Heritage protection given to rare Cornish explosives factory site

An historic Cornish factory which supplied the Royal Navy with explosives during the First World War has been given protected status.

The National Explosives Factory at Upton Towans near Hayle was given the status by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, on the advice of Historic England. 

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The Cornwall Council-owned site is a rare surviving example of a state-of-the-art structure built initially to serve the Cornish mining industry, which became one of only two suppliers of cordite to the Royal Navy during the First World War.

The remains of the site give insights into how explosives were manufactured in the late 19th century, and how production was scaled up during the First World War with a tenfold increase in the number of mostly female workers.

It joins a select group of other protected explosives factories on the National Heritage List for England including Waltham Abbey and Barnbow in Leeds.

The factory was planned by Oscar Guttmann (1855-1910), a Hungarian industrial chemist and engineer, using the most up-to-date technologies of the time. Guttmann’s design and construction of the factory, with different manufacturing processes carefully planned across three separate areas, is thought to have been the most elaborate and technically advanced project in Cornwall until the Goonhilly satellite station was built in the 1960s.

By the mid-C19th Cornwall was the world’s most important mining area. The National Explosives factory was located in Hayle due to its proximity to the mining and quarrying markets which required the dynamite, and also as a workforce already existed in the town.

Natural features also played a part in deciding where to build the factory. The sand dunes at Upton Towans could absorb the blast of any accidental explosion, and were also used for the falling ground levels needed for the production of nitroglycerine. By the end of its first year of production, National Explosives was producing three tonnes of dynamite daily. Whilst most of the service buildings have been lost, four roofless structures to the north of the site survive and are thought to be the earliest known surviving group of mass-concrete magazines dating to the 1890s.

The factory’s workforce was drawn almost exclusively from Hayle and provided work at a time when the engineering works were declining and unemployment was growing. Employees were fully trained and well-paid, and the factory was known for its pleasant working conditions.

Women worked at the factory from the start, mainly making dynamite cartridges. In 1889 the factory employed 175 people, but during the First World War this number increased over tenfold to 1,800, the majority of them women.  Three matrons were employed specifically for their care.

The site is enjoyed by walkers on the nearby South West Coast Path and is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is managed as a nature reserve by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and the majority of the site is owned by Cornwall Council.

Becky Barrett, Regional Director for Historic England in the South West said: “The National Explosives factory has many compelling stories to tell, as a state-of-the-art site supplying the Cornish mining industry, and as a vital supplier of explosives – made by women - to the Royal Navy. Protecting this site acknowledges its outstanding historic interest and ensures we can continue to learn from it for generations to come.”

Rob Nolan, Cornwall Council’s Cabinet Member for the Environment and Public Protection, said: “As the owners of most of the site of the Explosives Works, Cornwall Council is thrilled that the important role this site played in history has been recognised with this designation. 

“Working in partnership with Cornwall Wildlife Trust, this fascinating landscape is managed for its heritage, wildlife and as a place for the enjoyment of all.”

Bob Egerton, Cornwall Council’s Cabinet Member for Culture, Economy and Planning, said: “Cornwall’s world-leading innovation within mining and its associated industries has long been recognised through the World Heritage Site Designation, but it equally played its part during the First World War and this is recognised at Upton Towans.”

Nick Marriot, Cornwall Wildlife Trust West Cornwall Nature Reserves Manager said: “We’ve always recognised the historical interest of the site along with the fact that it is fantastic for wildlife.  This does not conflict with our management and makes the Towans a more interesting and inspiring place to visit." 

Posted July 25, 2019