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).
An American by birth but a resident in South Africa at the start of the War, he was described as having energy like a ‘steam piston’. He was integral to the construction of the Factory site (nine miles long and two miles wide in total), recruited the chemists and technical experts necessary for the production of cordite and compiled over 300 technical manuals at the end of the War to maintain the expertise gathered during the War. A founding member of the Institute of Technical Engineers, he was the presiding genius of the Factory which employed 30,000 people at its height, 12,000 of whom were women.
This is the first in a series of articles looking at his life and contribution.
In 1878 KBQ was born in New Jersey to parents of Irish and English extraction., their sixth child. His father and uncle had both been involved in the American Civil War. KBQ’s father was aide de camp to Stonewall Jackson (a Confederate general) and his uncle, Colonel W R Quinan, was gunnery expert and mathematician at the prestigious West Point Army Academy.
KBQ had a normal schooling but no higher education. He spent some time aboard a sailing ship and then joined his uncle in 1890 at an industrial explosives factory in Pinole, California. He spent ten years there learning on the job with his uncle.
Cecil Rhodes, founder of Rhodesia and later the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, invited W R Quinan to travel to South Africa to help construct a dynamite factory to break the monopoly of the Nobel Company. He arrived on board a ship which was also laden with bricks, timber, soda and iron (all items to build the factory).
W R Quinan played an integral part in the creation of the plant at Somerset West. KBQ joined his uncle in South Africa April 1901, he worked as his assistant for many years becoming General Manager of the Cape Explosives Works in 1909 (his uncle retired at this time due to ill health). W R Quinan died while in Australia but his body was returned to Somerset West for burial.
KBQ in South Africa
“…a unique preparation for the task he was to undertake for Britain throughout the First World War.”
From 1909 to December 1914, KBQ was General Manager of Cape Explosives Works. This factory had 1000 native employees and approximately 350 Europeans.
“…both Quinans were Americans and introduced the less conventional equipment, processes and methods prevalent in the USA….The underlying idea was to facilitate a system of planned inspection and maintenance in strict rotation. This was essential for plant carrying explosive risk but a somewhat similar system operated throughout the factory and KBQ insisted on its rigid application.” All quotes from an article in the Chemical Engineer Journal, 1966.
There are two streets with the name Quinan in Somerset West: W R Quinan Boulevard and Quinan Road. Our next article will focus on how and why Quinan came to Gretna to join the British War effort.
Eastriggs (where The Devil’s Porridge Museum is based) is known as the Commonwealth Village. The majority of its street names are derived from places in the Commonwealth (or Empire) such as Vancouver Road, Delhi Road, Singapore Road etc. The township was built in World War One to house workers at HM Factory Gretna, the greatest munitions factory on earth at that time (the Museum tells the story of this factory and its 30,000 workers). The workers came from around the world and they left their mark behind in their wartime contribution and in the place names of Eastriggs. Here we feature one person from the Factory who worked here in World War One with Commonwealth connections.
James Carter Spensley
James was born in Gunnerside in North Yorkshire in 1886. His family were Wesleyans and his father was the Headmaster of the school. At some point in the 1890s, the family migrated to Knysna in South Africa.
James studied chemistry at the Transvaal University in Pretoria (pictured below) and then became a lecturer there.
He was wounded, fighting against a Boer rebellion which occurred in South Africa at the start of World War One.
In May 1917, James came to HM Factory Gretna and worked as a chemist in the Central Laboratory. This photograph below shows the Central Laboratory staff at the end of the War. James may be in this picture.
The main focus of his work was on solvent recovery problems and he delivered a talk to the Factory’s Scientific Society on the subject.
In Spring 1918, an ‘urgent call’ came for chemists to go and work at another Factory. James went and was badly injured while there. It is probable that this Factory was at Avonmouth, near Bristol, where mustard gas was made. James may have been gassed during production (we know of another chemist from HM Factory Gretna to whom this happened).
“The potential dangers of the task did not deter Mr Spensley from undertaking it, and he rendered much valuable service before he succumbed to the dangerous nature of his work and lay at Death’s door for many weeks.”
The death of James Carter Spensley
James returned to Gretna towards the end of 1918. He had a mild attack of influenza in late 1918. Sadly, he died on December 16th due to the weakness of his heart following his brush with death at another munitions factory.
His body was buried in the village of Gunnserside, North Yorkshire where his family had lived in before they emigrated to South Africa. He is listed on the war memorial in that parish.
Photograph above shows his grave and below shows the village war memorial.
He was clearly well liked and valued by his colleagues at HM Factory Gretna as these passages demonstrate:
“Widespread sorrow was caused shortly before the Christmas holidays by the news that Mr Spensley had passed away at the Gretna Works Hospital.
