Nobel’s Westquarter Works

In the late nineteenth century the factory at Westquarter near Polmont was the largest detonator factory in the world.  It played a vital role in both world wars and at its peak employed 1,700 people.

Illus 1: Hawthorn Cottage.

The works had been established in 1870 by three local businessmen as the Westquarter Chemical Works on the site of a disused tile and brickworks on the north bank of the Union Canal at Redding.  At the time this was part of the Westquarter estate and hence the name.  Initially it covered 2 acres and in 1874 the ground was valued at £30.  The partners were George McRoberts (chemist), Robert Nimmo (joiner) and James Potter (timber merchant).  George McRoberts was the leading partner, a “native” of Laurieston, who lived at Hawthorn Cottage.  He had actually been born in Ireland in 1839 but his family moved to Laurieston when he was very young and he was educated at Falkirk Grammar School.  He commenced his commercial career in the office of Russel & Sons, coalmasters, in Falkirk.  In 1860, aged just 20, he joined the 3rd Stirlingshire Company of Volunteers and this patriotism was to be a hallmark of his life. 

Leaving the coal company, he studied chemistry in Glasgow and excelled in the subject, soon becoming well known in that field.

The main product of the Westquarter Chemical Works was sulphuric acid and it employed several men as sulphur burners.  Large lead retorts were used (first introduced to this manufacture by Dr John Roebuck, one of the founders of Carron Company).  In April 1876 a large quantity of lead from the works was stolen but was soon recovered and the thief apprehended because he had tried to dispose of it through a local scrap metal dealer (Falkirk Herald 6 April 1876).

The British Dynamite Co Ltd was set up as a limited liability company in 1871 under the chairmanship of Charles Randolph, a shipbuilder.  Its purpose was to develop and sell dynamite, together with safety fuses and detonators.  Randolph could raise little interest in the USA or England, but a group of Glasgow businessmen including an engineer called John Downie, and George McRoberts from Westquarter, raised the initial capital to establish a factory.  Alfred Nobel was paid in shares for his rights to the manufacture of dynamite and for the work he subsequently undertook as a technical adviser.  In time Nobel came to own half the original capital as well as having a profitable sharing agreement.  The company set up its head office at 7 Royal Bank Place in Glasgow but established its works at Ardeer in Ayrshire.  Both John Downie and George McRoberts invested £24,000.  At the time of purchase the Ardeer site consisted of little more than sand dunes with little vegetation.  Its location close to the business centre of Scotland, its size, remoteness from any dwelling and access to the coast made it ideal for the purposes.  The sulphuric acid required at the Ardeer factory was supplied from Westquarter and in 1873 McRoberts was appointed as its first manager and chief chemist.  He oversaw the making of the first charge of dynamite used in this country. 

The kieselguhr with which nitroglycerine was mixed to produce dynamite was found in substantial deposits in Scotland at Loch Cuithir on the Isle of Skye and in Aberdeenshire.  The concentrated sulphuric acid was transported from Westquarter to Ardeer by rail in carboys – large glass vessels around 5 gallons in capacity placed in an iron or wicker frame with straw packed between the two elements.  The works at Westquarter had its own railway siding.  To save money the British Dynamite Co Ltd did not insure the product and inevitably accidents happened, leading to disputes with the railway companies.  McRoberts eventually designed special wrought iron tanks to carry the acid.

Nobel bought shares in the Westquarter Chemical Works, and in 1873 was able to buy out McRoberts’ two partners.  McRoberts continued to live at Laurieston until his new house at Ardeer was ready.  Building it and the factory with the sand blowing about was arduous.  Soil was gradually brought from Westquarter in the waggons which had conveyed the sulphuric acid carboys and in this way a garden for the house was formed.  McRoberts’ name has become synonymous with the design of early gelatine mixing and cartridging machinery.  He never forgot his home village.  In the years 1868-1872 he had donated money to the Falkirk Industrial School and throughout the 1880s he made an annual gift of coal to the poor in Laurieston.

In March 1877 it was announced that:

“the copartnership trading as Chemical Manufacturers at Redding, in the County of Stirling, under the firm of the Westquarter Chemical Company, of which the individual subscribers were the sole partners, was dissolved of mutual consent as on the 31st day of December 1876.

The business has been transferred to, and will be continued by, the other subscriber, Nobel’s Explosives’ Company (Limited), who, by arrangement with the former proprietors, will collect the debts due to, and discharge the obligations of the old firm.

A. Nobel

Witnesses to the signature of Alfred Nobel, Francis Barbe, merchant, 12 Rue Condorcet, Paris; Georges Tehrenbach, chemist, 9 Place Pereire, Paris; George McRoberts, for Noble’s Explosives Co (Ltd).; Alexander A Cuthbert, manager.”

