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gretna girls

The bakery packing room at Gretna. This photo is from The Devil's Porridge Museum's archive.

Feeding the 30,000

By Collections blog

Feeding the 30,000 workers at HM Factory Gretna during World War One must have been a real challenge but they seem to have been well cared for as this page from an autograph book (below), created by a munitions ‘girl’ in 1918 suggests.  It includes a transcription of Robert Burns’s famous ‘Selikirk Grace’ (an integral part of any Burns Supper) with a canteen meal ticket stuck next to it.

The signature at the bottom includes the location, Broomhills Canteen, which is shown in the photograph below.

This autograph book is part of the Museum collection but we also have documents and photographs relating to the catering facilities at the Factory.  The document below gives an idea of the size of the undertaking, some of the food prepared and the normal of people employed in this work.

The following photos show the bakery and related processes as organised by the Factory authorities for the workers.

If you would like to know more about life at HM Factory Gretna in World War One, the following items from the Museum shop may be of interest to you:

Gretna’s Secret War

The Devil’s Porridge Museum Guidebook

Lives of Ten Gretna Girls booklet



Group of workers at H M Factory Gretna.

New photos of World War One workers

By Collections blog

The Museum was recently contacted by someone with family connections to HM Factory Gretna (the greatest factory on earth in World War One and the main focus of much of The Devil’s Porridge Museum).

30,000 people worked in the Factory and 12,000 of them were women.  At present (as far as is known), there is no complete list of all the people who worked there so we are always pleased to know names of workers and see their photographs and hear their stories.  Thanks so much to the donor who shared this information with us.

Agnes Calder at HM Factory Gretna

Agnes Calder (maternal grandmother of donor – worked at HM Factory Gretna)


BIRTH 21 JAN 1895

Grahams Court

Ashley Street




Bower Street


Agnes’s daughter was Joyce Sarginson (née Bisland – photographed above).  She became the Mayoress of Carlisle and also served in World War Two in the Auxiliary Territorial Service as  a Radar Operator.

Group photo of female workers from donor’s collection.

Beatrice Calder  (sister of Agnes and great aunt of donor, worked at HM Factory Gretna)


BIRTH 1 MAY 1892


DEATH 1928


Both sisters and their father died of TB

Bertha Sarginson

Bertha Sarginson (great aunt of the donor, worked at HM Factory Gretna)



Potters, Place



                            DEATH 07 JUNE 1990 Carlisle

Bertha worked at HM Factory Gretna.  Here she learned to drive and in 1917 volunteered as a Ambulance driver and was sent to Boulogne in France.  She worked transferring injured soldiers off hospital trains and onto boats back to England.

Photograph of workers at HM Factory Gretna. Interestingly, one young woman is holding a symbol of a swastika. This is an ancient symbol of the sun and was a widely use good luck symbol at the start of the 20th century, nothing to do with the Nazis until later.

In 1920, Bertha married Joe Robson (of the 4th Battalion Border Regiment Reserve) from 6 Melbourne Street, Carlisle.  Joe got a job at Carr’s Biscuit Factory as a fitter, his father worked there as an engineer.  Bertha and Joe got their first home in Brewery Row, Caldewgate. Bertha continued to work in a shop called Sarah Jane’s.

Their first son Joseph was born 22 November 1920. He became an altar boy at St Barnabas Church, Brookside Raffles when the family moved to Brookside. Joe Jr. Joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. He was a Sergeant in training to become a pilot when he was killed 5th September 1940.

If you would like to know more about HM Factory Gretna in World War One, the following may be of interest to you:

Lives of Ten Gretna Girls booklet

Gretna’s Secret War

Munition Workers’ Poems

The Devil’s Porridge Museum Guidebook


Annie Corrin

Annie Corrin – Gretna Girl

By Collections blog

Annie Corrin left Port S. Mary in the Isle of Man, and went to work at the Gretna plant when she was 19. She remained there from August 1917 until early 1919. She received roughly 15/- per week, after board and lodging had been deducted. Despite the fact that these wages were considered to be high for the period after she had sent money to her home she couldn’t afford to go to the cinema or dances in Carlisle or Dornock.


Eventually she was billeted in the Central Hotel, near Carlisle station, which had been commandeered for the munition workers. However, about six months later the hotel became a hospital for the war wounded and the girls were sent to the hostels in the Gretna township. These hostels were usually newly erected wooden huts, and the one she was sent to was called “Florence Nightingale Hostel”.


Work at the plant as based on a three shift system 7.00am – 2.00pm, 2.00pm – 10.00pm and 10.00pm – 7.00am.


Annie had initially been sent to work in the Cordite Section, and was provided with a mop cap, tunic and trousers. Her job was to separate large trays of Cordite, by taking a small handful and smashing the end, to separate the strands. The strands were then put into boxes, similar to fish boxes and weighed. After this procedure had been completed, the boxes were provided with lids which were then nailed down.


After six months, she was transferred to outside work in the Loading Sheds. She was provided with an oilskin coat, and sou’wester hat, for this work. She was instructed by a man called ‘Geordie’ into the best methods of lifting and loading the boxes of cordite sticks on to the trucks. The girls then pushed these trucks outside on rail tracks, for about a mile to another shed. Although she never found out what happened in these sheds she does remember that there were usually a couple of girls lying outside in  what appeared to be a drunk state, cause by exposure to cordite.


Early in 1919 Annie left the Gretna Plant and returned to the Isle of Man.

Group Gretna girls in World War One.

“The female excess”: the ‘problem’ of too many single women after World War One

By Collections blog

The Devil’s Porridge Museum’s main focus is on HM Factory Gretna, the greatest factory on earth in World War One.  It employed 30,000 people in the production of cordite (aka the devil’s porridge).  12,000 of these workers were women.

women who worked at hm factory gretna

A display within the Museum.

