Ian Scott: Redding’s explosive work was bang up to date...

The huts surrounded by the grassy banks
The huts surrounded by the grassy banks

I am fortunate that my life spans all the years since the end of the Second World War and I can remember large parts of our history which have completely vanished.

Industries that once employed thousands were still in operation and sometimes I had an early chance to take a peep behind the scenes.

For example, one summer in the late 1950s while I was still at school, I worked as a grass cutter at Nobel’s explosive works on the canal at Redding.

The huts were used for the manufacture of detonators and they 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 the way and not set the other ones off!

While we were cutting the grass on these steep slopes our boss told us to keep a sharp lookout for castaway detonators because the “the lassies sometimes 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 linked to 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.

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

It was supplied with sulphuric acid from 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 the First World War, over 800 workers supplied the military and in the Second World War double that number were employed on three shifts to meet the demand.

By then the factory was part of the Nobel Division of 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 once linked the two sides of the factory is still there and the local community council included references to Nobel’s in the history board in the local 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 windows of the huts. But that’s another story!