Kynoch Limited – Arklow Explosives Works – Arklow

A view of Kynoch’s Explosive Works, Arklow, c.1900.

Facility Type & Function:

A privately operated explosives works belonging to Kynoch Limited. Primarily engaged in the manufacture of cordite during both the Second Boer War and later the Great War.

Brief History:

In 1893, shortly after Kynoch & Company had decided to enter the explosives manufacturing industry, they were approached by the engineer A.T. Cocking with a proposal for the manufacture of a new explosive, cordite, which had recently been developed by Alfred Noble, the inventor of dynamite. Cocking was confident that cordite was set to replace gunpowder as the explosive charge in military and sporting munitions and mining industries.

Nobel made the discovery of cordite by combining two existing and notoriously unstable explosives, guncotton and nitro-glycerine. The resultant product generated a smokeless explosive that was more powerful than gunpowder. Furthermore, unlike gunpowder, cordite was unaffected by moisture or temperature, making it a very safe explosive to handle and store. Unless it was contained within a strong chamber like a bullet or shell casing cordite wouldn’t explode. If ignited in the open air, it simply burnt harmlessly.

Kynoch & Company’s then managing director, Arthur Chamberlain, took Cocking up on his proposal and in November 1894 the company had an initial modest order to produce 600 tons of cordite for the British government.

The north beach of the harbour town of Arklow, in Southern Ireland, was selected as the site for Kynoch’s new Cordite Factory. The site’s location, just half a mile from the mouth of the estuary of the River Avoca, made it ideal for shipping final products back to England. Other factors in the selection of the Arklow site were that it was situated on an existing inland railway line, had a sufficiently large population that could support the requirements of the new works plus it was the location of an existing, but as then not used chemical works. The latter was procured by Kynoch’s as it was deemed that once back in production it could supply the new Cordite Factory with all its essential raw feed materials. The chemical works were connected to the new explosives factory via a light railway and a canal. Despite all its positive points there were factions within the British government that felt it would be better to have Kynoch’s new Factory constructed in mainland Britain.

A view of Kynoch’s Arklow Chemical Works, c.1900.

Development on Kynoch’s new project proceeded very quickly and by July of 1895 the Chemical Works at Arklow, along with the new Cordite Factory, were in production. The latter initially employed 260 workers. As part of the factory’s development under Arthur Chamberlain the company built two rows of terraced houses in Arklow for the accommodation of management, a company guest house and later a dedicated workwear laundry was also established. Inside the factory the company provided a large canteen and a recreational hall that had a reading room and billiard tables. The new explosives works was serviced by a new central power station from where electricity and steam was distributed around the site.

A view of the central Power Station on the site of Kynoch’s Arklow Explosive Works, c.1900.

Despite an explosion in part of the site in October 1895, which led to the loss of one worker’s life resulting in a temporary shutdown of the works plus an industrial dispute, the new Cordite Factory successfully completed delivery of its first government order. More were to quickly follow. Unfortunately over the life of the works more industrial accidents were to follow ultimately leading to the deaths of a total of 40 workers.

In 1897, to fund its continued rapid expansion Kynoch & Company re-formed as Kynoch Limited.

During the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899 to 1902) Kynoch’s Arklow Works received a huge increase in orders. This continued after the war up until 1907 when a significant batch of cordite from the factory was rejected by the government as being of inferior quality and containing too higher levels of mercury. This led to fears regarding the future of the Arklow site and for several years the works struggled on without any further orders from the British government. However, with the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 the earlier contentious issues of product specifications were conveniently forgotten and yet again British government orders for cordite began to flood in to meet the huge demands. This led to a rapid increase in the size of the Arklow factory along with its workforce, which went from a pre-war figure of 600 to a least 3,000. The site operated 24 hours per day and employed an operational shift system. Such a large increase in the factory’s demand for labour meant that additional transport services had to be established to bring in workers from surrounding towns and villages. A garrison of 100 soldiers was also established in Arklow to protect the factory along with a workers’ hostel for a proportion of those employees who came from outside the town. By this time the Arklow Works extended for a mile up the cost line from Arklow’s North Quay and covered an enclosed area of 400 acres.

The principal work buildings within the explosive works were largely constructed of wood. They were painted according to a colour code which indicated the level of hazard to which the operations conducted inside each one was assessed to be. The majority of operational buildings on the site were located within protective bunded embankments. When occupied the doors to the work huts were always left open. In the event of an explosion occurring in one of the site’s buildings the surrounding earth/sand bunds acted as safety blast walls, thereby reducing the risk of an explosion propagating to neighbouring areas. Each operating area of the site was connected to the next in line in the manufacturing process via a simple manually operated wagon way.

