By Andrew Westcott
Index Of Sub-headings:
Introduction To Upton Towans
The National Explosives Company
Comparing Old & New Photos
Mystery Objects Found By Readers
Photos Taken Around The Site
Modern Aerial View & 1908 Site Map
Press Report Of The 1904 Explosion
Findings Of The Official Investigation
A word about the photos used here.
The black & white photographs used on this page were found on the internet around ten years ago and are probably subject to copyright. (All colour photos are my own unless otherwise stated.) I have tried to identify the source of the photos to obtain permission to use them with little success, but some are watermarked appropriately. If you own the copyright to any of the photos shown here, please get in touch so that we can discuss permission and so I can give appropriate credit.
Most of the photos on this page can be clicked on to view a higher resolution version.
The Towans refers to a large area of sand dunes running north-east from the mouth of the river at Hayle to the village of Gwithian, forming part of the coastline of St. Ives Bay on the north coast of western Cornwall.
This area of dunes is divided into several regions, with Upton Towans more or less in the middle and Gwithian Towans to the north-east. The dunes are hundreds, if not thousands of years old, but due to changing weather patterns they have become overgrown with vegetation. It was within these dunes that the National Explosives Company built its factory, giving rise to the local name for the area of Dynamite Towans.
I enjoy visiting the St. Ives Bay area, with the easy access to the north-west coast with its industrial archaeology and rugged coastline. I also enjoy the opportunity to have a wander over the towans, either to examine the remains of the old explosives works or to simply have a darned good walk, and of course there is the famous 3-mile stretch of beach, popular with surfers.
This region has had a rather busy history, as apart from the explosives factory, there were several mining operations in the area and it was also used as a starfish site during World War 2.
Another place I like having a poke around is the old fishing town of St. Ives, but believe me when I say it takes skill, nerves of steel and better reactions than mine to finish a pasty while walking around the harbour!
No page on the National Explosives Company would be complete without a photo of the one remaining chimney which can be seen in photo 1 next to the remains of the nitric acid plant it was connected with. This chimney was restored in 1988 and now enjoys protected staus as a grade II listed building.
I have seen suggestions that this chimney is part of the mining operations associated with Boiling Well Mine, but this is not the case and there are no longer any remains of the old mine workings left above ground level. The explosives factory did, however, draw the substantial amounts of water it required from one of the abandoned mine shafts of Boiling Well Mine.
As I understand it, the National Explosives Company was founded in 1888 by the Kennal Vale Gunpowder Company to produce dynamite for the local mining industry, later becoming a company in its own right. These new high explosives were a huge improvement on the ages-old black powder, being easier to use and far more powerful. When Britain went to war in 1914, production turned towards military requirements, and output of the factory soared with the company employing at its peak in the region of 1,800 people with the site covering an area of over 300 acres.
The National Explosives Company went into voluntary liquidation in 1919 due probably to a combination of the cessation of the war effort and the decline in mining in the area, finally ceasing operations in 1920. The site was cleared of most of the salvageable materials during the next couple of years after which pretty much all that remained were some concrete buildings scattered about the dunes.
I understand that certain buildings on the site continued to be used by ICI for the storage of dangerous materials through the 1960s & 1970s, after which it fell into disuse and the remainder of the buildings demolished, although the remains of many structures related to the explosives factory can still be found all around this area, such as that shown in photo 2.
At the south-easterly end of the site was the service area where the factories for producing sulphuric and nitric acid were located, along with steam and electricity generating equipment, but to the north-west were the dunes, and it was here that the danger buildings were constructed. These were serviced by a 24-inch narrow gauge rail network along which small trams, as in photo 3, were pushed by hand or pulled by ponies to move material and supplies between the huts and the main factory.
The buildings in which dangerous materials were manufactured or stored were isolated from one another by being built within an area protected by banked up sand to form a blast-proof enclosure known as a traverse. This ensured that if an explosion did occur in one building, the resulting blast would be absorbed or deflected upwards, minimising the chances of the shock-wave triggering further explosions in neighbouring huts or causing structural damage.
Large numbers of these protective traverses were constructed throughout the sand dunes, and although the buildings within them have been removed, the sand structures still remain in a generally good, if somewhat overgrown condition.
Photo 4 shows a good example of a traverse, being well preserved and not too overgrown. The entrance would have been on the corner closest to us, the damage to the opposite corner being the result of many years of erosion to the bank caused by intrepid explorers such as myself.
Photo 5 shows large threaded studs protruding from a block of cast concrete. Many of the sand traverses around the site have square cast sections of concrete in the ground at one end, and my thoughts are that this provided the mounting point for a gantry of some kind to support incoming pipework and ducting, as the lightweight wooden construction of the buildings would not have provided much support on their own. Another possibility is that an engine or machinery of some sort was secured at this point.
