Again, Faversham’s position near the coast and on a navigable Creek was key in its success as a site for explosives production. The adjacent low-lying, marshy wetlands, perfect for the culture of Alder and Willow, produced charcoal, an essential ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder.
The ability to transport raw materials and finished products was also important to the development of this and Faversham’s other trades: other essential ingredients were imported – sulphur from Sicily and saltpetre from India – reaching Faversham by ship. Even the small gauge canals used water from Faversham Creek to punt gunpowder from process to process.
From c1550 when Faversham Abbey instigated the first explosives production until 1934, explosives were one of Faversham’s main exports, with great demand from Chatham and Sheerness Dockyards, the Woolwich Arsenal and the Tower of London, as well as brisk European trade.
The gunpowder industry in Faversham reached its peak during the Napoleonic Wars when Chart Mills very probably supplied powder for both the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo.
Chart Mills was part of Home Works and the oldest in the area (oldest in the UK apart from Bermondsey, built in 1530). Oare Works and Marsh Works followed, making Faversham an important centre for explosives production and, in 1759, was nationalised by the government in order to ensure a steady supply of high quality gunpowder.
Chart Mills was an Incorporating Mill where ingredients are mixed and chemically incorporated, a process which determines the quality, power and evenness of burning. The Mills had two waterwheels driving four mills, and the pit of the other wheel and the circular bed stones of the other three mills can still be seen. Later, a steam engine was added but that site is now underneath the adjacent housing estate.
Safety was obviously a serious concern and production was kept relatively limited on purpose in order to reduce the risk of an explosion triggering other explosions and to reduce serious loss of life. However, the area of housing around the Mills used to be devoted to gunpowder production! As high explosives production began in Faversham in 1847, risks were increased accordingly and local residents often complained because their roof had been blown off. More dramatic explosions were inevitable, with the largest being in 1916 when 200 tons of explosive claimed more than a hundred lives, many of whom were buried in a mass grave in Faversham Cemetery.
Chart Mills was closed in 1934 as the area was vulnerable to attack from Europe. The factory moved to Ardeer in Scotland but that has since closed and all black powder used in the UK is now imported. Chart Mills survived to be rescued and restored by the Faversham Society.
Download the ‘Gunpowder Trail – a guide to Faversham’s explosive past’
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