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List Entry Summary

This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.


List entry Number: 1382118



The building may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Dorset

District: Purbeck

District Type: District Authority

Parish: Wareham St. Martin

National Park: Not applicable to this List entry.

Grade: II

Date first listed: 21-Aug-2000

Date of most recent amendment: Not applicable to this List entry.

Legacy System Information

The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System: LBS

UID: 482483

Asset Groupings

This list entry does not comprise part of an Asset Grouping. Asset Groupings are not part of the official record but are added later for information.

List entry Description

Summary of Building

Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Reasons for Designation

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Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.



SY 99SW Cooker House at Acetone Factory, forme 235/3/10008 r Royal Naval Cordite Factory 21-AUG-00


Cooker house on acetone factory site. 1916, converted into offices in mid 1930s. Steel frame clad in colourwashed brick; corrugated iron roof, originally with raised central clerestorey. South gable end has steel rolling door to central bay. 11-bay side elevations have timber casement windows with glazing bars to square panes, double-height doorway with mid C20 plank doors to fourth bay from left on east elevation and late C20 lean-to extension and tower to west elevation. Interior: floored and converted into offices in mid C20, with the exception of the southernmost bays which have remained open to the roof and clearly display the steel framework which took an upper floor for the mashing of the ingredients, after which it was gravity-fed into six cookers before being taken to the adjacent fermentation vessels (Scheduled Ancient Monument).

HISTORY: Holton Heath comprises the most significant of the explosives factories constructed for the British government during the First World War, very different in its plan form and development from earlier sites - notably Waltham Abbey - which had been based on gunpowder production; later sites, such as the Royal Naval Propellants Factory of 1938 at Caerwent in south Wales, benefitted from the technology gained at Holton Heath. The site at Holton Heath, adjacent to a railway and well-placed for export to the principal naval dockyards, was selected in autumn 1914 by the Admiralty for the manufacture of the Royal Navy's independant supply of cordite for shells. It was opened in January 1916. The neo-Georgian administrative and laboratory buildings to the north are listed grade II. The area around the cooker house, with the vats and tramlines, the nitration plant and cordite press plant within the central area, and the cordite drying plant and picrite factory to the east are Scheduled Ancient Monuments. The subjects of additional schedulings are the anti-aircraft sites and bombing decoy sites to the south, constructed for the protection of the site during the Second World War.

The acetone factory at Holton Heath represented the first purpose-built industrial plant in the UK designed for the application of biotechnology. The cordite factory was equipped to be self-sufficient in the sulphuric and nitric acids which formed such an essential component of the manufacture process. Acetone was used in the incorporation process to ensure the gelatinisation of the principal ingredients, but war-time shortages of the product led to the Admiralty's adoption of biotechnology to manufacture acetone in sufficient quantities for producing this crucial solvent. Construction here started in late 1916/early 1917, under the direction of Chaim Weizmann (the future president of Israel) who had been involved with the development of fermentation technology before the war. Holton Heath represented the first purpose-built pl ant for the industrial application of biotechnology, specifically built around Weizmann's own discovery of a bacterium which could ferment a starch source directly to ethanol, butanol and acetone. Maize was initially imported from the USA, but during the peak of the U-boat campaign these imports were disrupted and other materials including artichokes, horse chestnuts and even acorns were used as alternatives.

The acetone factory ceased production in the late 1920s and was partly demolished in 1934, leaving two important structures. These are the cooker house and a cluster of concrete fermentation vats (six out of the original eight have survived). In addition, it is possible to trace the foundation of the whole complex on the ground and identify the railway embankment and associated tramlines. The ingredients in the cooker house were mashed on the upper floor, after which it was gravity-fed into six cookers in which the maize was reduced to a mash before being taken to the adjacent fermentation vessels. The latter, although not an early example of reinforced concrete, have national importance for the clear relationship between the application of their plan and form to the nascent and biotechnology industry, one that is now set to revolutionise key aspects of the human experience in the third millenium. The cooker house is a plain steel-framed building with brick infill, which has lost its raised central clerestorey. However, its location, plan form and internal features (most notably the steel frame with the castings for load-bearing beams which carried the mash tuns) clearly relate to a function and origin of world historical importance. None of the infrastructure associated with early (pre-1916) experimentation in this industry has survived, and it is significant that plants modelled on Holton Heath, which in turn borrowed elements from the brewing industry, were later built in Canada, the United States and India.

(M R Bowditch and L Hayward, A Pictorial History of the Royal Naval Cordite Factory, Holton Heath, Wareham, 1996; W Cocroft, Dangerous Energy (draft text, unpublished), RCHME)

Listing NGR: SY9458490421

Selected Sources

Books and journals
Bowditch, M R, Hayward, L , A Pictorial History of the Royal Naval Cordite Factory, Holton Heath, (1996)
Cocroft, W, Dangerous Energy The Archaeology of Gunpowder and Military Explosives Manufacture, (2000)

National Grid Reference: SY 94584 90421


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End of official listing