Flora’s Story [Flora Barr McClelland Richmond, nee Corbett – 1897-1967]

The Terror of the Night

This is my story of an event that happened to me during World War 1. I was 16 years old at the time and lived with my mother in a small town in Scotland [Saltcoats]. Being the eldest of 6 children – 4 brothers one sister – I decided to try and get into one of the munition factories. So I got Mother’s consent to go and try find a job in one of the biggest and to this day well known explosive factories in the world, namely Imperial Chemical Industries. But in my time was known only as Nobel’s Explosive Company.[1] I had an aunt and uncle who lived about half an hour walk from Nobel’s [in Stevenston] so I decided I would go and live with her so I said cheerio to Mother and took the train for where my aunt lived telling my mother I would be back home if I was not successful in getting into the factory. I knew Mother depended on my wage so was very anxious to get started where I could make a bit extra money. Well Aunt was very glad to see me and made me very welcome as she knew I would be a big help to her as she had a lot of little children whose ages ranged from an infant in arms to the eldest girl who was 12 years old. I was 4 years her senior[2].

And now comes the event which is so indelibly printed on my mind to this day I can recall every detail of it. I made application to get into the factory as they said help was not needed just then but they would keep me in mind, I had very little hope of getting in myself as I had met one of the girls who lived beside my Aunt just coming from the Office. She was looking very dejected so I asked her the reason and was very much surprised when she said I have just been turned down on account of heart trouble and being a big healthy-looking girl, I said to her well, I can forget about getting in there as I am only 4 feet 9 inches and weigh only 94 pounds. I have no chance you see we had to have a medical exam.  So, I came in and told my aunt I had been turned down and not because of a medical as I did not get as far. I also told her about the other girl and said I would just have to return home and try and find some other work. But my aunt pleaded with me to stay one more week longer as she was going to miss me so much but I said I am sorry but I will have to return home so she said wait until Friday and I will go to the station and buy your rail ticket home.

This conversation took place on the Monday of July 11, 1915[3] and during that week I tried to find other work as I liked being with Aunt and we were near the beach the town being a holiday resort [Stevenston]. However, by Friday I was unsuccessful so got ready to return home and now comes the most terrifying night of my life. I went to the station with my aunt and we had about half an hour to wait for our train [to Saltcoats] and Aunt kept pleading with me to wait for a few more days and me telling her I was sorry I could not as my mother would be needing me and then such is fate 5 minutes before the train was due, I changed my mind and said I will stay. Aunt had my ticket so I said get the money back. Had I known what was to happen that night of July 15th, 1915 [1914?] I would have went home gladly but I returned to my aunt’s and when we got home the children were in bed and asleep so Aunt and I sat down for a little chat. The night was warm and I thought so very still out not a soul was about and as the time was around 10 PM most folk were in bed. I don’t know what was the matter but I did not want to get ready for bed so I said to my aunt I would like a cup of tea please and she said so would I but would you mind running out to the little store for some biscuits it’s open late as they cater for the soldiers who guard the factory. So off I went and the time was around 11 PM. When I came back with the biscuits my aunt had the tea ready so we started to head for bed as soon as we finished.

But there was to be no bed for us that night for just as we had undressed and was about to go into bed there was the most terrific explosion which rocked my aunt’s house and sent her to the door to see what had happened. She came in screaming get the children up and dressed for there is more to come. By this time, I had run to look out myself and all I saw was the whole sky lit up so I said to Aunt pray, for it is the end of the world and you never saw such a sight, all the people had come out of their homes and were running in panic just anywhere. Some were just fainting on the street. I was busy trying to get the children dressed but it was hopeless as they were screaming for Mum who had completely disappeared with the baby. As for myself I was sort of dazed for a few minutes but I picked up my clothes and, in my night-dress, I went to look for Aunt and believe me I was not the only one who was undressed as a lot of folks had just got out of bed and fled.

