Judith Hewitt from The Devil’s Porridge Museum tells us about the secret history of a community museum.
‘A book was published several years ago called ‘Gretna’s Secret War’ and for too long the history of His Majesty’s Factory Gretna has remained unknown and unheard of. During World War One, the secrecy was a necessity, all of the work done by the 30,000 workers came under the jurisdiction of the Official Secret’s Act and when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited the site in 1916 he used its codename, Moorside in the article he wrote where he described the Factory as ‘the newest, the largest and the most remarkable.’
In 1996, a local teacher and councillor, Richard Brodie was looking for a way to put the region on the map and was amazed to discover the unknown history of the area. Even people who had lived in Eastriggs their whole lives knew little about the reason the township existed. Richard went door to door asking for volunteers to help set up a local history display in the local church. This display acted like a magnet: people began to bring forward objects that they had in their homes, they shared their memories and their family history accounts. A zealously enthusiastic team of researchers formed the nucleus of the Eastriggs and Gretna Heritage Group (which runs the museum today) going on research visits, writing text panels, forming displays and manning the desk in the exhibition (a great way to get even more information!)
By 2007, the display had grown to such an extent that it was encroaching on church business and a new site in the village was found at Daleside. This really enabled the team to let their imaginations soar. ‘The Coach and Horses’ a reconstructed pub was created. This was based on the State Management Scheme which started in Annan in World War One and lasted until 1973, controlling the production and sale of alcohol in the region for decades. A trench was built, ‘The Devil’s Dug-out’ and temporary exhibitions were put on looking at topics such as Health and Welfare of the Workers or Crime in the Factory.
In 2014, the Devil’s Porridge Museum moved to its current site in a purpose-built, state of the art building. This has enabled it to reach an even larger audience, gain 5 star Visit Scotland rating and achieve accreditation. At its heart, it is a volunteer led organisation dedicated to unearthing more of this hidden history. “Pieces of the Factory keep finding their way back to us and that is why the museum exists.” said Judith Hewitt, Museum Manager. “A recent donation was a series of maps. My colleagues had searched high and low for these maps and eventually located copies of them. Little did they know that original versions over 100 years old were in an old lady’s loft less than a mile away. She recently passed away and her family donated the maps and other documents they found to the museum. They have no idea why she had them or what her connection with the Factory was but we were delighted to add them to our collection. There is still so much more to find out and so many more objects out there to find. It is exciting to be part of something with community at its heart but with real ambition and an ability to get things done too.”’