The Factory Near Stevenston

By James Clements - Burgh Offices Stevenston 1974

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 suspicions.

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 British industry.

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 Highway'.

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 there.'

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 1896.

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, industrial nitro-cellulose.

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.