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Munitions worker

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.

Dame Rebecca West.

Worker of the Week: Dame Rebecca West

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 is a little different, because the person I’m highlighting never actually held a job at H. M. Factory Gretna. However, as a journalist and prominent feminist Rebecca West played a critical role in establishing wartime perceptions of munitions workers at Gretna. West visited the factory and wrote an article about the cordite makers in 1916.

Rebecca West was actually born Cicely Fairfield, and was the youngest of three daughters. During her childhood her anti-socialist journalist father abandoned the family. Cecily trained to be an actress at the Academy of Dramatic Art, and it was there where she found the name Rebecca West—a heroine from an Ibsen play. However, after leaving she became a journalist.

West soon became immersed in the women’s movement. She was involved from the start in The Freewoman, a feminist journal founded by suffragettes Dora Marsden and Mary Gawthorpe. The nineteen-year-old Rebecca wrote prolifically for the publication, on topics as diverse as ‘The Position of Women in Indian Life’,[1] anti-suffrage activist Mrs Humphrey Ward,[2] and book reviews.[3] In doing so, she established a name for herself as a perceptive and cutting writer. The Freewoman, although not particularly successful (it struggled financially and only lasted eleven months), really made its mark by the open discussion of women’s sexuality and free love. Because of this, W. H. Smith refused to stock it, and Mrs Humphrey Ward (one target of Rebecca’s pen!) complained to The Times. Even feminists criticised the journal—Millicent Fawcett tore it up![4] Rebecca’s entry onto the world’s stage was thus tinged with controversy and boundary pushing, both aspects she would encounter throughout her life.

All copies of The Freewoman have been digitized in a brilliant project. See: The Modernist Journals Project (searchable database). Brown and Tulsa Universities, ongoing.

After critically reviewing one of his books, Rebecca met and became the lover of the famous novelist H. G. Wells in 1913. Wells, who was married and already notorious for his extra-marital affairs, was twenty-six West’s senior. Rebecca soon became pregnant, and gave birth to her soon Anthony just before the outbreak of war in 1914. So, not only was Rebecca a feminist with socialist leanings, but she was now an unmarried mother who was having an affair with a married man! Scandalous.

During the First World War, like many journalists, Rebecca wrote positive propaganda pieces on the war effort in order to boost morale. One of these was on cordite workers. Published as part of a series called ‘Hands that War’ for The Daily Chronicle, Rebecca detailed the work of the Gretna Girls in her trademark witty prose.[5] She wrote:


Every morning at six, when the night mist still hangs over the marshes, 250 of these girls are fetched by a light railway from their barracks on a hill two miles away. When I visited the works they had already been at work for nine hours, and would work for three more. This twelve-hour shift is longer than one would wish, but it is not possible to introduce three shifts, since the girls would find an eight-hour day too light and would complain of being debarred from the opportunity of making more money; and it is not so bad as it sounds, for in these airy and isolated huts there is neither the orchestra of rattling machines nor the sense of a confined area crowded with tired people which make the ordinary factory such a fatiguing place. Indeed, these girls, working in teams of six or seven in those clean and tidy rooms, look as if they were practising a neat domestic craft rather than a deadly domestic process.



Rebecca had to wear ‘rubber over shoes’ to enter the factory, because of the danger of explosions. Like Arthur Conan Doyle, who also visited the factory during War, she likened the cordite paste to a food! She said ‘it might turn into very pleasant honey-cakes; an inviting appearance that has brought gastritis to more than one unwise worker.’ This quote made me smile for a number of reasons. Firstly, it implies that some workers actually ate cordite, and were ill because of it. Secondly, The Devil’s Porridge Museum was named after Arthur Conan Doyle’s phrase, could it have easily as been named the Honey-Cake Museum after Rebecca’s?

Above all, Rebecca’s article emphasises the ‘extraordinary’ nature of the work being done and how ‘pretty’ the girls are who are doing it. Rebecca’s emphasis on both the femininity of the workers and their work ethic belies her feminist sympathies—she is refuting the idea that women working strips them of their womanly identities whilst also emphasising their wartime contribution. West also doesn’t shy away from the danger inherent in the work; she describes an accident that happened just days before her visit: ‘Two huts were instantly gutted, and the girls had to walk out through the flame. In spite of the uniform one girl lost a hand.’

The reason why I think Rebecca’s article is so interesting is because it gives us a contemporary glimpse into the lives of munition workers at Gretna, from the mundane (being so tired that they spend the whole day in bed—I can relate) to the extraordinary (‘this cordite factory has been able to increase its output since the beginning of the war by something over 1500%’). The article has Rebecca’s point of view firmly planted on it, but it doesn’t completely depersonalise the Gretna Girls, unlike the many documents and reports written by factory higher ups do. It also shows the inter-connectivity between journalism and wartime propaganda, the importance of munitions production, and the notability of the women who were making munitions. Plus, I still can’t get over Rebecca’s suggestion that some women actually ate cordite!

If you want to learn more about Rebecca’s life, I really recommend the book Rebecca West: The Modern Sibyl by Carl Rollyson.

[1] Marsden, Dora (Ed), The Freewoman, Vol 1, No. 2, 30 November 1911, p. 39. Available:

[2] Marsden, Dora (Ed), The Freewoman, Vol 1, No. 13, 15 February 1912, p. 249. Available:

[3] Marsden, Dora (Ed), The Freewoman, Vol 1, No. 17, 14 March 1912, p. 334. Available: ;

[4] Lorna Gibb, West’s World: The Extraordinary Life of Dame Rebecca West (Pan Macmillan, 2013); Ray Strachey, Millicent Garrett Fawcett (John Murray, 1931), p. 236.