(Falkirk Herald 3 March 1877, 1).

British Dynamite Co Ltd became Nobel’s Explosives Ltd at the start of 1877 and the Westquarter Works were now part of this new company.  Nobel and McRoberts became close friends.

With the successful production of dynamite at Ardeer it was decided to start the manufacture of Nobel’s patent detonator in Scotland and land adjacent to the Westquarter Chemical Works was chosen for the production site.  On 11 April 1876 a licence was issued by the Home Office under the Explosives Act of 1875 for the company to manufacture detonators at Westquarter.  Later that year a small factory was opened on the 2.5 acres of land bounded on the south by the Union Canal, on the north by the Edinburgh/Glasgow Railway, and on the east by the Westquarter Chemical Works which continued to manufacture sulphuric acid.  It consisted of a gatehouse in which employees changed their clothing, four wooden huts about 20yds apart from each other, and a magazine some 100yds away.  All of these buildings were interconnected with slightly raised linear wooden platforms known as gangways.  When it opened there were only six workers, and materials were imported and assembled on site.  These materials included the chief ingredient which was fulminate of mercury.  Manufacture was relatively crude with detonator tubes filled and pressed individually.  Routine, cleanliness and safety were, however, always paramount.  Henry Scott was the manager on the ground though McRoberts still had oversight.

Strict rules were in place for the workers, with the view of preventing accidents.  Any worker who arrived there after the hour appointed for the commencement of work was deemed to have committed a breach of the special rules; and no worker was allowed to enter into any other part of the factory than the one duly assigned to him or her, unless under special order from the manager.  The workers employed in the “danger” buildings had to change their outer clothing in the clothing room and had to dress in a pocketless suit of non-flammable cloth before entering.  A searcher inspected the workers as they passed his gate.  Before entering these “danger” buildings the workers had to put on shoes void of any exposed iron – in the case of visitors shoes were kept at each “danger” building to be put on at the door, and the ordinary shoes had to be left outside.  When within the premises, and passing from hut to hut, the gangways had to be kept to, and the greatest care was exercised in keeping the gangways, the floors of the huts, the machinery, benches, tables, and working implements free from grit.  They were thoroughly cleaned once daily, and the door steps were kept constantly wet.  The workshops were inspected before work commenced in the morning and at meal times, and no implements except those provided for the actual necessities of the manufacture, were used in any of the huts except by a person specially appointed to effect some repair or adjustment.  Fulminate or “detonator composition” was conveyed from place to place in wooden or leather boxes with loosely fitting lids; and in the case of any of the composition being spilt it was immediately damped, swept up, and removed.

Illus 2: Bogie at a Gangway Junction with Leather Box for the Detonators.  Note the brass wheels and rails.  1898.

In 1878 it was decided to secure supplies, save costs, and improve on the purity of the chemicals used by producing the fulminate of mercury at Westquarter.  Due to the sensitive nature of the work – the material being prone to exploding at the slightest provocation – a small factory was built at Redding-Moor on the other side of the Union Canal, about half a kilometre south of the existing facilities.  A Swedish chemist, C.O. Lundholm, was sent for to help to set up the new process and a licence was applied for from the Home Office to begin manufacture.  Whilst they waited for permission, Lundholm worked at Ardeer experimenting with the methodology and producing working drawings for the new plant.  A large shed was erected at the southern end of a shelter belt of trees just east of Wester Newlands and so occasionally this separate installation was referred to as Newlands or Reddingmuir.  After just over a year the new factory was ready and Lundholm moved to Westquarter where he was appointed as assistant manager.  At the same time George Smith became the manager there.  Lundholm remained at Westquarter, supervising the fulminate manufacture at Newlands and assisting in the management of Westquarter, until March 1887, when he returned to Ardeer as assistant manager.  McRoberts’ had rented Hawthorn Cottage from John Thomson, and Lundholm presumably stayed there during his sojourn.  It is also believed that Alfred Nobel used it as his residence when he visited Scotland.

In short, every precaution was taken to avoid accident – yet at around 6.30am on 17 May 1878 the first accident of a serious or fatal nature occurred.  The report caused by the material exploding was heard in Falkirk and other places similarly distanced from the scene.  Rumours spread like wildfire, and the damage done and number of lives lost were greatly exaggerated.  There was a great fear amongst the general populace regarding the devastating effects of dynamite.  The management were at pains to emphasise that no dynamite was made or even held on the premises which were confined to the manufacture of the detonator caps used in firing dynamite, and to the making of sulphuric acid.  It was probably for these reasons that they quickly disclosed the details of the accident to a Falkirk Herald reporter (see appendix).  Two young women were killed – Mary Heaps aged 17, and Margaret Thomson aged 18.  They lived nearby in Canal Row Redding and their fathers were colliers at the adjacent pit.  It was said that the girls had been at a dance the night before and their minds were not on the job at hand.