As a result of his attractive personality and cheerful good nature he made a great many friends among the Factory Staff, and all keenly regretted that his young life should have been cut short in this quite unexpected way.”
“His death was indeed a great loss to Gretna, and the sadness of the event is only relieved by our pride in his fine record of war service.
Exerting himself unsparingly, and never shirking difficulty or danger, he served his country valiantly to the end.”
All quotes from Dornock Farewell magazine (in the Museum’s archive).
The following books (available from the Museum’s online shop) may be of interest to anyone wanting to know more about HM Factory Gretna and the people who worked there in World War One:
Photograph of War Memorial taken from: https://www.warmemorialsonline.org.uk/memorial/217750/
Photograph of James Carters Spensley’s grave taken from: http://www.dalesgenealogy.com/Gunnerside/Gunnerside/index.html
Eastriggs (where The Devil’s Porridge Museum is based) is known as the Commonwealth Village. The majority of its street names are derived from places in the Commonwealth (or Empire) such as Vancouver Road, Delhi Road, Singapore Road etc. The township was built in World War One to house workers at HM Factory Gretna, the greatest munitions factory on earth at that time (the Museum tells the story of this factory and its 30,000 workers). The workers came from around the world and they left their mark behind in their wartime contribution and in the place names of Eastriggs. Here we feature one person from the Factory who worked here in World War One.
Eric de Clermont
Born: 1st November 1880
Died (in Gretna): 5th December 1918
Commonwealth connection: South Africa
Eric’s experiences before World War One
1st November 1880 Eric was born in London.
1899 Eric entered King’s College, Cambridge.
1901 Eric appeared on Census return aged 20, he was listed as a student. At that time, his family were living in Reigate. His father, Otto (48) was listed as a Mechanical Engineer and his sister, Helen (22) as a School Teacher. His cousin, Kenneth Heilgers (19) was also staying with them and he was recorded as an East India merchant on the census.
1902 Eric graduated from King’s College with a BA.
1903 Eric graduated from Camborne School of Mines, Cornwall with a qualification in Ore Dressing for which he was awarded an Honours Grade Second Class.
Some time after 1903 Eric travelled to South Africa to work in mining.
1916 Eric returned to Britain.
Accidents and ill health meant that Eric couldn’t volunteer for the army.
He had been an enthusiastic rugby player, even captaining his team at King’s College Cambridge before an injury.
He lost his eye and contracted miner’s phthisis (a lung disease) whilst he was working in the South African mines.
In 1916, he was nominated for a Commission in a tunnelling company and promised he would be sent quickly to the Front but his injuries and ill health put a stop to that.
Eric’s War work
Eric de Clermont joined the Ministry of Munitions and after his preliminary training at Pitsea near Basildon, he came to HM Factory Gretna in July 1916.
For more information on Pitsea, see: https://www.wattylercountrypark.org.uk/factory
He seems to have been a well known and well liked person as these quotes demonstrate.
“He had a schoolboy’s enthusiasm for everything he undertook, and a schoolboy’s instinct of playing the game.”
“He was full of enthusiasm for his new task, and was one of the first to take over a shift; he soon became a Range Officer, and finally was appointed a Sub-section Officer.”
“He worked his Sub-section up to a pitch of the highest efficiency, and was always devising schemes for increasing output and reducing costs; this he was enabled to do by real hard work, and by the respect and confidence of his subordinates, which he won without difficulty.”
The Death of Eric de Clermont
On November 25th 1918, Eric was taken ill with influenza (the Spanish Flu). He had to be prevented (by force) from going to work at the Factory.
He was said to have been full of high spirits when he entered the influenza hospital.
But after a few days, pneumonia began to develop and he became quieter and finally passed away on December 5th 1918 aged 38.
He was buried at Rigg Cemetery on December 7th 1918.
Eric’s death “…cast a dark shadow over the closing days of the Factory, for with his passing we had lost a man who had gained our affection as colleague and friend. He was an outstanding personality on the Cordite Section, and it is probable that but few of the thousands on the area did not know him, his ingenuous, engaging disposition, and the hundred and one little episodes associated with his name.”
Photograph above: shows Victory Avenue, Gretna which was Eric’s address when he died
“His old tweed jacket; his beatific smile when one of his many little tricks was found out; his intense local patriotism…his garden, which he would weed on a rainy day sitting on a camp-stool under an umbrella – all these, together with the many episodes remembered by those who lived with at Staff-Quarters, Sarkbridge, and at 96 Victory Avenue, remain and endear him to us.”
All quotes from Mossband Farewell magazine (in the Museum’s archive).
To find out more about Eastriggs in World War One a map has been produced: https://www.devilsporridge.org.uk/product/eastriggs-commonwealth-walk-guide