooster oversees all hens who – naturally – are producing eggs.  Whether he is involved in the process or not – he oversees egg / shell production.


There is however another side to this ‘humour’.  This is a typical generic card where the card is produced with no town name until such times as the salesman convinces the local retailer that a specific town name fits.  I have only seen two other examples of this card with one still blank and the other for Woolwich.  This leads me to believe that the humour of the card was quite localised as the most obvious link between Morecambe and Woolwich is that during World War One both had a sizeable munitions factory.  I think this card promotes a pun on the word ‘shell’ as while shells are certainly linked to eggs and hens they are also the main production item from a munitions factory.  I look at the card again and I wonder if the object below the tail is a feeding dish – or is it an almost fully submerged shell which is intended to support the pun?


The card is undated and bears no postal markings.  It has most probably been sent within an envelope or package and as the card is from father to son it was probably sent to mother and handed to the addressee.  It is addressed to Master Norman Arkwright at 65 Lynwood Avenue, Darwen and reads “Dear Norman, I write these few lines hoping to see you on Saturday hoping you arrive safe and we can have a good time.  From Father xxx”


It reads like a typical note written by a father to a young son in the knowledge that it will be read to the son by the mother.  There is no detail other than to ensure that the child knows he will see his father at the weekend and that his father loves him.


My belief that the card relates to the World War One period (1914 – 1918) caused my heart to sink a bit when I saw the reference to ‘Master’ Norman.  There was a good chance that Master Norman would be born after the 1911 Census and this could make tracing the parties to the card difficult.  Additionally, Arkwright is a common name in the Lancashire area although on the positive side the market town of Darwen isn’t too sizeable.  I also suspected that the forename of Norman would be relatively scarce when coupled with Arkwright.  Some names just sound routine – although ‘Norman Arkwright’ didn’t.


Darwen may be small although it has its fair share of Arkwrights and none of them lived in Lynwood Road.  I jumped to the 1939 Register and found that in the whole of England and Wales there were only two persons with the name Norman Arkwright.  One was born in 1894 (unlikely to be called ‘Master’ after 1914) and the other on 10th June 1912.  I was hopeful when I saw this (it explains why he wasn’t in the 1911 Census and ‘Master’ fits) and was certain I had found the addressee when I read that he lived in Darwen.  This was Master Norman Arkwright although by 1939 he was a ‘Paper Finisher (Brown Paper)’ and was 26 years old.  He was married to Lettice who was born on 23rd April 1909.  There was also a 2-year-old girl named Rene living with them.  She was born on 31st October 1936 and while the name Arkwright was there it had been scored through and replaced by ‘Swayles’ although I believe the numbers next to it (10/10/58) to be a date and perhaps this working register had been kept up to date because of a marriage.  Marked against Norman’s name was the notation ‘Awaiting Fire Service No. Darwen Corporation’ which suggests to me that Norman served during World War II as a fireman of some capacity.  (Norman died in Darwen in May 1989 and I also note that Rene did in fact marry a Brian H Swayles in 1958).


It was pleasing to find Norman, but I now wanted to know who ‘Father’ was.  I found a Family Tree online which included Norman and his wife although his parents were ‘Unknown’.  It took me a bit of time although I discovered the detail of Norman’s birth advised that his Mother’s maiden name was Lingard.  A little bit of digging uncovered that Alexander Arkwright married Ellen Lingard in the nearby town of Blackburn in the summer of 1908.  I subsequently found Alexander (aged 28 and a Cotton Weaver) and his wife of 2 years, Ellen Arkwright (aged 27 and a Cotton Weaver), living in Darwen in the 1911 Census.  I also found the couple on the 1939 Register when they were both still Cotton Weavers and living at 65 Lynwood Avenue, Darwen.  Yes, the address on the card.


I can find no military record for Alexander Arkwright.  He would have been 31 years of age at the outbreak of the war, and I feel sure he would have come under some social pressure to enlist – unless he was in a reserved occupation.  I feel sure weaving cotton wouldn’t have been a reserved occupation…although working in a munitions factory would have been.  I believe that Alexander Arkwright potentially served his war by working in the munitions factory and for that reason was living away from home and his son was travelling to Morecambe from Darwen (40 miles) that weekend.