Illus 3: The Manufacture of Fulminate of Mercury.
Illus 4: Ordnance Survey Map of 1896/97 showing the Fulminate Factory at the south end of the wooded Shelter Belt south of the Union Canal (National Library of Scotland).

Almost exactly a year from the first fatal accident a second occurred.  Sarah Jane Boyd was killed when the detonators that she was carrying exploded.  Her husband, John Boyd, was in 91st Highlanders and was fighting in South Africa at the time.

With the fulminate production up and working at the “Top Factory” it was decided to reorganise the “Lower Factory.”  In 1882 the production of sulphuric acid moved to Ardeer where it was needed and the old site was used to expand detonator production.  From 1882 Westquarter produced Abel’s electric powder fuses and electric detonators.  The expenditure on this and the fulminate works amounted to around £1,200 in 1882 and £2,200 in 1883.

Production of detonators at Westquarter increased in line with demand and the unit cost went down.  Accidents, however, continued, despite all of the precautions put in place.  A pattern emerged that was to become familiar.  The incident would be misreported in the press and at large reflecting the fear in the community; the management and staff would be unwilling to speculate; and, as often as not, the victim was found to be at fault for breaking the guidelines.  After another incident in 1883 the following letter appeared in the local newspaper:

“Dear Sirs, The account in today’s Herald of the accident here yesterday is incorrect in several particulars, and I now beg to offer a few remarks thereon.  It is quite true that the girl was engaged in pressing detonators, but it is not in this operation that the explosion occurred.  This is clearly shown by an examination of the pressing machine; nor did one detonator explode, but at least five.  This pressing of detonators is not by any means dangerous, as shown by the fact that no injury was caused to any of the workers last year, although some fourteen million caps were subjected to this operation.  The fact is that the girl wilfully transgressed one of the Government rules in keeping in her hand several charged and pressed caps, and the friction produced by rubbing these together caused the explosion.  With regard to her injuries – her hand was not blown off, but was subsequently amputated, neither was her breast shattered, nor her face seriously injured, neither does she lie in a critical state.  I may add that this Company have spent a considerable sum of money in making provision to ensure the safety of their employees, and whenever an accident has happened to them, it has been invariably owing to some carelessness or non-observance on their part of the rules and regulations drawn for their safety.—Yours truly, G. Smith. Westquarter Factory. 7th April, 1883.”

(Falkirk Herald 14 April 1883).

Fatal accident inquiries were only introduced into Scots Law by the Fatal Accidents Inquiry (Scotland) Act 1895, before which time the circumstances of a death which required examination were determined by the Procurator Fiscal.  The formal hearings investigated the circumstances around the death largely by interviewing those connected with the incident and rarely resulted in prosecutions.

The tenth annual report of HM Inspectors of Explosives regarding Westquarter Factory puts the danger in perspective:

“The last year furnished even more valuable testimony to the necessity for, and the excellence of, the precautions adopted in the case of the manufacture of detonators.  The extreme risk attending the production of these dangerous little articles is annually signalised by a large number of accidents, but happily the character of these risks is now so well understood and so carefully guarded against that instances even of slight personal injury resulting from these accidents are now very rare.  Thus during the past year no less than 34 accidents have occurred in the manufacture of detonators, or not far short of one half the total number of accidents in manufacture, but in two cases only were these accidents attended with personal injury.  In one of these cases the work person appears to have been acting contrary to orders.  The whole of the 34 accidents in the manufacture of detonators occurred in one factory, viz that belonging to Nobel’s Explosives Co (Ltd) and situated at West Polmont, but it is fair to remark that this is at present practically the only factory where this manufacture is actively pursued.  We think that the results that we have described afford a remarkable justification of the encomium which we passed last year on the admirable precautions which are adopted in this factory, and on the strictness with which, so far as our observation goes, they are generally enforced.  Moreover, it is only due to the Company and their managers that we should state that the arrangement, cleanliness, and condition of the factory generally are of an exceptionally satisfactory character.”

Another way to look at the situation would be to note that the number and severity of incidents of personal injury or death at the Westquarter Works were more than matched by those within the agricultural workforce in the Falkirk district.

Illus 5: Ordnance Survey Map of 1896/7 before the Enlargement of 1897 (National Library of Scotland).