The following two paragraphs are quoted from a paper on nitro explosives, and describe the construction of danger buildings. (Source: http://archive.org/stream/nitroexplosivesa15308gut/15308-8.txt)
"The best material of which to construct these buildings is of wood, as in the event of an explosion they will offer less resistance, and will cause much less danger than brick or stone buildings. When an explosion of nitro-glycerin or dynamite occurs in one of these buildings, the sides are generally blown out, and the roof is raised some considerable height, and finally descends upon the blown-out sides. If, on the other hand, the same explosion had occurred in a strong brick or stone building, the walls of which would offer a much larger resistance, large pieces of brickwork would probably have been thrown for a considerable distance, and have caused serious damage to surrounding buildings."
"It is also a very good plan to surround all danger buildings with mounds of sand or earth, which should be covered with turf, and of such a height as to be above the roof of the buildings that they are intended to protect. These mounds are of great value in confining the force of the explosion, and the sides of the buildings being thrown against them are prevented from travelling any distance."
Despite stringent procedures and an excellent safety record, there were several explosions at the factory during its time of operation, one in particular involving the detonation of almost 2 tons of nitroglycerin on 5th January 1904 where 4 people were killed instantly and one severely injured, to die later. Reports of the time suggest that this explosion was so powerful that considerable damage occurred in St. Ives, some 3½ miles across the bay, and that it was also heard on Dartmoor.Back to top
In November 1909, an Alec Begbie presented an album of photographs he'd taken of workers and buildings around the National Explosives premises to William Bate who was site manager at that time, leaving us with a good record of how the factory looked when in operation. The album is now in the care of Kresen Kernow and the photos contained in the album can be viewed online under record AD1946/1
One of my plans for this web page was to feature some of the old images of the site (which were then freely available on the internet), alongside photos I've taken of the same features, as viewed from the same locations to show how things have changed over the 110 years or so which have elapsed.
First of my comparison photos is the pair above. The writing accompanying the original photos give some clue as to what the buildings were, and these were described as "cordite drys". Cordite, although an explosive, was used as a propellant in various firearms and artillery guns and was typically made up using around 50% nitroglycerin, a small amount of petroleum jelly with the rest consisting of nitrocellulose, also known as guncotton. This mixture would be dissolved in a small quantity of acetone, enabling the resultant putty-like mixture to be extruded in the form of thin rods. These rods would then be stored to allow the acetone to evaporate, resulting in the hardening of the material, ready for use.
It was difficult to duplicate the precise location of the original photographer due to violent vegetation, but my image was taken from probably within a metre or so of where the original photographer stood. As you can see, the sky line is almost unchanged after more than 100 years although the bloke going out for a sneaky fag is no longer there. Almost all of the chimneys visible in the distance have gone in the recent photo; I say almost, as there is still one there today. If you look closely in the high resolution images, about one third in from the left just below the sky line the tip of the one remaing chimney can be seen in both photos.
The old photo above is labelled "the isolation of cartridge huts", with mine next to it to show how things have changed over time. Cartridge in this sense means sticks of dynamite, and this was initially the main product produced by the National Explosives Company. Nitroglycerin is used in the manufacture of dynamite but on its own takes the form of a clear, oily liquid and is highly unstable. Alfred Nobel discovered that by mixing it with an inert substance, it became much safer to handle and finely ground and dried diatomaceous earth was usually the substance of choice.
The resulting mixture would be extruded into bars using hand operated presses, cut to length, wrapped in parchmentised paper and packed in crates ready for shipment. This operation was carried out in small purpose-built cartridging huts like the one shown in photo 10, and on this site made use of the sides of large dunes, being built into an excavated area in the side of the slope and the sand then built into banks around them. There were many huts like this at various places around the factory.
This was an entertainingly difficult site to find, and I was rather pleased with myself when I happened upon the correct location. It took a fair bit of re-positioning of the camera to find a position where the scene almost exactly matched that in the old photo, a passing dog and his owner watching me with obvious amusement as I trampled through the brambles, yelping and swearing. The sky line is little changed, with the traverses in which the huts were built still easily visible, if a little overgrown now.
The path in the foreground has suffered from considerable erosion caused by walkers, who over the years have worn a narrow channel a good couple of feet deeper than the original broad pathway as shown in the old photo. Also visible is good old St. Ives in the distance, and I doubt much has changed there, except that these days the bleddy herring gulls nick your pasties & ice creams from your mouth, which I think is quite rude of them.
This photo is labelled "the arrangement of nitroglycerin buildings". Nitroglycerin is a high explosive in the form of an oily liquid which is well known for its instability and certainly not something to be sneezed at, an impact can easily detonate it. It is regarded to be unsafe to pump nitroglycerin which may come as no surprise, and at the National Explosive Company's factory I understand it was moved through lead-lined ducting under gravity between storage vats and the points of use. The production of nitroglycerin is a complicated process involving several stages, and these buildings were involved in this.