The munitions factory at Morecambe was a National Filling Factory known as White Lund.  Construction commenced in November 1915 and while factory production commenced in June 1916 construction work was ongoing.  Once completed the site covered 250 acres and incorporated over 150 closely packaged buildings.  “By September 1917 there were 4,621 employees at White Lund, of whom 64% were women, often young women.  The workers came from all over Northern England and lived in hostels and lodgings throughout the district.  The Factory worked seven days a week, 24 hours a day.  It was dangerous work.”


The term ‘Filling Factory’ very much describes the process.  “The shells at White Lund were filled with amatol, a mixture of ammonium nitrate and TNT; the mix was melted down to be poured into the shells. 3 million shells were filled in National Filling Factory 13 during the War.”

I can date this card quite closely now.  It must date after April 1911 as the Arkwright family were not at the address on the card at the time of the 1911 Census.  It likely dates after June 1916 as there was no operational ‘shell factory’ to boss before then.  And it most likely dates no later than 1st October 1917 as on that date the factory was totally destroyed by an explosion.  Thankfully only 10 men (mainly firemen) lost their lives as evacuation procedures were followed as soon as the fire commenced, and thousands of employees had been removed from the site.


Not surprisingly the Government placed censorship on newspaper reporting and the following is from the ‘Morecambe Guardian’ of 30th May 1930.  The reporter (a local man) had recently attended the auction of the former White Lund site and both he and the auctioneer were dismayed by the lack of compassion and enthusiasm shown by potential purchasers.









“You are making me smile, gentlemen”. These words were spoken by Mr. T. Armistead, the auctioneer, at the sale of the site of the former Filling Factory, White Lund. The sale was held in a small room at the King’s Arms Hotel, Lancaster, on Tuesday.  Perhaps there were thirty or more, men there, sat in chairs, with sale catalogues on their knees.  Lot number three had just been withdrawn after being bid at some ridiculously low price. “You are making me smile, gentlemen”.  The auctioneer took a sip of water, from a glass at his side, and the room of businessmen moved uneasily as a class of schoolboys will when spoken to by a form master for some silly prank they have committed.  What an inglorious end to what, during the War, was one of the biggest Filling Factories in England.  A factory which filled thousands and thousands of shells and fed thousands of guns on the Western front, being offered for sale, per building, per acre, per lot.  Three miles away from the actual site, one of the places which helped to win the war, was suffering final demolition in this room filled with men, catalogues and sunshine.



EXPLOSION RECALLED, I wondered (writes a Guardian reporter) whether Mr. Armistead, if he were Lancaster or Morecambe at the time, laughed on a certain October night in 1917 when White Lund blew up in the moonlight; or how many men in that commercial room at the King’s Arms would have displayed such poker faces were White Lund being blown up instead of sold up?  Perhaps these men were strangers from afar who knew no more of White Lund than the censored news which appeared in the newspapers following the explosion. Probably few of them remembered so much as linked the two things together in any way. In those printed catalogues there might have been a little introduction giving some details of the romance, honour and terror the factory brought to Morecambe.  The first shattering explosion which seemed to be just outside the windows of every house in Morecambe.  A few moments of silence; and then gardens, yards and the streets filling with alarmed men, women and children in various stages of undress.  Excited questions as to whether it was an air raid and the anxious scanning of the sky for the sight of a Zeppelin — we, in Morecambe, had always been led to believe that we lived too far from an enemy country to be reached by an aeroplane.  Then a sudden glare shooting into the sky and paling the moonlight, followed by another deafening explosion, the tinkling of falling glass, and the shouts of “It’s White Lund, it’s White Lund,” People scurrying to Hest Bank, Heysham and Overton – anywhere to get away from these glares which filled the Eastern sky and crashes which echoed and echoed in the hills across the Bay.  The unforgettable (unfortunately) sight from Heysham cliffs of debris being flung into the air – followed by shattering crashes as dumps of shells exploded.  The knowledge that if the magazines went up, Morecambe would go up with them; this fear in everyone’s heart and other emotions.  All these things might have formed an introduction to the sale.


WHERE FIREMEN DIED. As it was, land on which firemen had stood and died, was offered and then withdrawn.  No wonder the auctioneer said that it made him smile.  Perhaps it was the smile of the businessman, but it might have been a smile from a sentimentalist, bitter in either case.  There were unknown possibilities in that room of men.  I did not know who the man sitting next to me was.  A prospective buyer?  Before offering the seven lots for sale, Mr. Armistead said that he had been asked to offer the site as a whole, but as it had been advertised as being sold in lots, he would adhere to this and not disappoint the majority of clients.  The site as a whole!  Was the big man in the light tweed suit, and smoking a cigar, representing the Fox Film Company?  He seemed oblivious of the rest of the room, or of the auctioneer, but stared at the window and the sunlight.  Was he seeing a second Hollywood, or was he a representative of Airways Ltd., seeing his firm’s aeroplanes flying across Lancaster?  But if Foxs were there, they were not ‘talkies’ for there were hardly any bids from the room and all the seven lots were finally withdrawn, the auctioneer remarking, “Anyone who wants to buy them now will have to do it privately – and it will cost him more.”