Advances in electric fuses meant that more space was required at Westquarter to keep up with the changes.  The existing site was too constrained and so in 1896 the company feued 8½ acres of land west of the factory and a further 2 acres on the south side of the canal.  It took until 1912 to complete the work.  The first phase was opened in January 1898 and, as the extension was nearly a duplicate of the original, almost doubled the production of detonators.  There were now 20 sheds, each around 20yds apart, and two magazines.  The earth mounds were covered with closely cropped turf and the spaces between the huts were planted out with trees.  These, while being of service in catching flying debris in case of an accident and reducing the wind, gave the place a neat and ornamental appearance.  The species were deliberately selected and they were kept carefully trimmed.  All of the huts or houses, ridges, and platforms were on the one level, the advantage of this arrangement being that the bogies used for carrying the material would not run away.  The old portion of the works had been heated by steam pipes, but the new premises were heated by radiators placed outside the buildings, the heat passing inside through a perforated zinc arrangement.  The new huts now had a door to permit the bogies entering and leaving by the rail track.  Machinery was introduced to load the copper tubes in their brass carrying plates behind a protective screen (Falkirk Herald 8 January 1898).  A copy of the strictly enforced Government rules regulating the factory was suspended in each hut.

The works were lit with electricity.  One unusual safety device was the introduction of electric door bells.  In 1898 no one else had such things and the public had to be told how it worked – including the fact that they were to be rung from outside of the building before entering!  The reason for these at Westquarter was that the special shoes worn did not make much sound and so there was little advance notice of someone’s approach and there was always the chance that when someone entered a hut they would startle the occupant which could result in a disastrous accident.  The silent shoes were specially made without steel nails – wooden pegs being substituted instead.  The nail heads on the platforms of the gangways were puttied over, and the iron nails on the hand rails painted.  As the tram rails approached the houses they were of brass and were also painted.  They were continually swept, so that no grit might collect upon them.

Illus 6: A Guard at the Gate, 1898.

A description of the factory by W G Tarbet published in the Royal Magazine in 1898 said that :

While being the largest factory of its kind in the world, it by no means impresses the onlooker with its importance, for the huts are scattered over some 16 acres of ground, and are hidden as much as possible from view by immense grass-covered mounds

(Tarbet 1898, 252). 

As with all visitors Tarbet was met at the gate by a guard – a private police force which monitored all of the entrances. 

He was first taken up the hill to the Top Unit.  In 1898 the Top Factory consisted of one long high chamber, the sides of which were composed of slats of wood resembling venetian blinds to provide ventilation – the chemical process producing heavy choking fumes.  The fulminate of mercury was prepared here by dissolving mercury in very strong nitric acid.  Alcohol was added and after some manipulation a crystalline powder settled to the bottom of the large, specially-shaped glass flasks used.  Each flask was fitted with a thermometer and two tubes.  One tube led the fumes into a long series of condensers, and the other allowed alcohol to be added for cooling and precipitating purposes.  It was a complex process requiring great care with temperature control critical.  After the precipitate had settled it was filtered and washed to remove any traces of the acid.  For two hours it was subjected to a stream of distilled water.  If any acid remained it would leave the material prone to explode upon drying.  When wet it was considered to be relatively safe.

The chemical was then tested by a chemist and if passed it was mixed with the rest of the day’s make, packed in ten-pound bags, and, still immersed in water, sent to a magazine to lie in water until required.  When that happened two bags were taken out and put into two wooden buckets and carried down to the lower factory to be dried.

Illus 7: The Lower Factory looking east with the Union Canal on the right. The long gangway can be seen in the centre. 1898.

The Lower Factory consisted of a long strip of land about a quarter of a mile in length.  Down the centre of this ran a 6ft wide wooden gangway protected on either side by wooden railings.  Side gangways branched off at intervals on each side of the main track to sheds or “huts” as they were called.  The gangway was white and spotless.  No grit was allowed to remain on its surface and none of the workforce was allowed to step from it to the ground on any pretence.  Each hut was hidden by a circular mound of earth that reached up to its eaves with the entrance to the hut formed by either a tunnel or an extension of the mound.  An air gap was left between the mound and the hut.  Most of the huts were of a similar size – square, strong structures of wood, lined outside and inside by dovetailed boards.  Wooden huts were used because they would not contain the force of an explosion but would allow it to dissipate by shattering.  The inside of each hut was papered and varnished so that no dust could lodge on the walls.  These, like the floors, were washed and scrubbed thoroughly every week.  The floors were covered with three thicknesses of carpet – the top carpet consisting of very fine white linen.  Twice a week these coverings were lifted, taken outside, and thoroughly shaken before being replaced.  In wet weather they were shaken in a special shed.  The windows of the huts were fitted with obscured glass so that no direct sun rays could reach the powder.  Over the glass was a closely woven brass screen to protect it from flying debris.  At the time of the visit, there were fifty of these huts scattered over the sixteen acres.

