The Chilworth Gunpowder Works

& Paper Mills

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AN EXPLOSIVE HISTORY

 

 

 

Just a little over a mile from the village of Blackheath, the Chilworth Gunpowder Works and Paper Mill nestled into the Surrey Hills along the Tillingbourne River. It was the perfect location for a works that required the power of water.

 

It was situated at a safe distance from Blackheath, luckily as many accidental explosions occurred over the years. The reality of what was being produced in Chilworth was shown in about 1763 when an explosion destroyed the tower of St. Martha’s Church. In 1867, another explosion killed two men and later in 1901, six men lost their lives after a man slipped on his hob-nailed boots, a spark ignited, and the explosion was fatal. In 1913 a further large explosion and rules were tightened, suitable footwear and uniforms became regulation to avoid any further accidents.

 

The Doomsday Book records some form of a mill in the area, probably on the site of a medieval corn mill. There is also mention of a corn and fulling mill in documents dated around 1589.

 

In 1625, the East India Company leased the site from Sir Edward Randyll, Lord of The Manor of Chilworth. They imported Salt-Petre from India to be processed at the Works.

 

The East India Company only survived in Chilworth for around ten years until Collins and Cornwell took over the ownership of the company. At one point they were appointed the sole suppliers of gunpowder to King Charles 1. The Crown provided funds for the development of the site and during the Civil War of 1642-1652 the Chilworth Works were employed in the cause for Parliament.

 

The Works changed hands many times over in ensuing years and its fortunes took many turns with periods of dilapidation and resurrection. One of its lease holders, Sir Polycarpus Wharton, ended up in a debtor’s prison with debts of about £24,000, an enormous sum for the period.

 

By 1693, it is thought that there were 16 or 18 powder mills.

 

The Lower Works (the Blacksmith Lane end) became paper mills in 1704, known as 'The Chilworth Great and Little Paper Mills' (not to be confused with the printing of bank-note paper, later printed at the Postford Upper and Lower Mills). The mill eventually became Unwins Printing Works until 1871 and was eventually destroyed by fire in 1895.

 

In 1822, the political and literary figure William Cobbett writes in his publication ‘Rural Rides” how such a beautiful valley could have ‘two of the most damnable inventions that ever sprang from the minds of man under the influence of the devil. He was of course talking about gunpowder and bank-note paper.

In the 1860’s the Chilworth Works were expanded and steam-power was introduced, it became the most up to date factory in Britain.

 

In 1885, the Chilworth Gunpowder Company Ltd was formed by a consortium including the German company Vereinigle Rheinisch Westphalis Pulverfabriken, they were leading powder-makers making a new type of prismatic gunpowder, also known as brown or ‘cocoa’ powder for use in the biggest guns of the day. The powder was also used for ‘signal’ rockets and finely milled for use in time fuses.

 

A major building project was embarked on in June 1885 to expand the Works and in 1888 an agreement was made with the South Eastern Railway Company to build a tramway to carry coal from the sidings of Chilworth and Albury station directly to the factory site. The tramway crossed the River Tillingbourne just below what is now Chilworth Primary School. It incorporated a swing bridge, ensuring that the Works punts could still easily manoeuvre the waterway system.

 

Around 300 to 400 workers were employed during this time which kept a lot of people from Chilworth and Blackheath in employment, this increased to about 600 during the First World War.

 

Many Blackheath villagers relied on employment at the mills, walking down the hill for long shifts. The villagers would take the path down past Tangley Way or via the narrow Sample Oak Lane. Only a small percentage actually worked with the explosive materials, many were coopers making the barrels for the powder storage.

 

By the early part of the 20th century Blackheath village had expanded, supplying the demand for housing for the factory workers. Street lighting was installed in the form of gas lamps, financed by the Gunpowder Works to keep staff safe on their walk to work.

 

By 1901, Vickers had acquired a large interest in the company and by 1905 even the Japanese Explosives Co Ltd had a stake in the Works. By 1915 The Chilworth Gunpowder Company returned to British ownership and were manufacturing explosives for home and foreign consumption.

 

In the years preceding the war, a large percentage of Blackheath men worked at the factory. Many of them started at around the age of fourteen, often following in the footsteps of their fathers.  The starting wage around 1904 was around 2/6 for a young 14-year-old employee and around 30 shillings for a man in his early twenties in 1920.

