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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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Wide Milling Houses (Press Houses) :

Key Points :-

  • Paired with and parallel to Narrow Milling Houses (Incorporation Houses).
  • Consists of eight Press Rooms with a back motor passage and a front veranda and platform for narrow-gauge railway.
  • Press Rooms were fitted with vertical presses between two raised platforms. Power by shaft drive from motors.
  • Each room had a wide door and a staff door from the veranda platform.
  • All floors and steps covered in acid-resistant gritless asphalt.
  • Cordite paste from Incorporation Houses pressed through dies to make cordite strands.
  • Strands cut to length or reeled onto winders before being sent for Stoving.
  • Fume-laden and unpleasant duty with risk of acetone solvent addiction and explosions.
  • Staff wore protective clothing.

Interior Press Room, ICI Deer Park,
 Melbourne, Australian War Memorial

Sybil Craig
Making Cordite, Commonwealth Explosives Factory, Maribyrnong 1945.
Oil on canvas board 35.6 cm x 51cm.
Australian War Memorial (ART 23548).
© www.awm.gov.au All rights reserved.
(Interior of Press Room with staff pressing, cutting and combing cordite)


Press Houses :

The Press Houses (map survey title : Wide Milling Houses) were identified on a map analysis of structure clusters at a comparatively early stage, being paired with the Incorporation Houses (may survey : Narrow Milling Houses) and an assortment of related buildings that included the Shifting Houses (Changing Rooms) and the unusual Paste Rolling Houses (map survey : Double-Side Buildings).

These were amongst the most challenging buildings to identify, positive identification coming only from finding interior pictures of similar rooms in the Australian War Memorial online database. The buildings were obviously part of the Cordite Milling process, but details and equipment were unexpectedly hard to establish.

Archaeological Evidence from the Wide Milling Houses :

All of the four Wide Milling Houses have survived. They are brick-built structures with 150 mm thick sectional concrete inclined roofs with a surface water seal of two layers of gritted asphalted felt composition. They have four main sections :-

  • Back Passage accessed from ground level, with steps up to the passage. Surprisingly, the surface was bare concrete, presumably not entered from the Press Rooms. Studs in the floor [CAUTION : Trip Hazard] mark the position of motors. The collars of earthenware pipes are sunk into the passage floor. The indications for water and electric motors suggest that the system used pump-driven hydraulic presses.
  • Nine Press Rooms (designated B to E and G to K) each consisting of a rectangular room floored with gritless asphalt, with a staff door and a wider two-piece loading door out onto the platform. At the back of each Press Room is a concrete pit about a metre deep [CAUTION : Drowning Hazard], flanked by steps up to a platform surrounding the pit on three sides, with doors opening onto the Back Passage level. Lighting by high windows and externally accessed safety lighting mounted at rear and front of rooms. On the wall to the right of the main loading door was found an ARP notice, giving the location of the nearest Air Raid Shelter, with an additional comment 'In an Emergency, Use Back Passage', implying that it was only in an emergency that this might be entered.
  • Three Expense Magazines (designated A, F and L) at either end of the group of Press Rooms and between E and G. Featureless rooms with mesh-covered ventilator near the top of the room. Wording 'Warning : Waste Cordite' found on right hand wall near door of one of these rooms.
  • Veranda Narrow Gauge Loading Station at front side of building. Consists of an asphalted platform and a slightly sunk concrete trackway with linear sleeper beams to take a 2 foot 6 inch gauge railway. The veranda was surrounded by a thin corrugated asbestos cement weatherpanelling, mounted on a sectional reinforced precast concrete frame that also helped to support the roof.

RNCF Holton Heath Old Cordite Press
<br>© M. Bowditch
RNCF Holton Heath Old Cordite Press © M. Bowditch
Unit 2 Press House 2 -
Unit 2 Press House 2 -
Unit 2 Press House 2 Back Passage
Unit 2 Press House 2 Back Passage from entrance
Unit 2 Press House Press Room E
Unit 2 Press House 2 Press Room E (View of Press area)
Unit 2 Press House Press Room E Doors
Unit 2 Press House Press Room E (Asbestos cement sheet doors)
Unit 2 Press House 2 Veranda end showing corrugated asbestos cement cladding
Unit 2 Press House 2 Veranda end (Corrugated asbestos cement cladding)

Most of the five Press Houses have been used to store feed or scrap at some time, so it can be rather difficult to inspect the detail.

Interpretation of Processes, Equipment and Operations :

Cordite dough was carried in bags from the Incorporation Houses and loaded into vertical presses, which were fitted with the size of die required for the gauge of cordite being produced. Once the press body had been loaded (and, from Australian picture evidence, rammed in to remove air bubbles) the press was closed and wheels opened to the hydralic ram that drove the press piston down. Cordite under pressure passed through brass grilles to retain any foreign matter such as fibres and dirt, then through the dies, being extruded as strands or 'cords' down a rubber-covered trough. The cordite strands were lifted by hand onto a rubber-covered table in front of the press, the strands cut to length, laid on cloth sheets and 'combed' to keep them separate, before being loaded onto a drying truck and taken to the Stoving Houses. Very small-section 'hair cordite' for rifle and machine gun ammunition was reeled onto winders from the troughs before being sent for Stoving.

It is inferred from the surviving signs that the Expense Magazines held both 'good' cordite, which went for stoving, and 'waste' cordite, which was probably offcuts and mis-pressings that could be re-incorporated in another batch. Faulty cordite presumably was burnt off at the 'Burning Ground'.

A fume-laden and unpleasant duty with risk of acetone solvent addiction and explosions. Staff from other factories said that it was one of the jobs allocated to older women and that some Blending and Packing staff might be called on to help out if the Press staff were too few. Staff wore protective clothing, put on in the adjacent 'Shifting Room' (changing room).

Graffiti and Postwar Usage :

These buildings were found to be considerably marked by graffiti, much of it reflecting work calculations, but also a surprising number of personal poems, messages and images in pencil. Some of it will have been staff leaving when in 1945 the factory was closed, other graffiti from the Royal Navy Arments Depot Dalbeattie days up to the 1960s, whilst more again dates from more recent years. Unfortunately, spray-can vandalism has affected the buildings closest to Dalbeattie and some Army activity may have affected other graffiti.

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© 2006 Richard Edkins, Dalbeattie Internet.