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Shell damage to a goods waggon at West Hartlepool.

WW1 Railway Wagon Postcard

By Collections blog

This postcard (from the Museum’s collection) shows an explosion within a railway wagon during World War One.  Transporting munitions by rail was dangerous and at HM Factory Gretna (the factory which is the main focus of The Devil’s Porridge Museum) they took several precautions when transporting cordite including the use of fireless locomotives such as Sir James (now outside the Museum).



Although the railway stations were crowded at this time and both the West Hartlepool passenger station and goods station yard were hit, only rolling stock was damaged with no loss of life.


A fireless locomotive is a type of locomotive which uses reciprocating engines powered from a reservoir of compressed air or steam, which I filled at intervals from an external source. Typical usage was in industrial switching where a traditional locomotive was too noxious or risky, such as in a mine or a food or chemical factory (such as HM Factory Gretna). They were used at HM Factory Gretna as they were less likely to cause an explosion, this means that it was easier to transport the munitions across the Factory site without the risk of a huge chain explosion.




This photo is also from the Museum’s collection and shows HM Factory Gretna during its construction.  It has the title “Site 2 showing the scene of the accident” and is dated July 19th 1916.  It seems there may have been a railway accident at the Factory as well.


If you would like to know more about railways at HM Factory Gretna, you might find the following booklet of interest:

WW1 Fireless Locomotive

By News

Outside The Devil’s Porridge Museum there stands a train, a fireless locomotive called Sir James, which was built and used in World War One. By the time it came to the Museum, it was in a rusty and poor state of repair.  The Museum spent a lot of time and money restoring the engine and it is now one of our most popular displays.


This engine was used to transport the ‘devil’s porridge’ paste through HM Factory Gretna (the greatest munitions factory on earth at that time, it stretched nine miles from Dornock in Scotland to Longtown in England).  The paste was made into cordite, a propellant in the English side of the Factory.  Cordite went inside all the bullets and shells used in World War One.


Sir James is an unusual locomotive.  It is powered by steam but there is no fire inside.  This was a safety precaution as the Factory produced explosive material and the train was used to transport it.  There was a genuine concern that there might be a major explosion (there were several fires and explosions here during World War One but the safety record was remarkably good given that 30,000 people worked at the Factory in total and we know of only twelve deaths directly attributable to accidents).


Sir James was built by Andrew Barclay of Kilmarnock, Scotland and in World War One, it would have been charged up with steam from an external boiler before setting off.   For these locomotives to work, it was necessary to have three charging stations en route to maintain pressure.  These ‘crazy green and brown patchwork’ camouflaged fireless locomotives could pull ten loaded wagons and return the empty wagons on one charge of steam.

At the end of the War, the Factory eventually closed and much of the machinery was sold off.  Sir James was sold in 1924 to the Metropolitan Electric Power Supply Company at Brimsdown Generating Station and then in 1975 to the Lakeland and Haverthwaite railway before joining us at the Museum and being restored to its former glory in 2011.

If you enjoyed this article you might be interested in the following items from our online shop…

HM Factory Gretna’s Unique Railway System Booklet

Sir James Postcard

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