The Longtown munitions depot, which has been threatened with closure for years, has been saved today. We have preserved two hundred jobs in an area where there is not enough good employment. It is very good news. But this story didn’t begin in 2005 when the first announcement of closure was made.

In 1914 the area between Annan and Longtown was farmland – productive, impressive soil supporting more than a dozen farms. Then, in 1915, the Imperial War Office arrived and enclosed a patch of ground almost twelve miles long. The original farmers may have been descendants of border-reiving Maxwells and Johnsons; perhaps they had even been around since before the reiving times. In any case, their story ended in 1915. The War Office moved them out. They took their furniture and their memories elsewhere.

The War Office shipped the builders across the sea from Ireland. No-one knew quite what they were building. But locals were impressed by their drinking. The builders, it is said, would collect their silvers on a Friday to bribe the train driver to race to Carlisle where, in the pubs, hundreds of glasses of whisky were already laid out on the bar. As the drinking got out of hand, the government nationalised every drinking house within the region, limiting their opening hours, controlling their prices. Which is why, until 1973, our pubs around Carlisle were managed by the government.

The War Office began to turn this collection of small farmsteads into part of a vast industrial system that stretched to Africa and Asia. It was as though the Roman Army had returned to the Solway frontier, complete with auxiliaries drawn from all over the Empire. A manager was plucked from his civilian work in South Africa; another was posted in from British India. Then, thirty thousand women – many from the most remote Highland valleys – were imported for the site. At Eastriggs, a new Imperial garden town was created with model churches for different denominations to accommodate them (the streets are still called ‘Dominion Row’ and the ‘Rand’) – all this in about eighteen months.

The workers stirred great vats, squeezed, rolled, cut, packed and moved – and turned yellow from the fumes. Their packages were moved by train and then shipped to Normandy, where they were fired, night and day, at the German trenches. By 1918 they were producing 800 tons of cordite a week – more than every other British factory combined. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed by the cordite. It was a secret installation, and was placed here because this was one of the most remote, and sparsely populated, parts of Britain, protected by the Lake District Hills from bombers.

After the war the government no longer needed the munitions factories. They laid off tens of thousands, and tried to generate industry in the 1920s by selling the custom-made factories and housing. There was interest from an entrepreneur who thought growing sugar beet might work but it failed on this wet, northern, mediocre soil. No-one bought the housing. So the government dismantled the facility. Like the Romans before them, they divided it into regular strips, and settled demobilised soldiers on the land.

Then the Second World War came, and the army returned, making the depots part of a military infrastructure which sprawled across the North from the army training area at Otterburn to the airfields at Carlisle and Silloth. When my father first saw Longtown as a Black Watch soldier in 1943, five thousand infantry were camped along the South road, sleeping in tents or under trucks. After the war, Iraqi pilots came to train near Walton. The Blue Streak missile site was developed beyond Brampton. The 14 MU site became the Kingmoor industrial park. Eastriggs, contaminated by specialist ammunition, was abandoned, and left empty, protected by guards.

In the end, there was just Longtown. The last few hundred acres out of the twelve mile site, the last few hundred workers out of 30,000. Six years ago, ‘Project Hadrian’ announced that 130 million pounds was needed to upgrade the site, and that it, therefore, needed to be closed. So much civil service time had been invested in strategic plans, and redundancy schemes, that it seemed almost inconceivable that it could be saved.

But they underestimated men like Neil Scott. Neil is the Trade Unions representative at Longtown. Every time the MoD produced another strategic plan, he went through every single document, questioning every figure. He pointed out that they had underestimated the transport costs and risks of moving munitions to Warwickshire. He emphasised the challenges that would follow if Scotland went independent. He chased me, almost weekly, for updates, to see what arguments I was putting to Ministers. He drove down from Longtown to my surgeries in different towns across Cumbria, he came to Parliament. He showed me twice in detail around every ammunition shed. He persuaded me to invite the Defence Minister to visit the site last year. He encouraged us – myself, John Stevenson, and David Mundell – until we took the argument all the way to Number 10.

It was a tough fight – the army is shrinking, overseas operations are reducing, and the whole drive was to fall back on Warwickshire. But we have managed to keep the site open, save two hundred jobs, and get another million pounds of investment out of the MoD.  It is unfair to pick out a name but I feel we owe a real debt of gratitude to the workers at Longtown, and to Neil.

Print Friendly and PDF