The inside of a cigarette case from 1918.

Worker of the Week: Herbert Womersley

By Collections blog

Worker of the Week is a weekly blogpost series which will highlight one of the workers at H.M. Gretna our Research Assistant, Laura Noakes, has come across during her research. Laura is working on a project to create a database of the 30,000 people that worked at Gretna during World War One.

After receiving photos of J. C. Meldon’s pocket watch a few weeks ago, we were delighted to have another photo of a worker’s  momento from their time at H.M. Factory Gretna. This time the photos were of a cigarette case, given to Herbert Womersley.

Engraved upon this cigarette case were the words ‘H. M. Gretna 23.2.18’

Herbert was born in Warrington, Lancashire in April 1899. He trained as a chemist in soap manufacturing, but from a young age his passion was entomology. Entomology is the study of insects, and Herbert wasn’t the first person in his family to be interested in the subject, his father, Fred, was an amateur lepidopterist.

“The American Soldiers in Presence of Gas” (Reeve 37283), National Museum of Health and Medicine, Otis Historical Archives.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Herbert joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, before transferring to the Chemical Corps. He served at the Front, and was involved in some of the earliest chemical weapon attacks on German soldiers. At some point between this and the end of War, Herbert ended up at H. M. Factory Gretna.

After the war, Herbert Womersley emigrated to Australia and made his lifelong passion a career. He became a renowned entomologist. Several insect genera and species were even named after him!

Herbert’s entry in the ‘Who’s Who of Australia’ in 1944

When photos of Herbert’s cigarette case were recently shared with us, we were able to find his name in the Mossband Farewell magazine. The Mossband Farewell was a put together by the staff at the end of the war, and at the end of the magazine there was a list of staff and addresses. A ‘H Womersley’ is listed, as part of the operating staff, and his address is in Warrington.

The page in the ‘Mossband Farewell’ where Herbert is mentioned.

From this it seems Herbert worked in the Mossband section of the Factory. Mossband and Dornock were the two administrative sites at H.M. Factory Gretna. Dornock was where the mixing of acids, nitrocotton and nitro-glycerine was done, and in Mossband the compounds were brought together to make cordite.

Herbert Womersley and his wife Alice in the front yard of their home in Adelaide, South Australia

However, one part of Herbert’s story remains a mystery! We couldn’t figure out the significance of the date engraved on the cigarette case—23.02.18. Maybe further research will shed light on why this date in particular was commemorated on Herbert’s cigarette case.

Fiona's grandmother, Jane, who worked as a typist at HM Factory Gretna.

Worker of the Week: Jane Ann Jackson

By Collections blog

Worker of the Week is a weekly blogpost series which will highlight one of the workers at H.M. Gretna our Research Assistant, Laura Noakes, has come across during her research. Laura is working on a project to create a database of the 30,000 people that worked at Gretna during World War One.

Another week, another fascinating family enquiry. This time our worker was a typist at H.M. Factory Gretna, demonstrating just how many different jobs there were at the factory!

Jane was born in Low Moorhouse outside of Carlisle in 1897. She first worked as an understairs maid in a local “big” house. On her one day off a month she cycled to Carlisle to take typing classes. She worked at H. M. Factory Gretna from 1916 for the buyers, and we know this because of the excellent testimonial she was given upon leaving her position:

Interestingly, at the same time Jane was working at Gretna, her brother Jack was serving in World War One as a signaller with the Cameron Highlanders. He was awarded the Military Medal for keeping the lines of communication open during the battle of Passchedale. At the end of the War, he was a member of the occupying forces that marched into Germany.

John wrote extensively about his time during World War One, and his memoirs have recently been published. They provide a fascinating portrait of war and John’s extraordinary experiences.

John Jackson’s book, available to purchase here:

After the war, John worked on the railway between Carlisle and Glasgow. He married and lived in Carlisle, before passing away in the 1950s.  Jane met and married her husband in 1922, living at first in Gretna. The photo below is of them standing outside their house in Gretna. Later, they moved to Dumfries.