I was struggling to find the spot from which this photo was taken, until I noticed the low flat structure on the top of the hill in the old photo, the summit of New Nitro Hill. Using this as a reference point I was able to get close to the position the original was taken from, although brambles limited my options somewhat, causing me to utter little whimpering sounds and rude comments about snakes as I adjusted my position. If you examine the large version of the new photo, you can see the foundations of the hilltop structure in the same location as in the old, although the two wooden sheds have now gone.
The old photo above shows "cotton drys and mixing houses". This would refer to guncotton, or more correctly nitrocellulose, which is essentially cotton which has been treated in a specific manner with nitric acid. This produced a high explosive which was used in artillery rounds, something the National Explosives Company produced a lot of during the first world war.
Another fiendishly difficult site to locate, I looked at the rounded hill on the distant horizon and noted the dunes to the right to assist me in identifying were the original photographer may have stood. As was usually the case, heavily overgrown areas prevented me from standing in exactly the right spot, but I was able to line up the three traverses and couple this with the right amount of distant hill being visible. Note the fields in the distance, and how most of them are still unchanged, and to the right in the new photo can be seen some of the caravans of the holiday park.
Looking at the old photo you can see a hut standing alone to the right of the nearest traverse. By way of confirming the location I went in search of any evidence to show a building once stood at that point, and there were indeed remains of foundations in the grass. For interest's sake, I took a photo of what little remained: Hut foundations.
Another look at the old photo will show what appears to be a small tall hut built into the right-hand side of the second traverse out from my location, which I believe housed a steam engine, powered by steam fed via pipework from the main boiler site as was common practice. Curious as I am, I went out to see if there were any remains of this odd little building. To my joy, there was, and I took a photo of the remains: Remains of hut.
The pair of photos above show some more cartridge huts. There were many of these located around Upton Towans confirming that producing the cartridges of dynamite was one of the more common tasks undertaken at the explosives factory. Although the sand traverses can still be seen, there are absolutely no remains of any of the foundations of these three huts, suggesting that they were constructed entirely of wood.
This site was one of the more elusive locations to find, and to my eternal joy I stumbled upon it by recognising the distinctive high dune to the right of the photos. I spent a while here just changing location very slightly in an attempt to get the various closer features to line up with those on the horizon. Movement more that 10 feet or so in any direction changed things far too much, and the photo here was the closest approximation, although I think it's pretty good. As you can see, St. Ives is still there along with the challenge of successfully finishing a pasty while walking around the harbour.
I was a bit uncertain about this location, and remained so for over a year. Eventually I revisited the area and carefully noted the positions of the fields in the distance relative to the one remaining chimney in the old photo and eventually settled for this shot, which must have been taken within about 10 feet of so of the original. As with many of these locations, scratchy and otherwise generally unkind vegetation must have made my attempts at repositioning the camera tripod quite amusing for the onlookers, judging by the giggling coming from a group of teenagers and their keeper.
Things have changed a bit in this area but if you examine the high resolution images of both the old and the new photos, and look carefully at the fields in the distance relative to the chimney, I hope that you'll agree that this is a reasonably close match. Changes to the site and a dodgy camera operator probably account for the discrepancies.
The annotation written below the old photo here describes these buildings as cordite stores. This was a relatively easy location to identify, as I was already familiar with the unique bit of wall visible in the larger version of the old photo, located between the near left-hand traverse and the pathway running just behind it.
In more recent times the wall has apparently had the top couple of courses of stonework nicked, but even so in the large version of the new photo the top of it can still just about be seen if you look carefully, peeping over the vegetation growing on the top of the traverse.
In the distance can be seen the same dune where the sand has blown out, known interestingly enough as a 'blowout'. Note also in the old photo where the tramway comes in from the right and a branch goes off towards the long shed in the middle distance. The route this tramway took is still easily visible in the new photo, having been kept clear by multitudes of walkers.
The reason for the odd bit of wall, shown in photo 21, seems to be the subject of some discussion. I think this was a blast protection wall, possibly constructed to isolate the two traverses, as their entrances have been built facing each other. I don't know why they were built this way, but perhaps it was a planning oversight and it was cheaper to build the blast wall than re-build an entire traverse.
The wall is built from large, dark, heavy rectangular blocks known as scoria blocks. The width of this wall is roughly 18 inches, and photo 22 is of the top of the wall showing my hand for scale, and the top surface of an entire scoria block. As can be seen, the block runs the entire thickness of the wall as do most of them. This wall could easily have been built using more conventional materials, and yet they chose these large dense blocks, either new or reclaimed, for the job. All in all a very substantial wall and I strongly suspect it was built for something other than prettiness.
The Cornish Copper Company operated in Hayle up until around 1820, and developed a rather imaginative solution to getting rid of the large quantities of furnace slag or scoria generated during their copper ore smelting process, which was to cast it into blocks and flog them to the public for building purposes or offer them free of charge to Cornish Copper Company employees.
