Stevenston and the Ardeer
Factory of Imperial Chemical Industries Limited, Nobel Division, are
closely linked together. The town existed long before the factory, but
since Britain's nitro-glycerine industry was established at Ardeer, the
growth of a prosperous factory has been followed by the growth in the
town. Today, Stevenston depends on Ardeer for the major part of its
employment, and together the town and the factory have a place in
Scotland's industrial history.
Eighty-two years ago the process of dynamite manufacture had just
been established at Ardeer. Although not widely acclaimed the event was
of critical importance in the industrial history of Britain. On 14th
January, 1873, a business notice appeared in the Mining Journal
announcing that :
'The British Dynamite Company, having erected extensive works at
Ardeer, Ayrshire, near Glasgow, with all Mr. Nobel's recent improvements
for the manufacture of dynamite, are now prepared to execute orders for
Home Consumption and Export.'
Thus the name of a factory, which was to grow and gain a world
reputation first became known. The British Dynamite Company advised by
Nobel, had chosen a desolate site far from houses, because public
opinion was suspicious of a product whose qualities were not completely
understood. Earlier so many disasters had attended the manufacture and
use of nitro-glycerine, Nobel's blasting oil, that many countries had
banned the substance. The discovery of dynamite in 1865, and the
experience of its performance had lessened but not removed these
Among mining men the value of dynamite was realised.
Nevertheless, when Alfred Nobel came to Britain and attempted to
interest business men in the formation of a company, to exploit his
inventions, he was met with apathy or vigorous opposition. One man,
however, realised clearly the importance of dynamite to the future of
That man, John Downie, after determined effort,
encouraged a group of financiers in Glasgow to meet Nobel and discuss
his project. At that meeting the British Dynamite Company was launched
and John Downie was the first general manager and secretary.
In 1871 the choice of a site was still uncertain.
Government regulations of great stringency had to be observed and many
areas were surveyed and their advantages considered. The isolation of
Ardeer and its nearness to the sea swayed opinion in its favour and an
area of land was bought.
Doubtless, the great waste tracts of sand around the
100 acres of the original Ardeer Factory were not ignored because even
at the beginning those pioneers who started the factory in January,
1873, were already looking, forward to expansion. In that early factory
there were forty buildings and less than 100 employees. They made their
way to work along paths among the sand dunes, since there were no roads.
Alfred Nobel himself, assisted by Mr. P. A. Liedbeck,
who had supervised the building of the factory, made the first 1,500 lb
batch of nitroglycerine on 13th January, 1873. From that date a
discipline of safe working was established which continues today.
Problems of transport and distribution were
formidable. The railway companies would not accept dynamite as freight
so the practice of bulk transport by sea was soon established.
Horse-drawn vans, which did not, because they must not, betray the
nature of their commerce, carried smaller loads of dynamite over shorter
distances; their drivers treated as the 'Ishmaels of the Queen's
Meanwhile, purposeful men worked hard to mitigate
these earlier conditions. They succeeded in their efforts and gradually
public confidence was established. When Nobel made his second great
discovery of 'blasting gelatine' the prosperity of the industry in
Britain was assured. A new company was formed in 1877 which took over
the assets of the British Dynamite Company and the rights to share in
all Nobel's explosives discoveries.
Mr. McRoberts had become manager of Ardeer after the
death of Mr. Downie in 1874 and, when Nobel's Explosives Company was
formed, his staff was slightly larger than the small band of pioneers
who had started the venture five years earlier. The number of men and
women in the factory, however, was still small and the tradesmen could
be counted on one hand.
At this time the contours of Ardeer changed with
every wind that blew. Sandstorms happened frequently and over quite
short periods the dunes flowed from one position to another. Nobel did
not like a desert of sand. 'Only the tabbits', he wrote, 'find a little
nourishment here; they eat a substance which quite unjustifiably goes by
the name of grass, and of which some few traces are to be found here and
It was Mr. McRoberts who solved this problem and
worked out a system which anchored the drifting sand. That system was
applied over many years. Ashes were spread over the sandhills and rough
bent grass was encouraged to grow over the new surface.
