A-Z of industries

Gunpowder
 compiled by Roger Baker from the publications listed below
(Page created 19/04/05. Last updated 10/02/11)

Low Wood clocktower (G.Brambles)

The manufacture of gunpowder in Cumbria developed initially in response to demand from the mining and quarrying industries of the region, making use of the natural resources of woodland and water power available in Furness and South Lakeland.

Gunpowder is a mixture of saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur, usually in the proportion of 75:15:10, although these varied according to the purpose for which a particular type of powder was intended. The saltpetre, or potassium nitrate, supplies oxygen, and the other constituents provide fuel, the sulphur serving to inflame at a relatively low temperature.

Saltpetre was imported from India, Chile and Germany, sulphur from Italy and Sicily, originally through the local ports of Milnthorpe or Greenodd. Charcoal was made from local woodlands initially, using juniper, silver birch and alder. The old method of charcoal burning (or rather roasting) however did not result in a clean enough product for gunpowder, and so the charcoal was burnt in retorts of a kind invented by a well-known Lakeland resident, Bishop Watson, in the eighteenth century.

The general production process involved refining the saltpetre and sulphur, which then along with the charcoal were pulverised, weighed, mixed and then incorporated by grinding and crushing them into a mixture known as mill cake. This was then broken down, pressed into hard slate-like sheets of press cake, corned into grains, dusted, glazed and finally dried. This process, with particular reference to the Elterwater site, is described in detail in “The Industrial History of the Lake Counties”. The availability of water power throughout the site was crucial, although Black Beck was worked by steam engines.

There were 7 works operating at times during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, from the opening of Old Sedgwick in 1764 to the closure of Gatebeck in 1937. They were:  


Old Sedgwick SD 509972 south of Kendal 1764 - 1853
Basingill SD 508868 near Sedgwick 1790 - 1935
Low Wood SD 348837 near Haverthwaite 1798 - 1935
Elterwater NY 327052 Langdale 1824 -
Gatebeck SD 544855 south-east of Kendal 1852 - 1937
New Sedgwick SD 508878 south of Kendal 1857 - 1935
Black Beck SD 337859 near Bouth 1860 - 1928

Each of these works, with the exception of Elterwater, was eventually controlled by W.H.Wakefield and Co..  

The range of powders made was a wide one, ranging from “Extra Large Coarse Black” through successive stages of fineness to “Extra Fine”. Quarries and iron mines used coarse powders, which were slow burning and did not shatter rock into small fragments, whereas the finer powders were used for sporting and military purposes. The works themselves tended to specialise, so that Blackbeck made fast explosive powders, Elterwater mainly slow blasting cartridges, and Sedgwick faster mining cartridges.

Early transport from the sites made use of water. Powder from Low Wood for example went down the Leven estuary on barges to Greenodd for transhipment into sailing vessels. The railways into the area changed all that, although not always conveniently situated. The Gatebeck proprietors installed a three and a half mile horse-drawn tramway that followed Peasey Beck and a roadside to reach the station at Milnthorpe.

The gunpowder industry in Cumbria supplied in time the whole country with the bulk of its black blasting powder until demand reduced with the arrival of new products such as dynamite and gelatine. Although there is a continuing demand for gunpowder from the quarrying industry and for other uses, the product is now imported from outside the UK.  

FURTHER READING

General
The gunpowder industry : Glenys Crocker, Shire Publications, 1999

Cumbria
The industrial archaeology of the Lake Counties : J.D.Marshall and M.Davies-Shiel, David and Charles, 1969
The Low Wood Gunpowder Company, its inception and early growth 1798-1808 : Alice Palmer, Gunpowder Mills Study Group, 1998
The gunpowder mills of Cumbria: Ian Tyler, Blue Rock Publications, 2002
Survey reports by English Heritage on the Blackbeck, Low Wood, Elterwater, Sedgwick Old and New and Basingill, and Gatebeck sites. (Contact 01904 601901).
A Harrison Ainslie gunpowder stock book of 1871-76 : Alan Crocker & Peter Sandbach, CWAAS Transactions, 2010

FEATURED SITE

Low Wood Gunpowder Works

Click here to return to the welcome page

Click here to return to the A-Z of industries