I understand that these scoria blocks were generally cast in 3 different sizes; they were used and re-used in many structures in and around Hayle, but are particularly obvious as facings along the Black Road Causeway and its bridge, Black Bridge. I understand that it was the black colour of these blocks that gave Black Road and Black Bridge their names, and although these days they have a good coating of dirt and lichen, I can imagine when new, they would have been resplendent in their blackness. Scoria blocks are also prominent in the wall around the St. Felicitas church in Phillack, and some barns in the area.
This is a photo of Black Bridge, located at the end of Hayle Estuary. I had to risk my dryness by hiking out over the swamp for this photo, annoying some geese in the process and possibly upsetting a few bird-spotters as well, which might account for the foul language I could hear in the distance.
This shows a section of the causeway exhibiting a fine display of scoria blocks, along with some interesting work by one of Hayle's artists.
Here's a piece of scoria I stole from the North Quay area, nestled in my chubby hand. The particular scoria produced in Hayle was a dense, inert, black glass-like material which exhibits a conchoidal fracture pattern when broken, closely resembling the volcanic rock obsidian. The furnace slag, although at the temperature of molten copper was pretty gloopy when they poured it into the moulds, and you can see evidence of this gloopiness in the patterning on this block: Gloopy scoria casting.
This shot is a view looking roughly north-west at the buildings of the National Explosives Company. If you look carefully at the horizon, the same sand dune can be seen relative to the one remaining chimney, possibly being the one just visible in the centre of the old photo, almost directly behind a nearer chimney.
It would appear that the path as shown in the new photo follows a slightly different course to that in the old photo, perhaps moved to accommodate new buildings. This photo refers to 'the cottage', this being Pearce's Cottage, named after the householder of the time. The cottage can be seen in the old photo to the far right, but in the recent photo that area is now overgrown with trees. There are, however, the ruins of the very same cottage still to be found there.
This pair of photos deviates from my plan in as much that I didn't try to take my photo from the same position as the original. The reason was simply one of trees: trees everywhere, so a photo from the appropriate distance would have shown only trees. I quickly admitted defeat and took a photo from a closer distance simply to record something other than the bloomin' trees. Don't misunderstand me: I like trees, and in fact some of my more interesting conversations have been with trees.
Anyway, the cottage itself, despite appearing spanking new in the old photo is now in a fairly poor state of repair, having been allowed to deteriorate with the roof now collapsed, but it's nothing a bit of filler and a quick lick of paint wouldn't sort out. A possible point of interest is that the trees visible in my photo follow the line of the fence as shown in the old photo, having now grown way beyond hedge or ornamental size.
The cottage appears to have been a 3 bedroom house with kitchen and large lounge downstairs. There is a separate room built on the easterly side of the house, the only entrance to which is through a door directly to the outside, there being no communicating door between this room and the house. I suspect that this may have been a workshop area, and outside are the remains of what could have been a forge for heating and working metals, the floor in this area being paved with acid and heat resistant 'metalline' branded bricks.
Photo 30 shows what could be the remains of the original boundary fence, visible in the old photo of the cottage. Considering that this fence could be more that 100 years old, it's done pretty well for any of it to survive. My garden shed is in a bad way after just 10.
Photo 31 shows where the front porch used to be, suggesting that one dark night, someone nicked it. On close examination the base of the porch is still visible, as is the place where the roof of the porch joined the main house.
Photo of porch area
Photo 32 shows the window on the end of the suspected workshop, visible in the old photo. The metal object to the left of the window is a compressed air tank, although I doubt it would pass pressure testing without a bit of work. Its presence seems to confirm my workshop theory.
Closer view of cylinder
I've been informed that Mr Pearce was in charge of moving the completed explosives around the factory by horse and cart, and I understand he also had a responsibility for the welfare of the horses and ponies on the site, and maintained the carts. This job required considerable expertise in several areas and was presumably considered important enough for him and his family to be permitted to live in a newly-built cottage on the premises.
It would seem that the workshop area was for farrier work and the repair of the wagons, along with other associated metalwork. I have found a thread mentioning people who may be connected with the Pearce family at this location on ancestry.co.uk if you wish to have a look.
Roy contacted me via e-mail and had this to say regarding Pearce's Cottage, which I quote with permission:
"I remember the Pearce's cottage and the old lady, Mrs. Pearce. Her husband was, I think, John Pearce who the 1911 Census shows to be a Carter of Explosives but perhaps there was an earlier one. One of her daughters, Rachel, was my Mother's friend and Algernon (Algy) became a fierce guardian of the remains of the site. As children who wanted to explore, he terrified us.
Somewhere around 1940 a Lockheed Hudson aircraft crashed on the beach and the Pearce cottage was the first habitation the crew (who all survived) found.
