During a key period in the United Kingdom’s history - from 1874 till 1919 - Faversham was the main centre of its explosives industry. There were six factories in all.
Maps showing location of the factories
Gunpowder, the first explosive, was being made in the town by 1573. Water-power was needed to drive the machinery; and the first factory (the Home Works) developed along Westbrook, the watercourse which feeds Faversham Creek. By the 18th century it occupied a site about a mile long, from close to the A2 at Ospringe to the head of the Creek.
Next to open, in the 1680s, was the Oare Works, about a mile W of the town. It was started by Huguenot asylum-seekers from France. Finally the Marsh Works, NW of the town, was built by the Government in 1786.
Without Faversham gunpowder, Britain’s Industrial Revolution could never have taken place. It was used to blast routes for canals and railways and to quarry stone needed for bridges and other structures.
Use the menu on the left to learn more about explosives and gunpowder in Faversham area’s long history.
Guncotton, the first high explosive, was invented in 1846, and the world’s first factory to make it was established in Faversham in the following year. After the introduction of other high explosives, like cordite and TNT, two huge new factories were built alongside The Swale. Together these occupied a site about the same size as the City of London. On 2 April 1916 one of them was the scene of the Great Explosion, the worst in the history of the UK explosives industry.
The high explosives factories closed soon after the end of World War 1. The gunpowder factories remained in production till 1934, when the clouds of World War 2 were already looming and the owners thought it advisable to move the plant and many of the staff to a location in Scotland (Ardeer in Ayrshire) which was less close to the Continent.
One new high explosives factory opened alongside the Creek in 1922. This is still at work but now makes an explosive-substitute which can safely be used in environments where conventional explosives would be unsafe.
In Faversham the industry has left a larger legacy than anywhere else in the UK, and many traces can still be seen. At the heart of the Home Works the Chart Gunpowder Mills, oldest of their kind in the world, have been rescued from the jaws of the bulldozer, and restored, by the Faversham Society. A Gunpowder Trail, available free of charge from the Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre, pinpoints these and other surviving features of the Works.
The remains of the Oare Works have been conserved as an attractive country park. If this sounds paradoxical, gunpowder factories, unlike any others, were always places of great inherent charm and beauty, even when in full production - a 19th century journalist said the Oare factory could be mistaken for a game reserve. Here is a splendidly informative Visitor Centre and an 80-year-old gunpowder mill repatriated from Ardeer.
Just as impressive, the site of one of the high explosives factories is now a nature reserve, and one of international importance for its wildlife, in particular native and migrant birds. You could easily spend two or three days in Faversham just exploring its ‘explosive past’, and you wouldn’t be disappointed!
Maps of Faversham explosives factories
Map showing all the Faversham explosives factories, both gunpowder and high explosives
© Arthur Percival
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Map showing the high explosives factories alongside the Swale and their chronological development
Note: CPC = Cotton Powder Company; ELC = Explosives Loading Company; Eley = Eley fuse factory
© Arthur Percival
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