 

At the outbreak of war, the works were seconded by the Admiralty and extended extensively with new buildings at the Longfrey (Albury) end of the complex, accommodating a bigger cordite section (approx. 22 acres) for the production of smokeless powder and a new product known as ballistite. The works operated around the clock and employees were expected to do 12-hour shifts.  

 

To protect the Chilworth Gunpowder Works an anti aircraft gun was placed on Blackheath. Its concrete base can still be seen today on the Albury side of the Gallops. There was also a search light to spot night flying Zeppelins positioned near the current War Memorial.    

 

    A first-hand account by the writer Eric Parker in one of his books about Surrey gives a wonderful insight into the site during the First World War period.

 

 EXTRACTS FROM ERIC PARKER’S BOOK ‘SURREY’

 Published in 1954 by Robert Hale Ltd

 

 Chilworth today is a long village street. It was a very different sight thirty years ago. Except for the farmhouse with its barns and sheds, and a small wayside inn, there was not a building to be seen on the left of the road from the level crossing at Tangley Mere to Postford Mill and pond on the way to Albury. Instead you looked out over the green grass and rushes of water meadows. Beyond the meadows there were trees, alders mostly, and among the tree’s buildings, but the buildings were not houses, they were windowless and without chimneys. These half-hidden buildings were marked Powder Mill.

 

That was all it was, early in 1914. But from the end of August that year, until the late autumn of 1918, it was more than a powder mill; it was the Chilworth Powder Factory, one of the busiest places in Surrey. From August 1914, its buildings grew in size until the water meadows on the banks of the Tillingbourne were patched and peopled with storehouses, testing-houses, mixing-sheds, magazines, and all the machinery and impetus of a supremely important piece of business of a great war. Day and night the work went on, and day and night it was ringed by a guard of soldiers, a never-ceasing round of sentries and patrols, three and a half miles of them on the rim of water, corrugated iron and barbed wire.

 

It was my lot to be sent to Chilworth, as an officer of the guard furnished by the Queen’s West Surrey Regiment, in the autumn of 1914, and at Chilworth I spent two and a half years of the most monotonous work that has ever come my way.

 

Part of the duty as an officer was to go the rounds, once a day and once a night, of the ring of sentries and patrols. There were eleven sentries, with their boxes placed at chosen points in the circumference of the factory. Going the rounds by night was an easy enough task on a moonlight night, but on a cloudy or rainy night, without moon or stars, you had to know your path through the fields and woods pretty accurately, for although you carried a torch it was only to be used on emergency.

 

On one part of the factory round, which ran through the woods on the side of the hill, I have memories. One is of a night when standing by a flight of rough steps we had made through the hazels, I realized that rats were cracking nuts in the boughs above my head; it was a queerly loud sound there in the dark. Another memory is a night of perfect stillness on which I stood listening to a sound which was new to me, but which I eventually made out to be a pair of brown owls talking to each other Another sound I heard one night near the same place was more of a puzzle, which I could not solve until the next morning, when I found that the steep hillside above where I had been standing was a home of badgers.

 

Once when looking at the face of the hill, trying if I could to follow a badger's track through into the open, when suddenly I saw, moving quietly through dog’s mercury, a polecat. There was no doubt about it. Polecat-ferrets I know and have often handled, but this was a different animal. I remember today the glint of sunshine on the long hairs of that black and copper coat.

 

From one year's end to the other the guards ringed the factory with sentries and patrols, and for most of the time the war seemed a thing very far off. But one afternoon I remember when for a few strange minutes it was going on there at Chilworth, by my side. I had climbed up the hill above the factory on which stands the little chapel of St.Martha’s, a building which lets you see far off in that part of Surrey, and which, lest it should somehow furnish a guide to enemy aircraft, was covered in bushes, an elementary form of camouflage.  I climbed the hill and stood with my back to the South door of the church. And there, in 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 my right, and I was in France. I could be in and out of the sounds of battle as I chose, there above the Chilworth factory on a Surrey hill.

 

…….

 

 During the 1914-18 period a large number of the night-shift workers were women who replaced many of the village men who had gone off to serve in the war, although they tended not to work in the high-risk areas. They reportedly earned 4d an hour. It is interesting to note that in 1909 the workforce had been about 300 men and only 6 female workers. Many of the workers in the cordite section suffered badly from headaches.

