The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, it is said. In the same vein, it could almost be argued that the Battle of Trafalgar, on 21 October, 1805, was won in the gunpowder factories of Faversham, for without their output Nelson’s cannon would have had fewer charges to fire.
The Chart Gunpowder Mills, on the Home Works, and the oldest of their kind in the world, were rescued from the jaws of the bulldozer, and then restored, by the Faversham Society in 1966/7. Within easy walking distance of the town centre and the railway station, they are open free of charge from 2pm-5pm at weekends and bank holidays from April to October.
After conservation work, the Oare Gunpowder Works, almost the most important site of its kind in Britain, opened to the public - again free of charge - in 2005. Don’t expect anything like a conventional factory. Gunpowder works, even when in operation, were places of beauty and serenity. This was because danger houses, mostly small, were widely spaced to eliminate collateral damage in the event of an accidental explosion; and between them forest trees were planted to minimise any blast damage. Further, they were served by a network of narrow-gauge canals, rather than by metalled tracks - off which iron wheels might strike dangerous sparks.
So Oare is as much a country park as an industrial monument. By the car park in the former cooperage, where barrels were made for the powder, visitors will be welcomed at weekends and on bank holidays from April to October by displays pinpointing the highlights of the Works - which include interesting wildlife as well as factory relics. Signed walks, including one for wheelchair users, guide visitors round the site, where the remains of buildings such as the corning and glazing houses will be on view. The corning house was where the grains of powder were graded into different sizes - the larger the projectile, the larger the grain required. At the glazing house - almost unbelievably, perhaps - each single grain was glazed to prevent it absorbing excess moisture.
An illustrated Faversham Gunpowder Trail is available free at the Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre in Preston Street (if ordering by post please enclose 220 x 110mm SAE). This highlights some of the surviving features associated with the Home Works, including the charcoal-burner’s house and a building (now used as a house) where the Powder Mills Volunteers, raised during the Napoleonic Wars, practised sword-play.
At least eight local men served at Trafalgar, three of them brothers from Selling, just outside the town.
The sons of Thomas Gibbs Hilton (1750-1826), a gentleman farmer who was a partner in the Faversham Commercial Bank (whose descendant is the present NatWest), they were George, born in 1782, who served on HMS Africa and lived to the ripe old age of 95; Robert (1784-1837), who was aboard HMS Swiftsure; and Stephen, born in 1785, who was master’s mate on HMS Minotaur and lived nearly as long as his brother George, dying in 1872.
With their prize-money, two of the brothers added an elegant Georgian wing to an old Selling house known as Bolly’s. This name didn’t quite match the building’s enhanced status, so in memory of the battle they re-christened it Trafalgar House - and it remains today, in a quiet backwater not far from the parish church.
Stephen returned from Trafalgar with the Union Jack of HMS Minotaur and the ensign of a captured Spanish battleship, the Neptune. These he laid up in the Hilton (south) chapel at Selling Church, where they were on display till recently.
From Gibraltar on 3 November, 1805, Robert wrote home to his younger brother William with his graphic first-hand impressions of Trafalgar. The Royal Navy’s success was tempered by the “unwelcome intelligence” that Nelson had died of his wounds. “Our gallant seamen now paused a while to pay the tribute due to the memory of so great a character - though he is not again to be the brave Admiral that has repeatedly led the British to victory and struck the hearts of the enemy with terror, nor again to be a friend to the distressed seamen, and the protector of the indigent widows and orphans.”
Captain of HMS Tonnant at Trafalgar was Charles Tyler, whose grandfather was Henry Roper, 8th Lord Teynham. Tyler was so severely wounded that he was given a government pension of £250 a year, but he went on to become an admiral and be knighted.
Serving as First Lieutenant of HMS Colossus was T. R. Toker (later promoted to Captain), who was the son of John Toker, of The Oaks, Ospringe - a Georgian house that remains today. Later, while commander of HMS Tamar in 1817, he introduced the use of sliding deadlights - shutters to stop water pouring through port-holes in storms.
Thomas Chambers was a Royal Marine serving on Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory. He had joined it from HMS Winchelsea in 1803. He was probably the son of another Thomas Chambers (1752/3-1837), a carpenter (what we would now call a ‘builder’) in Preston Street, Faversham.
Two other Faversham men on board HMS Victory were probably brothers, or cousins. They had both joined it as volunteers in 1803. One was Richard West, an able seaman, probably born in 1774. The other was James West, born in 1782 or 1783. They were probably of dredger stock. With its fleet of oyster smacks and hoys (the predecessors of sailing barges), Faversham bred plenty of hardy, skilful seamen and was a prime recruiting ground for the Royal Navy.
During the Napoleonic Wars two large groups of barracks were built in Faversham. They were later dismantled but in Ospringe Street (the village street of Ospringe, astride the A2), Officers’ Row still survives. These are modest but dignified houses. In one of them is believed to survive an orderly room door on which various contemporary notes have been made in pencil.