History of the Factory Site :
At the onset of the Second World War (1939-1945), the British Government decided to massively expand its capability to
produce explosives for filling shells and as propellant for gun and rifle cartridges. Instead of creating another giant
factory like the First World War (1914-1918) munitions works at Gretna and Eastriggs, production was spread around a large
number of government-run sites like ROF Bishopton near Glasgow and agency industrial works like the ICI Nobel explosive
works at Ardeer in Ayrshire. ICI Nobel saw a need to increase production by establishing six new factories in Southern
Scotland. These were Ministry of Supply factories run and staffed by ICI as 'Agency Factories'.
More on the Six Factories>>>>
Site Selection :
Explosives factories like Dalbeattie had to satisfy several requirements, not all easily satisfied :-
- Water supply : 100,000 gallons of drinking-quality water for a range of purposes, plus other water for fire-fighting.
- A site near sea level : This reduced the risk of frost causing instabilities in the processes.
- Good rail access : Acids, glycerine, nitrocellulose, chemicals, coal and other goods, had to be brought in by rail and
finished cordite taken out.
- Remoteness : This reduced the risk of air attack and other military action endangering the works. It also reduced the
risk to the general population.
Briefly looking at the other considerations, the site lies in a river valley with the
town of Dalbeattie protected by the bulk of Barclosh Hill. The Dumfries to Stranraer and Ayr railway ran through the proposed
site, conveniently for freight from Dumfries and up to Ardeer. Finally, the government thought South West Scotland to be a
'Back Area' unlikely to suffer air attack. As the bombing of Glasgow and Scapa Flow was to show, remoteness was no barrier
to the German Luftwaffe. A further headache was to be accommodation; staff needed rapidly exceeded the local billeting
capacity, some having to lodge in Kirkcudbright, Castle Douglas and Dumfries.
Factory Construction :
Construction began in 1939 and was completed in 1941, Robert MacAlpine's being the contractor, on Unit 1, the first phase
of the works. This was to the north and east of the Kirkgunzeon Lade Burn. The 500-acre site was obtained by compulsory
purchase from four farms, 180 acres from Edingham Farm, lesser areas from Culkiest, Barclosh and Maidenholm. Map measurement
reveals that the site was a statute mile (1.6 kilometers) long and at most 0.75 miles (1.2 kilometers) wide. The perimeter
fence must have been from 3.5 to 4 miles long, although with subdivisions maybe 8 miles of fence was required throughout.
This disproves past claims that the site was 3.5 square miles in size - a dimension only reached by the massive site at
Caerwent. To avoid loss of time or product from accidental explosion or air attack, the site was duplicated in two Units on
each side of the Kirkgunzeon Lane burn. These are Unit 1 (Southwick) and the better-known Unit 2 (Edingham). Site
considerations meant that parts of the layout of each Unit differed, but they shared laboratory and office services, which
were in buildings near the railway line in Unit 2. Layout and functions are examined further elsewhere in this website.
More on the Building of the Factory>>>>
At the same time as Macalpines were building Dalbeattie Factory, they were also building Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF)
Caerwent in South Wales. There are some similarities in function between the two sites, and the much earlier ROF Holton Heath
near Poole in Dorset. These similarities mean that all three sites can contribute to the understanding of each others' history.
Unlike Caerwent, Dalbeattie has preserved the nitration hills where nitroglycerine was made, whilst Holton Heath and Caerwent are
also far more vulnerable to industrial and housing development. The writer has been fortunate in finding a range of specialists
and enthusiasts with whom to discuss aspects of the site, as well as a few valuable local contacts. Possibly uniquely in
Britain, the layout and process instructions for the Unit 1 Acid Plant and for the Unit 1 Nitroglycerine Plant were kept as
a memento by the manager who had prepared them, Mr. G.R. Nicholson. This variety of sources has made it possible to attempt
the full interpretation of the site at Dalbeattie down as far as many of the lesser structures.