I found myself alone and very frightened. I went from house to house but they were all empty, everyone seemed to have vanished. I at last came to the house at the end of the road and what I saw there was terrible. Women were fainting and screaming all over the place so I enquired if my aunt naming her and the men who were there shouted is Mrs X there [Mrs. Benson] and the answer was no so they said go over to the Beach [Stevenston Beach] on the sand, there are lots of people there, perhaps she is among them. By this time, it was over 2 hours since the first explosion and they had been going on at intervals of 15 to 20 minutes, first the terrific light at the sky then the big blast. Well, I found Aunt on the beach surrounded by most of the townspeople and most of them screaming and crying out for their sons or fathers who were at work in the factory that night for believe me we were on that beach until 6 AM when some of the guards came and told us we could all return home as they thought it was all over and what a sight met our eyes. The house was still intact but broken windows everywhere. They had to board up shop windows for fear of looting. However, I said to my aunt we are all unhurt and I am so tired but poor soul she was still panicky -- you get to bed and have a couple of hours sleep and I will wake you up for breakfast. The children can go too. I did not need to get undressed as I had not had a chance to dress. On the beach we were given blankets to put around us by some of the men who were trying to calm the hysterical women on the beach. But our ordeal was not over for the guards from the factory were knocking on all the doors telling folks to get away as far from the factory as possible as they were expecting a really big blast at 11 o’clock. This was 8:30 so you can imagine how much sleep I got – 1 ½ hours. Well Aunt got into a panic again and said oh please help me to get the children dressed and something to eat, we have until 11 to get out. In the meantime, I had a look out to see if anyone was leaving and crowds were. Well between helping to get something cooked and getting the children dressed I was so busy I did not notice time was running out on us so I said that we will have to hurry as it's nearly 10 o’clock. But Aunt said we have an hour yet. However, I thought I would have another look out to see what was doing and I had just got outside on the doorstep when I felt the whole ground vibrate under me and then the awful blast, then all was confusion. I felt myself all over to see if I was all in one piece then I fled back into the house to find my aunt and the baby had vanished and the rest of the children screaming their heads off so shoeless and only half clothed I took them all and made for the station and believe me there was a train taking folks away who had been on holiday and so I with the children got in too without tickets. I figured my aunt would pay for them. It did not dawn on me at the time that she did not know where we were and so I returned home to meet my mother [in Saltcoats] and a host of other people who had come to the station bringing news of what was happening in that seaside resort. I was questioned by the [posties?] and rail men myself, and when I told them we had spent all Friday night on the beach and of all the people fleeing in the night they were amazed and all the news I could give them was that the explosions were caused by the TNT travelling along a pipe and that no one could get near to cut it so I and they wondered if the big one was the last. It was timed for 11 but went off at 10, and now comes the rest of my story.

My mother was very distressed as I could not give her any news about my aunt so after we got the children looked after by neighbours Mother and I went back to look for Aunt. We had to wait for a train so it was about 3 o’clock when we finally reached our destination and found that there had been no more explosions after the big one but the people were very apprehensive and not sure whether everything was over for good or only a lull. We arrived at Aunt’s house only to find no one had seen her since 10 o’clock then we did find a lady who told us where to find her. She was being cared for at the doctor’s as she was very hysterical and saying her niece and her children had been blown into the sea and most people believed it as we had just disappeared out of the town. However, she calmed down when she saw me and Mother and I told her how I had bundled the children and myself into the train. She poor soul had gone to the beach with the baby thinking I would follow with the rest.

And now to end my story I started work in that factory 2 months later and met the man who was to become my husband[4] one year later and who was in the factory that night working through all the explosions. We have been happily married for 46 years[5] and I will tell you what happened after 10 o’clock that Saturday morning. The officials called for a volunteer to cut the pipeline and one man did so. Fortunately, he was not killed, but was injured, and on recovery was given a lifetime job. Also, before the 10 o’clock blast the local paper came out with screaming headlines about the terror in the night and people fleeing for safety to the beach. It was very quickly suppressed and what had got into the shops was confiscated as it should never have been printed there being a war on. No one heard the correct version of how it all started but some of the Company officials said later they thought a German Zeppelin had dropped a bomb but I never found out for sure[6].

P.S. this story is all true and can be verified by the company.


