Royal Ordnance Factory Bishopton

The Royal Ordnance Factories were built during the rearmament phase of the 1930’s, just in time for WWII – Bishopton was by far the largest, employing over 20,000 workers at it’s peak in three almost-self-contained factories within one perimeter fence. Factory III closed down almost immediately after the war, but factories I and II continued production of cordite, picrite (an anti-flashing and stabilising agent), RDX, white phosphorus, ball powder (gunpowder) and various other explosives and propellants up until the year 2000.

I spent three days exploring ROF Bishopton, taking hundreds of pictures – even the edited highlights run to 270 pictures, so this is just a brief summary of this absolutely massive (2.5 x 1.5 miles) site. I’ll do it in order of my explorations.

Bishopton had over 20 miles of standard-gauge rail lines – these were used with the ROF’s own fleet of diesel locos to move raw materials and finished propellant. This is one engine shed for the diesel engines:

Next onto the pulping and blending house – cordite is a mix of nitroglycerin and nitrocellulose:

Nitrocellulose pulping is very similar to paper pulping, so paper machinery was used – rows and rows of beaters made by Bertrams of Edinburgh:

In the same building, giant tanks store finished nitrocellulose:

And older troughs remain from the direct dipping process:

I visited four separate pulping and blending houses in all three factories – all similar in design and layout, but different in size:

Next, onto a vat house – again, these were duplicated:

Through a connecting passageway, with a stern warning about unboiled guncotton (nitrocellulose):

Then the mixing house, where nitroglycerin was introduced to the guncotton – the shelter, I think, refers to an air-raid shelter:

In the acids section, a three-storey glass retort:

In a nitration building, more giant tanks:

Cordite is made and extruded while damp, to stop it burning – then it needs to be dried. ROF Bishopton had over 80 miles of narrow-gauge rail lines used to move materials around the site, so the damp cordite was loaded onto wagons and moved into one of dozens of drying bays, were hot air was blown through the wagons:

Cordite is processed in various ways – this is a rolling mill:

Note the giant roof vents – each of these is over one rolling machine:

Then onto the laundry – like all explosives factories, ROF Bishopton had a worker’s uniform – outdoor clothes were strictly banned because they could contain metal or other materials that could cause an explosion.

Earlier, I said there were three factories, but there was also BWD, the Bishopton Works Department – this was the admin and support buildings, including workshops:

For my second visit, I was more prepared, with a list of places that looked interesting on Google Earth. First up was one of two drum blenders, where highly explosive materials were mixed in a building inside a giant blast wall – it’s interesting to compare these to an almost identical building at ICI Ardeer:

Inside, the blending drum itself:

A panorama of the second larger drum blender shows the inner three-storey building inside the blast wall – the gantry is an emergency exit so workers on the upper level could get out quickly:

The drum bender is controlled from a shed outside the blast wall, to cut down on the number of workers at risk:

A wee diversion – ROF Bishopton was made up of the compulsory purchase of seven farms and one country mansion – the farm buildings were either demolished or converted to other uses, but Dargavel House was almost untouched:

On to the CCC (Combustible Charge Container) felting, pressing, lacquering and finishing building – this is similar to the guncotton works, but also has a series of presses in blast-proof bays:

More long connecting corridors, with a strict warning sign:

Then onto the white phosphorus section – the blue building in the background is the Factory II boiler house. Each factory had it’s work independent power supply from a boiler house and separate power station – the steam also heated all the 2000+ buildings on site:

Inside the white phosphorus section:

On to a giant acid settling tank – to give you an idea of scale, the white walls are about 10 feet high:

Next onto another part of the acids recovery section of Factory I, recently used as a murder scene in Taggart:

Some of the acid recovery plant is pretty modern:

Next, onto one of the most distinctive buildings in Bishopton – the Picrite “cathedral”. Here’s what it looked like in 1958:

And here’s what it looks like now:

Next, the Factory I power plant:

Next, on to a gun propellant research building, with a modern (or, at least, well-maintained) cordite extrusion press:

A similar buidling next door (the Tangye press house) shows the rows of individual press bays:

Next, a giant bulding in Factory III – I’m not sure what this was, as all equipment has been stripped:

And a wide-angle view of the Factory II nitrocellulose section:

For my third visit, another list of places to see – and some snow to make things photogenic First a shear mill building:

I’m sure there’s a gruesome story behind this:

A vertical mixer:

Most of Factory III is gone, but these lovely drying bays remain:

Next onto the “Little Steamie” – old propellant was steamed out of shells and rockets for recycling:

Nearby, in a WWII-era ammo store, a stack of WWII ammo boxes:

Next, onto a propellant cutting building – the cutting was done by remote control from the other side of a blast wall:

Then onto an X-ray building – propellant was X-rayed to make sure it had no air inclusions:

In another very heavily-armoured bunker, a 10″ horizontal press extruded cordite for rockets:

NItroglycerin is made on a “hill” – pumping a very sensitive explosive is a very bad idea, so everything is gravity-fed. ROF Bishopton has two hills per factory – that’s six nitroglycerin hills in total.

