Wednesday, June 20, 2018

My ancestors worked in a dynamite factory

Workers at Nobel's Explosives Factory, Ardeer, Stevenston.
(North Ayrshire Libraries)

In the process of finding out more about my Hamilton and Gibson ancestors who had once lived in a small village called Stevenston on the coast of Ayrshire, Scotland, I discovered that several members of these families had worked at 'the dinnamit' (i.e. the Dynamite) local parlance for Nobel's Explosives Factory at Ardeer.

Census returns revealed that Hamilton and Gibson daughters as young as twelve years old had contributed to the family income by being 'carteridge (cartridge) makers' at the factory. It was an extremely dangerous occupation and the girls had to wear their hair in plaits or pigtails to lessen the risk of accidents with any of the inflammable materials used. These included nitric and sulphuric acid.

The perils inherent in the manufacture of explosives were obvious to the workers and their families. It must have been a wrench for mothers to say goodbye to young children going off to the factory to earn what was a pittance. But times were hard and every little helped to keep the family fed and clothed. My Hamilton great grandmother gave birth to fifteen children and raised thirteen of them to adulthood, no mean feat. Fortunately, her daughters survived their years at the dynamite factory despite the dangers they faced daily.

The first fatal accident at the explosives plant took place in August 1882 when a man dropped a bottle of nitro-glycerine. He was killed. Later the same year a nitro-cotton stove exploded, with the loss of two men. But the most serious accident up to that time cast a pall of pain and sorrow over the whole district when a cartridge hut blew up, setting fire to three similar huts. Poignantly, all ten fatalities were young girls between 18 and 25. Stevenston was plunged into mourning. The investigation into the incident found that a broken lever handle on a machine had fallen on to a box of dynamite causing detonation. The Company was held blameless. 

There were other incidents, some minor and some with tragic consequences, in the years that followed. The start of World War I in 1914 ended the early stage of the Nobel's Factory at Ardeer. Increasing production of explosives for military use meant a growing workforce. From January 1873 until February 1914, 37 lives were lost - less than one a year. Compared to high numbers of fatalities in heavy industries such as mining, the strict regulations enforced in the explosives industry kept down the number of deaths.

Elizabeth Hamilton
 with some of her many grandchildren.

Acknowledgement: To historian John Millar for his willingness to share his remarkable knowledge of Ardeer and environs and for his assistance with my digging into Hamilton and Gibson ancestry. His book 'In the Shadow of the Dynamite', the product of years of committed research, is packed with fascinating information.

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