Written by Marion Edwards
Until the mid-19th century, when high explosives were developed, gunpowder was the only explosive available for military use. Water-powered manufacturing mills were established in England from the mid-16th century, although powder had been prepared by hand for at least 200 years before that. From the 19th century, steam engines and water turbines were developed for more efficient production. Basic gunpowder – also known as black powder – was made from saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur, pulverised and mixed in the proportions 75:15:10, forming first a damp paste known as ‘mill cake’, which was then pressed into hard sheets of ‘press cake’ before being grained and dried.
Demand for gunpowder centred on the London area (for military supply), other ports (for trade), and the main metal mining areas. The first water-powered mills were built in south east England from the mid-16th century onwards, and many of the major technological improvements were pioneered in those mills, one of which was at Chilworth, in the Tillingbourne valley near Guildford, originally established in 1626 by the East India Company to supply its forces abroad and at one time operating as the only authorised gunpowder producer in Britain.
German-led technological change inspired the formation in 1885 of the Chilworth Gunpowder Company Ltd, with close links to German powder manufacturers and to armaments firms such as Krupp, the Nobel companies and Armstrong’s. The Chilworth works were adapted for the manufacture of the compact and slow-burning prismatic brown powder (which replaced wood charcoal with the less smoky brown charcoal, made from straw), with state-on-the art German steel incorporating mills and cam presses. In 1892 an extension to the factory allowed the company to manufacture in addition the chemical based smokeless propellants cordite (a mixture of nitro-glycerine, guncotton and mineral jelly, consolidated with the solvent acetone) and ballistite.
At the outbreak of war, the demand for explosives soared. At Chilworth, a new factory area, the Admiralty Cordite Factory, was built in 1915, which finished cordite paste, brought in from elsewhere. Despatch notes and receipts covering 1914-1915 show explosives being carried on the barges of Messrs Stevens, barge owners of Guildford, via the Wey Navigation, to the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, or to Rainham in Kent for onward conveyance to the Naval Ordnance Depot at Upnor; some was destined for Australia. A single barge might carry over 30,000lb of freight (50,000 being the largest quantity), with up to 400 cases of cordite or 418 barrels of ballistite (G137/12/27).
During the war years the site was guarded by a military detachment, originally part of 2/5th Battalion, Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment, and later restyled No.59 Company, Royal Defence Corps, and anti-aircraft guns were installed to protect the site. In October 1915, a German Zeppelin attempted to locate and bomb the gunpowder works, but although it was seen to circle the site several times, wartime ‘lights out’ precautions worked and the airship continued west towards Guildford, where it dropped 12 bombs. (Apparently the only casualties there were a swan on the river, and 17 chickens.). Eric Parker, the naturalist and journalist, spent much of the war in the Chilworth factory guard (commanding it between November 1917 and May 1918), a time, he recalled of ‘almost unbearable monotony, the wearier for the long hours of night duty’. Parker’s unit had to undertaken regular patrols around the 3½ mile perimeter; for him the tedium was alleviated by the opportunity to observe the local wildlife and the odd moment of excitement as when two butterfly hunters were interrogated. He also noted other measures taken to safeguard the works, describing buildings ‘camouflaged with all the colours of the rainbow’ and St Martha’s church high on the Downs disguised with brushwood and heather.
Once, while on patrol and standing by the south door of the church, ‘in my ear, as I stood was the war in France. Close to my ear were the sounds of battle, field guns, heavy guns, the shaking boom, the rattle of musketry, as if we were fighting Germans in the next parish. All came to me in repercussion of sound from the oak door behind me. I stepped a yard to the side and I was in the silence of Surrey; a step to the right, and I was in France’.
The Manager of the Chilworth Mills during the war was Captain Tom Tulloch, who before the war had had contacts in Germany’s armaments industry, passing details of weapons and explosives, gathered during convivial dinners with high ranking German military personnel (for example in 1904, he had learned details of the introduction of a revolutionary new bullet, in 1911 of the stockpiling of thousands of machine guns, and later of the use of Maxims produced by Vickers and of TNT), to the Admiralty and War Office. They, however, took no notice of this intelligence, the British military attaché in Berlin declaring that all of this must be untrue as he had not heard of it! Tulloch also earned the nickname ‘Trinitro Tom’, from his promotion of TNT at the site.
The close connections of the Company with Germany manufacturers, meant that several of the personnel associated with the Chilworth works at the outbreak of war were German: joint manager of the Chilworth Powder Company at its inception was Edward Kraftmeier, a German settled in England, who became the Company’s London agent and who in 1915 became naturalised as Edward Kay; other Germans were the factory chemist Willi Fischer (who was interned during the war) and foreman Heinrich (later anglicised to Henry) Walter Wirths (whose son died in 1918 while serving as a mechanic in the Royal Flying Corps).
