The Chart Gunpowder Mill explores the rise of Faversham as the centre of Great Britain's gunpowder industry. Faversham, in Kent, has claims to be the cradle of the UK's explosives industry: it was also to become one of its main centres. The first gunpowder plant in the UK was established in the 16th century, possibly at the instigation of Faversham Abbey. With their estates and endowments, monasteries were keen to invest in promising technology. Faversham was well-placed. It had a stream which could be dammed at intervals to provide power for watermills. On its outskirts were low-lying areas ideal for the culture of alder and willow to provide charcoal — one of the three key gunpowder ingredients. The stream fed into a tidal creek where sulphur, another key ingredient, could be imported, and the finished product loaded for dispatch to Thames-side magazines. The port was also near the Continent where in warfare demand for gunpowder was brisk.
The ability to transport raw materials and finished products was also important to the development of this and Faversham’s other trades: other essential ingredients were imported – sulphur from Sicily and saltpetre from India – reaching Faversham by ship. Even the small gauge canals used water from Faversham Creek to punt gunpowder from process to process. From c1550 when Faversham Abbey instigated the first explosives production until 1934, explosives were one of Faversham’s main exports, with great demand from Chatham and Sheerness Dockyards, the Woolwich Arsenal and the Tower of London, as well as brisk European trade. The gunpowder industry in Faversham reached its peak during the Napoleonic Wars when Chart Mills very probably supplied powder for both the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo.
The first gunpowder factories were small, near the town, and alongside the stream, between the London to Dover road (now the A2 road) and the head of the creek. By the early 18th century, these had coalesced into a single plant, subsequently known as the Home Works, as it was the town’s first. At this time the British government was buying its supplies from the private sector; but the quality was often poor, and in 1759 it decided it needed its own plant. Rather than build a new one, it nationalised the Home Works, upgrading all the machinery. From this phase dates the Chart Gunpowder Mill, the oldest of its kind in the world. Nearby is Stonebridge Pond, today a picturesque beauty spot at the head of the creek. It served to power some of the works’ watermills, slender remains of which survive. It still features a network of narrow-gauge canals along which powder was punted from process to process. Oare Works and Marsh Works followed, making Faversham an important centre for explosives production. Chart Mills was an Incorporating Mill where ingredients are mixed and chemically incorporated, a process which determines the quality, power and evenness of burning. The Mills had two waterwheels driving four mills, and the pit of the other wheel and the circular bed stones of the other three mills can still be seen. Later, a steam engine was added but that site is now underneath the adjacent housing estate.
In the 1680s a second factory was started by Huguenot asylum-seekers alongside another stream about two kilometres west of the town. It had its own access to the sea via Oare Creek and so became known as the Oare Works, although it was wholly in the parish of Davington. It became a leading supplier to the British East India Company and it could be argued that without its product English would not have become the lingua franca of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Gunpowder from Faversham was not just used in warfare. It played a key part in the Industrial Revolution, by enabling routes to be blasted for canals and railways. The third and last gunpowder factory to open was the Marsh Works, built by the British government one kilometre northwest of the town to augment output at its Home Works; it opened in 1787. It also had access to the sea via Oare Creek. In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, the government leased its Faversham works back to the private sector - the Home Works in 1816 and the Marsh Works in 1834 - selling them in 1825 and 1854 respectively. Explosives manufacture continued unabated at both sites under private ownership. All three gunpowder factories shut in 1934. Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), then the owners, sensed that war might break out with Germany, and realised that Faversham would then become vulnerable to air attack or possibly invasion. They transferred production, together with key staff and machinery, to Ardeer in Ayrshire, Scotland.
Gunpowder is a low explosive, best used as a propellant. Guncotton, the first high explosive, more useful for its destructive powers, was invented by Dr Christian Schonbein, of the University of Basel, in 1846. Under licence from him, it was first manufactured at Faversham’s Marsh Works in 1847. The manufacturing process was not yet fully understood. On 14 July 1847 a serious explosion killed 18 staff, only 10 of whose bodies could be identified. As a result of the blast, the factory owners shut the plant. Guncotton was not made again in Faversham until 1873, when the Cotton Powder Company, independent of the gunpowder factories, opened a new plant on a remote site near Uplees, about four km northwest of the town centre. It was still within the parish, but alongside the River Swale, the deep-water channel that divides mainland Kent from the Isle of Sheppey. Deliveries of raw materials — cotton waste and sulphuric and nitric acids — could readily be made, and the product was easily dispatched by water. With a buoyant market, the factory rapidly expanded, producing each new high explosive as it was formulated. Adjoining it to the west in 1913 an associate venture, the Explosives Loading Company, built a plant to fill bombs and shells. Both plants were high-tech state-of-the-art, with a power station, hydraulic mains and an internal telephone and tramway systems. Together they occupied an area of 500 acres - almost as large as that of the City of London.
When the First World War started in 1914, the two factories were requisitioned by the Admiralty and armed guards were mounted. Production facilities were further expanded and many new staff recruited from Faversham and elsewhere in East Kent. Road access for the workers was poor, so the Admiralty built a metre-gauge railway, the Davington Light Railway, to transport them from a terminus at Davington, near the Home Works, to Uplees. The owners of both Swale-side factories had foreseen that they would become superfluous at the end of the First World War, and they closed promptly and permanently in 1919. The Davington light railway track was lifted; its three steam locomotives found new homes in South America, where at least one is thought to survive.