 

One such employee was Mary Ann Edwards, known as Polly, she was born in Blackheath in 1885 the daughter of George and Elizabeth Edwards.  Polly was the aunt of our current villager Hilda Beasley and was one of the young ladies of Blackheath who worked at the Chilworth Gunpowder Works.     

 

In a surviving image, Polly is seen in a rather formal photograph taken by Albury based portrait photographer Percy Lloyd. She is wearing her work uniform, one that was similar to those worn by thousands of women munitions workers across Britain at that time.       

 

The uniform, made of serge, was practical but also conformed to the strict regulations about what workers could wear into the factory to avoid the possibility of causing any explosions with the highly volatile powder. No turn-ups, pockets or buttons were allowed.        

 

The baggy tunic top worn with a wide belt gave a balloon effect on small-framed woman. It had no pockets, to guard against workers bringing dangerous articles on site. The worker's own blouse was worn underneath.        

 

Trousers, not an item worn in public by women prior to the war, were kept from flapping into cordite powder by long ribbons of fabric rather similar to the ‘puttees’ that the soldiers wore, wound around their lower legs.     Sensible leather boots known as 'magazine boots' were worn with brass hobnails in preference to iron to avoid causing sparks. To complete the ensemble, there was a small gathered mop style hat and a Ministry of Munitions badge.

 

By 1915, the Chilworth Gunpowder works had separate Men’s and Women’s mess rooms where employees would change into their uniforms to be inspected before they set foot in the factory. The original wooden mess room was situated near the 1915 Admiralty expansion off Lockner Road. The women’s mess room was moved to Peaslake years later and used as a village dance hall and cinema before being converted into a cottage. It was demolished in 1990.     

 

Security was essential at the site during the First World War.  Any German contact had been severed at the start of the war, but a great deal was known about the whereabouts of the factory and it was valuable information to the enemy.     

 

Soldiers of the Queens Royal West Surrey Regiment guarded the factory, guard posts were erected around the perimeter and the site was provided with anti-aircraft ‘pompom’ guns in 1915. The nearby St. Martha’s Church was heavily camouflaged with branches to prevent the building being used by enemy pilots as a landmark for navigation over the works.       

 

The worst scare was in 1915 when a German Zeppelin dropped twelve bombs in the St. Catherine’s area of Guildford not far away whilst the pilot was looking for the gunpowder works.       

 

The Works played a prominent part in community life and took pride in itself as a benevolent employer. It provided a social life for the workers including a Works cricket team(with Blackheath employees),often playing against the Blackheath village team. There was also a male and female football team, the latter known as ‘The Pioneer Ladies’, with their own striped kit. In the years up to the war the Works held an annual fete and provided an outing to the sea by train. In Chilworth the Gresham Institute was established with art and science classes for all workers and their families. The large meadow between Dorking Road and the Works, running alongside Blacksmith Lane, had a cricket and football pitch. Today it is a housing estate and ribbon development. The Works even had its own beer at one time produced from the hop fields surrounding the site.

 

          At the end of the war, with many local men returning home, it was hoped they would be able to take up their former employment at the Works. Sadly, the decline in demand for gunpowder meant that on 16th June 1920, the workers were given a letter informing them that the company was going into voluntary liquidation and that the works would close at the end of the month.

 

Each worker received £5.00 for every year they had worked at the factory. This was a devastating blow to returning servicemen as jobs were scarce in the area, and the consequence was that some of the Blackheath men had to look further afield for employment and move out of the area.   

 

Some of the Works equipment was shipped off to Argentina and a number of buildings were fired, the best way to decontaminate former explosive buildings. However, today there are visible remains of some of the buildings in particular the paper works at the Blacksmith Lane end of the site and the incorporating mills of the Middle Works. There are many large circular edge runners around the site. It is still possible to see large mounds of earth with sheets of corrugated iron embedded in them. These became known as the ‘Chilworth Mounds’ within the industry and important in site safety development and the creation of protective blast banks.

 

At the entrance to the Works from Blacksmith Lane, known as the Middle Works, West Lodge still stands. This was the place where the workers would check-in for their shifts.

 

One of the heavy iron paper rollers (calender) used to finish the paper process also still exists, it is a piece of industrial history and can be seen nestling on the edge of the Blackheath Cricket pitch. After the paper  factory closed due to a fire, it was transported to Blackheath to use as a roller for the cricket wicket.

 

The Chilworth Gunpowder Works and Blackheath are intertwined in their history, a fascinating place even today.

 

 

 

Jayne Barlow . November 2020

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