Littleton gunpowder works at Powdermill Farm
- 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.
- North Somerset (Unitary Authority)
- National Grid Reference:
- ST 54981 64406
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.
Littleton gunpowder works at Powdermill Farm survives well with some of its original buildings in use for other functions, and other buildings surviving in a ruined state. The layout of the industrial complex can still be clearly seen, allowing for functional interpretation, and is one of only two sites nationally retaining the layout of pre-19th century mills with closely-spaced danger buildings (that is, buildings with a high risk of suffering from explosion during the mixing process). Floor and ground levels will preserve archaeological and technological evidence about the construction and use of the gunpowder works. In addition the mill pond will preserve waterlogged organic deposits relating to the construction of the gunpowder works and its processes including the remains of two sunken barges relating to the gunpowder works, which are known to be present.
The monument includes a gunpowder works situated in the valley of Winford
Brook, which is a tributory of the River Chew. The monument lies 1km south
east of Winford church, on the south bank of the tributary where the minor
road from Batch to Dundry crosses the river. The works are about 0.5km away
from the two nearest villages of Littleton and Upper Littleton, and takes its
name from the former village. It is thought to have started production in
about 1650, and by the 18th century was the largest powder producing complex
in the south west of England, apparently producing 3500 barrels of gunpowder
per day by 1762. The works continued in production until the end of the
Napoleonic Wars in the 1820s. At the height of production, in the
18th century, the works employed three mills, the ruins of which stand in a
row between Winford Brook and a clay-lined mill pond 250m long constructed to
provide a head of water to drive the mills and to aid the movement of
materials around the site. In addition there was a terrace of three
millworkers' cottages and the manager's house, now converted to private
dwellings, a clock tower, and storage facilities.
The site was owned by the Strachey family in the second half of the
18th century and became a farm when gunpowder production ceased and is now
known as Powdermill Farm. The manager's house became a farmhouse, and the
storage facilities were used as a barn. The complex is aligned north west-
south east, and can be divided into two parts; the organisation and
distribution part of the complex at the south east end, including the
manager's house and storage facilities, and the production part which
stretches along the mill pond to the north west with its line of mills. The
manager's house is at the furthest south east end and fronts onto the minor
road. It was sited well away from the more dangerous parts of the production
process, and had easy access for people and goods entering and leaving the
complex. Behind the manager's house, to the west, is a barn-like building,
dating to the 17th century but with 19th century alterations. At the north
east end of this is a separate small room with thick walls and a vaulted roof,
thought to have been a gunpowder store. The tithe map shows that these appear
to have been parts of one building, at least in the 19th century, and it is
thought that the small room was inserted after the barn was built. The barn
has wide doors so that wagons could be driven into it for loading.
The north east end of the gunpowder store fronts onto the south east end of
the mill pond which is embanked along its north side. Today this end of the
mill pond, nearest the house, is dry, and forms a sunken garden for the house.
It was originally water filled, and a surviving lateral leat drained it into
the river. Further along the mill pond, to the north west, there is a dam
which holds back a head of water which now fills the remaining part of the
pond. This part of the pond contains the remains of two sunken barges
contemporary with the gunpowder works. The embankment on the north side of the
pond now forms a garden walk, and separates the pond from Winford Brook.
Between the embankment and the brook the ruins of five of the gunpowder
production buildings can be seen. The first building, at the south east end of
the pond, is a large brick built structure on more than one level. It appears
to be a mill, but its exact function in the powder producing process is not
known. Further along from this is a tower, built of faced stone, thought to be
a drying tower, used to dry the gunpowder. The next building to the north west
is an incorporating mill which originally had quite a large undershot wheel.
This original wheel has now gone, and has been replaced with a much smaller
wheel as a decorative feature. There is a gearing chamber which runs
underneath, through the wheel drop, and a tunnel running parallel with the
river and the mill pond. The incorporating mill was used to mix the charcoal,
saltpetre and sulphur under pressure, which was the most dangerous part of the
process. The next building is thought to have been a crushing mill which
fronted onto the mill pond and was used in the production of raw material. The
furthest building north west is thought to have been a corning mill, used for
forming the powder into pellets. The clock tower, which stands to the west of
the mill pond, is thought to be late 18th century or early 19th century. It is
now incomplete, and is 2.5m square and stands to about 5m high. In its north
side is a square doorway with a stone lintel, above which is a brick oculus
containing an ashlar block with an opening for a shaft or clock drive. To the
left is a window, and at the back is another doorway. The tower stands next to
a shed, but it is thought that it was originally attached either to a small
chapel or site offices.
A number of features are excluded from the scheduling; these are the clock
tower, barn, magazine and manager's house (Powdermill Farmhouse) which are all
Listed Buildings, Grade II, the summer house on the dam, the shed next to the
clock tower, the replica wheel and its attachments and all garden fences. The
ground beneath all these features is, however, 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:
Avon C C, SMR No 2190,
English Heritage, Listed building entry ST 56 SE 7/124, (1980)
English Heritage, Listed building entry ST 56 SE SP/796,
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