The majority of female workers were single and young.  We know that some women married while they working at Gretna and there were married women and those who had been widowed due to the War working at the Factory but the majority of the girls were probably affected by the post-War shortage of men.  The ‘lost generation’ i.e. the young men who died in the War meant that a lot of women remained unmarried and single women were perceived as a ‘problem’.

This article from the Times Newspaper in 1920 (published recently in their archive section), makes the point clear.  One cannot help but think of the 12,000 ‘Gretna Girls’.  They did so much to help win the War and it continue to impact on their lives in the decades to come.

1920s girl and the elusive male

This poem, written during the War by one of the female workers sums up how many of the girls may have felt: they were doing their duty, waiting for the boys to come home.  Sadly, many of the boys never did return and the course of the girls’ lives did not run in the way they had anticipated.

bravo gretna poem

If you would like to know more about the Lives of some of the Gretna Girls who made munitions at HM Factory Gretna in World War One, you might like this booklet (available from our online shop):

Lives of Ten Gretna Girls booklet

Acid recovery section hm factory gretna

A look at some of the dangers of working at HM Factory Gretna

By Collections blog

The Devil’s Porridge Museum is primarily focused on sharing the history of HM Factory Gretna, the greatest munitions factory on earth in World War One; it employed 30,000 workers, 12,000 of them women.  The Museum is situated near one of the main factory sites (which is still owned by the Ministry of Defence today).

The purpose of the Factory was to produce cordite.  One of the main ingredients of cordite is acid and although safety precautions were taken, we know of several accidents that involved contact with acid.

nitric acid retorts

Female workers in the Nitric Acid retorts, the Nitric Acid Store at HM Factory Gretna.

Acid mixing stations at HM Factory Gretna.

Female workers at HM Factory Gretna working in the Acid Mixing Stations – measuring off nitric acid.

We know of the following incidents involving accidents with acid:

In 1917, W G Martin, a charge hand had his “face, head and right arm hurt with acid due to exit valve of pump blowing out.”  Because his right eye was destroyed by the accident, he was offered £300 in compensation.

On 4th January, 1918, Jonathan Leah died.  He had been injured on September 20th 1917 when he was working on pipes in the Factory.  He struck a pipe with a hammer and acid sprayed onto his face.  His left eye had to be removed and he died as a result of this injury.

Arthur Gilliam was working on an acid tank when he was overcome by noxious fumes.  He died in hospital.

The photograph below shows the Volunteer Rescue Brigade for the Acid Section equipped with protective uniforms and a stretcher.  They would have been sent in had there been a major acid leak or incident, fortunately a large scale leak did not occur.

Acid recovery section hm factory gretna


Agnes Helen Webster

Agnes Helen Webster – Gretna Girls

By Collections blog

Agnes Helen Webster was born on 2nd March 1899 at Burnfoot, Biel Estate, East Lothian. Her father was a gamekeeper on the estate. Agnes was one of a family of four girls and one boy.


Agnes attended school at Stenton where she had seven years perfect attendance. Her father the dies when she was 12 years old and her family would have to leave their cottage at Burnfoot.


Agnes would probably enter domestic serve until she went to Gretna. The working conditions would be in stark contrast to her rural upbringing and with running water on the floor to prevent sparks, and being exposed to highly toxic and dangerous chemicals, life at Gretna was quite harsh.


She returned to domestic service at the end of the war and in 1930 met and married Robert Bathgate Denholm from North Berwick. He was  a master cabinet maker and joiner and an accomplished amateur golfer who represented Scotland on numerous occasions. They had a family of four boys.


Agnes died in 1964 having suffered from cancer for many years.


Photo of some munitions workers outside a Gym at H. M. Factory Gretna.

Wonderful new photo of Gretna Girls

By Collections blog

We recently discovered this postcard and have added it to our collection.  It shows a group of ‘Gretna Girls’ i.e. munition workers from HM Factory Gretna outside the gymnasium.  HM Factory Gretna was the greatest factory on earth in World War One, it employed 12,000 women (The Devil’s Porridge Museum tells its story).

The workers were comparatively well looked after with a Social and Recreation Department through which the gym and other facilities were provided.  A document in the Museum’s collection states that,

“…each township [Gretna and Eastriggs built to house the workers] became possessed of an Institute, a Cinema, a spacious Hall for Meetings, Concerts and Dances, a Mission Hall, smaller buildings for general purposes and a Recreation ground with pitches for Cricket, Football, Hockey and other healthy games.  Tennis Courts and Bowling Greens were also provided.”

hm factory gretna gym

This photo has the following text written beneath it.

“These Gretna girls in costume trim

Have spent the morning in ‘the Gym’

They learn to climb, to jump and run,

And to judge by their faces, it’s all great fun!”

Interestingly, the postcard wasn’t sent until 1960 and when it was sent it was sent to someone (a female student?) at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.  The main text of the postcard does not relate to the photo on the front but the Postscript does.  It seems the writer of the postcard bought it at a Church Bazaar.

The following is an extract from the back of the postcard:

“Owner of this splendid collection and really did take wk in Gretna Green Ordnance Factory set up during First World War.”

The gym is described in a Museum document as being “…fitted with all the most modern gymnastic appliances, and the classes held for girl operatives on several occasions each week, under the direction of a trained instructress, have been attended with most gratifying and beneficial results, physically and otherwise.”

The same document also describes the uniforms worn by the girls:  “The members of these classes wear a neat and serviceable uniform that affords them ample freedom for their numerous exercises.”

We are very pleased with this new addition to our Museum collection.  If you are interested in the stories of Gretna Girls and their experiences in World War One, this publication (available from the Museum’s online shop) may be of interest to you:

Lives of Ten Gretna Girls booklet


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