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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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Boiler House & Steam Services :-

Key Facts :-

  • Steam used in large quantities for heating various chemical and drying processes.
  • Large boiler houses at each Unit at end of Platformside buildings in Central Services area. -
    • Unit 1 : Southwest end of Platform group. Remains of some walls and coal yard.
    • Unit 2 : Northeast end of Platform group. Building re-used for storage but walls and internal steelwork present.
  • Anecdotal evidence of three truckloads of coal used each day.
  • Central location to reach all process buildings - steam heated or powered most of the Factory.
  • Hundreds of pipe supports, mainly for overhead insulated steam pipes.
  • Some pipe runs over three quarters of a mile long.
  • Pipe run distribution will need to be mapped.
  • Coal mining essential to Britain's survival in World War II

Unit 2 Boiler House
Unit 2 Boiler House from SE

Boiler House and Steam Distribution Services :

Munitions factories such as M/S Factory Dalbeattie used large quantities of steam for process heating, other sites even having their own power stations. Dalbeattie was fortunate in being built near the hydro-electric scheme on the Loch Ken - Dee valley, so its boilers were purely used to provide steam for process heat. Literally miles of insulated pipework, mounted on the pipe supports still dotting the site, carried steam to heat processes and buildings, enabling continuous production in all weathers. According to David Ferguson, three wagonloads of coal a day were needed to provide the necessary steam.

Process Heating :

Steam heat was used at all stages of the process :-

  • Nitroglycerine manufacture has to occur in the narrow band between 13 and 20 degrees Centigrade, whilst blending with nitrocellulose to make blasting jelly (cordite) is in the 30 to 50 degree Centigrade band. Hot water needed to control this was produced by steam injection in boilers at the Charge Houses and Burette/Wet Mix Houses.
  • There is physical evidence for steam being used to heat water or oil to heat radiators in the Stoving Houses for evaporating acetone from finished cordite and in the Drying/Blending Houses to remove any remaining water vapour.
  • The Acetone Recovery Houses may have used steam to power the low-pressure distillation system most likely to have been used to purify the acetone for re-use. A similar distillation was probably used in the Acetone Tower to maintain the purity of this expensive and essential solvent.
  • It is certain that steam was used in the reprocessing of acid from the nitration of nitroglycerine in the Acid Plant to strip Nitric Oxides from the Refuse Acid for eventual recycling as Nitric Acid in the production process.
  • It is possible (although unlikely) that the shunting engine whose Engine Shed was in Unit 1 Goods Yard may have been a fireless locomotive. This design was used at some munitions works to move wagons along works internal sidings and lines. The Boiler House would have provided a source of superheated water and steam to fill the thermos -like locomotive boiler. Unfortunately, the provision of a roof vent in the shed seems to indicate that steam shunting used an ordinary locomotive. Horse shunting was definitely used both on the Goods Yard and in parts of the Narrow Gauge site railway, the rest of the Narrow Gauge bogie railway using human 'shovers' or 'runners' to move the bogies.

Building Heating :

Steam was used to heat most of the inhabited buildings, as being safer than coal fires or electric heaters. Even in comparatively small buildings, there are signs of radiators. The Canteen in Unit 1 (Southwick) has the wall lugs for pipes and radiators present.

Unit 1 Boiler House from SW. Pipe supports at rear
Unit 1 Boiler House from SW. Pipe supports at rear.
Unit 1 Boiler House Annexe from NW. Concrete bases
Unit 1 Boiler House Annexe from NW. Concrete bases.
Unit 1 Boiler House from E. Demolished section and coal yard.
Unit 1 Boiler House from E. Demolished section and coal yard.

Archaeological Features of the Boiler Houses :

The presumed Boiler House structures consist of a pair of split-level structures at the end of the Platform group of buildings. In Unit 2, the structure is at the northeast end of the platform, in Unit 1 it is at the southeast end of the platform. This curious 'mirror' arrangement makes sense because the Acid Plants of each Unit have exactly the reverse positioning, so the run from each Acid Plant to its Nitroglycerine (NG) Hills was the shortest possible. Equally, it means that the coal yards for the two Boiler Houses face each other - a convenience for shunting.

  • The Unit 2 Boiler House outer walls and roof survive within the former Stelrad factory, converted to a storage area. Two roof lights may mark the position of chimneys. The back wall has signs of pipe supports, an identical arrangement being seen in Unit 1. Internally, only the support steelwork of the buildings survives; Milk Link use the structure for occasional storage purposes.
  • Unit 1 : There is part of the presumed structure still standing beside the railway goods yard sidings, at the southeast end of the Platform Group, convenient for coal deliveries. Most of the structure was demolished years ago, so it will be difficult without further knowledge to determine what kind of boilers were present. The structure is a two to three storey structure with a central wall, and to its southeast a smaller annexe with four low rectangular concrete plinths. It is not clear what function these had.

Directly across the former Goods Yard from the Unit 2 Boiler House there is a brick-built substation. A similar guitted building stands opposite the Unit 1 Boiler House. It is suspected that original designs may have included some kind of generation station, but that the presence of a nearby hydro-electric scheme made this unnecessary.

Pipe Runs and Supports :

Hundreds of heavy concrete supports and bases stand like lamp-standards in the marshlands and elsewhere. At intervals, there are small groupings which may be for valve units or units to separate any water condensed from the steam. Mapping the pipe runs will be a task for the future, possibly best done together with air photography.

Conclusions :

Although not the most dramatic part of the works, the Boiler Houses were nevertheless the source of heat without which the whole scheme would never have worked. Resolving the pipe runs and the other linkages will throw light on the state of art of industrial steam power during the early 1940s. Britain's survival in the Second World War depended on its coal mining industry to an extent that would appear unimaginable to most people alive today.


© 2006 Richard Edkins, Dalbeattie Internet.