A research project to uncover the life stories of the tens of thousands of people who worked at a Dumfriesshire World War munitions factory is gathering force.
The Devil’s Porridge Museum at Eastriggs – named for the explosive cordite paste mixed at HM Factory Gretna, which spanned the Solway from Dornock near Annan to Mossband in Cumbria, early last century – is finding out more about the former staff.
And with a workforce of 30,000 people – predominantly women – brought in from across the Commonwealth to battle the “shell crisis” of 1915, it is a mega task tracking down information, especially as working-class single women have been left out from many histories of the war.
Laura Noakes, research assistant at the museum, said they have also been busy unearthing more information on some of the heroes of HM Factory Gretna for The Miracle Workers research project.
And one of them was the indomitable Maud Bruce (December 20, 1894 to January 8, 1995), who lived to be 100 years old and was one of the first people in Britain to receive plastic surgery.
Her incredible story began in late 1916 when she left her hometown of Coundon – an old mining village in County Durham – to “do her bit” for the war effort and arrived, at the age of 22, in Dumfriesshire.
She was billeted at Grenville Hostel in the newly-created township of Eastriggs – which, like the mega-factory, did not appear on any maps to keep it secret from the enemy – and worked as a forewoman of the cotton drying house in the Dornock section.
She was made head of the Women’s Fire Brigade and was in charge of 30 girls and was known for her “calm and collected approach to danger.”
Laura said this was demonstrated on two notable occasions which ended up with her earning honours: “In April 1917, when a fire broke out at night in the cotton drying machine, Maud used a hose to subdue the flames. The fire brigade then put out the fire. On another occasion, Maud climbed 20 feet to the top of a drying machine and cut away cotton, preventing the spread of a fire. Because of her heroism, Maud was awarded both a British Empire medal and the OBE.”
The BEM was presented in June 1917 by The Duke of Buccleuch, who was Lord Lieutenant of the county of Dumfries, at the central offices of the factory in front of some of the workforce who cheered when he pinned on the medal and shook hands with Maud.
The Duke said that “it was extremely gratifying to realise that deeds of heroism were also being performed by factory workers at home, and especially by women”.
An account from the Standard of the event also recalled the second incident, stating: “Three months ago, about eight o’clock in the morning, she was close at hand when fire broke out in the drying machine.
“In a few seconds, the chamber was filled with smoke. As quick as lightning Miss Bruce climbed up the ladder to the top of the machine, 20 feet height, and with the vigorous use of a sweeping brush cut away the cotton at the top part of the machine and pushed it down.
“In this way she prevented the fire spreading to the next machine.
“The staff of girls under her charge, encouraged by her example of coolness, set to work with the hose, and in a short time the fire, which was arrested in the willower part of the machine, and before it could reach the elevators, was successfully extinguished.”
In August 1917, she was awarded the OBE “for admirable behaviour in charge of the women’s fire brigade at a fire at an explosive factory”.
Laura said: “After the war ended, Maud returned home, married and had children.
“But, at the outbreak of World War Two, she again came to the service of her country, working again in munitions.
“This time, Maud – now Mrs Nunn – worked at Royal Ordnance Factory Aycliffe, which was built in Aycliffe, County Durham in 1941, and employed 17,000 people, operating 24 hours a day.
“The women workers of Aycliffe were soon known by the moniker of Aycliffe Angels – given to them by the infamous Lord Haw-Haw, an English man who worked for the Nazis throughout the war, and regularly broadcast propaganda radio programmes to the UK.
“Haw-Haw frequently said during his shows ‘the little Angels of Aycliffe won’t get away with it’ – showing how essential their work was to the war effort.”
Laura’s research has shown that Maud later said of her work: “I loved the work until the accident. I was in hospital over five months.”
Laura said: “That accident happened in 1943, when ‘some ammunition exploded’, and she was very severely burned on her face, arms, hands and chest.
“She spent six months in Darlington Hospital and then returned to the factory until the end of the war.
“In order to fully recover from this injury, Maud underwent plastic surgery – still a pioneering procedure mostly used on servicemen who suffered awful injuries in the course of their duties.”
Her identity card from her days at Aycliffe showed she had “scars to her face, neck and arms”.
Before her death in 1995, she had celebrated her centenary with her family and friends at a nursing home and received a letter from the Queen.
Laura said: “Her big birthday was reported in the local press and she told reporters: ‘I didn’t want to reach 100, I think it is too long to live, but I am now looking forward to my birthday’.
She also recalled the moment she was awarded the OBE and said it was ‘the most memorable experience of my life. It was a great honour and I am very proud of the award’.
“When she died, her great-grandson, Andrew, said he would remember her as ‘a remarkable woman and an inspiration to generations of our family’.”
The volunteer researchers behind The Miracle Workers research project have been boosted with the recent UK Government decision that WW2 munition workers – or their families – can now apply for a veterans badge and letter of recognition at www.gov.uk/guidance/apply-for-a-munitions-workers-veterans-badge.
It is for those who worked in Royal Ordnance Factories between 1939 and 1945 and is free to apply for.
Laura said: “The fight to recognise the work and sacrifice of munitions workers – like Maud – has been long and, sadly, many Aycliffe workers died before their work was even acknowledged.”