The Jackson family’s multiple connections to the war effort are probably representative of many others across the country; with sons’ off to fight and daughters’ working to help produce materials essential for the front. It’s interesting that Jane’s jobs as a typist involved the constant writing of letters ordering materials needed at H.M. Factory Gretna whilst her brother was awarded the military medal for making sure communications were kept open at Passchedale. Both siblings roles revolved around communications!

A massive thank you to Fiona Jackson for the invaluable information she provided on Jane and John.

Elizabeth Dawson in her munition workers uniform.

Worker of the Week: Elizabeth Dawson

By Collections blog

Worker of the Week is a weekly blogpost series which will highlight one of the workers at H.M. Gretna our Research Assistant, Laura Noakes, has come across during her research. Laura is working on a project to create a database of the 30,000 people that worked at Gretna during World War One.

This week’s post again originates from a family research inquiry. These type of inquiries are invaluable to The Devil’s Porridge, and nearly always uncover some interesting historical story!

Elizabeth was born in Carlisle in August 1892. In the 1901 census, Elizabeth, then aged eight, is living with her parents and siblings, still in Carlisle. Her father, William, is working as a foreman of a wool and cotton weaving shed. Unfortunately, both of Elizabeth’s parents died during her childhood–her mother in 1904, and her father in 1908. By 1911, eighteen-year-old Elizabeth is living with her older married sister and had followed her father into the weaving occupation. From this it looks like Elizabeth was local to the eventual location of H.M. Factory Gretna for much of her youth. This was a common occurrence–many munitions workers came from the surrounding villages and border towns to work at the Factory.

Elizabeth, her husband Thomas, who was a soldier during WW1. and their daughter Isabella.

In 1913, Elizabeth married Thomas Davison Dawson in 1913, and they had their daughter, Isabel in 1914. We know that Elizabeth worked at H. M. Factory Gretna because of this photo of her wearing the uniform:

Many of the munitions workers at Gretna had similar photos taken of themselves, and we think this was probably done at a local photographers. I think it shows a pride in identifying themselves as a crucial part of the war effort, and of memorising their experiences at Gretna. Unfortunately we couldn’t find a mention of Elizabeth in our collections. This may be because we have limited access to our archives because of COVID-19, but it could also be that Elizabeth just isn’t mentioned in any of the surviving material–we don’t have a complete list of workers at the Factory and much of what we know we learn from research enquiries from members of the public.

In keeping with Elizabeth’s firm roots in the local area, later in life she and her husbands managed several Government-run pubs in Carlisle. Carlisle was the main site of the State Management Scheme. This was an experiment began during World War One where the Government took over control of public houses and breweries, with the idea that a disinterested management who had no incentive to sell alcohol would reduce drunken behaviour and negate its effect on the local community. Carlisle was one of the locations of this scheme because of its proximity to local arms factories, including H. M. Factory Gretna. To find out more about this fascinating (and not very well known aspect) of WW1 history, click here.

The King’s Head pub, which Elizabeth and Thomas managed. Source:

Elizabeth and Thomas managed several pubs in Carlisle, including the Kings Head in Fisher Street, the Bee Hive on Warwick Road and the Currock Hotel. Indeed, it was at the Currock Hotel where Elizabeth sadly died in 1944, at the young age of 52.

Fob watch with an inscription which reads "H.M. Works. Gretna. Presented to J.C Meldon Esq JP. By workers on Hill No. 2 July 1916."

Worker of the Week: J. C. Meldon

By Collections blog

Worker of the Week is a weekly blogpost series which will highlight one of the workers at H.M. Gretna our Research Assistant, Laura Noakes, has come across during her research. Laura is working on a project to create a database of the 30,000 people that worked at Gretna during World War One.

This week’s worker comes from another enquiry from a member of the public, and is a fascinating one! James Charles Meldon was born in Dublin in 1873, the son of Charles Meldon, who was a barrister, nationalist politician, and M.P. for Kildare.

The Meldon family has an impressive national pedigree.[1] Meldon is a variation of Muldoon, or in Irish, Ó Maoldúin, which means ‘descendant of the servant of St. Duin.’ The Ó Maoldúin’s were rumoured to be of royal descent, they were styled as the kings of Lurg in ‘The Annuals of Loch Ce’, which chronicles Irish affairs from 1014-1590. However, the Ó Maoldúin clan was defeated in battle by the MacGuires in about 1400, losing most of their power, although they retained some of it in Ulster. Remember this family information, it is definitely important to James Charles Meldon’s story!

