Low Wood Gunpowder Works

(Page created 19/04/05)

Gunpowder store (G.Brambles)

An edited version of an article by John Garbutt in The CIHS Newsletter, December 1994, by kind permission of the author. The site is on private land, crossed by public footpath.

The Lowwood works was founded in 1798 by ‘Daye Barker and Co.’ who lived at nearby Birk Dault. Visible at the site today, most of which is much overgrown, is the well preserved clock tower building dated 1849 at the rear. the single clock face faces the wrong direction and is said to have been “for show”. The bell, dated 1792, was originally intended for the nearby Backbarrow mill. The site when in operation extended for 547 metres along the River Leven.

In the adjacent wood is an extensive, branched leet fed from the River Leven which powered wheels or turbines and is still supplying power to a turbine which feeds the National Grid. Remains of other turbines can be seen including a Gilkes (of Kendal) model. A 3’6″ horse-driven tramway once linked Haverthwaite station with a network through the works to a magazine half a mile away to the south west. Two gunpowder vans are now held locally by the Lakeside Railway Society. Many barrel stencils showing export destinations, notably West Africa, were found on site and are now at the Abbot Hall Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry in Kendal.

Black powder was prepared by mixing the three ingredients of saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur in the damp state for several hours. This was done formerly in barrels by lignum vitae balls, but at Lowwood in the incorporating mill under fine grain crenoidal limestone edge runners, which can be seen under the three remaining substantial mill walls. The object was to coat every charcoal and sulphur particle with a layer of saltpetre. Originally the gearing was above the edge runners, but this caused explosions by bolts etc dropping into the mix. Later the gearing was placed underneath.

The resulting cake was then pressed between layers of copper or ebonite plates in the press house to form press cake. This was then granulated in the corning mill. Here the three substantial walls remain, 25 feet high. A belt elevator took broken pressed cake to seives for granulation or later to a series of toothed metal rollers, before being packed in barrels. Holes can be seen in the walls through which the roller drive shafts passed. This was the most dangerous stage, so the roof and front of the building, as with the incorporating mill, were lightly constructed to blow out in case of explosion. Accidents were frequent. The finished powder was sometimes coated or polished with black lead to keep it dry. Work here finished in 1935