Ed. note.
My name is Reg Webber, of Niagara on the Lake, Canada, grandson of Mary Donnelly whose family also comes from Stevenston (16 Arthur St.), and whose siblings also worked in the Ardeer factory at the time of Flora’s story. John Arthur Donnelly, my great grandfather, worked there after his return from the war. Most of the Donnellys immigrated to Toronto and the USA in the 1920s. Flora Richmond (nee Corbett) immigrated to Canada with her husband in the 1930s. Her grandson, Jim Hourston, married my sister, quite by chance, the couple knowing almost nothing of their common roots.  After I retired, I took up genealogy seriously and when my nephew, Thomas Hourston, asked me to do some work on his family, I recently found Flora’s story in a box of papers and discovered that Stevenston -- and Nobel Explosives -- was our common link to the past.

 Flora writes well but, like Molly Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses, avoids most punctuation. I’ve added a few periods, commas, and paragraph breaks, just to help the story read easier. Also, I've added a few points of clarification in square brackets. I think Flora may have been wary of being sued if she named names. Otherwise, the transcription is verbatim.

Except for the date of the explosion, Flora’s memory is pretty accurate. As a genealogist I have learned that Scottish women of Flora’s generation have a tendency to subtract a year or two from their age. Otherwise, I think the story is true in every detail. But it raises more questions than it answers. What really caused the explosions? How many casualties were there? Why is the event not recorded anywhere? What compensation was given to the casualties that probably died in the factory, or to the damage done to the homes and businesses of the townspeople?

Today Alfred Nobel is known to us as the Swedish philanthropist who invented dynamite and whose legacy funds the annual Nobel prizes. But he was a 19th century industrialist who made millions manufacturing explosives in factories that were extremely dangerous places to work. The story of the “night of terror” seems to have been completely obliterated from all newspapers and all histories. Flora’s explanation for the cover-up was the official line of the time, i.e. national security, “there being a war on.” It’s interesting that she says the brave volunteer who risked his life and was injured cutting the nitroglycerin line was rewarded with a job for life after he recovered. Wow.

The Zeppelin story sounds like company bullshit. There are official reports to the UK Secretary of State about lethal explosions at Nobel Industries in 1895, 1897, 1901, 1902, 1903, and 1907, long before the war. There are newspaper accounts of additional explosions in 1884, 1901, 1913, 1914 and 1937 in the Ardossan & Saltcoats Herald. These can be found on the website threetowners.com. The accidents presumably continued until the place finally closed. It’s a shame Nobel didn’t leave any money to clean up the mess his companies left behind after they were abandoned.


[1] The same Nobel whose fortune now funds the famous annual awards. Nobel Industries was founded in 1870.  southeast of Stevenston, now part of the town. In 1926 Nobel Industries merged with three other companies to form Imperial Chemical Industries. At its peak the “factory” as the locals called it employed 13000 people. In 2002 the Stevenston division was sold to Inabata, a Japanese firm manufacturing electronics, chemicals etc. The munition factories in Ardeer are now abandoned, and a blight on the landscape.

[2] Flora’s aunt was her mother’s sister, Marion Benson, nee McLellan, 1878-1929. The oldest girl who was 12 at the time was Flora Barr Benson, born July 11, 1901.

[3] Actually, if Flora was still 16, the date was Monday July 13, 1914. Flora was born July 18, 1897 so she was actually 16 (almost 17) at the time of the explosion. If the year was 1915, then Flora was 17 (almost 18). There is an account of a deadly explosion in February 1914, but Flora seems quite clear that her night of terror happened in July. 

[4] William Richmond, 1895-c. 1985. Flora & William Richmond migrated to Canada in 1930 with most of their kids. They died in Mississauga, Ontario.

[5] Flora & William were married 29 Sep 1916 in Kilwinning, just outside Stevenston. Flora’s story was written in 1962 in Mississauga.

[6] An obvious corporate cover-up to escape financial liability. The Germans used Zeppelins to drop bombs on southeast coast of England mostly (London especially) but they were extremely inaccurate. There is a record of a bomb being dropped on Edinburgh in 1916 but that seems to be the only bomb ever dropped on Scotland in WW1.