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Ellen Ainslie - A Berwick Munitions Worker

At the top of the first panel of the Tweedmouth War memorial is inscribed the name of Ellen Ainslie and the word “Munitions”.

It is unusual to find a woman’s name on a memorial to the dead of the First World War and this prompted a piece of detective work involving Berwick Record Office and an appeal through social media for information about her.

Ellen was born c. 1893 in Paxton, Berwickshire.  Her parents are listed as James Ainslie and Christina, nee Wood.

The 1911 census shows her living in 6 Parliament Close, Tweedmouth with her father, James, Water Bailiff for the Tweed Commissioners and a number of her siblings.   Ellen was listed as aged 18 and working as a domestic servant. Her mother was dead by this period.

In 1914 she married David Mackie, a regular soldier in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.  The wedding took place at Headly, near Bordon in Hampshire where his battalion was training. This notice appeared in The Berwick Advertiser on 13th November: “At the Church of England, Headly, on the 1st November, David Mackie, Sergeant KOSB, Bordon, to Ellen Wood, 3rd daughter of Jas. Ainslie, West End, Tweedmouth.”

On 21st April 1915, Mackie arrived in France with 2nd Battalion, King’s Own Scottish Borderers.

In that year, a desperate shortage of artillery shells caused a crisis that resulted in the creation of the Ministry of Munitions and a huge munitions factory was built at Gretna in Dumfriesshire to produce cordite, known as “the Devil’s porridge”.  Ellen Mackie (nee Ainslie) was one of more than 11,000 women who volunteered to carry out ths dangerous work.

The munitions workers were known as “yellow canaries”, because prolonged exposure to chemicals such as sulphuric acid turned the women’s skin yellow.

Working with hazardous chemicals caused many health problems and probably contributed to Ellen’;s death from “sudden cardiac failure”, on 17th May 1917, aged only 26, in a hostel in Gretna. She appears to have been suffering from cardiac failure for two months, probably brought on by her work in the munitions factory.  

This entry appeared in The Berwick Advertiser on 1st June 1917:  “MACKIE – At Gretna, on 17th May, Ellen beloved wife of CQMS D Mackie, also 3rd daughter of James Ainslie, Sergt of Water Bailiffs, West End, Tweedmouth, aged 26 years.”

Tweedmouth War Memorial