Ardeer Girls

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 22nd September 2022.

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Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

I am honoured to bring this debate to the chamber today, in order—I hope—to continue the good work of playwright Jack Dickson in highlighting the injustice as told in “The Girls of Cartridge Hut No 7”. I thank colleagues from across the chamber who supported the motion, thereby allowing us to take the girls’ story to the floor of the Scottish Parliament, as well as members who are contributing to the debate today. It is a great pleasure to welcome Jack to the chamber, along with Graeme and Saorsa Cobb, the great-great-nephew and great-great-niece of Mary and Annie Brannan.

If you take a walk around Ardeer peninsula today, you can find yourself surrounded by nature. The western fringe of the peninsula is dominated by 3km of crumbling seawall. The area is well vegetated and supports all manner of plant species. It is peaceful—a place where people walk their dogs, take their children to explore and generally enjoy the outdoors.

However, in 1884, among the sand dunes and natural beauty was the largest explosive manufacturing plant in the world—Nobel’s Explosives Company—which was built by the inventor of dynamite and, latterly, of the peace prize, Alfred Nobel. It is also where the story begins and ends for four young girls who would be wrongly blamed not only for their own deaths but for those of six other colleagues—sisters Anne and Mary Brannan, Mary McAdam and Rachel Allison. Those four girls were part of the exclusively young and female group of workers who manufactured the sticks of dynamite at the plant, and whose ages started at 14 years old.

After learning about the tragedy, Jack Dickson was inspired to create the play “The Girls of Cartridge Hut No 7” to right a wrong and get some justice for the girls. The storytelling—along with the dramatic displays by the cast, help from the girls’ descendants and local people, the hard work of the crew and funding from Playwrights Studio Scotland and Creative Scotland—gave voices to those four young girls.

What happened? On 9 May 1884, the day after the event, the

Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald reported the explosion as follows:

“Yesterday morning the works at Stevenston of the Nobels Explosive Co was the scene of a distressing and fatal occurrence. At about twenty minutes to nine o’clock No 7 Cartridge hut blew up. As many of our readers are aware the huts in which the cartridges are made up are scattered among the sand hills a mile or so to the west of the town of Stevenston and a short distance from the beach between Stevenston burn and Irvine harbour. ...

There are usually four girls employed in each of these huts and Mr McRoberts the manager states that yesterday morning fifteen girls in all were employed in them. In No 7 hut, that in which the explosion occurred, the young women employed were; Ann Brannan, Mary Brannan, Mary McAdam and Rachael Allison. The last named resided with her parents in Kilwinning and the others were” residents of Stevenston.

“The force of the explosion was terrific as well may be imagined when it is stated that the huts were supposed to contain two and a half cwt of dynamite each”— that is 127kg.

“Not a vestige of the hut remains to indicate its former presence and parts of the body of one of the girls was found over the boundary palisade towards the shore and probably not less than 150 yards from the scene of the explosion. ...

In Hut No 5 two girls lost their lives, Mary Ann Peters aged 19, Main St Stevenston and Martha McAllister of Ardeer Square.

In Hut No 6 the killed were Elizabeth Love and Martha Haggerty.

In Hut No 8 two were also burnt to death; Isabella Longridge of Stevenston and Isabella McCall of New Square. In each case death was probably instantaneous, for the huts were not more than 15 feet square.

The injured are Sarah Ann McKane, Jessie Craig, Mary Banks, and Rose Ann Murphy.”

The newspaper report went on:

“The cause of the explosion has not yet been ascertained. It is just possible that there may have been some larking around amongst the girls and it is probable that some irregularity or other amongst them was committed.”

That explosion was one of the worst industrial accidents to happen at Nobel’s Explosives Company and the girls were getting blamed for it.

The accident investigator’s report, published several months later, concluded that the explosion was actually caused by faulty equipment. The report, buried under other relevant news of the day, details that a handle of one of the machines fell into a box of dynamite causing the accident.

The incident affected not only the families and descendants of those involved but the whole of Stevenston and the surrounding communities, who for generations had, until its closure in 1990, been tied to a single, huge industrial plant. People still remember the extraordinarily large chimneys and yellow smoke, and speak of family members and friends who tell stories of working in the plant.

The memories live on and so should the memory of our four cartridge girls: Anne Brannan, Mary Brannan, Mary McAdam and Rachel Allison. May they rest in power.