A Miracle Town

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

A Miracle Town is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Times and various newspapers on 28 november 1916.


A Miracle Town (The Times)

The Times (28 november 1916)



(By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.)

One of the miracles of present day Britain is a place which we will call Moorside. Perhaps it is the most remarkable place in the world.

Only a little more than a year ago, say, September, 1915, it was a lonely peat bog fringing the sea, with a hinterland of desolate plain, over which the gulls swooped and screamed. Then the great hand of the Minister of Munitions was stretched out to this inhospitable waste, for it chanced to lie with good rail and water connexions and not too remote from centres of coal and of iron. No money and no energy was spared, and half-a-dozen master-hustlers took charge of the whole great scheme. It is a story which is more characteristic of Western America than of our sober British methods.

The work went forward by day and by night. The piece grew and grew, and still is growing. Already it measures nine good miles one way, with an average of one-and-a-half the other. In the daytime there are at least 25,000 busy inhabitants. The greater part are the builders, who still extend the township. The smaller are the munition workers, who will occupy it all when it is finished. But even now in its partially finished state its products are essential to the war, and its output has entirely changed all the supply of the present and the expectations of the future. It is not yet fully manned (or should I say girled?), but when it is, not less than 12,000 munition workers will be running the miles of factories which overlie the peat bog of last summer.

And it is not jerry built - that is the wonder of it. In the centre of the colony is a considerable nucleus of solid brick houses which should be good for a century or more. Here are the main offices, the telephone stations, the club for the staff, the hospital, the cinema theatre, a row of shops, and a cluster of residential houses. Radisting out from this centre are long lines of wooden erections to hold the workers, cottages for married couples, bungalows for groups of girls, and hostels which hold as many as 70 in each. This central settlement is where the people live - north and south of it where they work.


The one end may be called the raw-material end, for all raw material needed is manufactured on the spot. Here is a huge nitric acid plant. There, further to the right, is an even larger sulphuric acid installation. Some one - has said that the civilization of a nation can be measured by the amount of sulphuric acid which they use. Greece or Rome would come badly out of such a test, and I fear that for civilization, prosperity, which may be its exact opposite, is to be read. But this place, the town on the peat bog, has as a fact about doubled the British output of this basic substance. Hard by are the wide buildings where the raw cotton is stored, where the crude glycerine is refined, where the ether and alcohol are distilled, and where, finally, the perfect guncotton is completed. Thence by little trams it is conveyed over yonder to that rising ground, which is called Nitro-Glycerine Hill.

You probably don't know it — certainly I did not — but glycerine cannot be pumped, and so to move it along the good old primitive force of gravity is summoned. Hence the hill. There the nitro-glycerine on the one side and the guncotton on the other are kneaded together into a sort of devil's porridge, which is the next stage of manufacture. This, by the way, is where the danger comes in. The least generation of heat may cause an explosion. Those smiling khaki-clad girls who are swirling the stuff round in their hands would be blown to atoms in an instant if certain very small changes occurred. The changes will not occur, and the girls will still smile and stir their devil's porridge ; but it is a narrow margin here between life and death. It is only constant order and care which keep the frontier intact.

Look at these great leaden basins and pipes in which the stuff is handled. How is the leaden basin joined to the leaden pipe ? Here is one of those queer little romances with which the history of industry abounds. Solder is impossible. The acids would dissolve it. Lead must be welded to lead. It is a rare and difficult trade, one that is handed down from father to son. A lead-burner is a man of power, to be approached with offerings and prayers when a job is to be done. His rarity and his exclusiveness were one of the difficulties which had to be met. He had to be induced to part with his mystery and teach it to others. But he proved to be a patriot, like his fellows. Anyhow the thing was done, as these great leaden tanks with their welded pipes will show. The load must be as smooth as silk, too, upon the inner side. You are dealing with touchy, ill-tempered stuff. The least friction and you will know it - you or your executors.