John was before my time, having been born around 1870. Mary must have been around 70 and unlike today, 70 really was old. In the 1911 Census another Son, Percy, was a Service Worker of Explosives (whatever that was) and another Son, John was an Engine Boy both at the Works. By the time I knew them (around 1940) only the Mother, Rachel and Algy were around. Another Daughter, Hazel, had married and gone to the U.S. from where she would send food parcels home to her family."
Although my image wasn't taken from exactly the same location as the old, you can clearly see brickwork for supporting the tanks in both photos. The shed here was known as Jack Straw's Castle, built on the highest point in the area known as Jack Straw's Hill which is roughly north-west of the main explosives factory.
This was where the process of producing nitroglycerin began; nitroglycerin is dangerous stuff and can't be pumped so subsequent processing and refinement occurred in buildings at a lower level, allowing the dangerous fluid to pass under gravity from one building to the next as was standard practice at the National Explosives Company and at other similar factories.Back to top
This section deals with mystery objects readers have discovered in and around Upton Towans, which with permission I have detailed here. If you have discovered something odd in the area, please e-mail me a good photo of the object and a description of where you found it; maybe someone can shed some light on it for us.
The above photos show a metal device of some kind, the function of which is currently unknown. It was discovered within the boundary of the factory many years ago, and has lain in a garden since then. Rod kindly sent me these photos of his find in the hope that someone might be able to identify it.
Rod had this to say about the object:
"My kids found a metal object on the ground near to a pillar that looked like a support for an incline or trackway. It is an intriguing object and I have no idea what it might have been. It looks like it may have been hooked on to a cable. One hook is missing. The holes at the top are intriguing as it seems to suggest it could be filled with something and bungs or covers inserted."
This photo was sent in by Lyn and is of an odd-looking device mostly buried in the sand, discovered adjacent to one of the old tramways.
Lyn included the following in her e-mail to me:
"I've attached a couple of pictures of something we found. We found them as you come up off of the beach where the dunes have collapsed and the hard Rock part starts. After walking up the dunes off of the beach, then going straight and then up to the left, they were jutting out of a sandy footpath!"
Tallie sent me this image of an unusual-looking iron artefact discovered whilst walking around Upton Towans, the photo above illustrating it quite nicely.
David e-mailed me about this artefact and had this to say:
"The heavily corroded pin that you have displayed is likely to be a tramway spike which fixed the light flat bottomed rails to the wooden sleepers."
Photo 35 is of some concrete foundations with large steel studs protruding from it, forming the mountings for some very heavy plant, quite possibly a large engine. The studs are designed to restrain machinery of great weight, each measuring 1¾ of an inch in diameter with a thread pitch of 5 tpi.
Photo 36 shows part of the loading platform for the spur line which moved supplies and product between Hayle and the factory. Apparently the steam locomotive used here had to be fitted with a spark arresting funnel, to ensure that no sparks escaped which would have presented an explosion risk.
The platform is located to the rear of Pearce's Cottage, and there is a well-used path following the route of the old line. The remains of the platform were not immediately visible to the casual walker at the time of the photo due to being heavily overgrown, but a painful session of suspicious-looking ivy and bramble removal on my part revealed this section for your enjoyment.
Photo 37 shows a nice crop of harts tongue ferns (asplenium scolopendrium) growing among some broken concrete, almost ready for the stir-fry by the looks of it. When the explosives factory was closed down, most of the concrete structures around the Towans were demolished, and the rubble was often left behind in a heap as in this case.
Photo 38 is one of my many pitiful attempts at creative photography, and shows a lump of concrete with a threaded stud protruding from it in a rather exciting manner. This was near the main factory so could be where a building's steel girders where once fastened.
I keep an eye out for the smaller details when wandering around the dunes, and photo 39 shows some green shield bugs (palomena prasina): two obviously happy couples and one who seems quite content to observe.
Photo 40 shows some pretty little blue flowery things hiding in the grass. This is Persian speedwell (veronica persica), which is part of the varied flora of Upton Towans, adding a nice bit of colour to my page.
Photo 41 shows some rail track set into concrete. A system of trams was used to transport material to and from various locations around the site, these running on a network of rails. Virtually all of the steel rails were removed from the site during its decommissioning, but this is one place where some sections of rail are still in their original location. Note the provision for one set of rails to cross the path of the other. The rails themselves are of 24 inch narrow gauge, and I believe the section here only remains today because they are embedded in concrete, making them too difficult to bother with when the site was being stripped.
Photo 42 shows where a particularly large cutting was made through the dunes in order to maintain a reasonably level gradient. The tramway originally passed through a tunnel as it went through this cutting as indicated on maps from the time, although this tunnel has long since collapsed. There were cartridging huts on both sides of the tunnel, so maybe it was made to protect the trams and their volatile contents from a possible explosion.
These photos show good examples of embankments to be found amongst the dunes. The trams were pushed around the site by hand, so in order to make this as easy as possible the tracks followed the contours wherever they could. On occasions a low-laying area had to be built up as shown here to form a level route, known in railway parlance as an embankment. In Photo 43, the far end of the embankment leads to the entrance of a traverse.