The work’s final explosive products were typically housed in re-enforced concrete magazines prior to them being loaded onto one of Kynock’s fleet of ships for transport off site.

Much of the Arklow Works output was shipped to Purfleet in Essex or the the British Government’s Royal Ordnance Factory at Greenwich in Kent. Here the explosives were off-loaded and filled into munitions shells before being sent to the various theatres of military operations or the Navy.

Despite efforts from Kynoch’s to issue its workers with updated work rulebooks and maintain work safety levels the rapid rate of expansion and changes on the site inevitably led to further accidents occurring. These increased to such an extend that it was decided to open a works hospital on the site. While in existence this facility treated 900 cases of which 135 were termed as serious. One of the commonest workers’ injuries were as a result of chemical/acid burns. The sites worst accident occurred on a night shift of 21st September 1917 when an explosion occurred in a series of four adjacent huts used for mixing nitro-glycerine and guncotton. In total 27 men were killed with a further 6 being seriously injured. The explosion was so intense that it shook buildings in Arklow causing many broken windows. Its blast was heard over 12 miles away. The cause of the explosion was never discovered.

In early 1918 there was further bad news for the site as concerns were raised that it might be earmarked for closure. Despite the continuation of the war throughout that year large numbers of the site’s workforce were made redundant. The ending of the war, in November of that year increased the rate of the site closure. Almost overnight the War Departments needs for endless supplies of explosives suddenly disappeared leading to an immediate recession in the explosives industry throughout Britain.

By 1919 only 100 workers were left at the Arklow Works and by the end of that year it was down to a mere handful. Thereafter Kynoch’s announced the sale of the site. Over the following few years the site’s machinery was dismantled and either removed or sold for scrap. Most of the site’s approximate 400 buildings were demolished.

Due to the escalating social and political unrest in Ireland towards the end of the war it is likely that the British Government pushed for the early closure of the Arklow Works as they would have been anxious for such a facility not to pass outside of their political control if Ireland were to become independent. As part of the site’s closure all and technical records and files were returned to Kynoch’s head office in England.

The loss of such a major employer in the Arklow area was a major blow to the area and one that it has arguably never fully recovered from.

Today very little remains of this once important industrial site running along Arklow’s north beach. However, its importance and memory are preserved via a dedicated heritage trail which passes through parts of the site with several information boards along its route.

For more on the site’s history click on the “Gramophone” image below where a web link will take the reader to an oral history recording about the works which was made as part of the BBC Radio’s “World War I at Home” Series.Two further of Kynoch Limited’s British works are known to have used tokens as part of their day-to-day operations. Information about these additional sites and tokens can be found via the links below.

Location Details:

Arklow, County Wicklow, Ireland.

Associated Token, Check & Pass Issues:

Type I

(Image courtesy of Arklow Maritime & Heritage Museum)

Function: Workplace Contraband Receipt Token (Note 1 & 2)

Material: Brass

Design: Uniface  with a plain edge

Shape & Size: Hexagonal   44.0 mm x 38.0 mm

Obverse: Raised legend around upper half reads KYNOCH AKLOW and around lthe lower half MATCH BOX . In the centre field the incuse stamped number 560 above a raised line below.

Reverse:  Blank.

Date: 1895 to 1919

Maker: Unknown

Published References:  None.


Notes:

  1. As in coal mines, the definition of “contraband materials” in facilities manufacturing and handling explosives includes anything that could start, or be used to propagate a fire or explosion. Such materials typically include matches, tobacco and other smoking materials, anything that may cause sparks plus any non-safety approved electrical items. It is common practice that on entering such facilities employees must declare and temporarily surrender any of the above materials in their possession to a nominated work’s official or the time office staff before entering their allocated working areas. In such facilities, in the interests of plant safety, employees are commonly “spot searched” for such materials before being allowed final access to their respective working stations. If non-surrendered “contraband” materials are found on their person they are typically fined or threatened with dismissal. At the start of each shift, after temporarily surrendering any contraband materials in their possession, it is likely that the employees were handed individually numbered identification tokens. The unique identification number on these tokens would match with similarly numbered boxes or storage “cubby holes” in which the employee’s confiscated materials were temporarily stored for safekeeping. After completion of their shift, the workers would return to the time office (or an alternative location) and hand over their “contraband” receipt tokens to the duty staff members. In return they would give them back their respective property from the numbered safe storage area.
  2.  While the legend on this  token states the single item “Match Box” it is highly likely that the token was used as a joint receipt for all any workplace contraband that the worker may have had (i.e not just a box of matches but also smoking tobacco and pipe and/or cigarettes).

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