How romance blossomed during WWI at world’s biggest munitions factory

Love amongst the ammunition: How romance blossomed between men and newly independent female workers at world’s biggest arms factory which kept Britain’s guns firing in World War One

  • Love in Wartime on display at Devil’s Porridge Museum in Eastriggs, Scotland
  • It’s collection of photos and records of love that blossomed at Gretna factory
  • Museum manager Judith Hewitt said: ‘Children and grandchildren of those who met at the factory still work here in the museum’

Romance that blossomed between arms factory workers during World War I has been captured in a series of images and accounts being showcased in a new exhibition.

The Love in Wartime display at the Devil’s Porridge Museum in Eastriggs, Scotland, contains heartfelt photographs of couples who met under dire circumstances and humorous postcards warning against romance in the factory.

Museum manager Judith Hewitt felt compelled to create the exhibition after finding hundreds of accounts from workers at His Majesty’s Factory Gretna who’d found love.

Elizabeth Ann Storey – Bessie, as she was known -was born in 1897 and died 1982. She worked in a bar before World War I and then moved to Gretna in 1916 aged 18. In August 1918 she married William Orwin Hall. William had joined the navy as a boy and during World War I, his ship and crew were loaned to the New Zealand navy. He caught the Spanish Flu and died very quickly. It is thought that Bessie never saw William again after their wedding day

A humourous wartime postcard warns against romancing with women at the munitions factory as their hearts are just as explosive and easily broken as the munition 

She said: ‘Gretna Green is so close to here, a place of course famous for marriages, and it just seems to chime quite nicely. 

‘In the first few days I was here at the museum in September I heard quite a few accounts of people who had met at the factory  and whose relatives still work here.

‘Some of the children and great-grandchildren of those who met at the factory still work in the museum, so they settled in the area.

‘So many of the people who worked here were women, and love, life, and family life, particularly at that time in history, mattered to women a great deal.

‘These photographs and accounts completed the picture of the women, not just doing their bit for the war effort but also about their lives.

‘It just made me think, my own grandfather met my grandmother in World War II on an RAF base, when he opened with the line “I don’t like your lipstick” and then within about three weeks they were married.’ 

Ironic postcard says the only match allowed in the factory is between couples. Workers weren’t allowed to carry flammable matches because the factories were full of explosives

In 1915 Britain was in the grip of the shell crisis’ when it was feared troops were being forced to ration munitions during relentless trench warfare with the Germans. 

In response to the crisis the Minister of Munitions, David Lloyd George, instigated an enormous arms building operation using every part of Britain’s industrial might.

His plans also called upon the country’s Empire bringing skilled workers in explosives, engineering and chemistry from nations as far away as South Africa and Australia. 

They constructed the nine mile long, two mile wide factory in just eight months and employed 30,000 workers, 12,000 of which were women.

The gargantuan site had its own power station and supporting townships. 

It had the nickname ‘Devil’s Porridge’ for the gloopy chemical mixture female workers had to mix together in vast vats.

The woman workforce was essential, and they came from all over the UK, often young and seeking independence, or widowed by the war. 

Ms Hewitt added: ‘It’s quite a phenomenon that people got married in haste during wartime.

‘When I looked at our own collection I came across this filing cabinet which contained all these wonderful family history accounts people had sent to us after they visited the museum. 

Agnes Barr Auchenloss who worked as a doctor at the factory. She graduated from Glasgow University in 1911 and travelled to South Africa where she met and married Swede Gosta Lundholm, an expert in explosives who worked with Alfred Nobel. When the war started Gosta was called upon to work at Gretna and helped build the factory. Agnes came with him and worked as the medical officer

‘I think so often the accounts are about the men from war, and with good reason, but you think about the women who were left behind and what they experienced and what it would have been like to cope with loss, there were many women who came to work here after losing their husband.’

Ms Hewitt said work at the factory was heavily advertised and women answered the call to arms from all over the UK.

She said: ‘We know that there were Gaelic speakers at the factory, described as ‘fisher girls’, so they’d probably come from the Western Isles of Scotland, and we know we had a girl from Cornwall, from the Isle of Mann, and quite a lot from the North East of England, and from the Lake District too.

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‘My research has found out a lot of the men came from the Empire, recruited from Australia and South Africa, and then they ended up marrying the girls here and then the women went back with them after the war.

‘It was migration from love which is quite interesting, rather than for reasons of poverty or monetary pressure.

‘Of course, that’s still true today, a lot of people who move do so because of the people they love.’

Ms Hewitt explained that factory bosses struggled to stop love blossoming among workers in the new townships.

Norman Hudson (standing centre), a chemist from Sydney, Australia, who moved to Gretna to help with the war effort. While he was there he Meg or Margaret Mortimer (seated centre in front of Norman). At the end of the war they were married and lived out in Australia.

