The National Explosives Company Limited – Upton Towans

The works of the National Explosives Company Limited at Upton Towans, c.1910s

Facility Type & Function:

A privately operated explosives manufacturing works belonging to The National Explosives Company Limited. Initially engaged in the manufacture of nitroglycerin and dynamite and later propellants such as gun cotton and cordite.

Brief History:

By the 1880s the directors of The Kennall Gunpowder Company of Ponsanooth, Cornwall were becoming increasingly aware of the inroads that dynamite was making in the traditional blackpowder market in the local Cornish mining industry. As a direct result of this in 1888 the company set about the formation of a new venture to manufacture dynamite given that by then Alfred Nobel’s patent on the manufacture of nitroglycerine had expired. Consequently, they formed The National Explosives Company Limited and commenced the construction of a new works near Hayle. The site chosen for the new factory was in the sand dunes at Upton Towans, which was well served by coastal shipping and a local railway line which could be used to bring in raw materials and export finished products. This works was to become one of the most successful independent manufacturers of chemical explosives of the late 19th century.

A map of showing the National Explosives Company Limited’s Works at Upton Towans. 1908

The factory’s layout comprised a “state of the art” design by Oscar Guttman, a Hungarian by birth and one of the leading chemical engineers of the day. The natural hills and valleys within the sand dunes formed an ideal location to facilitate gravity flow of liquid based intermediate products between successive stages of the nitroglycerine production process. This eliminated the need for electrically driven transfer pumps which posed an unwanted source of potential inflammatory sparks. The site was served by a separate system of tram ways for the transport of solids based raw materials and final packed products. Each successive part of the chemical production process through to the final product packing process was performed in separate wooden huts and brick buildings which were widely spread out across the site and protected on all sides by large earth embankments or “traverses”. Like at other similar sites these protective bunds ensured that in the event of a localized explosion the blast would be transferred vertically out of the bunds thus preventing a lateral explosive wave across the site which could cause a catastrophic chain reaction.

One of the chemical production buildings surrounded by protective raised earthen bunds on the site of The National Explosives Company Limited’s site at Upton Towans, c.1914

At the southern end of the site, to the rear of the dunes, was a large area that accommodated the site’s central services. These included a power plant, a boiler plant for raising stream, air compressors and pumping engines for the extraction and subsequent distribution of water from the shaft of an adjacent abandoned and flooded Boiling Well Mine.

The site additionally included large acid production plants for the manufacture of both sulphuric and nitric acid which were both used in the explosives production process. The construction of the works also included workers’ cottages and managers houses. These lay just outside of the factory’s perimeter.

Part of the Central Site Services Area of The National Explosives Company Limited’s site at Upton Towans, c.1914

The plant’s capacity to manufacture nitroglycerine placed it in an ideal position to diversify its activities away from high explosives and in to nitroglycerine-based propellants, in particular guncotton and cordite. In 1894 the company’s earlier speculative development of a cordite production facility on the site paid off when it became one of two independent British explosives companies who were awarded lucrative government supply contracts. Further awarded cordite contracts not only insured the financial security of the company, but also led to further extensions of the factory.
By the 1890s the factory employed 200 people who were accommodated in approximately 100 buildings spread out over the 300 acre site. It produced approximately 3 tonnes of dynamite a day.

The site experienced further and massive expansion in both size and production output during the Great War. During this period additional production facilities were built on the site along with work’s canteens to feed the enlarged workforce, which rose to 1800. To cope with the greater requirements for raw materials the factory was connected by a standard gauge line to the Great Western Railway at Hayle.

Like other similar explosives factories of the period the site posed many dangers to its workforce and special measures and workwear were employed to mitigate the risk of explosions. Despite this the site experienced several accidents which resulted in the deaths of at least 9 of its worker’s over it operating history. The site’s worst explosion occurred on 5th January 1904 when two adjacent explosives production huts exploded resulting in the instant deaths of 5 workers and resulting in a shock wave that blew out the windows and knocked people off their feet over 4 miles away across the bay in St. Ives. A further accident occurred on December 1916 resulting in the deaths of 4 workers including 2 young women.

Report of the Fatal Explosion at the National Explosives Company Limited’s Upton Town Work on 5th January 1904 (The Farringdon Advertiser, 9th January 1904)

Following the near collapse of the British explosives industry after the Great War the factory closed in 1920 and largely demolished shortly afterwards. A small group of magazines were retained by the newly established Imperial Chemicals Industry (I.C.I.) to store commercial explosives and gunpowder for its local fuse factories. These were finally closed in the 1970s.

An aerial view of the earth works remains of the chemical production and packing facilities of The National Explosives Company’s Works in the dunes at Upton Towans.

Today the many of the site’s brick and re-enforced concrete buildings still survive, all be they in ruins, along with the earthwork remains of many of the site’s original “traverses”.

The following YouTube presentation gives an excellent illustrated history of the Works.

Location Details:

Upton Towans,  Hayle, Cornwall

Associated Token, Check & Pass Issues:

Type I

(Image courtesy of Malcolm Johnson)

Function:  Unknown (Note 1)

Material: Brass

Design: Bi-facial with a plain edge and pierced for suspension

Shape & Size: Circular,  30 mm

Obverse: Raised legend around outer edge reads THE NATIONAL EXPLOSIVES CO LTD within an outer dotted and inner line borders. Raised line across centre field above which is the incuse stamped identification number 780 .

Reverse:  A decorative wreath design comprising of a laurel (left) and an oak (right) spray all within an outer dotted border.

Date: 1890s to c.1920 (Note 2)

Maker: Unknown (Note 3)

Published References:  Yarwood, J. – Military Tokens of the British Commonwealth. Page 143 – MMT027. Private Publication. 2011.

Type II

Function:  Unknown (Note 1)

Material: Zinc or white metal alloy

Design: Bi-facial with a plain edge and pierced for suspension

Shape & Size: Circular,  30.1 mm

Obverse: Raised legend around outer edge reads THE NATIONAL EXPLOSIVES CO LTD within an outer dotted and inner line borders. Raised line across centre field above which there would typically be a set of stamped identification numbers (Note 4).

Reverse:  A decorative wreath design comprising of a laurel (left) and an oak (right) spray all within an outer dotted border.

Date: 1890s to c.1920 (Note 2)

Maker: Unknown (Note 3)

Published References:  Yarwood, J. – Military Tokens of the British Commonwealth. Page 143 – MMT027 (variation in metal). Private Publication. 2011.


Notes:

  1. Possibly a worker’s identification pass or a time check.
  2. The relatively high worker’s identification numbers recorded on these checks are highly suggestive of them having been used during the Great War period when the site employed up to 1800 male and female workers.
  3. The use of the conjoined laurel and  oak wreath design is suggestive of these checks having been made by the company of Pryor of Sheffield who are known to have used a similar reverse design on other of their products.
  4. The absence of a stamped identification number on this check is indicative of it having never been issued for use.

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