Chimney to former National Explosives nitric acid works


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Location Description:
NGR: SW5788739718

Statutory Address:
Upton Towans, Hayle, Cornwall, TR27 5BJ


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Statutory Address:
Upton Towans, Hayle, Cornwall, TR27 5BJ

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

Location Description:
NGR: SW5788739718

Cornwall (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference:


Chimney of former nitric acid works, built 1915.

Reasons for Designation

The chimney to the former nitric acid works at National Explosives is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest: * as a strong visual reminder of the National Explosives factory located within the dunes at Upton Towans; * for its functional, well-built construction; * for its relationship with the high-class nitric acid factory, and in turn the manufacture of nitroglycerine at the National Explosives factory.

Historic interest: * as part of the technological developments required by the National Explosives factory; * for its association with the National Explosives factory during the First World War as a principal supplier of Cordite MD for the Royal Navy.

Group value: * for its visual and functional connection to the National Explosives scheduled monument (National Heritage List entry 1463206).


The National Explosives Company was an offshoot of the well-established Cornish Kennall Vale Gunpowder Company established near Ponsanooth in 1811. In the late C19 dynamite became the most effective explosive to be used in mining and quarrying, the sole supplier being Nobel; they held the manufacturer’s patent until 1881 other companies to make and supply dynamite. In 1887 Kennall managed to raise sufficient funds to set up a dynamite factory called National Explosives, and employed a Hungarian industrial chemist, Oscar Guttmann (1855-1910), to choose a site, design its layout and employ and train its first staff.

A site in the dunes at Upton Towans, to the north of Hayle, was chosen by Guttmann in 1887. The nearby expanding market in mining and quarrying and the potential for high explosives to replace gunpowder; access to engineering skills in the foundries of Hayle; and proximity to a shipping port and the national railway network were reasons for its location here. Additionally, since the components of dynamite are volatile and highly explosive, the sandy dunes of Upton Towans – away from the populated area but close enough to attract a workforce – provided natural screening to confine the effects of an accident.

The construction of the factory began in 1889 after two years of planning. The factory comprised two main sections. The ‘danger’ area within the dunes was divided into a ‘wet’ area for manufacture and storage of nitroglycerine, and a ‘dry’ area where the material was processed into marketable explosives in cartridging huts. A services area was located at the south-east of the site. The factory was the most up-to-date possible, with Guttmann selecting the most recent and efficient continental method for making dynamite. The factory produced its own nitric acid, and the works for this were located near to the site’s eastern boundary in the service area. The works were built to Guttmann’s specifications and contained eleven cast-iron stills (retorts) set in brick coal-fired furnaces, with brick flues leading to a chimney. The resulting mixture of nitric and sulphuric acids were then blown by compressed air to Jack Straw’s Hill, to the north-west and within the ‘wet’ part of the danger area, where the nitroglycerine manufacturing processes took place.

In 1891 the factory was extended for the manufacture of gelatinous nitroglycerine explosives, expanding again in 1894 to produce cordite for the Royal Forces; both required nitric acid for their production. During the First World War Cordite MD was insisted on by the Royal Navy, so National Explosives and one other plant supplied the Navy with its cordite until nearly the end of the war. Consequently, in 1915 the factory was extended again, new machinery brought in and buildings constructed. It was during this period that a new chimney for the nitric acid works was built, 20m to the south-west of an earlier stack shown on the 1907 Ordnance Survey (1:2500) located close to the south-western wall of the works.

After 1919 many of Britain’s explosives factories were forced to close, having been faced with over-capacity at the end of the war. Nobel once again became the dominant force, rationalising the industry by taking over Curtis’s and Harvey (who in turn had bought out Kennall Vale before the War). National Explosives pursued several options to enable them to continue. Eventually in 1920 they were taken over by Nobel and the factory was dismantled; over time the remaining standing buildings have become roofless and ruinous and the former acid works chimney remains as a notable local landmark.


Chimney of former nitric acid works, built 1915.

MATERIALS Red brick.

DESCRIPTION Cylindrical chimney stack approximately 30m to the south west of the brick-built nitric acid works, constructed in 1915 to replace an earlier stack closer to the building. It is approximately 21m high and is of red-brick construction with a collared top and stepped base.


Books and journals
Cocroft, W, Dangerous Energy The Archaeology of Gunpowder and Military Explosives Manufacture, (2000), 144-146
Earl, B, Cornish Explosives, (1978), 184-251
Hayle Community Archive , accessed 01/03/2019 from
Heritage Gateway – Hayle Towans post medieval explosives factory, HER number 37085 , accessed 01/03/2019 from
Pastscape – The National Explosives Company, monument number 1310585 , accessed 01/03/2019 from
Upton Towans and the National Explosives Company , accessed 01/03/2019 from
Cornwall Record Office, Plan, proposed stack for acid factory, National Explosives Company Limited, Hayle, 25 May 1915 (ref: X1290/48).
Earl, B & Smith, JR, National Explosives, Upton Towans, Hayle: an archaeological and historic assessment, 1991.
Jones, A, Upton and Gwithian Towans: an archaeological assessment of the Cornwall County Council Countryside Services, 1998.
Jones, A, Upton and Gwithian Towans: structural recording work, 1999.
Ordnance Survey, Cornwall (1907) (1:2500).


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

End of official listing

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