I congratulate my colleague Ruth Maguire on lodging the motion, securing the debate this afternoon, setting out so vividly the tragedy and injustice that the play is based on and supporting her community in bringing the issue to life. I also thank the speakers—Gillian Martin, Jamie Greene, Katy Clark and Paul Sweeney via an intervention—for their valuable and interesting contributions.
Today, we commemorate 150 years of the Nobel’s Explosives Company on the Ardeer peninsula at Stevenston in North Ayrshire. We also celebrate the power of the performing arts to bring to life important and largely forgotten historical events for modern audiences.
Alfred Nobel established the British dynamite factory at Ardeer in 1871. It was the first factory of that type in the United Kingdom, and it became the largest explosives factory in the world. It was believed to have employed around 13,000 people from the local area at its peak, which made it the largest employer. Its success contributed to the increased fortunes of the Ayrshire towns of Stevenston, Irvine, Saltcoats and Ardrossan. The factory developed a wide range of high explosives that revolutionised the mining and engineering industries, provided essential minerals and raw materials, and assisted in the development of harbours, canals, railways, roads and water and electricity supplies.
By the 1990s, Ardeer’s fortunes had declined, accelerated by the demise of the British deep-coal mining industry. Changing patterns in international trade and competition led to the closure of most of the factory. Today, little—if anything—remains of the original 1871 factory.
This debate celebrates the play “The Girls of Cartridge Hut No 7” by Cartridge Girls, which shines a light on an industrial accident at the Nobel explosives factory in Ardeer in 1884. That tragic event took the lives of 10 young women and girls, one of whom was as young as 14 years of age. They were involved in making dynamite cartridges for blasting purposes. The play focuses on the four girls in cartridge hut number 7 who were killed.
Today, we honour the ultimate sacrifices that Mary McAdam, Rachel Allison and sisters Mary and Annie Brannan made while working at Nobel’s factory so many years ago, as well as the sacrifices that were made by the others who Ruth Maguire mentioned in her speech. Mary Brannan and Rachel Allison were 18; Annie Brannan and Mary McAdam were 20. That was the age at which many girls at that time were likely to marry, at which time they would be required to leave the factory.
Young unmarried girls and women were employed in preference to men and boys, apparently due to their speed in learning the job and for their manual dexterity in handling such volatile materials. It is on the record from that time that—incredibly—they apparently asked for lower wages than men and boys. They were paid at piece-work rates and a good full-time female worker could earn 15 shillings a week in the 1880s.
No such devastating workplace accident of the type had ever happened before in Scotland or the United Kingdom. Protecting the safety and wellbeing of staff at work and closing the gender pay gap clearly remain priorities for us and for employers today.