Encouraged by the example of Nobel and sharing his
enthusiasm, the men who first managed Ardeer were experimentally minded
and adventurous. They tried constantly to improve the methods of
manufacture and the products. Above all, they sought modifications which
would be better and safer to use.
By 1889, when Mr. McRoberts retired because of
ill-health, the factory had expanded. There had been improvement of
general amenities and there was a roadway from Stevenston. The first
passenger train for carrying men and women to work did not run until
By modern standards the hours of work were long but a
tradition of employment had been set. More and more the inhabitants of
Kilwinning, Stevenston and Saltcoats looked to Ardeer for work.
When Mr. C. 0. Lundholm, Alfred Nobel's 'Swede'
succeeded Mr. McRoberts as manager, the time had come for looking at
Ardeer's development, re-assessing the prospect and planning for the
future. The job was done with foresight and effective energy. In
consequence the last twelve years of the nineteenth century brought
growth and change to Ardeer.
Thus at the beginning of the twentieth century the
factory was large and the old processes were being modernised. New
products had been added to the range, new plants built and more people
were employed. With scarcely diminishing momentum the process continued
until the outbreak of the first world war.
Ardeer took a dramatic part in Britain's effort, and
when in 1918 the armistice was signed the capacity for production was
much larger than in the pre-war years. Many must have feared an
aftermath of stagnation but, in fact, research had opened a way towards
new commercial possibilities. Industrial applications for nitrocellulose
had been evolved and the considerable industries of leathercloth and
lacquer manufacture, especially lacquers for motor cars, meant that
Ardeer would have a considerable trade in the essential material,
Meanwhile, intensive research effort in the study of
explosives had continued, and from 1909 research department under its
manager, Mr. Wm. Rintoul, had grown large. It gave a service which
vitalised the work of Ardeer and maintained the pace of innovation and
improvement which were necessary in the unsettled post-war world. The
securely founded traditions of the factory and the family interest of
Ayrshire men and women who had skill in the difficult task of making
explosives, allied to efficient technical and commercial management,
maintained the position of Ardeer during these difficult times.
The formation first of Explosives Trades Ltd., and
soon afterwards of Nobel Industries Ltd., led to an increase in the
importance of Ardeer, especially in the research department. Thus when
I.C.I. was formed in 1926 Ardeer itself had a great contribution to
make. There were reorganisations and from the interest of Nobel
Industries Limited certain new divisions of I.C.I. were born.
In the early 1930's the industrial depression led to
further change and a concentration of manufacture in Ardeer. Thus during
a time when the industrial outlook was depressed Ardeer became bigger
still and brought within its boundary modern factories for making safety
fuse, blackpowder and detonators. When that had been done industry and
the country became aware of growing international tensions and it was
realised that once again the factory might have to take its place in the
front line of the nation's defences.
Events proved that to be so. Skill available in
Ardeer was harnessed to help Britain's defence effort. Factories were
planned from Ardeer and the key men to staff them had been trained
there. Ardeer from the beginning of the second world war exerted an
influence and effort which were invaluable. But, despite commitments for
military purpose, the production of blasting explosives for industry
went on, and steady improvements were made.
When the war ended it was once more feared that the
factory would operate on a sadly reduced scale. That fear was unfounded.
In Britain's post-war struggle to balance her economy, Ardeer Factory
has made a vital contribution. Commercial explosives of varied types for
mining, quarrying, geophysical prospecting and civil engineering works
have given the necessary power whenever and wherever it was needed.
Manufacture has been modernised, new plants have been and are being
built and conditions of employment steadily improved. Productivity
increases year by year, partly because plant and processes are better,
and partly from the human effort encouraged by scientific work study
methods. Provisions for welfare are extensive, and the relationships
between all grades within Ardeer are healthy.
Today Ardeer stands on the brink of further change.
Its products have been multiplied in number, and not all of them are
concerned with the commercial explosives trade. A new plant to make
silicones has been erected, and at Ardeer the process for making 'Ardil'
protein fibre, now established at Dumfries, was worked out. After the
second world war the manufacture of the 'Cellofas' range of cellulose
derivatives began. Meanwhile the research department works on future
developments for this industry, which is vigorous and adventurous after
some 100 years of expansion and change.