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

Ministry of Supply Dalbeattie Factory (1939 - 1945)
Royal Naval Armaments Depot, Dalbeattie (1946 - 1960)
Edingham Industrial Estate (1960 to present)

~ Index ~ Site History ~ Virtual Tour ~
~ Buildings and Functions ~ Manufacture of Cordite ~
~ The Workforce ~ Graffiti and Poems ~
~ Wildlife ~ Sources ~ Links to Other Sites
~ Roll of Honour

History of the M/S Factory Dalbeattie
And subsequent Site Users

Key Points :-

  • One of six ICI factories built in southern Scotland during 1939-1941 for the Ministry of Supply.
  • Constructed mainly by local workmen and Irish navvies.
  • Nitroglycerine and cordite works till 1945.
  • 2,200 workers, 2,000 of them women.
  • Royal Navy Armaments Depot up to 1960.
  • Site closed in 1960 and parts demolished for Stelrad Factory and Edingham Industrial Estate.
  • Occasional Army and Police use during exercises.
  • Extensive remains of the Factory buildings, magazines, defensive works and railway stations.
  • Surviving site scheduled by Historic Scotland.
  • This website the first analysis of the Factory site.

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

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 :-

  1. Water supply : 100,000 gallons of drinking-quality water for a range of purposes, plus other water for fire-fighting.
  2. A site near sea level : This reduced the risk of frost causing instabilities in the processes.
  3. Good rail access : Acids, glycerine, nitrocellulose, chemicals, coal and other goods, had to be brought in by rail and finished cordite taken out.
  4. 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.

Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -
 Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -
 Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -

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 be applauded.

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

Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -
 Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -
 Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -

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.

Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -
 Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -
 Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -

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.

Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -
 Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -
 Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -

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.

Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -
 Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -
 Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -

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.

Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -
 Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -
 Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -


© 2006 Richard Edkins, Dalbeattie Internet.