I thank Ruth Maguire for bringing this members’ business debate to the chamber. It is a real privilege and a pleasure to contribute to it, especially with members of the community in the public gallery.
I also thank Ms Maguire for raising awareness of two things: the event itself, given the time that has passed since the tragedy; and, more important, the telling of the story through the play “The Girls of Cartridge Hut No 7”. Interestingly, it is described as a play with songs rather than just a play or indeed a musical. Although it details a tragic event from 1884—the explosion hitherto mentioned, which tragically killed 10 young women—the play, I think, actually does a number of things that I will develop in my comments.
What struck me the most is that, despite the cause of the explosion not being immediately clear at the time, a particular narrative was painted very quickly in the days after. The
Ardrossan & Saltcoats Herald
—a newspaper that, I am glad to say, still exists and in which I have a column—expressed the matter in concerning ways. It said:
“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”— whatever that means—
“or other amongst them was committed.”
That really pins the blame on these poor young women—indeed, children, as Gillian Martin pointed out. I would like to think that, these days, the
Ardrossan & Saltcoats Herald would not report things in that way and jump to such conclusions, but it is clear that the false accusations coming from the factory’s management were completely an effort to deflect blame. Indeed, the matter was put to bed by the accident investigator’s report, which later revealed the real cause of the explosion to be faulty equipment. That sort of thing can be put down to a number of factors but, as is often the case, when something is said in public, it is believed and it is then very hard to rewrite history.
The names of the young victims had never really been cleared, which is why Jack Dickson wanted to restore the reputations of the young women and give them a voice. They died tragically, through no fault of their own, and have no voice to defend themselves. However, their voice has been restored, which has been done so well. We should commend Jack for that, and not just for that. Putting on such a play is not easy at the best of times but, as with so many events in the theatre and arts over the past two years, it had to be postponed because of the pandemic. It has not been easy to produce anything. However, despite all the hurdles, Jack finally had the chance to put on his play at Ardeer community centre earlier this year.
The play had to have two components. First, the story of the victims had to be told, with a particular focus on their personalities and their lives before the accident. People are often defined by the tragedies with which their names are associated, and it is easy to forget that they were individuals who had lives up until that point.
Secondly, the play had to be firmly rooted in the local community. The Nobel factory, which later became ICI, was a major part of local life, employing 13,000 people at its peak, and was a fundamental part of the community’s economic development and daily routine for generations. The community still lives in the shadow of the business. By hosting the play in Ardeer community centre and performing it in local schools, the memory of ICI has been reawakened or brought alive to a whole new generation of young people in Ayrshire.
Reviews of the play have been really positive.
The Irvine Herald reported that the production team
“put on a brilliant show with well-timed mood lighting and spine tingling sound effects”.
The best review that I found was from local resident Doris Robertson, who said:
“Very professional and totally absorbing storytelling of these remarkable girls.”
“Remarkable” is certainly the word to use, and that is a ringing endorsement if ever there was one.
I am sorry that I did not see the play, but I am sure that members will all agree that the hard work of writer Jack Dickson, director Mary McCluskey, and composer Hilary Brooks, as well as the amazing and dedicated cast and team of volunteers, has brought to life this important story. We congratulate them on their success and thank them for their work. I hope that these young girls have had their voice fully restored and have been exonerated today in the Scottish Parliament.