Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

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Chilworth Gunpowder Co

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of Bank Building, St. James's Street, London, SW

Powder mills have existed since 1570 powered by water wheels on the River Tillingbourne.

George Evelyn established powdermills at Wotton and Abinger on the Tillingbourne, with his son John and Richard Hill, following their appointment as manufacturers by Royal Letters Patent to obtain saltpetre and manufacture gunpowder in 1589.

1626 Special permissions were granted to the East India Co to manufacture gunpowder for its own use. They established their powder mills at Chilworth on the Tillingbourne. Although only a small river, its four principal tributaries and the fact that it flowed over a steep gradient ensured a good flow of water that not only powered the gunpowder mills but a good number of other mills too. The river rises close to the summit of Leith Hill.[1]

1641 Much of England's powder industry moved to Chilworth when the Royal gunpowder monopoly was withdrawn by the Long Parliament.

By 1704 Two of the three sites at Chilworth were out of gunpowder production. The middle works continued and by the late 19th century had expanded to become a site of national importance again and were at the time the most modern in the country.

For more than two centuries, gunpowder continued to be made at Chilworth, eventually focused on sporting and blasting uses.

From 1796 the manor of Chilworth, and thus the factory, was owned by Edmund Hill.

1885 A German company, Vereinigte Rheinisch-Westphalische Pulverfabriken, took over the mills to manufacture a new type of gunpowder that was virtually smokeless and was ideal for the very large guns then in operation. Known from its brown colour as "cocoa powder", it was made from charcoal derived from straw rather than wood.

1885 Incorporated as a limited company.

1898/9 Started to make and supply cordite to the War Office[2]

The company became sole supplier of military powder to several large armament makers in the late 19th century, including Sir W. G. Armstrong & Co. and Vickers, the latter company obtaining a 40 percent interest in Chilworth Gunpowder.

The company developed a formal agreement with Nobel's Explosives Co to whom it even lent money just before World War1.

1914 Gunpowder manufacturers. Specialities: black and smokeless powders, cordite etc. for military and sporting purposes. [3]

By 1915 German control of the company was ended.

1918 the firm joined Explosives Trades Ltd.

1920 In the rationalization that followed the merger, the works at Chilworth (as also the associated works at Fernilee, Derbyshire) were closed.

A half-buried millstone and a pair of cottages (early 17th century?) remain as substantial relics of the gunpowder works, though foundations of many other buildings, the mill-dam, and naves may also be identified.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. Wey River
  2. The Times, Jul 20, 1910
  3. 1914 Whitakers Red Book
  • Archives of the British chemical industry, 1750-1914: a handlist. By Peter J. T. Morris and Colin A. Russell. Edited by John Graham Smith. 1988.