7 min read

The autograph books of the ‘Gretna Girls’ munitions workers 4

an autograph book with poems about life in a munitions factory during World War One

“God made the bees…” Courtesy Devil’s Porridge Museum

Judith Hewitt, Museum Manager at the Devil’s Porridge Museum on the fascinating autograph books kept by the young women who worked in the local munitions factory, HM Factory Gretna, during the First World War

“God made the bees
The bees made the honey
The Gretna Girls have done the work
And the chemists made all the money.”

This is my favourite excerpt from a World War One era autograph book in the collection at The Devil’s Porridge Museum. The Museum is lucky enough to have a number of these charming little books and we have them on display in digitally scanned versions on a touchscreen within the Museum.

Each turn of the page brings another beautifully handwritten poem or phrase, sometimes with a name or date or address attached.

Most of the ones in the Museum date from 1918 and one can imagine the 12,000 young women who worked at HM Factory Gretna during World War One compiling an autograph book at the end of the War when the future of the Factory was in doubt and when many of the ‘girls’ who had done difficult and dangerous war work at this, the greatest factory on earth at that time, would be facing a return to their pre-War life.

a photo of a group of women in munitions worker dress

12000 women worked in the factory there were accidents including loss of limbs and life as well as fires and explosions some girls had lifelong health problems. Courtesy Devil’s Porridge Museum

a photo of an open autograph book with writing inside it

Eliza Lumley’ musings on the factory rations with HM Factory Gretna canteen ticket kept for posterity. Courtesy Devil’s Porridge Museum

a photo of an open autograph book with a piece of handwritten music and words to there's no place like home

“There’s no place like home…” Courtesy Devil’s Porridge Museum

a black and white photo of women outside a wooden hut

850 Wooden Hostel L West 9, Gretna. Courtesy Devil’s Porridge Museum

Over 80% of the Gretna Girls (a term used at the time) were aged 16-20 and single. They were mostly categorised as working class having mainly worked in domestic service, as farm hands or in other factories before the War began. These young women were attracted to the Factory from across the British Isles.

We know there were Gaelic speakers, that there were girls described as ‘fisher folk’ and that people came from across Scotland, Ireland and England to work at HM Factory Gretna. One young woman came from Cornwall and another from the Isle of Man but most were from Dumfries and Galloway, Cumbria, Carlisle, Newcastle, Sunderland and County Durham. This geographical range is reflected in the autograph books with people signing their names and leaving their addresses from across the British Isles.

One of our autograph books belonged to a girl who was from Kirkby Stephen. This small town in Westmoreland is where my grandfather was born in 1922 and lived until the outbreak of World War Two when he joined the RAF. I have been there many times for family holidays over the years, it is a place close to my heart and I was amazed and delighted to discover that a girl who worked in the Factory (which is the main focus of the Museum I now work in) came from there and returned there after the War.

I wonder if she knew my grandfather as a boy? It is a pleasure to handle something that would have been in close proximity to him all those years ago.

Autograph book pages fall into several categories. Many deal with friendship and it is lovely to think of the people forging relationships in times of War. One tends to think of World War One as a dark time, and work at HM Factory Gretna sounds particularly grim to modern ears (mixing acids and other chemicals, shifts which ran through the night, descriptions of wind and rain as well as fires and explosions) but even here people seem to have forged long-term friendships and romantic relationships.

a photo of an autograph book with a drawing of a black cat inside it

“May you be as lucky as the Black Cat”. Courtesy Devil’s Porridge Museum

a photo of an open autograph book with a poem about spending time with a mother

Happiest hours with another mans wife… Courtesy Devil’s Porridge Museum

a black and white photo showing the interior cubicles of a wooden hostel

Interior of Hostel Cubicles. Courtesy Devil’s Porridge Museum

a photo of an autograph book with an epigram about staying faithful

“Here’s to the train that runs on wheels and never runs in danger here’s to the girl that sticks to her boy and never runs off with a stranger…” Courtesy Devil’s Porridge Museum

It is interesting to note that a lot of the people who signed the autograph books seem to have stayed in the same hostel. The hostels were built to house the workers and were given names from history (especially of famous women or Scots) and from the War. One autograph book was given to Sophia Wynn by her friend May. They both lived at Boadicea Hostel in Gretna and many of the signatures are from people who also lived there.