When I saw these enormous works and the evidences of lavish expenditure, I ventured to ask those in authority how the State was to get its money back when, in the dim and distant future, the new world would become ruined and disorganised by the war coming to an end. The reply was reassuring. All that I had seen up to that point was a good asset and of permanent value. It was all concerned with stuff which the arts of peace could readily absorb.

But now we went to the further end, where this devil's porridge is finally seasoned into the fit food for our hungry guns. How hungry those guns are our minds can hardly conceive. We can never beat Hindenburg until we have beaten Krupp, and that is what those laughing khaki girls of Moorside and elsewhere are going to do. Hats off to the women of Britain ! Even all the exertions of the militants shall not in future prevent me from being an advocate for their vote, for those who have helped to save the State should be allowed to help to guide it.

To the further end did we go, then, passing great power-houses and central controls upon the way, and there we saw pressing and kneading, and stuff like brown sugar being squeezed into brown macaroni and finally dried into black liquorice sticks, which are cut up and blended so as to get a standard strength. Here supervision is needed for a quaint cause. Girls have been known, out of love for Toomy, to put an extra pinch in the brew, with the result, of course, of entirely upsetting its ballistic qualities. We take it for granted that a gunner shooting at three miles can speedily range on a mere slit in the ground. I saw with my own eyes a house at 6,000 yards lifted off the face of the earth at the fourth round. When you see the girls blending the stuff with the finest care to get the absolute standard you begin to understand what lies behind it.


So much for the actual manufacture, I have said nothing of a military guard of over 1,000 men, factory police, workmanlike women police, central bakeries with 400 dozen loaves at a baking, central laundries, central kitchens with 8,000 rations going out at every meal, cashiers who pay away £800 an hour in wages. And all this with the primeval ooze lying in stagnant pools around, the remains of the wilderness of September twelvemonths. Have I made out a case for any assertion that Moorside is one of the wonder spots of earth, as showing what man's brain and man's energy can effect ? It is but one out of nearly 40 which are largest, and the most remarkable.

And who did all this ? Those in authority we know, to them be all credit. But what about the men on the spot, the men who dug into the peat-bog, who sank the foundations, who raised the town, who ran the works, who organized the plant which in one item alone, that of ether, produces more in a month than all pre-war Britain in a year ? Alas ! that their names may not be mentioned. They come from all parts of the British Empire, but especially from oversea. The magic builder who guides the army of 15,000 workers is Mr. P-, and Englishman. Beside him are a little band of enthusiasts on explosives, drawn from all ends of the Empire. At one meeting at Nitro-Glycerine Hill it chanced that every man present was a South African. There is "Q.," an American by nationality, a South African in experience, a man with a drive like a steam piston ; there is "G.," also of South Africa ; there is "B.," of India ; there is "L.," of Australia, and there is Major C. on the military and Mr. H. on the financial side. These are some of the miracle-workers of Moorside.

There are two hampering difficulties, which will no doubt be overcome like all else, but which have held matters back. They are drink and labour. As to the latter, the labour unions have acted in a way which calls for the acknowledgment and gratitude of the nation. What they had won during a long and weary fight they renounced for the sake of their country. It is among the great sacrifices of the war and full faith should be kept with them afterwards. But the faulty national teaching of all these years cannot be eradicated in individuals. "There are splendid fellows among them, but on the whole the girls are more patriotic than the men." That was the conclusion of one who knew.

And, lastly, there is the perennial question of the drink. There is not much drinking among the munition workers here. Their conditions are regular and comfortable. The drinking is rather among the great mass of outside workers, who are less under discipline and who live under less comfortable conditions. It is true that the Board of Control stops the sale in the immediate district, but there are considerable towns a few miles away. I have always thought that if light wines and beers were permitted as a safety-valve the sale and even the manufacture of spirits could and should be forbidden.

But there is no need to end this description on a critical note. One comes away from Moorside marvelling at the adaptability of the nation, at its power of improvization, at its reserve of brain and energy, and at the promise which all these qualities give for our future place among mankind.

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