The 1916 explosion at Faversham was the worst in the history of the British explosives industry. At 14:20 on Sunday 2 April 1916, a huge explosion ripped through the gunpowder mill at Uplees, near Faversham, when a store of 200 tons of Trinitrotoluene (TNT) was detonated following some empty sacks catching fire. The TNT and ammonium nitrate (used to manufacture amatol) had exploded. The weather might have contributed to the start of the fire. The previous month had been wet but had ended with a short dry spell so that by that weekend the weather was "glorious" ... providing perfect conditions for heat-generated combustion. As it was a Sunday, no women were at work. There were 115 deaths of men and boys, including all the Works Fire Brigade, in the explosion and in subsequent sympathetic detonations. The bodies of seven victims were never found; 108 corpses were buried in a mass grave at Faversham Cemetery on 6 April. The munitions factory was in a remote spot in the middle of the open marshes of North Kent, next to the Thames coastline, hence the explosion was heard across the Thames estuary and as far away as Norwich and Great Yarmouth. In Southend-on-Sea domestic windows and two large plate-glass shop windows were broken.
The East Kent Gazette published in Sittingbourne, did not report the explosion until 29 April. Although recognising the need for some censorship, it referred to the reply given in Parliament to an appropriate question as "mystifying and ambiguous" and called for the fullest precautions to be implemented to "prevent another calamity of the kind" occurring again. Although not the first such disaster at Faversham’s historic munitions works, the April 1916 blast is recorded as "the worst ever in the history of the UK explosives industry", and yet the full picture is still somewhat confused. The reason for the fire is uncertain. And considering the quantity of explosive chemicals stored at the works — with one report indicating that a further 3,000 tons remained in nearby sheds unaffected — it is remarkable, and a tribute to those who struggled against the fire that so much of the nation's munitions were prevented from contributing further to the catastrophe. The Secretary of State for War, Earl Kitchener, had written to the management of the CPC in 1914, and it is presumed the ELC, informing the workforce on: "the importance of the government work upon which they [were] engaged ..... I should like all engaged by your company to know that it is fully recognised that they, in carrying out the great work of supplying munitions of war, are doing their duty for their King and Country, equally with those who have joined the Army for active service in the field".
The two world wars changed the whole way of life in Britain; not just in the town and cities, but also rural life. Anderson shelters were issued nationwide to families as protection from enemy air raids. It is estimated that 3.6 million shelters were erected. After the war many of them were used as garden sheds. The Anderson shelter was designed in 1938 by William Paterson and Oscar Carl Kerrison at the request of the Home Office. It was named after Sir John Anderson, who then initiated the development of the shelter. People earning up to £5 a week were given the shelters free by the government; others paid £7 for them. They were designed to accommodate up to six people. The main principle of protection was based on curved and straight galvanised corrugated steel panels. They held up well to bombing raids, able to absorb ground shocks. It was later realised that Anderson Shelters were very cold and damp in winter months and were uncomfortable for families during long night raids. This led to the development of the Morrison Shelter which can be seen in the Wartime room. The Wartime room is an interesting insight into life during the war. Many people will still remember the familiar objects, including the imposing Morrison Shelter. The caged Morrison Shelter was designed by John Baker and is approximately the size of a double bed. It was designed to sleep a family indoors through night bombings, and could be used as a table during the day. The shelter was introduced at the end of March 1941 and was named after the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison. It was provided free to those households earning less than £400 a year. Many people using this shelter survived bomb strikes that reduced the house around them to rubble, leaving the Morrison Shelter (and its occupants) intact. Horse Ambulance. This was used during the first world war for bringing injured horses from the battlefield. Note that the axle is over the top of the cart. Shafts could be fitted at either end so that the horse could be loaded or unloaded through either ramp. To help support the horse in transit, a sling was suspended from the curved axle.
This however, was not quite the end of high explosives manufacture in Faversham. In 1924 a new venture, the Mining Explosives Company, opened a factory on the east side of Faversham Creek, not far from the site of Faversham Abbey — hence its 'Abbey Works' name. Its Mexco (short for Mining Explosives Company) telegraphic address led to it being known as The Mexico by local people. After a fatal accident in 1939 the proprietors decided to abandon the manufacture of high explosives and instead make an explosive-substitute based on a large reusable steel cartridge filled with carbon dioxide. The premises still needed to be licensed under the 1875 Explosives Act, as gunpowder was used in the detonator. Under the name Long Airdox, production continues today. Unusually, the company is owned by its main customers. Its appearance is still that of a traditional high explosive factory, with no large buildings, but many small ones widely spaced for safety. It boasts one of the UK's few surviving 'manumotive' railways.
The site is wheelchair accessible. Assistance dogs are welcome
Location : Chart Close, Faversham ME13 7SE
Transport : Faversham (National Rail) then bus or 15 minutes. Bus Routes : 3, 3A, 3B, 3X and 666 stop close by
Opening Times : Saturday, Sunday + bank holidays -April to October 14:00 to 17.00
Tickets : Free, Donations Welcome
Tel. : 01795 534 542