Photo 45 shows one of the recreational paths through Upton Towans, which tend to follow the routes of the old tramways. Cinders and ash from the factory's boilers were used to form a stable base for the rails, which presumably was also a good way to get rid of it. In many places the cinders used to form the tramways are still much in evidence as in this location.
Photo 46 shows a part of the old tramway which has suffered considerable erosion. This gives us a good opportunity to examine a cross-section of one of the routes, revealing a fairly thick base of cinders and ash.
Photo 47 shows some concrete beams which have been cast in the sand to act as foundations for a wooden building. This is a feature regularly seen around the factory site, and because they were built in traverses they are generally pretty secluded, so be nice and send your dog in first or give a little cough before you approach.
Photo 48 shows a section of pathway in a remote part of Upton Towans which has been reinforced in recent times using some rubble from one of the demolished buildings. It might initially appear to be the date '1920' in the plaster, but there wasn't much going on around the site in that year, apart from a lot of lapine copulation which can still be observed among the dunes, if you happen to be into that kind of thing. To me it looks more like part of a numbered grid, with just the numbers '19' & '20' being visible on this bit.
Photo 49 shows a rather splendid flower which seems to be fairly common in various parts of Upton Towans and around the explosives factory site. It appears be a red valerian (centranthus ruber) which is not indigenous to the UK, so it seems that one day some seeds escaped from a local garden and decided to go for a jolly out over the dunes.
Photo 50 shows some blossom on a small tree, in this case blackthorn (prunus spinosa). This was in April, and the dunes had developed quite a rash of these flowering bushes. Later in the year sloes can be found and eaten here, but you need to wait until the skins turn shiny as if you don't, you'll discover that an unripe sloe is possibly the sourest thing in the known universe.
Photo 51 is another pathetic attempt at creative photography, and shows the foundations located at the top of the large dune known as New Nitro Hill, with St. Ives and its resident pasty thieves in the distance. These were the foundations of a reservoir for some liquid, possibly water or one of the acids used in the production of nitroglycerin. This is pretty much the highest point on the site, which would have allowed the liquid to run freely to lower buildings for further processing via a system of pipes or launders. If visibility is good and you know where to look, it is possible to see the castle which sits on the top of St. Michael's Mount from here, as in this photo which I took from this location.
Photo 52 shows an interesting inclined plane made up of bituminous pads. Interesting, that is, if you happen to like bituminous pads or inclined planes. Running to the top of New Nitro Hill, these bituminous pads measure typically 24 inches by 32 inches, and are spaced about 6 inches apart. Back when the National Explosives Company was operational, a large amount of pipework ran up and down this incline as can be seen in some old photos of the site, so I can only conclude that these were support pads of some kind for the pipework, or possibly supported rails to enable specialised trolleys to be winched up and down the hill.
Photo 53 shows some rust deposits around the foundations at the top of New Nitro Hill. Presumably when the metal reservoirs were emptied and removed for salvage, a fair bit of rusty water washed out onto the sand, leaving deposits like this.
Photo 54 shows a section of broken concrete, revealing the red ferrous mineralisation and traces of blue copper compounds. Boiling Well Mine operated in this area before the explosives factory was here, and there would have been extensive spoil heaps. It seems that the concrete needed for the new buildings was made using material from those spoil heaps, explaining the mineral traces.
Photo 55 shows the remains of the nitric acid production factory and it is the only such building still standing to any degree. The floor was lined with Metalline branded acid resistant bricks, and there were several large boilers installed. The flues of these boilers passed under the factory floor and out to the one remaining chimney. Here's an old photo of the building in operation photographed from the far end: nitric acid factory.
Photo 56 shows one of the several ditches leading out to the chimney, the result of a collapsed flue, and although now rather overgrown the depression and some brickwork can still be seen. Hot gasses passing through this underground flue would continue up into the chimney, and the rising hot gasses would have created an intense draw on all the flues attached to it, increasing the efficiency of the boilers.
Above are photos of 3 bricks found around the service area of the factory, each one being of the same specialised type designed to be able to withstand high temperatures and the long term corrosive effects of acids.
I had some communication regarding one of these bricks from Helga P:
"I just found your great page after a visit to the site to borrow some bricks myself as I am a collector. The brick which is just marked Cornwall was made at the Grampound Brick and Tile company who had sites at Halezy and Snellsgate just north of Grampound Road."
For those with an interest in historic bricks and manufacturers, the following web site has images of an astounding number of bricks:
Old Bricks - History At Your Feet
There are four concrete huts which still remain standing among the dunes which were constructed and used as part of the National Explosives Company complex, the one in photo 57 having been imaginatively decorated in recent times, possibly by a dodgy-looking pair of local pensioners I spotted lurking nearby.
In photo 58 you can see the way these huts have been built in a traverse of sorts; all four are located in a remote part of the dunes, suggesting that these buildings were magazines for storing explosives, possibly dynamite. Although the roofs have been removed, all of the huts are in a generally safe condition.
If you spend a bit of time wandering around the dunes of Upton Towans as I do, it won't be long before you stumble across (sometimes literally) some of the smaller artifacts left over from the presence of the National Explosives Company.
Photo 59 shows one of the anchors for a pole guy wire, or stay. Looking back at some of the old photos, you can see there were a great many support poles dotted about the site for supporting pipework or cabling, and anchors such as this were used to attach the guys to the ground. The anchor had a nut which could be screwed down to tighten the guy wires, providing adjustment. This type of anchor can still be seen being used with telephone and electricity poles today.
Photo 60 shows a section of rail protruding from the sand of one of the dunes. Possibly a remnant from the time the site was being cleared, but sometimes sections of old rail or offcuts would be used for makeshift fence posts. However it got to be left here, it is a good example of the size of rail used throughout the site.
Photo 61: Not everything is old concrete and rusty metal on Upton Towans, and in the late Summer it's possible to have a good feast on blackberries, the maggots and bird poop thrown in for free. The chance of getting stung by a foraging wasp is high, as is the chance of developing bellyache in the evening, but it's worth it!
Photo 62 shows some gorse, vivid in its yellowness. There is an awful lot of this growing around the main factory site, so next time you're there, get in amongst it and have a darned good sniff. I think it smells like a mixture of honey and coconut, and if someone could bottle that smell, they'd make a fortune.
Upton Towans consists, by its very nature, of sand dunes. These dunes are many hundreds of years old and have become overgrown, but in a few instances the sand has become exposed and the strong coastal winds have blown the sand out to create cavities, these being known as blowouts. Photo 63 shows a dune featuring an enormous blowout, where many dozens of cubic metres of sand have blown out.
It has been suggested to me that rabbits are heavily implicated in this: collapsed burrows expose the sand and the wind does the rest by blowing over the exposed area creating eddy currents which whip the sand out to create an ever expanding depression. Photo 64 shows a blowout on the top edge of a traverse, and although far smaller than the other one, perhaps here the damage caused is more obvious. Those pesky rabbits have a lot to answer for.
Apart from the National Explosives Company occupying Upton Towans, there is also a history of mining in the area, the main mining operations being Wheal Boil, also known as Boiling Well Mine which operated up until about 1865 extracting copper, lead, zinc and a small quantity of silver. Wheal Emily was a similar operation located on Gwithian Towans further to the north.
Walking around Upton Towans, you may encounter one of the 3 air shafts I've discovered which are still open to the surface, each with a protective grid placed over the top as shown in photo 65. There is a fourth, but this is behind the remains of Pearce's Cottage, rather than among the dunes. The 4 air shafts can be followed on an approximate south south-west line across the dunes from the point where the drainage adit opens out onto the beach. The discharge point is shown in photo 66 and this region is visible from the air by virtue of the dark ore-rich material emanating from it and spreading out over the sand.
It has been claimed that there were 31 shafts dotted around Upton Towans and Gwithian Towans, but all have been made safe by Cornwall Council by either lining and placing a ventilation grid over the top, or capping the shafts using a process known as grouting. Grouting involves pumping liquid cement into the sand covering a shaft, which with the aid of vibrators forms a large concrete cap over the top of the shaft which is secured to the surrounding rock with steel anchors. Once set, the area is completely stable, and the process is minimally invasive.
Photo 67 shows a pair of rails protruding from the cliff-top and if you look carefully, a mining skip can be seen sat on the rails partly embedded in the cliff. It's obviously an artifact left over from the mining operations which went on in this area, possibly Wheal Emily or when ore-rich sand was taken from the beach in this area. As the cliff face is at the mercy of a constant assault from the sea, I don't know how much longer it will be before these relics of a bygone era fall into the sea, to be lost forever.
Photo 68 shows the outflow of a drainage adit which I'm assuming is part of Wheal Emily, which is directly below the rails protruding from the cliff. There is more evidence of mining operations to be found at sea level in this area.
Photo 69 shows a very old mine adit which was once entirely underground, although coastal erosion has exposed the ancient workings. It effectively passes through a rocky outcrop, and if you climb to the far end, you end up looking out halfway up a cliff. Other exposed mine workings can be seen in this area.
Photo 70 shows a section of the cliff in this area where you can see extensive mineralisation and quartz banding.Back to top
Below I have prepared two images for your enjoyment: the first one is a contemporary sky view of the site (With the help of Google Maps), and the second is a map of the site as it was in 1908. In both cases a high-resolution image is available to download if you wish, to print out or examine in an image viewer in greater detail.
Modern aerial view of the site
(high resolution version here)
1908 Ordnance Survey map of the site
(high resolution version here)
Back to top
It seems that this massive explosion was reported in many publications around the world, and what follows is my transcript of the report carried by a paper in New Zealand, although most reports seemed to be of a similar nature and carried much the same information.