She said: ‘The local paper bemoaned the morals of the new towns where, it was said, alcohol was being consumed in vast amounts, the Sabbath was being broken and young women were being led astray.

‘The Factory had a social and recreation department which put on dances, films and other activities such as talks, workshops and sports.

‘The cinema was seen as a particularly ‘dangerous’ place as it showed films that might excite romantic notions, was dark and might be used for liaisons between men and women.

‘The women’s police force were often to be found there as well as in other places where fraternisation might take place such as female only railway carriages and dormitories.

Jemima Crombie (right) came from Ayr and had met Francis Causon, who was an English regular soldier in the Royal Scots Fusiliers while he was stationed at Ayr Barracks. They were married in October 1914 and he was killed later that month in France. No known grave exists for him, his name appears on the Menin Gate. Jemima then came to HM Factory Gretna as a widow to work in munitions

‘The matrons of the hostels and the women’s police were sometimes seen as killjoys but they saw themselves as protecting the virtue of the girls and warding off the advances of predatory males.

‘There were curfews and train travel was limited in the evening to limit access to Carlisle.’

As well as bringing people together, the factory also saw families in some instances torn apart as both men and women came there having left a past behind them.

Ms Hewitt said: ‘There were two bigamy cases involving workers at the factory, one was a man who said that he believed his wife was dead, so he married a maid here.

‘He apparently wrote a letter to his wife at an address where she had previously lived, and then when it was returned he is said to have presumed she was dead and that gave him permission to marry again.

Lily Hurst (left), Alice Morton (middle) and Minnie Morton (right). Minnie was 16 when she and her sister Alice moved to work at the factory in Gretna from their home in County Durham. While she was there, she became close friends with Lily Hurst. Minnie married Lily’s brother Joe. They set up home in Eastriggs and lived in Rand Square. Their son Harry Hurst visited the Museum in 2010

‘He also had three children with her but reported to not know where they were.

‘There was also a girl who was married in Belfast and had two children with her husband but then left the husband and her two children and ended up in Gretna where she married a police officer.

‘There were quite a lot of police officers who worked at the factory, to monitor industrial espionage and secrets being given to the Germans.

‘But she was found to have been bigamously married and was imprisoned for a month. It seems though the police officer continued to visit her, we don’t know what happened, but perhaps the relationship endured the scandal.

Women mixing by hand the cocktail of chemicals used to make the explosive elements of shells. The factory earned its nickname Devil’s Porridge due to the chemical mixture’s resemblance to the food 

‘There were lots of cases of lots of people of course who married, and it ended up in the courts, or in divorce proceedings.

‘There was one case though of the gentleman, Mr Wright, whose wife was insanely jealous. Every day he would work in the factory and the girls would give him their photos and he would go home with them, making his wife crazy with jealousy.

‘His relative told us decades later, even in the 50s, when he asked about his wartime experiences, Mr Wright wasn’t allowed to talk about it and his wife would fly out of the room in a rage.

‘She was still jealous all those years later, whether she had reason to be or not we don’t know.

‘Probably my favourite story, is a married couple that came here, the lady is called Agnes, and that’s my daughter’s name so maybe that’s why it stood out.

‘The woman, Agnes Bar Auchenloss, despite having a foreign-sounding name, was from Paisley and she studied to be a doctor before World War I in Glasgow.

‘She moved to South Africa where she met a dual-Scottish Swedish man called Gosta Lundholm, and they married and had a child and were living out their lives a young married couple.

‘When the war started he was called upon as a British citizen to come back and work in a munitions factory, to bring the expertise he had from working in the diamond mines and the explosives factories in South Africa, where he actually worked with Alfred Nobel.

William Mitchell and Florence on their wedding day. William was involved in the construction of the Factory. His whole family moved with him to Gretna when he obtained this position. His son, William Robert, was in the army. William married Florence in Middlesborough in 1921. This photo shows their wedding, their son sent it to the Museum and said that everyone in this photo had been at Eastriggs, some were born there, others had worked there but when the War was over they moved on to find work elsewhere

‘He came back to Scotland and actually helped build the factory and Agnes came as well and she worked as a doctor throughout the war, because there were lots of injuries from acid burns, people falling from height, and women who fell pregnant.

‘I just like the idea of a young married couple who are living together, working together in separate fields, and think about what it must have been like for them to come to this rural part of the world when they were quite well travelled people. 

‘You don’t hear about many examples of married couples working together like this in World War I.

‘We know exactly what house they lived in as well, so when you walk past it makes it even more tangible. And that’s the same for many of the buildings here which are pretty much as they were.’

Sadly, much of the factory was reclaimed for scrap after the war but the stories of those who work there lives on in the ‘Love in Wartime’ exhibition. which runs until the end of March at the Devil’s Porridge Museum. 

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