Gunpowder in the Lake District
Elterwater and Low-wood are two sites in Lakeland that show clear remains
of the once thriving black powder or gunpowder industry. Michael Davies
Shiel is the recognised authority on the subject. The growing demand for
the powder came from quarrying and mining across the North. Saltpetre and
sulphur were imported as vital ingredients. The other requirement was charcoal,
something obtanable from the coppicing of the areas woodland. Water power
was equally important with the earliest works being on the River Kent, south
The Elterwater works on the River Brathay, now a holiday complex, (Langdale
Estates)are still tracable on the ground. The areas last gunpowder mills
closed in 1937. Saltpetre came from Chile and barrels used to arrive at
Windermere railway station for onward transport. Sulphur came from volcanic
regions such as Stroboli on Sicily. Coppice wood was fed into the greedy
retort furnaces to produce quality charcoal at Gatebeck. Careful grinding
and mixing are the requirements for black powder manafucature. Thus a series
of small water driven grinders and mixers would be spread along a watercourse
such as the Brathay. The risks of explosions in the process menat that work
was spread between blast banks in an attept to limit the potential for disaster.
Any furnaces for drying also had long covered flues to carry away the sparks
well away from the gunpowder areas. Rotary churns and heavy orin or stone
runners were all designed to crush and mix the ingredients. But always they
had to be designed to prevent that strat spark that could end with an explosion.
In the latter stages of the industry large waterwheels were replaced by
the turbines that became the hallmark of Kendal firm Gilbert Gilkes and
Gordon. Elterwater boasted six water wheels. The friction generated in some
of the earlier grinding processes led to fatal explosions. The crude black
powder was then compressed under great pressure into sheets before the dangerous
process of corning into identical sized pieces for even explosion. Early
corning was done by mallet Equally hair raising was the later stage of drying
the mixture before carefull packaging. The site at Sedgewick is completely
overgrown today. Black powder from these Lakeland works was used around
the world, but also nearer home for the iron ore mining of West Cumbria
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