Gunpowder Mills

The only known photograph of one the Ewell Gunpowder Mill buildings
The only known photograph of one the Ewell Gunpowder Mill buildings c.1900
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

One of the industries that was carried out in Ewell from the mid-eighteenth century was gunpowder manufacture. It was, and still is, a very dangerous process: fires and explosions were very common so it is not surprising that local production ceased around 1872.

Gunpowder is made from sulphur, charcoal and saltpetre. The explosive force is the result of very rapid burning, which creates huge volumes of gas. One report suggests that in a fraction of a second the gunpowder turns into 1500 times its volume in hot gases.

Apart from the quality of the raw materials, the moisture content, shape, size and density of the gunpowder particles affect the burning rate of the powder. Gunpowder needed for different tasks such as small arms, shells and blasting has to be made to different specifications.

The gunpowder manufacturing process is made more dangerous by any impurities in the raw ingredients particularly stray metal or stone particles. Generally the ingredients are stored and prepared in separate buildings as is each subsequent stage of production. The buildings would be spaced far apart and often had one flimsy wall that would blow out in the event of an explosion. The Ewell site covered some 45 acres! (OS map ref TQ 205 642 - TQ 216 632)

Alexander Bridges and Jonathan Eade started local production about 1754 when he obtained the necessary licence. Unfortunately the detailed plan of the mill held by the National Archives is in such poor condition that it is not available to the public. Luckily the 1866 survey for the Ordnance Survey map shows the location of the main buildings and on the following map we have picked out the other buildings in red. To show the surprisingly complex water channels we have coloured them in blue.

This photograph is thought to show a couple of the mill buildings
This photograph is thought to show a couple of the mill buildings
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

The main power for the mills was generally water and this was the case at Ewell. Having said this, not all the buildings that needed power would or could be water powered and most gunpowder mills would have used horse or donkey power for some of the lighter and shorter milling processes such as grinding the raw materials. As steam engines became more available, some mills were converted to steam power to drive the machinery. The powder had to be heavily pressed using hydraulic presses or "screw jacks" to increase its density and make it more powerful. This could increase the power of the gunpowder by up to a third.

Aftermath of the April 1863 Ewell Gunpowder Mill Explosion
Aftermath of the April 1863 Ewell Gunpowder Mill Explosion - View 1

Dust particles in air can be an explosive mixture so every effort had to be made to reduce this risk. For example, the tools and machinery would be made of wood or copper and brass to ensure that they would not cause any sparks. Employees would be required to change into clothes without any pockets (to deter smuggling in of matches and tobacco etc) and made to wear shoes made without any nails or metal fittings. The equipment was also regularly monitored to minimise friction which could cause the powder to heat up and ignite.

Click on thumbnail to see a larger map based on the 1870 OS map
Click on thumbnail to see a larger map based on the 1870 OS map.

The ingredients would be moved between buildings on punts or barges along the mill stream as was the case at Ewell or horse drawn trams. The horses' shoes were made of copper to reduce the risk of sparks.

Click here for a diagram showing the various stages of production (You may need Adobe Reader to view this file, this software can be downloaded free from Adobe):

Accidents often happened at gunpowder mills and the resultant explosions could cause great damage and loss of life. We are aware of the following explosions:

1757 mills, 'earthquake in London' 1 Gentleman's Magazine, 18 July
1768 mills blown up 5 Gentleman's Magazine, 25 May
1783 mills blown up, felt over 12 miles away Gentleman's Magazine, 21 Oct
1791 powder mills 4 J Lackington Memoirs
1812 blast felt at Horsham 2 Sussex Weekly Advertiser, 17 Feb.
1827 incorporating mill Times, 30 Mar
1839 Corning House blown up during repairs by millwrights 2 Morning Cronicle 2 July
1843 two power mils blown up Times, Sep 7
1844 roof of mill blown off Times, 26 June
1844 mill utterly destroyed, heard 2 miles away 1 Times, 30 Aug
1845 roof of mill blown off, Times, 27 Mar
1863 corning house leveled 3 Times, 16 Sept
1865 press house 2 Times, 25 Sept
1870 corning house demolished 2 Times, 27 Oct
1871 third explosion in 8 months Times, 25 Feb
1871 storage shed for barrels Times, 20 Nov
Total Killed =

Newspaper reports of some of the nineteenth century accidents at Ewell can be read here and here (again Adobe Reader is required).

Aftermath of the April 1863 Ewell Gunpowder Mill Explosion
Aftermath of the April 1863 Ewell Gunpowder Mill Explosion - view 2

After major accidents in 1863 and 1865 the local residents were very concerned about the risks from the gunpowder mills. From records held at the National Archives we know that the Ewell Vestry passed a resolution unanimously on the 30 September 1865 condemning the accumulation of gunpowder at Ewell Station on the London Brighton & South Coast Railway. The resolution went on to complain at the careless manner in which the trucks were loaded from vans and the improper construction of the trucks which were highly dangerous to public safety and causing well founded alarm. The resolution was passed to both the Secretary of State (presumably at the Home Office) and the railway company. The railway gave notice to the gunpowder company that they would decline to convey gunpowder unless they provided proper and secure trucks for its conveyance.

The government introduced limits on the amount of ingredients that could be processed at any one time and rules for handling and transport were drawn up but that did not stop complaints. A modern day reproduction of the typical rules for gunpowder storage and transportation can be seen by clicking here, (again Adobe Reader is required).

The Bridges Family ran the business till the death of Sir Henry Bridges in 1861 when it was leased to John Carr Sharpe and partners. The Bridges family owned a nearby house that was originally called Avenue House but was later extended and renamed as Ewell Court House. Gunpowder production is labour intensive and by 1871 it was employing 156 people, which was high compared to the size of the local population. The records at the National Archives show that on the 3 December 1866 a limited company, called the Ewell Gunpowder Company, was formed to acquire and run gunpowder mills, magazines etc in both Ewell and in Barking, Essex. The company was to have capital of £10,000 made up of 1000 x £10 shares but initially only seven subscribers, each with just one share, are shown on the memorandum of association. The company was formed but no articles of association were lodged with the Registrar of Joint Stock Companies when it was incorporated on the 8 January 1867. By 1878 the company had failed to submit accounts for the years 1868-1877, and appears to have ceased trading about 1872 so was dissolved on 31 August 1883.

Part of an 80 inch Broken Mill Stone photographed in the 1950s
Part of an 80 inch Broken Mill Stone photographed in the 1950s

Some of the mill stones were, it is said, reused at a snuff mill in Beddington. Part of an edge runner stone is now a memorial to Alderman Ronald Walton Smith in Poole Road Rec (King Georges Field) (OS Map ref TQ 208 635), another is in a garden path in Church street, Ewell (OS Map ref TQ 221 626) and a third has been incorporated into a waterfall on the east side of Ewell Court Lake (OS Map ref TQ 212 638).

The Gunpowder site has been landscaped and is now known as the Hogsmill Open space. The 18th century packhorse bridge (OS map ref TQ 210 636) was probably used by the gunpowder company for the movement of their goods about the site. A powder mill building at Ewell is believed to have produced the model for the door (to the soul) in Holman Hunt's Light of the world.

Holman Hunt - Light of the World
Holman Hunt - Light of the World

There was another gunpowder mill in the area at Tolworth (TQ 205 652 to TQ 211 657). This mill is at the junction of three parishes and has variously been known as Malden, Long Ditton, Tolworth and Worcester Park mills. It was run by the Evelyn Family (of John Evelyn, the diarist, fame). Incidentally the other water mills in Ewell were not involved in gunpowder production, Lower mill was used for paper and corn, whilst Upper mill was a corn mill.

The Mills Archive (Opens in a new window) contains a wealth of information on all sorts of mills.

Peter Reed, 2007

Unless otherwise credited Maps and Photographs courtesy of Surrey Libraries and are held in the
Epsom & Ewell Local And Family History Centre Collection (Links open in new windows)

While researching this article we came across the newspaper reports of a murder using locally produced gunpowder. At the time this incident was described as an outrage but todays seems to have been forgotten as no-one we asked knew of the incident. Click on the following link to read about the Outrage at Ewell.

You may also be interested in our page on the Ewell Flour Mills.

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