Life in hostels was tightly regulated (we have lists in the Museum collection of all the contents needed for each type of hostel, this is as detailed as the number of teaspoons and potato mashers needed!) The Ministry of Munitions saw themselves as in locu parentis and appointed a matron for each hostel who was to act as a mother figure for the girls and ensure that they kept to curfew (10pm) and that they kept their morals intact! Each girl had a cubicle of her own with only a curtain on the doorway so she never had complete privacy.

Many of the pages of the autograph books contain humour, some quite tame (such as a drawing of a balloon just out of sight), others acerbic or satirical such as the quote above about the wages of the girls as compared with that of the chemists and some a bit bawdy. Some jokes must have been personal ‘in-jokes’ as their meaning is now indecipherable. Times may change but human beings having a laugh and pointing out the absurdities of life does not.

References to the War itself are few and far between. There is little evidence of patriotism in these books. The tone is, on the whole, stoical, seemingly people were resigned to the difficulties they were facing and making the best of it showing the British stiff upper lip and spirit which would be exemplified in World War Two during the Blitz. Some of the pages contain criticism of the War and these interest me particularly as social comment.

a photo of an open autograph book with two epigrams

“Women have many faults men have only two…” Courtesy Devil’s Porridge Museum

a photo of an open autograph book with an epigram and hairpin attached

“This was found in a soldier’s bed last night… Is it yours? (with hairpin). Courtesy Devil’s Porridge Museum

an open autograph book with a little epigram poem about a stocking and a shoe

“Said the shoe to the stocking, ill put a hole in you said the stocking to the shoe ill be darned if you do…” Courtesy Devil’s Porridge Museum

an open autograph book with writing inside

“Love all, trust few, always paddle your own canoe…” Courtesy Devil’s Porridge Museum

It sometimes feels hard to hear the voices of the 12,000 women who worked at HM Factory Gretna. Most of the documents made by Factory officials were created by men as were the majority of articles written about the young women. There are lots of photographs of women at work at HM Factory Gretna (women working in industrial hubs seems to have been a novelty) so the women can be seen but not heard. These autograph books are a priceless document of women’s friendship, their humour and their lives during War.

The opening comment about the girls doing the work and the chemists making the money strikes me most as it is one of the most critical comments from a young munitions worker that I have read. It also suggests the perennial problem of inequality between the sexes. Even in time of War when women’s wages were higher and opportunities more plentiful, that imbalance remained and, for all the propaganda, women knew they were seen as being worth less. A timely comment indeed.

a photo of an open autograph books with hand written epigram

If only those who caused this war… Courtesy Devil’s Porridge Museum

an old black and white photo of a group of munitions girls in a row

“Gretna girls” in a group. Courtesy Devil’s Porridge Museum


The Devil's Porridge Museum

Annan, Dumfries

In 1915, Britain was in crisis. To prevent almost certain defeat in World War One, the government took control of a section of land spanning the Anglo-Scottish border nine miles long and two miles wide. Here they would build an immense factory to mix the 'devil's porridge' (cordite) to make…

4 comments on “The autograph books of the ‘Gretna Girls’ munitions workers

  1. Michael Wright on

    Beyond belief – Fantastic and very neat hand writing…. it needs somebody to chronicle ‘life’ at Gretna….. hard to imagine the shear size of the site..

    • Judith Hewitt on

      Thanks for your positive comment. It would be great to have someone study the Museum collection and what happened here in World War One. We do research within the Museum but are looking for ways to work with researchers, academics and universities going forward.

  2. Rosie on

    This is a fantastic museum, set on on the beautiful Solway firth- well worth a visit. Thank you for reminding me of a great accidental museum trip- when we saw the brown sign, we just had to find out what Devil’s porridge was!

    • Judith Hewitt on

      Thanks a lot for your positive comments about the Museum. Hope you can visit us again someday – we have changing exhibitions every few months and lots of events planned for when things return to normal.


Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *