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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Cumbria

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The Gunpowder Industry of Cumbria

In high demand for use by the military, navy, and in commercial mining and quarrying, the manufacture of gunpowder was a potentially lucrative business, and in the 18th and 19th Centuries, several Cumbrian entrepreneurs, like the Wakefields and Huddlestons, threw their wealth into developing the trade. Due to the risky nature of gunpowder making, production facilities had to be sited in remote and undulating areas, preferably surrounded by trees and with an ample water supply close by to drive machinery - the gunpowder industry found a natural home in Cumbria.

With gunpowder came substantial wealth and employment. At one point, during the dark days of slavery, when hundreds of tons of powder were dispatched to Africa to exploit the new mineral wealth, the gunpowder trade was reputed to be worth over £20 million. Thousands of jobs were also created in the region. Whilst the men worked in manufacturing, wives and daughters were employed in packing and dispatch, and the thriving industry also had knock-on effects for other employers, creating new jobs on the canals, railways, and with shipping companies.

Making gunpowder was highly dangerous. One slip could mean instant death or being maimed for life, and the modest protection afforded to workers – leather aprons, clogs with copper caulkers to prevent sparks – did little to prevent frequent accidents and explosions. The worst accident occurred on 25th July 1868, when nine men were killed and many others injured at Blackbeck. In all, there were 102 deaths in Cumbria between 1764 and 1937. Exposed to such risks on a daily basis, gunpowder workers developed a special camaraderie, and a strong sense of community grew up around these remote places of work in the Cumbrian countryside. The workers’ team spirit carried over into their daily lives, as they played football, cricket and in the works’ band together.

By the 1930s, however, the hey-day of the independently-owned gunpowder industry in Cumbria was over, broken by what was to become ICI Nobels Explosives, which bought up several of the local companies. The last Cumbrian mill to close was Gatebeck works in 1934, and most of the region’s trade was transferred to Ardeer in Scotland. Some of the younger workers took up the offer of new jobs and assisted removal to Scotland, but many of the old-timers stayed on.

Today in Cumbria, little evidence of the gunpowder industry remains, however, there are still a few tell-tale reminders if you know where to look. Take our photographic tour of the region, and discover Cumbria’s gunpowder legacies.

Words: Ian Tyler

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