In 1894, James married Harriette Cololough in St Joseph’s Church, Kingstown.[2] By 1901, the Meldon’s were living in Wellington Road, Dublin, alongside two of James’ sisters, their four-year old daughter Eileen, and two servants.[3] From this glimpse into the Meldon family at the time, it appears the family are living a comfortable middle-class life. It’s in the 1901 census we also get the first mention of James Charles’ job: an electrical engineer. This was a relatively new profession—the first electrical engineer is generally considered to be Sir Francis Ronalds, who created the first working telegraph that operated over a substantial distance.[4]

James advertised his business in local papers, and it appears that he was very successful. By 1911, he’d left Dublin to live in Greystones, Wicklow. In 1912, he was involved in the town of Dundalk’s switch to electric lights; his shop there was described as a ‘veritable fairyland of brilliant light.’[5] In 1917, he was the consulting engineer at the at The New Picture House, Greystones.

But what was James Charles Meldon’s connection with H. M. Factory Gretna? Well, that’s still a little bit of a mystery. The Devil’s Porridge Museum was recently approached by a member of the public who had in their possession a beautiful presentation gift given to J. C. Meldon ‘by workers on Hill No. 2’ at H.M Factory Gretna in July 1916.

It was common for presentations to be made to fellow workers, or bosses when they were leaving and/or when they performed particularly meritoriously at their job. In the DPM’s collection, we have a silver platter given to a William McDonald as well as a souvenir given to J. C. Burnham. ‘The Hill’ mentioned is shorthand for the Nitro-Glycerine Hill, which was where Nitro-Glycerine (a crucial ingredient needed to make cordite) was fed into the cordite making process by gravity. This suggests that J. C. Meldon was involved, in some way, in this particular area of the factory. The date engraved on the watch also gives us some more clues about Meldon’s time at the Factory. July 1916 was not long after the factory started production. Coupled with his career as an electrical engineer, could Meldon have been involved in the construction of the factory, perhaps installing electrics? The ‘JP’ at the end of Meldon’s name stands for Justice of the Peace. A Justice of the Peace is a judicial officer, appointed from the local community, who sits in the magistrates court and decides on minor offences. J. C. Meldon was appointed a JP of the city of Dublin in January 1915.[6] Although this was a lay position, which is a position that doesn’t require legal training, in a way J. C. Meldon was following in the footsteps of his father, who was a lawyer, by becoming a Justice of the Peace

On the other side of the watch, Meldon’s illustrious family history is celebrated.

This is the Meldon family Crest and motto. The motto, pro fide et patria, is Latin for ‘For Faith and Fatherland.’[7] The coat of arms is a variation of the Muldoon coat of arms.[8] The hand is a symbol for faith sincerity and justice, and the crescent moon above it is a symbol of one who has been honoured by his Sovereign.

When we recently shared photos of this lovely gift across our social media, and received the following information from a Facebook follower:

It’s a half hunter Waltham watch. American manufacture, retailed by Stokes of Dublin. The serial number will give the date of manufacture, probably 1915/16. Could be 15 carot gold case. Or possibly gold plated can’t see the marks on the cover clearly.

 That is all we’ve been able to uncover about J. C. Meldon’s time at H. M. Factory Gretna, and the lovely presentation gift given to him from workers there. Whilst we don’t know the details of Meldon’s involvement with the factory, the gift, coupled with his job as an electric engineer, suggests that he was involved in some way with the construction of the factory. His family background and historic connections to Irish royalty make J. C. Meldon’s connection with Gretna even more fascinating, and we wouldn’t know any of this without the help of the member of the public that reached out to us to share photos of the watch! So, a massive thank you, and do feel free to reach out to us if you know of any connections with H. M. Factory Gretna in your family history!

[1] See:;;

[2] ‘Marriages Meldon – Cololough, The Belfast Newsletter, November 27th 1894, p. 1.

[3] Irish Census 1901 <>

[4] B. F. Ronalds, “Francis Ronalds (1788–1873): The First Electrical Engineer? [Scanning Our Past],” in Proceedings of the IEEE, vol. 104, no. 7, pp. 1489-1498, July 2016, doi: 10.1109/JPROC.2016.2571358.

[5] ‘Electric Light in Dundalk’ Dundalk Examiner and Louth Advertiser,

[6] The Wicklow Newsletter and Arklow Reporter, January 9th 1915.



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