Illus 8: The Last Search for the Men before entering the Gangway.
Illus 9: The Last Search for the Women.

Before anyone entered the working area they had to pass a searcher.  Any matches and all metal items of any kind had to be left in lockers at the entrance hut.  They were then issued with large boots with no metal nails and changed into special outer clothing.  This consisted of non-flammable, pocketless blue uniforms.  Their underclothes also had to be devoid of pockets or metal buttons and fixtures.  A rigorous search was undertaken of all the men and women employed there before they mounted the gangway.  For the female employees a forewoman did the search, remembering to check their hair for pins.

Illus 10: Female Workers in their Safety Uniforms in front of the General Office, c 1910.

One of the first of the buildings was the drying shed and painted above the doorway were the words “No. 12A/ Explosive, 30 lbs/ persons, 1.”  According to the law of the land every hut had to bear on the outside a distinguishing number, the amount of explosive which it was licensed for, and the maximum number of persons who might be in it at one time.  In this particular hut a single man dried the powder and then placed it in the magazine. The drying shed contained two copper chests which looked like tables covered with sheets upon which was spread up to 30 lbs of the fulminate.

The chests were heated by steam and each had a thermometer marked with a broad red line on the scale.  These were monitored by the occupant of the hut to ensure that the temperature did not rise above the line.

After drying, the powder was mixed with chlorate of potash and taken by bogie to the chargers who used it to fill copper tubes.  Wherever possible explosive material was not carried by hand but was conveyed on these little wagons which ran on brass rails from one shed to another.  The copper tubes just mentioned had been previously examined to make sure that they were perfectly clean and of a high polish.  Any roughness of dirt on them ran the risk of an explosion.  The length of the tubes varied from ¾ ins to 2½ ins, and the diameter from 1/16 to 3/8 ins.  The tubes left the charging huts standing upright in carrying plates and filled to the brim with the explosive charge.

Illus 12: The Plating Shed where the Copper Tubes were placed in Plates.

Twenty of these parcels made a case and the gaps inside the wooden case were rammed with more sawdust.  Then the case was put inside a larger one fitted with a cradle which left a 3ins air space between them.  It was then stencilled – one of 10,000 cases of detonators for the year.  The factory had a capacity for making 50 million detonators a year.

Westquarter Factory had a good reputation for not having misfires.  The on-site chemist contributed to this.  One test carried out was to take a cylinder of lead and to place 20 grains of explosive into a measured cavity on the centre.  This was then fired and the increased capacity of the hole measured.  In use, the detonators were fired by either electricity or a safety fuse.  The latter consisted of a slow-burning strand of material.

Illus 14: Chemical Laboratory with the lead Testing Cylinders on the Bench to the right.
Illus 11: A Bogie on the Gangway making for one of the Huts.

From thence they went to the pressing shed where the powder was compressed to half its bulk.  During this operation the workers were protected by a steel sheet attached to a wooden backing plate forming a screen.  The operator pulled down a lever from his side of the screen causing the plungers on the other side to compress the powder in the copper tubes.  When the pressure reached its maximum a strong spring was automatically released returning the plungers back into their places and subsequently withdrawing the screen.  By this arrangement it was not possible to use the plungers unless the screen was in place.  The operation completed, the carrying plate was removed and the tubes emptied into a bag of sawdust to be sent to the cleaning hut.  (Each plate held 181 tubes.)

In the cleaning hut the loose powder was cleaned off and the detonators were put into a revolving drum along with some dust-free sawdust.  After 20 minutes revolving, the sawdust was removed and the clean detonators were carried to the packing shed.  In the packing shed they were packed in boxes of 100, the boxes being made of tin, lined with cardboard and felt.  A woman visually examined each box to ensure that the detonators had been properly filled. Then the box was filled with sawdust and the lid put on together with a strip of paper bearing its number.  Five boxes were wrapped in a parcel and labels attached to either end.

Illus 13: Packing Shed.

The planning and requisite permissions for the next two phases of the expansion of the works took time.  In 1904 a bricklayer employed on this work was badly injured when a carboy of nitric acid that he was passing exploded, blowing off his left hand.  He subsequently died.  It was 1908 before the final building work began in earnest.  In November the Falkirk Herald reported that:

During the past two months five large new buildings have been erected at the west side the Westquarter Factory.  The work is now almost completed, and head-making—an operation in connection with the new type electric fuse —will be started as soon as the electric fittings are finished.  The new industry is expected to give employment to about 50 workers.  Extensive alterations have also been carried out at Reddingmuir Factory, where a new still has been erected. 

