Nobels Factory in Redding was an explosive place

Women at Nobels Factory get to work
Women at Nobels Factory get to work

One summer in the late 1950s I worked for a few weeks as a grass cutter in and around the town and can still swing a scythe with the best of them.

One place we were sent was Nobel’s explosive works on the canal at Redding where the huts used for making detonators were separated by high grassy banks up to roof level.

I was told that this was to make sure that if the hut exploded it would fly up and not set the other ones off!

We had the job of cutting the grass on these steep slopes and the foreman told us to keep a sharp lookout for cast away detonators because the ‘the lassies sometimes make a mess o’ them and chuck them oot the windae.’

He then added: ‘Try no tae hit yin ... I’ve lost a few scythes up here!’

I remember that the factory was full of girls dressed in green smocks and, at the time, I had no idea I was in a place that linked the district with one of the most famous men in the world.

Alfred Nobel was born in Sweden in 1833 and by the time he was 30 he was running his family’s explosive factory near Stockhom and producing completely new materials like dynamite for which there was soon a world-wide demand.

He expanded into several countries including Scotland where his Ardeer Works in Ayrshire opened in 1871.

One of the raw materials was sulphuric acid and this was supplied by the small Westquarter Chemical Works located on the north bank of the Union Canal next to Redding Colliery.

Nobel was so impressed by the managing partner, George McRoberts, that he bought over the company which he decided was the ideal place to manufacture his new range of detonators.

In 1876 the site on the opposite side of the canal was acquired and in the years that followed this became the major activity of the firm employing large numbers of men and women in what was a seriously dangerous trade.

Alfred Nobel spent a considerable amount of time in the area living in Hawthorn Cottage in Main Street, Laurieston which is still there today.

The rapid expansion of mining and the wars of the 20th century meant that the factory was never idle and at times an astonishing number of people were employed.

For example, during World War I over 800 workers supplied the military and in World War Two double that number were employed on three shifts to meet the demand.

By then the factory was the Nobel Division of the ICI and after the war there was a steady decline in output and employment. However, Nobel’s remained a major employer in the area well into the modern era eventually closing its doors in 1969.

Not much is left to remind the local community of the story: a turntable bridge which one linked the two sides of the factory is still there and the local Community Council have included references to Nobel’s in the history board in the new Tesco store. And, of course, most importantly, the factory lives on in the memories of the women who worked there.

For my part, every year when I hear the famous Nobel Prizes announced in Sweden, I remember my time as a grass cutter and all those lovely ladies in green waving to me from the widows of the huts. Oh happy days!