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Lord Moulton

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Kenneth Bingham Quinan Part 2

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Kenneth Bingham Quinan  “The great KBQ.”


KBQ was probably the most important person behind the construction and successful operation of HM Factory Gretna (the greatest munitions factory in World War One, The Devil’s Porridge Museum tells its story).

Part 2: KBQ goes to war

“There is Q an American by nationality, a South African in experience, a man with a drive like a steam piston.”  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote this after visiting HM Factory Gretna

On December 19th 1914 a cable sent from the High Commission for South Africa in London stating that K B Quinan was urgently required in Britain.

The High Commissioner immediately cabled De Beers in Kimberley.

“Quinan required urgently in London – can he catch mail steamer leaving Cape Town this afternoon?”

Quinan cabled back, “Yes.”  He packed up his life, made arrangements for the management of the factory and steamed out of Cape Town at 4.30pm that same day.  He was 36 years old, a bachelor and said to have ‘an arresting personality.’

Steam ship Norman

It is said that the steamship, Norman (pictured left), delayed its departure for an hour to enable the man of the moment to board (this was a very unusual occurence and suggests how valuable KBQ was to the British Government).

“For the next four years Quinan’s inspiration, personality and indefatigable labour earned him a wide reputation as one of the greatest organisers and men of genius who had worked in Britain during the War.”  Quote from an article in The Chemical Engineer Journal, 1966.

Quinan was put in charge of the Factories Branch of the Ministry of Munitions (about 20 factories in total).

He worked seven days a week throughout the War and was mainly based in London in his offices at Storey’s Gate.

KBQ brought several of his colleagues with him from South Africa and trained many people who went on to become key figures in the teaching of Chemistry and in Chemical Engineering.

Lord Moulton

Above: Lord Moulton was the Chairman of the Committee on High Explosives.  He observed that British explosives experts were working 16 hours a day and that help was needed from the Empire.  He reached out to KBQ.

He oversaw all the munitions factories in World War One including:

3 Ammonium nitrate factories

2 Calcium nitrate factories

1 Ammonium perchlorate factory

1 Synthetic Phenol factory.

Quinan was also involved in several notable projects including:

the design and construction of a plant for the production of TNT near Chance & Hunt works, Oldbury

the dismantling of distillation units at Rotterdam and for their re-erection at Barrow in Furness and near Avonmouth, Bristol

In 1918, KBQ was put in charge of the Experimental Chemical Warfare and was involved in the building of a phosgene plant in Calais.  Phosgene was a poison gas used in World War.

“KBQ then turned his attention to the design and construction of the big factories at Queen’s Ferry, Sandycroft and Gretna.  These were to produce 600 tons of TNT, 15 tons of tetryl, and 800 tons of cordite weekly, and it is doubtful whether any larger factories for these products have ever been built in Europe.  They were completed in astonishingly quick time – Queen’s Ferry and Sandycroft were operating very early in 1916, and Gretna several weeks later.”

Quote from an article in The Chemical Engineer Journal, 1966.

Part 3 coming soon…

If you found this article interesting, you might like:

Gretna’s Secret War

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