Oare gunpowder works
- Heritage Category:
- Scheduled Monument
- List Entry Number:
- Date first listed:
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
- Swale (District Authority)
- Swale (District Authority)
- Swale (District Authority)
- National Grid Reference:
- TR 00325 62468
Reasons for Designation
Gunpowder was the only explosive available for military use and for blasting
in mines and quarries until the mid-19th century. Water-powered manufacturing
mills were established in England from the mid-16th century, although powder
had been prepared by hand for at least 200 years. The industry expanded until
the late 19th century when high explosives began to replace gunpowder. Its
manufacture declined dramatically after the First World War with British
production ceasing in 1976. The technology of gunpowder manufacture became
increasingly complex through time with the gradual mechanisation of what were
essentially hand-worked operations. Waterwheels were introduced in the 16th
century, and steam engines and water turbines from the 19th century. Pressing
and corning were also introduced between the 16th and 19th centuries to
improve the powders. Pressing improved the explosive power of the mill cake
and corning broke the pressing cake into different sizes and graded it with
respect to its fineness. Additional techniques were developed throughout the
17th, 18th and 19th centuries to improve the quality and consistency of the
finished product, and this in turn resulted in a variety of types of powders;
ranging from large coarse-grained blasting powders used in mines and quarries,
to fine varieties used, for example, in sporting guns.
Gunpowder manufacturing sites are a comparatively rare class of monument with
around 60 examples known nationally. Demand for gunpowder centred on the
London area (for military supply), other ports (for trade), and the main metal
mining areas. Most gunpowder production was, therefore, in Cumbria, the south
west, and the south east around the Thames estuary. The first water-powered
mills were established in south east England from the mid-16th century
onwards, and many of the major technological improvements were pioneered in
those mills. All sites of gunpowder production which retain significant
archaeological remains and technological information and survive well will
normally be identified as nationally important.
Faversham was one of the most important centres of gunpowder production nationally, and the Oare works comprise the most extensive remains of the industry surviving in and around the town. The works survive comparatively well over most of their original extent, retaining a range of impressive standing buildings and structures in which some internal features, such as concrete machine bases, remain in place. Important survivals also include components of the original transport and power systems which connected the site. Most phases are well documented, at least 215 years of the factory's use are represented by visible remains, with a range of rare early 20th century components, such as the electrically powered incorporating mills, illustrating the peak of English gunpowder technology.
The monument is situated at the south western end of Oare Creek on the north
western edge of Faversham and includes most of the area occupied by the Oare
gunpowder works. This represents the best surviving part of the disused
factory and runs from south west to north east for around 810m along the
wooded valley. The works survive here in the form of standing buildings and
structures, ruins, earthworks and buried remains. Part of an associated water
management system, a test range and a tramway are also included. In continuous
use from the early 18th century to 1934, the factory complex underwent many
phases of expansion and redevelopment. Most visible surviving components date
to the 19th and early 20th centuries. Traces of the earliest, 18th century
phases of the works will survive mainly in the form of below ground
Historical records suggest that the privately owned gunpowder works were in operation by 1719. Raw materials such as sulphur and saltpetre, and the finished gunpowder, were transported to and from the mills by way of Oare and Faversham Creeks and the Swale Estuary. The early works were powered mainly by waterwheels and utilised a series of now mostly dry, brick and clay lined canals, also used for transporting materials between the buildings on small punts. The main feeder pond for the water management system was situated beyond the area of the scheduling to the south east. This area has been significantly disturbed by subsequent gravel extraction and is therefore not included in the scheduling.
The main entrance to the works was at the southern end of the monument, and a series of 19th century maps and descriptions indicate that the initial processing of the ingredients took place at the southern end of the site. The mixed ingredients were then transported to the more dispersed incorporating and refining mills situated in the central and northern parts of the monument.
From the mid-19th century steam power was introduced to the works. One of the most impressive surviving structures from this period is the corning house situated in the central part of the monument, near its north western boundary. Corning involved the grading of the powder to produce grains of the correct size for the various end uses. The massive size of the corning house reflects the fact that this operation was one of the most dangerous parts of the refining process. Thought to have been constructed in around 1845 and substantially redeveloped in 1926, the north west-south east aligned, roughly rectangular structure has rounded corners and is set into a steep hill slope to the north west. The battered, brick and concrete retaining walls stand to a height of around 6m. Its open, south east facing entrance is screened by a huge earthen blast bank. The original superstructure and corrugated iron roof, designed to be blown clear of the building in the event of an explosion, have not survived.
In 1854, Hall and Company took over the ownership of the three Faversham gunpowder factories, resulting in more integrated production practices and new investment in the Oare works. The test range, where the strength and reliability of the gunpowder was checked by test firings, was constructed during this period. It survives as a levelled terrace around 170m long and 11m wide along the north western edge of the monument. Each side of the terrace was screened by specially planted avenues of Wellingtonia trees, the stumps of which survive at 9m intervals. Building foundations visible at the south western end of the range represent an associated laboratory and gun shed.
After World War I, British explosives manufacturers grouped together to form Nobel Industries Limited, and, because of the growing use of chemical explosives, gunpowder production became concentrated in a small number of factories. These included the now integrated Faversham works, comprising the Oare and Marsh works, the latter situated around 1km to the north east. In 1926, Nobel Industries were absorbed into Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), and the Oare works underwent a new phase of expansion, becoming for a time the largest gunpowder producer in Britain. Among the most impressive buildings constructed during this time was the electrically driven incorporating mill, situated within the north western sector of the monument. This 84m long, north west-south east aligned, concrete based building housed four pairs of mills set on either side of a central motor room. The building retains some of its concrete machine bases. Contemporary photographs have revealed that the building originally had a timber first floor and was fronted with glazed, wooden framed panels, although these features no longer survive. During this period a manually powered tramway was used to move goods around the works. Most of the metal rails were subsequently removed, although a short section is visible within a large storage building situated on the southern edge of the monument.
During the early 1930s it was recognised that the coastal position of the Faversham works made them vulnerable to wartime invasion or aerial bombardment. For this reason, the Oare works were closed for production in 1934, and the factory lands were auctioned in 1935. Some of the machinery was removed to the Ardeer works in Ayrshire, and many of the processing buildings were subsequently demolished. These, along with further, associated archaeological features will survive within the monument in the form of below ground remains.
Building number 23 at the southern boundary of the works adjacent to Bysing Wood Road, all modern fences, railings, signs and the modern surfaces of all paths and tracks are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath these features is included.
MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.
The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.
- Legacy System number:
- Legacy System:
Books and journals
Cocroft, W, Oare Gunpowder Works, Faversham, Kent, (1991)
This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
End of official listing