The company have been put to some expense and inconvenience with this building, as the workmen who were sinking a shaft to see whether the ground was solid, came across an old pit working, which had to be filled up before the still could be erected on a solid foundation

(Falkirk Herald 14 November 1908).

By 1909 the Westquarter Works had a

fully equipped surgery, with operating table, where accidents can be dealt with by the medical officer or ambulance staff

(Harris 2017, 45). 

This was put to the test in July 1895 when 71 year old John Highet was injured in the Redding Colliery to the east of the Westquarter Works.  He had been unloading wood from a railway wagon when it was hit by another wagon and he fell under the wheel.  His right leg was almost severed and his arm was seriously crushed.  He was at once conveyed to the surgery of Nobel’s Explosives Works and medical assistance was summoned.  Dr Wyse of Redding and Dr Lawrie of Brightons were speedily in attendance.  They found it necessary to amputate both the arm and the leg.  The surgical operation went well and it was hoped that Highet would recover.  However, he succumbed to his injuries while he was being conveyed to his home (Falkirk Herald 6 July 1895, 4).

Margaret Crowe of Laurieston was appointed as the resident nurse.  In 1916 the Works advertised for a “nurse matron” who

must be fully qualified, experienced in accident cases, and capable generally to superintend welfare of female workers and all mess-room and sanitary arrangements.  Apply in writing, stating age, qualifications, and salary expected…

(Falkirk Herald 17 June 1916). 

The need for this resulted in Margaret Crowe having left in the previous year to serve with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in which she went with Dr Elsie Inglis to Serbia.  She subsequently spent time in Russia and learned to speak Russian.  Nurse Crowe returned in February 1918 and took up her old post.  Her duties at Westquarter included overseeing the sewing department, the laundry department, and catering.  She also took an active interest in the social side of factory life being a moving member of the works’ choir and dramatic societies (she retired in 1943).

Social events were organised by the management to foster a group identity.  In 1901, for example, George Smith arranged for the employees of the Westquarter Factory to have a picnic.  The picturesque location chosen was the grounds of Nobel’s Regent Factory in Linlithgow!  The Linlithgow works made electric wires and insulated cables.  Smith also introduced a Christmas party for the children of all of the employees which was held at the hall in the works and catered for around 140.  By contrast a tea party in that hall for the girls employed in the factory catered for 250 in March 1909.  Given the concentration required by the workers at Westquarter to do their jobs it is not surprising that the Government legislated to ensure that no individual would work continuously for long months on end without a break.  Saturday 20 June 1908 was observed as a Factory Act Holiday in Nobel’s Westquarter factory. The entertainment provided by the children in the district drew most of the holiday-makers to the beautiful grounds of Westquarter estate.

Accidents continued at the works and on each occasion the flag there was flown at half mast, as it was whenever there was death in the senior management.  The girls in the factory took it upon themselves to send flowers to the families of their fellow employees who died of whatever cause.

The extensions of 1910 allowed Nobel fuseheads to be made at Westquarter.  Before long a new design of detonator was also made here.  The first detonators had been charged with fulminate of mercury mixed with potassium chlorate.  Now the copper tubes were filled with tetryl on top of which fulminate of mercury was pressed.  The result was a more powerful and reliable detonator.  Other products, such as delay electric detonators and submarine electric detonators, were developed and Westquarter’s “Thistle” brand became world-famous.

Despite the risks of working at the factory, there was no shortage of willing workers.  Applicants for jobs were thoroughly vetted and it became a tradition for family members to work there.  Several examples are given in the official record produced for the 75th anniversary of the factory but one will suffice here.  W. MacGilchrist worked at Westquarter, as did all three sons.  John became chief engineer at Ardeer, Robert a cashier there, and W. MacGilchrist was a foreman joiner at Westquarter, retiring after only 50 years’ service.  His son, also W. MacGilchrist became a superintendent at Westquarter, and two of his sisters worked there.

Illus 15: Tin Lid, Thistle Brand

Not all of the accidents at the works were fatal and not all involved explosions.  One obvious risk was from mercury poisoning and an accident on 26 April 1913 led to some spillage of this material resulting in Alfred Thorne of 63 Grahamsdyke Street, Laurieston, being affected (Falkirk Herald 19 November 1913, 2).  He had to stop working and was eventually awarded compensation of 15s a week from 6 October that year when he had been able to obtain a medical certificate substantiating his condition.

Illus 16: Corrugated Plate Break between two brick buildings at Westquarter, overgrown with trees, 1993.