More on Buildings and Functions >>>
Operations up to 1945 :
Whilst the works were in full production in 1942, it is likely that production began well before that. The writer suspects that work
was completed first on Unit 1 (Southwick). In all, the staff at Dalbeattie Factory numbered 2,000 women and 200 men, the men
mostly in scientific, technical, foreman and administrative posts, the women in a range of process, storage and support
duties. Their nature and some memories are examined elsewhere in this website, but their joint skill and safety record must
The processes involved are examined elsewhere in this website, but the results of a survey of maps and of the site have revealed
its astonishing size and complexity. Both Units had a complex of nitration hills housing equipment to safely manufacture
nitroglycerine, with other structures to blend nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose together to make blasting gelatine, which
after mixing with additives was then was rolled, pressed and extruded in dies to make the spaghetti-like 'cords' loosely
called cordite. The cordite had to be dried to remove acetone and water over a period of weeks, then different batches were
blended to produce a standard quality product before it was packed for transport. In addition, there were laboratories to
check the raw materials and the product at various stages, an elaborate acid works to make and re-process nitric acid,
magazines to store the packed cordite before despatch and three extensive railway stations - unloading at each Unit and
loading south of and between the Units.
Production at Powfoot and Dalbeattie used equipment that may have been outdated even by the late 1930s; both Dalbeattie
and Powfoot used Baker-Perkins incorporators and vertical cordite presses dating from the 1914-1918 war. Processes at
Powfoot improved to produce single-base nitrocellulose grained powder for ammunition, rather than the solvent-based
dual-base and triple-base cordite believed to be the main product at Dalbeattie. Dalbeattie's outdated product, sadly, was
also less reliable in performance and storage, so through no fault of the workforce it was slated for closure once the war
ended after VJ day in 1945. More on Cordite Manufacture
Graffiti and Poems :
Staff at the Factory used the whitewashed walls as a scratchpad for pencil calculations, probably involving production,
but even for their wages, poems both rude and romantic, sketches of idealised women, popular songs and other graffiti. This
amazing collection was overpainted in some buildings, but inspired later workers, visitors and army units, to add their
own contributions. Inevitably and sadly, defacement and damp ruined many good examples, but the writer has attempted to
transcribe a lot of what remains.
A very few documents and written poems survive, the most significant being the anonymous 'Farewell to Shift Two' written
by one of the foreman. More on Graffiti and Poems
German Bombers and Prisoners of War :
Either through spies or air reconnaissance, the Luftwaffe certainly was aware that Dalbeattie Factory existed. Lord Haw Haw
(James Joyce, later hung as a traitor) in his broadcasts said that Germany 'knew about Dalbeattie, but was not going to bomb
it as it was sinking anyway'. It is said that Joyce stayed in Dalbeattie area before the war and actually got his milk from
Edingham Farm, although this has not been confirmed so far. One matter he did not mention - although it would have been a
propaganda coup - was whether any Prisoners of War (POW) were in the old Irish camp. The persistent rumour about a POW camp
may be based on local billeting of POWs from Newton Stewart or Lockerbie who were doing agricultural work in the Dalbeattie
area. Apart from anything else, it would have breached the Geneva Convention to put POWs beside an explosives works - the
'human shield' idea used by Saddam Hussein in Iraq. There is also the consideration that POWs next to the works would have
been in a good position to do immense damage if they escaped. In fact, a prisoner of war camp did exist near Dalbeattie,
several miles north at the Haugh of Urr. Locals still refer to the field where it stood as 'The Camp'.
Ironically, on Wednesday 30th October 1940, the site not yet finished, a Ju-88 from KG30 'Adler' at Aalborg in Denmark, was
damaged and forced to turn back from a raid on Glasgow. It dropped its three bombs just south of Craigmath in Dalbeattie,
almost two miles southwest of the Dalbeattie Factory. The bomb crater nearest to Craigmath is now a thicket of blackthorn bushes,
another crater is marked by some Western Hemlock, whilst the third bomb felt into the edge of the Plaintain Loch and lies deep
in the mud, unexploded.