Newspaper reports from the 19th and early 20th centuries show the dangers of working with a substance as volatile as gunpowder. There was a constant risk of explosions, and on numerous occasions fatal accidents occurred. Even sparks from hob-nailed boots worn by the workers could cause powder to ignite. As a natural consequence, Chilworth made innovative developments in safety measures – building banks of earth close to the buildings where gunpowder was being made helped to contain explosions and prevent other buildings from being damaged. These banks were strengthened with corrugated iron, and this invention, which became known as “Chilworth mounds”, was adopted at other sites where explosives were manufactured, in Britain and worldwide. Onsite safety during the First World War appears to have rigorously applied, as no accidents to personnel were reported.
Illustrations 5-6: Rules 1916 (cover and details of clothing) from SYA/337/10
During the war, production at the works ran in 12-hour shifts, with workers changing into clothing without pockets, buttons and trouser turn-ups (all of which could gather dangerous powder remnants) when they clocked on. Women in cordite production usually worked the nights shift for 4d an hour. All workers generally complained of headaches, resulting from exposure to chemicals. On a lighter note, the factory had its own cricket and football teams (including a ladies’ eleven), which played matches against other local sides.
Several files in The National Archives shed light on working conditions during the war. In March 1917, workers in the engineering shop were awarded a pay rise of 1½d per hour to fitters and 3 farthings per hour to labourers and apprentice (LAB 2/168/IC1504). If a workman worked more than 11½ hours in a day, Monday-Friday, or on Saturday more than 8¼ hours, he was to be paid a bonus for each additional hour calculated at a quarter of his ordinary hourly rate. In May 1918, the fitters were at it again, demanding 1s 4d per hour plus a 12½% bonus with the usual allowances for overtime (time and a quarter for the first 2 hours and an extra quarter time for each completed hour over and above 11½ for five days of the week and 8½ on Saturdays, with double pay for Sunday working (LAB 2/426/IC3775). The arbitrator appointed by the Chief Industrial Commissioner awarded the men an extra 1d per hour, his award detailing all the previous wage increases they had enjoyed during the war. The fitters’ October 1918 demand for an extra 2d per hour as recently awarded to the skilled engineers at the National Aircraft Factory, Farnborough, was rejected, the Ministry of Munitions arguing that work at Chilworth did not compare to the ‘highly skilled and experimental nature of the work performed at the Farnborough Factory as distinct from other aircraft establishments’ (LAB 2/168/IC8290).
Finally in March 1919, a claim by the Workers’ Union was decided by the Wages and Arbitration Department of the Ministry of Munitions (LAB 2/426/WA2096/1919). Originally the Union had demanded on behalf of its members an advance of 3d per hour to the men and women of the Smokeless Department and a grant of underclothing to those working in the Black Department similar to that made to workers in the Blending House (and if that was not practicable then a further 1d per hour). By the time the hearing took place, the Smokeless Department was no more, but the claim for an extra 3d was extended to the Black Department, which no longer employed any any women (if it ever had). The arbitrator rejected all aspects of the claim: the men had already received all the advances they were entitled to. As for the claim for underclothing, this had been provided in the Smokeless Department ‘by reason of the very dangerous and explosive character of the cordite dust which settled on the clothing and could not be removed by washing owing to its being insoluble’. This did not apply in the Black Department: non-inflammable working suits, caps and boots were already supplied by the Firm and the black (charcoal) was harmless and easily removable by water.
The high demand for explosives during the war resulted in a massive oversupply of cordite and after hostilities had ceased in November 1918, many sites found themselves surplus to peacetime requirements. After the war, the Admiralty relinquished their interest in the site, allowing the Chilworth Gunpowder Company to continue, now part of the British consortium Explosive Trades Ltd (Noble Industries Ltd from 1920); the Chilworth works finally closed in June 1920, bringing to an end almost three hundred years of explosive manufacturing on the banks of the Tillingbourne, although the final winding up did not take place until 1927 and British production of gunpowder and cordite did not effectively cease until 1976. Today, the site of the old Chilworth gunpowder works is a scheduled monument. Its isolation has encouraged several important rare species to take up residence, including the endangered common dormouse.
Sources at Surrey History Centre
G132: papers relating to Chilworth Gunpowder Company and Earlier Gunpowder Makers at Chilworth, c.1710-1899
Z/10: plan of Chilworth Gunpowder Mills, c.1890
Z/475: photocopies of papers and newspaper cuttings relating to Chilworth Gunpowder Mills, c.1870-1920
SYA337: Surrey Archaeological Society material relating to Chilworth Gunpowder Mills
‘Dangerous Energy: the archaeology of gunpowder and military explosives manufacture’ by Wayne D Cocroft (English Heritage, 2000)
‘Chilworth Gunpowder works, Surrey’ by Wayne D Cocroft (English Heritage, 2003)
‘Chilworth Gunpowder’ by Glenys Crocker (Surrey Industrial Group, 1984)
‘Damnable Inventions: Chilworth Gunpowder and the Paper Mills at Tillingbourne’ by Glenys and Alan Crocker (Surrey Industrial Group, 2000)
‘Surrey’ by Eric Parker (County Books, 1947)
‘Memory Looks Forward’ by Eric Parker (1937)
‘South-West Surrey’ by Eric Parker (MacMillan 1937)
‘Great War Britain: Guildford’ by David Rose (History Press 2014)