BAE Systems and Redrow Homes now have a plan – they want to clean up this entire massive site, and build a housing estate. This is receiving a lot of local opposition, not least because the preferred method of cleaning up 2000+ buildings full of explosve residue is by burning them. They have test-burned a couple of buildings:

Be warned: this site is covered by the Manufacture and Storage of Explosives Regulations 2005, and it is an offence to enter. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

These pictures, and hundreds more, make up the ROF Bishopton chapter of my book – Explosive Scotland – An exploration of Scottish explosives manufacturing.

Oh, and one big advantage of the housing estate plan is that the public planning permissions have loads and loads of info, which I’ve mapped in Google Earth – I’ll put the data on my website once I’ve tidied it up, but here’s some screenshots. First, the standard-gauge (orange) and narrow-gauge (yellow) railways and waterways (blue):

Next, mapped dozens of buildings:

And a map of the factories – the buildings were not numbered in any logical order to make it harder for spies, but if you know the code you can work out which building is in which factory. Green is Factory I, Red is Factory II, Blue is Factory III:

Go to the next installment…

Bishopton map

All images:

41 Responses

  1. Absolutely fascinating. What a great project mate!
    I found this site from your link on El Reg comments and I’m intrigued to know in what way BAE thought you were in Breach of the Peace as I assume you had all the necessary permissions to enter the site…
    Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks 😉

      Therein lies the rub – as with almost all the places I’ve photographed, I had no permission whatsoever to be there…

      1. I had no permission to be there, when I led a raid into the factory, around 1944.
        Aged 5, several friends and I entered the site at a gate which had a large gap underneath. It was a lovely summer’s day. We rolled under the gate and went onto some grass to pick daisies to make daisy chains. The short entry road ended in a ‘T’ junction and before long a jeep drove past – and reversed back rather quickly – by which time we were all outside the gate and running for home. By the following day, the gates had pieces welded on to reach a couple of inches from the ground. This was at a gate close to the Kirk and the Manse. We didn’t try to get in again. Some of the bigger children used to climb the fence near Rossland Crescent and slide down the huge piles of coal stored there, but that involved getting so dirty that they must have been ‘found out’.

  2. What a great post! I cant get over the sheer size of the site. Some of your pictures are quite spooky; one can imagine the men and women working away.

  3. Dear Ben Cooper.
    Many thanks indeed for your great images.I have just started to study the impact of munitions in the UK and am attempting to track down all the ROF factories for the second war and allot the correct numbers as appears on the brass lapel badges hard work but so very interesting and your great images have brought to light the descriptions I have been reading a great help.I am also trying to obtain one artefact for each as well just to put bones on any display I might do for the societies I belong to.Thank you with kind regards Tony Poucher

  4. I had mixed emotions reading this post. In September 1963 I signed my articles at the ROF as a student apprentice and spent the next five years working there, apart from term time studying at the Manchester College of Science and Technology for a degree in Chemical Engineering.

    I have happy memories of my time there, the people I knew and the events, many funny, some hair-raising. Much of what I learnt is still with me.

    It was fascinating to see the remains of some of the projects I was peripherally involved in (picrite, CCC, commissioning of the glass distillation column) whilst at the ROF.

    I have often wondered where those articles I signed 47 years ago got to. I see now that they probably formed part of a big bonfire!

  5. Love your site, i pass the bomb factiry every day going to work in inchinnan from port glasgow and have always been interested whats inside…..

    had a long look at the rof 1 page, top class

    bookmarked your page as there are loads of superb info and images…

    keep up good work

    john

  6. Fascinating place and amazing pictures. I really want to use this as a location for a low budget film.

    Does anyone have any idea who, or what company I would contact in order to get official access for a few days? You mentioned Taggart above so I’m assuming it is possible.

    Any advice would be great.

    Thanks,

    Thomas McCue

    1. Thanks for the info – I didn’t know NG could be transported that way, that clears some things up 😉

      Thomas, it’s BAE Systems you should talk to, but from what I hear it’s not cheap…

  7. Minor correction to one of your statements above. There were three “NG hills” in each of the three factories, labelled A, B and C. NG could actually be transferred uphill by using a water injector system which allowed it to be transported along a pipe as an emulsion.

  8. Excellent site..

    I visited the ROF an several occaions in the early 80s and remeber the nitrating rooms, pulping and CCC production plants well..

    A great pity to see the facility in such a state..

  9. Great photos, I wonder what happened to the old archives? I saw heaps of old files stored away in the morgue in the mid 1990s.

  10. I think RCAHMS may have got the photographs – they seem to have quite a bit. Other old records, who knows – I’ve got some records from the startup of the Picrite Cathedral, which I found on Abebooks of all places.

    Sadly the site is now mostly cleared for housing…

  11. Hi Ben

    I’m trying to get information on this site as my mum’s father died in an explosion there. No joy from official gov people. Would be interested to see what is the best way to get more info. One mention of explosion in 1956, I think it was before this.

    Look foward to hearing from … great work so far in your site

    1. Hello, information is very hard to come by – the only people who might have records are BAE Systems, but I don’t know if they’d release them. The site was exempt from usual health and safety regulation, so accidents often went unrecorded I think.

