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Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -
 View of Nitration Hills, Unit 2 (Edingham)

Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie
World War II Cordite Works

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Acetone Storage Plant :-

Key Points :-

  • Support walls for horizontal tanks opposite Canteen.
  • Three-storey tower in poor repair with safety lighting.
  • Remains of unloading gantry.
  • Tower possibly for tankage, purification still, pumps.
  • Delivery of acetone to Nitration Hills by pipeline.
  • Storage and re-use of recovered acetone from Acetone Recovery Plant.
  • Structures in imminent danger of loss from collapse or demolition.
  • Recording and measurement urgently needed.

Acetone Storage Plant Tower and Storage Tank Supports, Canteen across road
Acetone Storage Plant Tower and Storage Tank Supports,
Canteen across road

Acetone Storage Plant :


Acetone was a key chemical for the stabilisation of Nitroglycerine for transport and blending with Nitrocellulose to produce blasting gelatine, providing an additional safeguard against explosion when the gelatine was being blended and milled into cordite. During the First World War, a lack of acetone nearly halted explosives production in Britain, so a new production process had to be evolved. By the time Britain entered the Second World War and M/S Factory Dalbeattie was being built, work was already underway on a so-called 'solventless cordite' that used ether and ethanol - both easily made and obtained. Dalbeattie was given the tried and trusted acetone method, to guarantee supplies of cordite, whilst the works at Powfoot were to produce the newer type for rifle and machine gun ammunition. Acetone based cordite did not keep particularly well, but this was unimportant in wartime, where use preceded instability by a wide time margin.

Acetone was transported to Dalbeattie by railway tanker, although the source of the acetone is unclear. On arrival at Unit 1 or Unit 2, the acetone was unloaded from tank cars and stored in large horizontal steel tanks. As acetone is inflammable, the writer was very surprised to find that those tanks (in the Roadside Group, for which see Unit 1 Goods Yard) were directly opposite the main staff Canteen and the Guncotton Unloading Rooms. Although the needs of war were paramount, the layout does suggest a lack of forethought on the part of the designers, for a fire and explosion could have devastated this point in the works.

The Acetone Plant for Unit 2 was finally found on a set of 1941 to 1946 air photographs of the Factory site. The Acetone Tower and ita tanks were to the west of the Laboratory and Office block and across the road from the Unit 2 Guncottonb Unloading Station. The writer is still amazed by the curious choice of location, which placed the Offices and Canteen close to two highly dangerous process areas.

Archaeological Evidence for the Acetone Storage Plant :

No remains exist of the Unit 2 Acetone Storage Plant as this was demolished and the site overbuilt during construction of the Stelrad Factory. Unit 1 Acetone Storage Plant was found to have been mis-surveyed by the Ordnance Survey in the 1970s, as became clear during a site visit.

The Plant stands on a slight ridge between the roadway alongside the Canteen block and a hollow way (sunk track) on the northwest side. To the south west is the Fire Station. Going from the southwest, the first features are some tank bases or supports set parallel to the roadway and intended to support boiler-style tanks similar to filling station surface storage tanks. The capacity is unknown but the size suggests three or four tanks, each of 15 to 20 tonnes (30,000 - 40,000 lbs imperial measure).

Immediately adjacent to the tank supports is a three-storey brick tower with external entrances (fire escapes ?) to each floor level. In common with the Acetone Recovery Houses, the building is fitted with external electrical coonduits to internal light fittings, the design intended to prevent spark ignition of any acetone fumes. Internally, there are three circular concrete bases on the floor, but the structural steelwork reinforcing the building has been removed as scrap. This policy has been fatal to the structure which is now unstable and at risk of collapse. If circumstances permit, the writer will try to take further photographs before collapse occurs or the Army demolishes the structure.

Across the roadway from the Acetone Storage Plant, at the northeast end of the Canteen, there is a structure that at first was taken to be part of a signal gantry. In fact, it may be all that remains of the Acetone Unloading Gantry, used to unload this substance from railway tankers. From there, a pipe at some height above the road level, brought the acetone across to the tower and the tanks.

Acetone Storage Plant Tower Interior. Stubs
 of RSJ floor supports and safety lighting
Acetone Storage Plant Tower Interior. Stubs of RSJ floor supports and safety lighting
Acetone Storage Plant Tower Floor. Concrete
 bases for unidentified equipment.
Acetone Storage Plant Tower Floor. Concrete bases for unidentified equipment
Acetone Unloading Gantry
Acetone Unloading Gantry

Summary of the Acetone Plant Operations :

Acetone brought in by rail tanker was passed into the tower and so to the storage tanks. It is possible that the tower held header tanks and pumps for piping acetone across to the Nitration Hills for mixing with the Nitroglycerine, but this has not been proven. Bearing in mind that both glycerine and acids were transported to the Hills by pipeline, the same may have been true of the acetone. The alternative would be a small road tanker. On balance, as recovered acetone was available in some quantity, all acetone movement was probably safest by pipeline.

Recovered acetone from the Acetone Recovery Houses may have needed additional purification and the same may be true of acetone tankered in. The writer suspects that the tower may have held an acetone still or some similar purification facility, but there is a lack of information.

Conclusions :

The Acetone Storage Plant is a less-interesting feature than the Acetone Recovery Plant, but it is at far greater threat of destruction and needs careful recording before it is completely lost.

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© 2006 Richard Edkins, Dalbeattie Internet.