Royal Naval Armaments Depot, Dalbeattie :
The closure of the factory would have led to the removal of the more modern equipment to storage or disposal elsewhere,
but the other equipment was probably scrapped. That left the gutted buildings to be decontaminated and from the Caerwent
decommissioning, the procedures can be guessed at. Many buildings contaminated with explosives or acid were burnt or
cleansed with flame guns, but others will have been dismantled or levelled. The great magazines with their reinforced roofs
and specialised layout were perfect for storing other kinds of explosives, so a new role and a new name were chosen.
RNAD Dalbeattie's impact on the old factory is difficult to assess, because of the demolition work that has destroyed fully
one half of the buildings, mainly in Unit 2. A vast amount of cleared material was dumped in the old station yard at Unit 1
and in adjacent marshland. Even now, the remains of pipe-supports, concrete panels, brickwork and assorted metal, are visible
within the railyard and over the site of the Acid Plant there.
Although the names 'The Admiralty' and 'Edingham Depot' have survived, there are few other signs of the Royal Navy's presence
in local folklore. The presence of souvenirs such as cartridges, bullets and shellcases, may date from this period. Dalbeattie
Clinic has a fine brass cartridge-case umbrella-stand. Inaccurately, some locals believe that the Royal Navy made and filled
shells at the Depot, but the reality was more intriguing.
According to local residents, part of the problem with RNAD Dalbeattie may have been that it had brought in a lot of
ammunition and mines by barge to Palnackie tidal basin and then transported this sometimes elderly ammunition through the
town by lorry. This is surprising, bearing in mind the safe and reliable service offered by the railway. One theory was
that the Royal Navy had realised to its horror that a single accident in Palnackie or Dalbeattie could end in an explosion
that could kill hundreds of people. Another, more prosaic explanation, was economic; by the late 1950s the mines and other
ammunition needed to be disposed of, although there is a persistent rumour that increases in port fees at Palnackie may have
been the last straw. According to Mr. Ferguson, much of the explosive stored at Dalbeattie ended its life by being dumped
in the Beaufort Deep between the Mull of Galloway and Northern Ireland. Mr. Taylor and Mr. Ferguson understand that the
contractor removing the explosives had been expected to dump it in the North Atlantic, but did not properly fulfil his
contract. The writer suspects that the main delivery and removal of most of the explosives was by rail, the old 'Paddy Line'
serving as the main freight link to Cairnryan and Stranraer.
Stelrad Radiator Factory and Edingham Industrial Estate :
Following the closure of RNAD Dalbeattie, the land had to be disposed of, former owners having the option of buying it.
The whole site was eventually obtained by Matthew Taylor, father of the present farmer, although key parts of Unit 1 were
briefly in the hands of Barclosh before re-sale to Stelrad's. That land and the rest of the site were gradually added to
Edingham Farm, which used the land for grazing. Many of the structures in Unit 2 and some in Unit 1 were either bulldozed
or - in a few, dramatic cases - demolished by Army explosives engineers as demolitions-practice.
Most of the remaining structures were scheduled as a Historic Monument by Historic Scotland - one of the strangest
made by that organisation. The Ministry of Supply (later, the Department of the Environment) retained ten acres for
development into a Trading Estate for industrial regeneration; their one major success, Stelrad (finally, Caradon Stelrad)
closed in mid-1999, due to market recession and over-specialisation, with the loss of 250 jobs.
Stelrad produced its own contributions to industrial archaeology, for much of the old Unit 2 canteen and adjacent buildings
was incorporated into the works. The factory used acetylene for welding, this produced by the reaction of calcium carbide with
water. The lime waste from the reaction was taken up to the Unit 1 station railyard and nearby marshland and dumped.
The Edingham Industrial Estate only filled its buildings to capacity in 2005. The old Stelrad works were in 2006 being used
for storage by Milk Link. Further development of the Industrial Estate is expected, retaining at least some employment in the
town of Dalbeattie. As to the Ministry of Supply, Dalbeattie Factory, this website and the associated research are just the
latest chapter. The information provided by site visitors may help to further develop this history.
The remains of the munitions works are slowly decaying, but some parts - the nitration units, pillboxes and magazines
- will remain standing for generations. This website is an attempt to keep a record for future research.