  12. Hi there, I actually live in the new Wimpey housing just on the doorstep of the old factory and it’s a shame to have seen such an historic site demolished for housing! All I see from my windows is a wasteland of dirt. Great snaps though, a window through time!

  13. Hi Ben,my father worked there all his life and I never knew what he did,he never spoke about it.Your photographs are an amazing step back in time,and made me think about my father working there,he was also a casualty of the explosion in 1956 and spent many months in hospital I remember my mother saying his friend died in the blast,When he recovered he was promised a a job for life.Thanks to you’re photographs you have given me an insight into what kind of life that was for him something none of our family never knew,and for me those pictures make a connection from watching him make up his sandwich and disappearing out the house to catch the Bishopton bus,from Gourock,now I can visualise through you’re photography what he worked at many thanks John Mc Veigh

    1. Thank you, this is one big reason I explore places! It seemed to be common at Bishopton that most workers only knew their own small area and didn’t discuss the job much with other workers or their families.

    1. Hi Ben ,
      A really intersting piece of research. I ma currently looking into the history and workings of ROF Daneshill near Torworth \ Ranskill in North Notts. Do you have any useful links that could help with layout plans and Ariel maps?
      The site was decommissioned in the 1980’s so nothing left to see now. There are currently plans to carry out test boreholes on the site and local concerns are being raised with ref to NG Nitration and ground source contamination. Did you come across any data regarding the likely condition of the land after a ROF site?

      Nay info greatly received.

      MCR

  14. Hi there I am interested in this site to salvage the fixtures any ideas on how to get permission from the owner

  15. I am writing an assignment for a family history course on munitions workers at Bishopton, as my mother worked there during WW2. I wonder if it would be possible to use one or two of your amazing photographs? I would, of course, include an acknowledgement.
    Many thanks

  16. Hi there,
    Interesting photographs, only just found this site. Re the comments from John McVeigh my dad was the employee who was killed in early
    February 1956 when I was 5 years old.
    I was given to understand that the explosion was due to a faulty valve, which caused an overflow of nitro glycerine although trying to get any further information is proving impossible.

  17. Very interesting to see these pics and I recognise some of them. I worked there from January 1976 until March 1982. I started in what is nowadays called ‘personnel’ and moved onto the Finance Accounts where I was responsible for all the stock accounts. There were no PCs or any other form of computer which would be recognised today, although we had some use of the mainframe at ROF Chorley, and the programmers used COBOL. Everything was done by manual processes in reality.
    I still dine out on the story that I was once tasked by the Factory Accountant to cost the coal stocks used to steam the factory and which we had lost track of. The labs told me the weight of coal per cubic foot, which was quite complicated because it varied depending on how long the various layers of coal had been stocked and how much rain it had absorbed etc. So I had a different answer at different heights of the coal bings. Then the many different bings were raked to an even shape. The drawing office surveyed these and calculated the cubic volume. When I multiplied this all out with my finance figures I was quite short of the stock balance shown in the finance accounts which had been carried forward for many years. Eventually someone realised that over many decades the coal mounds had sunk into the soft clay ground with their own weight and the bings actually started ten feet below the surface we were measuring from! Once I allowed for that, we got fairly near to an expected answer. Some of that coal at the bottom of the heaps had probably been procured during the first world war. An interesting place to start my career and I still think about it and the interesting people I met.

  18. Brilliant photos – brings the past to life … my grandmother and her sister in law both worked there during WW1 and I have the photos of them in uniform. My gran told the stories of not being allowed to wear anything metal i.e. buttons etc incase of sparks … she also told how their skins turned yellow from the chemicals but she said it was for the ‘war effort’ and each bomb would bring my grandad back home …

  19. What a fantastic peice of work, some amazing photos and more so some great stories along with a few sad ones, very interesting, not a reader myself but would not mind getting this book and reading it, I am a landscape gardener and have been carrying out a lot of the landscaping works in and around the site, the story above re the coal could explain some of the issues with the ground. It is unbelievable and I still say to this day there is no way on this earth that the place has been decontaminated. Where can I get the book? Thanks David

  20. I worked there from 1978-1981 as a shy student engineer who could not understand the mix of dialects spoken there. However, I soon lost my nickname of ‘Pardon?’ Sad to see the old buildings in such disrepair – especially the ones I worked on.

    1. Re accents:
      Some of the foremen were from Waltham Abbey. Most of the workers were from Glasgow. My father was a shift chemist from Tyneside.
      There were times when he would give the foremen instructions and then had to stand by to repeat/translate them so the men could understand. Sounds like a farce, but making NG was hardly the place to risk mistakes.

  21. I served an electrical apprenticeship there between 1958 and 1964. In my last year I worked on the first automated NG plant in Factory 2 designed by a Swiss engineer called Mario Biazzi (I think). It utilised elementary logic circuits consisting of 48 relays as well as closed circuit tv monitors. Oddly enough, although much safer the process workers didn’t like it since it cut the overtime! Great place and time to be an apprentice as it was at the beginning of industrial electronics. Happy memories of some fantastic characters

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