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Making History
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Begins Tuesday 18 October 2005 , 3.00-3.30 p.m
Sue Cook and the team answer listeners' historical queries and celebrate the way in which we all 'make' history.
Series 12
Programme 3
1 November 2005

Listen to this programme in full

Gunpowder Factories

Making History listener Ian Williams wrote to the programme after visiting the village of Tighnabruaich near Dunoon on the Firth of Clyde. He is intrigued by a derelict gunpowder mill in the nearby hamlet of Millhouse. Why was it located there?

Making History first consulted Graeme Rimer, the Academic Director of the Royal Armouries in Leeds. He told the programme that we know that gunpowder was first used by the Chinese for fireworks between the 8th and 10th centuries but that its military and blasting uses were not developed until at least 200 years later. The Franciscan monk Roger Bacon was experimenting with gunpowder in the 13th century.

Gunpowder was primarily supplied by small private companies up until the 18th century when the military began sourcing their supplies from just two mills. From the 1770s onwards Acts of Parliament were passed to make the use of gunpowder much safer. However, manufacturing it was always dangerous and small private companies thrived throughout the 19th century supplying companies involved in engineering schemes throughout the British Empire.

The mill at Millhouse was located where it was for safety reasons. Local landowner Callum Miller gave Making History a guided tour, revealing that the building was powered by a water wheel and was built in a glen surrounded by trees. Local historian Bill Black explained that the sides of the glen would have provided some protection from a blast and the thinking at the time was that the trees would also help absorb the power of any explosion. However, despite all the efforts made, it is thought that between 30 and 40 people lost their lives at the Millhouse gunpowder mill.

Originally, black powder (gunpowder) was made by mixing equal amounts, by weight, of elemental sulphur, charcoal and saltpeter (potassium nitrate).The ratio was later adjusted to 75:15:10 saltpeter:sulphur:charcoal.

Useful links
Royal Armouries Leeds
Royal Gunpowder Mills Waltham Abbey
Chart Gunpowder Mills, Faversham, Kent

Provision for the blind and partially sighted to research historical documents

A letter from a blind listener, frustrated by difficulties getting access to historical documents, prompted an investigation of how well some of our major libraries and archives cater for people with poor sight.

Making History first consulted the Royal National Institute of the Blind who told us that only 5% of the books published each year were produced in a format that would make them accessible to blind or partially sighted readers. However, since September 2005 the Disability Discrimination Act has ensured that educational establishments provide readers or other help in educational establishments.

Making History approached a blind student, Adrian Pearce, from Manchester to carry out an unscientific road test of various establishments on our behalf. These included the John Rylands Library University of Manchester, The National Archives at Kew, the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh and the People's History Library in Manchester. The last was by far the most accommodating but representatives of each of the establishments, when questioned later, expressed their commitment to "access for all".

Further help and information is available from the following:

The RNIB Helpline (tel: 0845 766 9999) offers an immediate, expert and confidential service. Many of the Helpline staff have sight problems themselves. They are trained to listen and to give reassurance and advice.

The National Archives
The National Archives at Kew provide the following:
  • Microfilm/fiche readers can magnify up to 40x and have focus controls. One of the readers is adapted for use by those with manual dexterity problems.
  • Magnifying glasses can be borrowed in the reading rooms, and 'sheet magnifiers' are available in the shop.
  • Ultra-violet lamps may be used to read faint writing.
  • ZoomText software and electronic document magnifiers linked to CCTV and computer screens offer the latest solutions.
  • For those who are deaf there are members of staff who can sign and induction loops for those who use hearing aids.
  • Large keyboards and mice are available for those with dexterity problems.
Please make contact with The National Archives before visiting, with the time you expect to arrive, the route you are taking and any needs you have, so that staff can give you the right help.
Email: Paul Sturm at  
Tel: 020 8876 3444

John Rylands Library, University of Manchester
The Library attempts to ensure that all students can make full use of its resources and services. If you have any comments about the Library and its services, or suggestions of ways in which they might be improved, contact Gavin Park, the Disability Support Co-ordinator.
Tel: 0161 275 4947

The National Library of Scotland  
The National Library of Scotland is committed to reducing the barriers faced by people with disabilities and to ensuring that all employees and users receive equal treatment as far as it is possible to do this. The Library offers a range of services including:
  • Microfilm equipment
  • A quiet area with audio-visual equipment (combined TV/video player, cassette player) and seating for one or two people which can be used for those with special requirements
  • A stand-alone computer with multimedia access, including DVD
  • Access to the Library's online resources from a networked computer with large monitor
  • Aladdin Rainbow Pro CCTV Reading System
For enquiries and pre-orders relating to the General Reading Room:
Enquiries and Reference Services Manager
National Library of Scotland
George IV Bridge
Edinburgh EH1 1EW
Tel: 0131 623 3700 ext 3820
Fax: 0131 466 2804

People's History Museum
103 Princess Street
Manchester M1 6DD
Tel: 0161 228 7212
Fax: 0161 237 5965
Labour History Archive & Study Centre:

The Brick Tax

A listener searching for a barn to convert in East Anglia notes that most of them seem to be built out of timber. Would this have been because of the Brick Tax imposed at the end of the 18th century?

Making History consulted James Campell, architect and architectural historian, Fellow in Architecture and History of Art at Queen's College Cambridge, and author of Brick: a World History.

The Brick Tax was imposed in 1784 as one of a number of taxes on production designed to help fund the interest of the increased national debt due to the defeat of Britain in the War of American Independence. The Brick Tax was repealed in 1850 as it was unfair because brick was only used in the eastern part of England as the common building material; stone, used in the western part, had ceased to attract a tax some years earlier. James Campbell believes that the Brick Tax had zero effect on the use of bricks for building because competition between brickyards kept the price of bricks down.

Further information 
The British Brick Society
James W.P. Campbell, Brick: A World History (Thames & Hudson, 2003)

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Making History

Vanessa Collingridge
Vanessa CollingridgeVanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald. 

Contact Making History

Send your comments and questions for future programmes to:
Making History
BBC Radio 4
PO Box 3096 Brighton

Or email the programme

Or telephone the Audience Line 08700 100 400

Making History is a Pier Production for BBC Radio 4 and is produced by Nick Patrick.

See Also

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