George Smith was assisted in the management of Westquarter by two chemists, David Corrie and George Ashcroft, both of whom became managers in their turn, the former between 1913 and 1918, and the latter 1918-1929.  They were dedicated to their work and on 18 December 1913 deposited a Patent Right for improvements in the manufacture of detonators.  Their improvements were just in time for the First World War.  It is noticeable that all of the Ordnance Survey maps of the area produced between 1916 and 1954 omit any sign of the explosives works.  The normal routine of work at Westquarter was interrupted and production was greatly increased to meet the urgent demand.  Shift working was introduced.  Instead of being called up for the armed forces, local architect James G Callander was sent to enlarge Westquarter Works and in 1916 Robert McAlpine & Sons were contracted to do the work. 

Corrugated iron blast walls filled with earth, called plate breaks, were a feature of this phase.  The factory grew in area from 16 acres in 1914 to 45 acres in 1919.  One consequence of the larger area was that a rat catcher had to be employed!

18762.5West of chemical works2.56
18783.5Reddingmuir fulminate plant added6.0
18822.0Site of chemical works absorbed8.070
1896-19128.5Area west of previous works16.5350
19102Area south of Union Canal18.5
1916-1926.5South of the canal.45.0800

A party of girls from the Westquarter Factory entertained twenty wounded soldiers from Falkirk Infirmary to tea and a dance in the Lesser Union Hall, Grahamston in November 1917.  This was repeated several times.

Illus 17: The Gangway to the Top Unit.

1926 saw the creation of Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd and the following year Westquarter celebrated its 50th anniversary.  The management treated the employees and their spouses to a day’s outing on the Clyde, stopping at Rothesay.  This became an annual excursion.

In 1930 a swing bridge was built by William Arrol & Co to provide vehicular access across the Union Canal.  Pedestrians continued to use a high level footbridge which allowed barges to pass under it.

The end of the war brought a period of adjustment at Westquarter.  New products were added to those already manufactured.  Aluminium tubes were used as well as the older copper type.  Lead azide replaced fulminate of mercury due to its greater power.  Westquarter also made lead styphnate, which was admixed with lead azide to make it more readily ignited.  Various kinds of fuseheads were made in large numbers and the factory maintained a high level of detonator production until 1936.

Police sergeant James Stuart of the Stirlingshire Constabulary was placed in charge of the police detachment guarding the Redding Explosives Works in 1905.  When, in 1920, the Explosives Works police were replaced by military men, he returned to active duty at the Maddiston county station.

Illus 18: Security at the Main Gate.
Illus 19: The Swing Bridge over the Union Canal looking south with the Footbridge on the right.

As with many other lines of work up until the Second World War it was normal for women getting married to leave.  On such occasions the remaining girls would club together to buy a leaving present.  This usually took the form of a clock, with Westminster chimes.  In 1933 rumours began to circulate that the Westquarter Factory was to close down and production move to Ardeer in a process known to the management as “concentration.”  The various departments of the local councils, the church presbytery, the Chamber of Commerce, the employees’ representatives and anyone else with an interest held meetings with the Nobel’s management – to little point.  The decision had been made.  The atmosphere at the dance in Doak’s Dancing Academy in Falkirk that December in celebration of the centenary of the birth of Alfred Nobel was somewhat muted.  The workforce had been told it would take up to three years to transfer the assets to Ardeer.

Between 1936 and 1938 most of the plant in Westquarter was dismantled and transferred to Ardeer, along with key personnel.  The process was accelerated in December 1937 when there was a serious outbreak of fire.  The tetryl and chloride sheds suddenly became a mass of flame, as a result, it was understood, of the fusing of an electric wire.  The flames lit up the sky and were visible for many miles around.  Most of the factory employees, numbering between 600 and 700, were warned from the works, and proceeded at once to their homes or to regions of safety.  In the ordinary course they would have received their Christmas pay that Thursday, but the pay-out was delayed till Saturday.  Traffic on the main line railway between Edinburgh and Glasgow was stopped for two hours while the fire-fighting operations were in progress, men with red lamps being specially posted to give warning, while all the signals were set at danger.  All trains were diverted to the Bathgate route.  The flames were tackled by the works’ own fire brigade and the Falkirk Fire Brigade was quickly on the scene with an engine.  The two sheds involved were completely destroyed along with a large quantity of material.  As a result of the damage some of the employees were temporarily thrown out of work (Scotsman 27 December 1937, 10).

Illus 20: Miss J. Marshall and her Team in the Electric Fusehead Department, c1950.

The fulminate of mercury plant was left at Westquarter because of its age and so that it could act as a reserve for Ardeer if needed.  The electric detonator assembly plant remained at full production of nearly 250,000 per week.  So, although in general the Westquarter site was working at a lower rate of activity than before it was still busy.  The fire had occurred at a time when work was actually proceeding at high pressure in the execution of Government orders, for which tetryl was a key component and that was to be significant.