[5] For more on this series, and the discovery of a brand new article recently found in the archives, see: Kielty, D (2017) “Hands That War: In the Midlands”: Rebecca West’s Rediscovered Article on First World War Munitions Workers. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 36 (1). pp. 211-217.

Hannah Atherton

Hannah Atherton – Gretna Girl

By Collections blog

Hannah was a munitions worker at Gretna from 1917 to 1918. She heard about the plant from a friend, and they both signed up together, in Tudhoe, which is near Spennymoor.


The two travelled by train to the plant, and were initially billeted in a hut with several other girls from the North East of England. She remembers that a lot of the girls came from Sunderland. Unfortunately the hit was not wind and watertight, and many of the girls began to have serious doubts about their decision to come to the plant. However, the next day, they were moved to a complex of huts which varied in size, but which were connected by a communal dining hall. The food provided as of a very hight standard, but the constant repetition of kippers for breakfast led to a half day strike by the girls, until this was varied.


Hannah was given a works number, 3-11-39, and was sent to work in the gun cotton plant. There were two sections of this plant, which included a wet and dry area. Her strongest memories are of the drying out process, in which the cotton was removed from the large zinc pans and placed in bags.


This was a dusty job, and the workshop had to be continually hosed down. As a result, the girls were provided with rubber boots, and face masks. Due to the impregnation of this dust, on to their clothing, immediately after the shift had finished, the girls’ trousers and tunics were replaced.


After a while, Hannah became a chargehand, and supervised a group of girls, including some Gaelic speakers from the Islands. Her main task was to teach them how to dry the cotton. Included in this job was also a section about training in fire fighting by the local Fire Briagde, and the girls were taught to handle hoses, scale ladders etc.


Hannah also remebers that she was supervised in turn by a femal supervisor, who was provided with a distinctive khaki uniform, consisting of a wide brimmed hat, belted jacket, skirt and tie, with a shirt and dark stockings, and shoes.


Many of the girls obtained late passes, and travelled to Carlisle and Dornock, to attend dances and variety shows. Moreover the girls often entertained each other by producing their own shows, with each girl doing a turn. There were also sporting events, such as the Dornock Hockey Team.


Hannah worked at the plant throughout the running down period of 1919, and then returned to Spennymoor, where she went into domestic service prior to her marriage.

Two Gretna Girls including Alexina Ross Dickson.

Photo of Gretna Girl: new donation

By Collections blog

 This photograph shows two young women who worked at HM Factory in World War One.   Women were employed in all sorts of roles within the Factory (the greatest one on earth at that time) including working in the bakery, laundry, in the hostels, with chemicals, as nurses, as women police officers and so much more.

Gretna Girl Alexina Ross Dickson

The lady who is standing is Alexina Ross Dickson, who was born in 1897.  The photograph has the following written on it, “Wishing you a Merry Xmas, 1917” so she was probably 20 years old at the time.

We are very grateful to the people who recently donated this photograph to us.  We do not currently have a complete list of all the workers at HM Factory Gretna (one may exist somewhere but it has not yet come to light) and so we are largely reliant on people who donate photographs and tells us the names of their family members and share their involvement.

We have an archive of this material and add any new accounts to a book called ‘Gretna Girls Memories’ on display within the Museum.  It is also good to know the name of one more young women who did their war work and made their contribution here.

If you would like to know more about the Gretna Girls and their experiences, this booklet might interest you:

Lives of Ten Gretna Girls booklet


Born in a Munition Workers Hostel in 1919

By Collections blog

A recent visitor to the Museum sent us a photo of their mothers Birth certificate who used to work at the munitions factory at Powfoot during the Second World War. The visitor was researching their family tree when they discovered that one of their mothers three sisters (who her mother never mentioned) also worked in a munitions factory.  The visitor’s mother (Margaret or Peggy Sweeney) was born at the end of World War One.   Her mother (Bridget Sweeney) worked in one of the hostels for munitions girls in Eastriggs (Newfoundland House).  She was a cook as shown in Peggy’s birth certificate (below).

Birth Certificate

Old Photo

These are photographs of Margaret or Peggy Sweeney as a child and young woman.

The accommodation for the workers at HM Factory Gretna varied as many wooden huts were built to be used as hostels but also a number of brick hostels were made to house more people, these brick hostels lasted for a long time and the majority of them stand today and have been split up into houses after being sold off after the war. The brick hostels had a matron and a cook to make sure that the workers were looked after and fed properly, each hostel was named after a famous figure such as Wellington, Kitchener and Wolfe which were all situated on Victory Avenue in Eastriggs.

WW1 hostels

The hostels were built very quickly by the Irish Navvies who came to Eastriggs and Gretna to build the Factory site. Even the brick hostels were built very quickly as stated in this account: “I remember when all the navvies were there building….. we were coming on shift one morning and they were starting to build a block and when we came off in the afternoon it was all up, the whole block was built, you know, the hostels, it was all built while we were at work, all built in a day, there were hundreds of men there.” – Mary Ellen Halliday, who started working in the factory in 1916 aged 19.

Hostel being built by navvies

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited the Factory and hostels he said this about the way they were laid out “A considerable nucleus of solid brick houses which should be good for a century or more…. radiating out from this centre are long lines of wooden huts to hold the workers, cottages for the married couples, bungalows for groups of girls and hostels which hold as many as seventy in each. This central settlement is where people live – North and South of it is where they work.”

Gretna overhead view WW1

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