Eastriggs, Gretna and Quintinshill, Dumfries and Galloway

A week’s holiday near Dumfries – lovely Sykes Cottage. I won’t blog the whole holiday, but there’s a couple of churches to come. I will blog a museum, a Church Hall, and a railway accident – a day exploring on Monday 29 August 2016.

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The Devil’s Porridge Museum at Eastriggs remembers all those who worked in the WW1 ammunition factories that stretched across from here, through Gretna, to Longtown – a distance of about 9 miles.

DSC03743We knew quite a lot about them from the play Timbertown Girls which we saw in Carlisle last summer – see my blog. The museum is excellent – very good displays and AV. We took our time, working through a lot of the material on the computers, and having coffee in the middle of our visit. Very good volunteers, some excellent chats. Highly recommended. Their website is here.

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The whole complex was built within a year, in 1915, after press coverage attacking the government when early battles of WW1 revealed a distinct lack of shells and bullets. At the height of production HM Factory Gretna employed 30,000 workers manufacturing RDB Cordite, a new type of munitions propellant. By 1917 it was producing 1,100 tons of cordite per week. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle paid a visit in 1916 and wrote “There the nitroglycerine on the one side and gun cotton on the other are kneaded together into a sort of Devil’s Porridge … this is where the danger comes in. The least generation of heat may cause an explosion. Those smiling khaki-clad girls who are swirling the stuff round in their hands would be blown to atoms in an instant if certain very small changes occurred.”

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There was also a display about the railway disaster at Quintinshill – more on that in a moment. The fireless loco is parked outside – there were 125 miles of railway in the complex. Some is still there (spot the buffers).

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I picked up a leaflet about the village, and went for a walk. It is well laid out, and you can see where the original buildings have been adapted, and it is good to see that some of the buildings from WW1 are still in use. Some lovely gardens too. Sadly the Episcopal church was locked. It was a lovely walk.

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We drove to Gretna and, now we know that it was also a munitions estate village, you can see the type. We drove into Gretna Green, which is the community on the old main road, and found the Church of Scotland were doing teas in the Church Hall. Two rolls, drinks and cake for £5.50 – thank you!

We drove up the minor road beside the Blacksmith Shop to the bridge where the road crosses the railway, and the dead of Quintinshill are remembered (grid reference NY 316696) – this is at the north end of the loops.

DSC03762DSC03760There was loop on both the up and down side of the main line between Carlisle and Lockerbie. On the morning of 22 May 1915 there was a coal train in each loop. At about 6.30 am the slow passenger from Carlisle to Beattock was diverted back into the Up main line to let two down expresses past. Travelling on this train was the relief signalman, James Tinsley. He should have relieved signalman George Meakin, who had been on duty all night, at 6 am, but the two of them had an arrangement. George would write all train movements after 6 on a separate piece of paper, and James would copy them into the Register when he arrived, so his late arrival would not be noticed – although other sources have suggested that the local inspector know and was keeping a blind eye on the situation.

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The first Down express went through. Then, at 6.42, an Up troop train was offered and accepted – James had forgotten the train he had got off, George had forgotten the train he had signalled onto the Up Main. Neither had warned the box at Kirkpatrick (to the north) to tell them the line was blocked, nor placed the warning collar on the lever. At 6.50 the troop train crashed into the local, and – less than a minute later – the second Down express hit the wreckage. The troop train caught fire – it was made of wood and lit by gas.

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216 Royal Scots died, and at least 12 others – the driver and fireman of the troop train, two Naval officers, three Army officers, a sleeping car attendant, two civilians, plus a mother and baby from the local train. There has been speculation that there were four children, but bodies were never claimed. The soldiers were members of the 1st/7th (Leith) Battalion, The Royal Scots (The Royal Regiment) en route from Larbert (where there is a memorial at the station) to board a troop ship at Liverpool. Only 83 of the bodies were identifiable – the remaining 133 could not be identified, or had literally been cremated. 101 bodies were buried in Rosebank Cemetery Leith on 24 May. My friend Jeremy has been and visited – thanks for the photos.

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This rifle, in the museum, was caught in the flames.

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Seven Officers and 55 Other Rank were all that were uninjured. They were sent on to Carlisle, then joined a train at 2 am on the morning of 23 May on to Liverpool. Eventually someone in authority decided to end them back to Edinburgh. After two weeks leave they were sent to Gallipoli. Who knows how many of the 62 who survived the crash perished in that conflict.

Both signalmen were convicted of culpable homicide and served time in prison. Both were re-employed by the Railway. Everything was kept very quiet – I am reading the Great Eastern Railway Magazine which was the staff magazine of the GER. I can find no mention of “Quintinshill” anywhere. You would think they might have used it as a warning as to what happens if the Rules are bent. Simple mistakes, and so many people died.

There are lots of fascinating websites about the crash – there are a couple. National Archive. Timbertown girls production.

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It was a day with lots of food for thought.

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