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First World War: Explosives Factories

In 1914 the British government operated a single explosives works at the Royal Gunpowder Factory, Waltham Abbey, Essex, manufacturing cordite, a propellant explosive used to drive a shell or projectile from a gun. In addition the government bought cordite from seven commercial works. Initially, to increase production, extensions were made to the existing factory at Waltham Abbey and private works, such as, those at Cliffe, Medway.

Curtis's and Harvey Explosive Works, Cliffe, Medway
Curtis's and Harvey Explosive Works, Cliffe, Medway. This modern aerial image reveals the regular pattern of the factory extension. The faint grid lines marked in the grass represent the tramways that connected the reinforced concrete cordite drying stoves. (NMR 26891/001)

In early 1914, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, gave approval for the construction of a new naval cordite factory at Holton Heath, Dorset, with a novel plant to produce and ferment acetone, essential in the manufacture of cordite. At first maize was used, but later in the war a call went out for children to collect acorns and horse chestnuts.

The children knew it was for essential war work, but not its precise nature, and they collected hundreds of tons. The remains of this plant are scheduled. Other new factories were built on a huge scale. At Gretna, Cumbria, the new cordite factory covered 3,600 hectares and by October 1917 employed nearly 20,000 people.

Front of Royal Naval Cordite Factory
Royal Naval Cordite Factory, Holton Heath, Dorset, headquarters building designed by Sir Douglas Fox and Partners. Listed Grade II (BB94/16969)
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Explosives Factories

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • Curtis's and Harvey Explosive Works, Cliffe, Medway In 1915, the Ministry of Munitions expanded the existing works that were already producing cordite. Cordite was the essential explosive propellant for all types of bullets, artillery and naval rounds. The site grew to half a square mile and employed several hundred. It closed at the end of the war and has remained abandoned for nearly a century. The semi-circle outline in the centre of the image is all that remains of a nitroglycerine plant - nitroglycerine is a key component of cordite. (NMR 26891/025)
  • Curtis's and Harvey Explosive Works, Cliffe, Medway A protective mound around now lost building where nitroglycerine was manufactured. (NMR 26891/027)
  • Curtis’s and Harvey Explosive Works, Cliffe, Medway The remains of a reinforced concrete stove for drying cordite. It is a rare example of the use of such concrete in a First World War factory. (NMR 26890/010)
  • Royal Gunpowder Factory, Waltham Abbey, Essex The factory dates back to the 1660s. From late 1914, its capacity to produce cordite was greatly increased by the construction of new buildings and an expansion of its workforce, and from 1916 the employment of women. The site is now open to the public as an attraction, renamed the Royal Gunpowder Mills. Pictured is a mineral jelly (a kind of Vaseline) and ether store. The jelly and solvent ether were used in the manufacture of cordite. Listed Grade II. (BB92/26081)
  • Royal Gunpowder Factory, Waltham Abbey, Essex This tower that housed a hydraulic accumulator was used to power the cordite presses. (BB92/26075)
  • Royal Gunpowder Factory, Waltham Abbey, Essex Protective trousers and tunics were a novelty for women workers at the time. To the right is ‘Miss Kiddy’ wearing a brass war worker’s badge indicative of her service to the war effort. (BB94/08006)