The Government was in the process of re-arming in preparation for the Second World War and the concentration of resources was not a good thing.  In the light of potential aerial bombing raids dispersal of vital plant was essential.  Within two years Westquarter was again fully occupied with the new demands of the war.  The Ministry of Supply invested heavily in Westquarter.  Plant was installed to cope with orders from the services and the production rocketed to unimagined heights.  Production of fulminate of mercury and sodium azide was resumed and the need for electric detonators and electric fuses of all types was greater than ever before.  At its peak the factory employed 1,700 workers operating three shifts!  Two workers are known to have been killed at their work during the war.  On 8 May 1942 Dan Robertson died; and on 28 May 1943 Agnes Orr was killed when the detonators that she was carrying exploded.

Illus 21: 1958 Ordnance Survey Map showing the full extent of the Westquarter Works (National Library of Scotland).
Illus 22: Demonstrating the fixing of the Bridge Wires to an Electric Fuse to visiting dignitaries, c1955.  This was not in the danger area and so the girls wear overalls with pockets.  Miss J. Marshall, formerly forewoman of the Electrical Detonator Department on the back left.

These years will form part of a series on “Wartime Production in the Falkirk District in the Second World War.”  With the end of the war, it was thought that the Westquarter Factory would be run down as demand slumped.  In actual fact the rebuilding of the country kept demand high.  Westquarter took an important share in the development of plastic-covered conducting wires for electric detonators.  During a short period in 1950, an output of 2,000 miles of plastic-covered wire per week was achieved and maintained in order to meet an important export order.  This led to the installation of new more efficient plant in a new building the following year.  After the war the work at Westquarter concentrated on the assembly of high-quality specialised electric detonators for export.  These included seismic electric detonators used in oil exploration.

1870-1873George McRoberts
1873-1878Henry Scott
1879-1913George Smith
1913-1918David Corrie
1918-1929George A Ashcroft
1929-1936Andrew R. Wilkinson
1936-1944William Weir
1944-1945Ralph Ashcroft
1945-1955+Alfred P Cattle
Table: Managers of Westquarter Works.
Illus 23: The 1951 Children’s Gala in Callendar Park.

In 1951 the Westquarter Works celebrated its 75th birthday in style.  All the workers, numbering close on a thousand, received a day’s holiday with pay; their children, to the number of 700, were entertained at a fete and gala; while in the evening, the employees and their spouses, 1600 in all, were entertained at a dinner-dance in the Falkirk Ice Rink.  Annie Sutherland used the occasion to retire eight months shy of her 50 years’ service – yes fifty!  Her colleague, Agnes Spiers broke that record when she retired in 1954 having just completed her full 50.

Illus 24: Annie Sutherland operating a Machine to dip Fusehead Combs in a chemical composition.
Illus 25: Electric Fuse Preparation in the “Wire Shed.”
Illus 26: Winding the fine Bridge Wire over the teeth of the Fuse-head Comb and soldering in position.
Illus 27: 1965 Ordnance Survey Map including details of the Earth Mounds around the Huts (National Library of Scotland).
Illus 28: Aerial Photograph of the Works south of the Union Canal, c1950.
Illus 29: The Works’ Council.
The Canteen

The demand for detonators slowly declined and in 1966 production was finally transferred to Ardeer and the Westquarter Works closed.  Ardeer continued making detonators until 1990 when it too ceased production.  The demise of Britain’s coal mining industry had led to a significant drop in orders.  At Westquarter the industry left behind a legacy of mercury contamination in the ground and in the canal which was finally dealt with during work on the Millennium Link and in advance of housing, which now covers much of the site.  The 1930 swing bridge is the most conspicuous remnant of this once bustling factory.

Illus 30: The girls of the Electrical Detonator Department, c1950, with three men.  The Manager, Alfred Cattle is on the extreme right.
Illus 31: Detonators for Export put into a tin container with the lid being soldered on.  This was then placed in a wooden box.
Illus 32: Motor Transport in 1951.

Sites & Monuments Record

Westquarter WorksSMR 1116NS 910 779
Hawthorn Cottage, 1 Polmont RoadSMR 96NS 9117 7944


Harris, J.2017‘A short history of Alfred Nobel’s Westquarter, Falkirk Works,’
Scottish Local History, 98, Autumn 2017.
Nobel Division1951Westquarter Factory; 75 years of detonators.
Nobel Division1951Westquarter Factory; a record of the celebrations.
Tarbert, W.G.1898Royal Magazine 1898, 251-257.
Williams, J.2010From Corn to Cordite; the story of the British Explosives Syndicate, Pitsea.

Appendix: Accounts of some of the accidents at Westquarter Works.

G.B. Bailey, 2022