14th July 1847. Gunpowder and Gun-Cotton.
Gunpowder had been made in the Faversham, Kent area since the 16th century, probably instigated by the local abbey, as these establishments were in the forefront of any profitable new technology.
Faversham accessible to the Continent saw a brisk demand for the ‘low explosive’ gunpowder as it was used as a gun propellant in the Napoleonic Wars.
The area had the right facilities for the explosive, having large growths of alder and willow for converting into charcoal and importantly had streams to drive the water-wheels. Also sulphur could be imported via nearby creeks.
The third and last gunpowder mill was at Marsh Works built by the government in 1787 with access to the sea via Oare Creek thus enabling eventual exportation to The East India Company.(1)
However production always had its dangers as seen Today in 1847 at the Marsh Works, Faversham, where there was an explosion, killing 21, at a factory making ‘Gun-Cotton’, (the first high explosive).
Gun-cotton manufactured independently of gunpowder, was not made again until 1873 with plants on the River Swale where the raw materials of cotton-waste, sulfuric and nitric acids could be off-loaded. In 1914 the factories were requisitioned by the Admiralty. In 1919 they closed.
Faversham experienced another violent explosion on Sunday 2nd April 1916 at the remote gunpowder mine at Uplees when 200 tons of TNT ignited killing 105 people.
Owing to its remoteness in the marshes most casualties were at the works.
The explosion was heard in Norwich and Great Yarmouth and proved to be the worst blast in the UK explosives industry.
However owing to censorship at the time the incident wasn’t reported until the 29th of the month when the East Coast Gazette at Sittingbourne reported on the parliamentary statement which only said it was ‘mystifying’ and ‘ambiguous’.
All gunpowder factories in the Faversham area in 1934, now owned by Imperial Chemical industries (ICI), were moved to Ayrshire considered as a more safe area.
Gunpowder led to dynamite which in 1867 the Swede, Alfred Nobel demonstrated and developed from the unstable organic compound nitro-glycerine.