Lowwood gunpowder works


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:


Ordnance survey map of Lowwood gunpowder works
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

South Lakeland (District Authority)
National Park:
National Grid Reference:
SD 34930 83942

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.

Lowwood is the best-preserved 19th century gunpowder works in northern England and retains most of its components including an in situ 19th century Robey boiler used in the gunpowder drying process. Many of the buildings preserve technological information relating to their late 18th century, 19th and/or 20th century use, while remains of two in situ water turbines occupying former wheelpits clearly illustrate the evolution of water-powered technology.


The monument includes the upstanding buildings, ruins, earthworks, and buried remains of part of Lowwood gunpowder works, located on the east bank of the River Leven to the north east of Low Wood village. The gunpowders manufactured at Lowwood ranged from fine powders used for sporting and military purposes to course powders used for mining, quarrying and other blasting activities, and the remains include a number of ancillary buildings and structures associated with this manufacturing process, together with an in situ Robey locomotive- type boiler which provided heat for the gunpowder drying process, two in situ water turbines for powering machinery, and a stone weir and extensive water management system constructed to provide water power for some of the machinery and gunpowder production processes. Gunpowder production consists of eight principal stages; preparation and first mixing of the main ingredients of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal, incorporating of these ingredients by mixing and grinding, pressing of the mixed powder into a `cake' to improve its specific gravity and explosive power, corning or breaking up and sizing of the press cake, dusting of the sized powder to remove loose particles, glazing of the gunpowder to protect against moisture, drying in a heated building known as a stove house or drying house, then finally packing or moulding in barrels or cartridges. Each of these processes took place in purpose-built structures, some of which were located away from the main group of buildings because of the danger of explosion, and remains of buildings within which all these activities took place survive at Lowwood. The original licence to manufacture gunpowder at Lowwood was granted in 1798 and production began the following year. Initial sales were mainly to Africa as part of the slave trade, but after the abolition of slave trading by British ships in 1807 production turned towards the manufacture of powders for industrial and civil engineering works. In the 1850s sporting and military powders began to be produced in addition to blasting powders but with the end of World War I demand for military explosives fell. Rationalisation of the gunpowder industry led to a merger with the Nobel organisation and production at Lowwood became concentrated on the manufacture of black powder for slate quarrying. In 1926 Lowwood became part of ICI and two years later the plant was modernised when electric turbines replaced many of the waterwheels as the main power source. Gunpowder production at Lowwood eventually ceased in 1935 and much of the machinery was transferred to the Ardeer works in Ayrshire. Following Board of Trade regulations many of the buildings were subsequently dismantled and/or burned to ensure no explosives could remain in crannies. A stone weir was constructed across the River Leven upstream from the gunpowder works and a large mill race from which smaller leats ran was cut to provide water power for the early machinery. Most of the remains apart from a boiler house lie between the Leven and the mill race. These remains are described from south west to north east; close to the original clock tower and offices, which are situated just outside the area of protection, are the ruins of a preparing mill where the three main gunpowder ingredients were weighed out and given a first mix. A short distance to the east are the ruins of the works entrance or search house where workers would remove anything liable to cause a spark. Once through the entrance the ruins of a pair of incorporating mills, a leat, a tail race, and part of the waterwheel survive. Here the gunpowder ingredients where crushed and ground together under heavy edge grinding runners to form mill-cake. Large waterwheels and heavy runners of stone or cast iron were employed and the design of an incorporating mill is instantly recognisable, being two identical rectangular structures either side of a mill race and waterwheel, with a tail race taking water back to the river. When the mills were burned at the closure of the works, the light wooden-framed huts that enclosed each mill were burnt to the ground, leaving only the thick stone-built three-sided outer blast walls. Six incorporating mills were originally erected at Lowwood but by 1860 another eight had been added and these all operated until modernisation of the plant in 1928, after which a number were demolished. Remains of six pairs of incorporating mills survive close by including one which remains in its original 1799 condition and contains much technological information including in situ waterwheel bearings and edge runner drive shaft mountings, and another which contains an in situ edge runner grinding stone. A short distance to the north, close to the river, lie remains of a water-powered dusting house where, in order to remove any loose powder, it was tumbled in cylinders, while to the east, fed by a leat which powered a waterwheel, are remains of the joiners shop and saw mill complex. Close by, on the east side of the mill race, are the ruins of a fuel store adjacent to a recently restored boiler house. Within this boiler house there is an in situ Robey locomotive-type boiler which produced steam that was fed by pipes to two gunpowder drying houses. These drying houses are situated on the west of the mill race a short distance to the north; one is ruined, the other has recently been renovated. Further to the west, close by the river, are the remains of a building which at various times functioned as a press house, magazine and packing room, while a short distance to the north east stand the remains of a large corning mill and its leat. This structure housed corning machines which undertook the most dangerous process of all, that of breaking up the compressed gunpowder, and consequently the thick stone-built blast walls of this three-sided building survive to their full height. The remains of another large building which at various times functioned as a corning mill or a glaze house also lie close to the river. A leat from the mill race provided water power to drive the machinery in this building while a short tail race returned water to the river. Nearby are the buried remains of an open store house while to the north east lie the remains of a packing house. An early 20th century map depicts a magazine, packing house, press house and corning house located on the narrow spit of land at the northern end of the site, and buried remains of all these structures will survive. Powder was initially transported around the site by horse drawn carts on roads, then by horse drawn bogies running on the 3ft 6in gauge tramway which was linked by a bridge to Haverthwaite railway station on the west of the Leven. Cuttings and embankments for the tramway still survive in places on site. A number of features are excluded from the scheduling; these are all modern walls, fences, gateposts, caravans and the bases on which they stand, the surfaces of all paths and the surfaces of all flagged and gravelled areas, although the ground beneath all 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
Crocker, G, The Lowwood Gunpowder Works, (1988), 1-9
Marshall, J, Davis-Shiel, M, Industrial Archaeology of the Lake Counties, (1977), 75-88
Patterson, E M, Black Powder Manufacture in Cumbria, (1995), 15-23
Ronnie Mein (To Robinson,K. MPPA), (1997)


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

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