The Advertiser, Adelaide, Friday February 19th
A DUCHY SHAKEN.
EXPLOSION NEAR LAND'S END.
(From our Special Correspondent.)
London, January 8, 1904.
The whole 30-mile area of West Cornwall was thrown into a state of alarm and almost panic on Tuesday morning by the roar and concussion of a terrific explosion at the works of the National Explosives Company at Gwithian, near Hayle, eight miles from Penzance. It was at first rumoured that the works had been completely destroyed, but even when this exaggeration had been dispelled it was made only too clear that a serious disaster had occurred.
The explosion resulted in the loss of the lives of five workmen and injuries to others.
Just before 11 o'clock (writes the Daily Express reporter) dense clouds of smoke ascended from the works, nearly enveloping Hayle in darkness, while the concussion following upon the two explosions was so great that in places 10 or 15 miles away people fled from their houses into the streets in alarm, and the glass of windows was smashed.
Indeed, the explosion was heard throughout a considerable part of the duchy. There was instantly a rush of hundreds of hatless and half-clothed people - men, women, and children - from Hayle and the neighbourhood towards the works.
The affrighted people were met by many of the workmen with their faces cut and torn, fleeing in panic from the dangerous zone, and this only served to increase the general anxiety.
It was soon discovered by the officials that two houses, or sections, in which cordite was made, had completely vanished, together with all their contents, human and structural. In their place was a great hole in the sand, and scattered around were fragments of human remains, lead, and splintered timber. Each of the houses had two men working in it, and all four men were instantly killed. They were blown to atoms. A fifth victim was a Swede, named Oscar Holman, who died during the afternoon from a broken back, the shock of the explosion hurling him down.
The following is a list of the killed:
Andrew Curnow, 25, married; left widow and two children.
William Luxmoor, 25, married; left widow and one child.
Simeon Jory, 22, single.
William Cliff, 20, single.
The injuries to a number of other men were of a superficial character.
Several remarkable escapes occurred.
One man was blown through the door of a house at the works, and three young chemists at work close by were knocked over, but only one man was cut, and he not seriously. Business at Hayle was almost suspended for the day, and an air of gloom pervaded the place, while among the operatives there was a feeling of nervousness and awe. A serious panic among the employees was averted by the assistant manager, Mr. Bates, who found the men and girls pouring out of their houses.
Seeing that all danger was over, he ordered them all back to their work, and all returned for a short period. An extraordinary feature of the disaster was the damage done in the fishing village of St. Ives, which is separated from the works by three or four miles of sea. The great cloud of smoke was very plainly seen, and the shock was even more severe than in the town of Hayle itself. Shop fronts and house windows fell into the streets, and the roads were covered with shattered glass, some of it plateglass three-eighths of an inch thick.
One woman, who was carrying a baby, was thrown off her feet, but not injured. In another place a portion of a house fell away, and an old woman, either from fright or shock, became unconscious, and remained so for some time. The fine old stained-glass window at the eastern end of the parish church was quite ruined.
At Penzance, ten miles from the explosive works, the concussion was distinct, and was thought to be a gas explosion in the town. Windows were also broken there. At 5 o'clock in the afternoon another explosion occurred, but this was attended by little damage to property and no loss of life. The officials of the works express the opinion that the cause of the explosion will never be known.Back to top
Explosion of Nitroglycerin.
Circumstances attending an explosion which occurred in the Precipitating and Final Washing Houses of the Factory of the National Explosives Co., Ltd., at Upton Towans, Hayle, Cornwall, on Jan. 5, 1904. By Capt. J. H. Thomson, H.M. Chief Inspector of Explosives.
(Source: The Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry. April 15, 1904. Volume 23, issue 7.)
In this explosion, which was attended by loss of life, 4,200 lb. of nitroglycerin were involved. The probable cause of the explosion is considered to be the dropping of the lid of a tank into which a charge of nitroglycerin was flowing. The lids were constructed of wood, covered on the under side with lead, and, owing to their weight and shape, would give a heavy glancing blow if allowed to fall. Captain Thomson considers "that no movable article of uncovered metal other than aluminium need be present in any nitroglycerin building." As the explosion was communicated from the precipitating house to the final washing house by means of the charge of nitroglycerin running down the leaden gutter, it is recommended that the difference of level between buildings thus connected should be
such as to shorten, as much as possible, the time occupied in running down a charge. Gutters should also be washed with clean water after each charge has passed down, and not more than one charge should be running to or from any
one building at one time.
-G. W. McD.
Cornish Explosives - Bryan Earl
A very detailed book running to 365 pages, having a wealth of detail on the National Explosives Company and the processes used.
War At Work
Another look at the area
National Library of Scotland
Historic OS maps
A bit of info on the Towans and mining in the area
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