A gunpowder magazine is a magazine (building) designed to store the explosive gunpowder in wooden barrels for safety. Gunpowder, until superseded, was a universal explosive used in the military and for civil engineering: both applications required storage magazines. Most magazines were purely functional and tended to be in remote and secure locations.
Gunpowder Magazines in the United Kingdom
Production of gunpowder in England appears to have started in the mid-13th century with the aim of supplying The Crown. Records show that gunpowder was being made in 1346, at the Tower of London; a powder house existed at the Tower in 1461. Gunpowder was also being made or stored at other royal residences such as Greenwich Palace (the reason being that these were where the royal armouries were based). It was also stored in Scotland, in royal castles, such as Edinburgh Castle. Gunpowder manufacture at Faversham began as a private enterprise in the 16th century. From the 18th century, efforts began to be made to site magazines away from inhabited areas. Nevertheless, storage at the older established sites persisted well into the 19th century.
The use of gunpowder for both military and civil engineering purposes began to be superseded by newer nitrogen-based explosives from the later 19th century. Gunpowder production in the United Kingdom was gradually phased out during the mid-20th century. The last remaining gunpowder mill at the Royal Gunpowder Factory, Waltham Abbey was damaged by a German parachute mine in 1941 and it never reopened. This was followed by the closure of the gunpowder section at the Royal Ordnance Factory, ROF Chorley, the section was closed and demolished at the end of World War II, and ICI Nobel's Roslin gunpowder factory which closed in 1954. This left the sole United Kingdom gunpowder factory at ICI Nobel's Ardeer site in North Ayrshire, Scotland; it too closed in October 1976. Since then gunpowder has been imported into the United Kingdom.
Gunpowder magazines survive at several locations in the UK. It can be seen that, in many cases, the gunpowder was stored in locations which were both remote from habitations and could be made secure. They were also often sited in dense woodland (or had trees planted around them) as a way of lessening the effect of any explosion.
The remains of old storage magazines are prominent in the landscape around the old Nobel's Explosives site in Ayrshire, many protected by large earth banks which acted as blast walls; these are not all gunpowder magazines, as the site has long been associated with other explosives, particularly dynamite and ballistite.
Dumbarton Castle contained two powder magazines; both located high up on Dumbarton Rock. The oldest went out of use in 1748, being replaced by a new Magazine designed by William Skinner. The new magazine, located on The Beak, has a barrel-vaulted roof, with double doors and indirect ventilation. It was designed to hold 150 barrels.
Fort George, was built between the end of the Jacobite rebellion and 1769. The Grand Magazine was designed to hold 2,500 barrels of gunpowder. It was constructed between 1757 and 1759; and was built strong enough to withstand a direct hit from a mortar. It has a slate roof laid on brick vaults, which sit on stone pillars. To prevent sparks, no iron fittings are used in the magazine: the wooden floor is held by wooden dowels; and the doors and shutters sheathed with copper sheet.
An unusual example exists in East Ayrshire, Scotland at Knockinglaw (now Knockenlaw mound); it is shown on the 1896 OS and still exists in very poor condition as of 2014[update]. It is near Little Onthank on the outskirts of Kilmarnock, and was originally a tumulus in which urns had been found. A powder magazine was built into this large pre-existing earth mound at an unknown date and the site is now in a housing scheme.
The Irvine pouther magazine
The Pouther (Scots for Powder) House in Irvine (Map reference: NS 3238 3847), North Ayrshire, Scotland is a rare survival and was possibly first constructed in 1642, as records show that orders for large quantities of gunpowder were met in 1643, 1644, and 1646. James VI, of Scotland, had instructed that all Royal burghs should have powder magazines. The saltpetre derived from deposits in byres, stables and doocots would be stored in the Powder House.
Plans for rebuilding it were made in 1781, at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, and accomplished by 1801; its use was discontinued in 1880. When the Golffields wash-house was demolished in 1924, its slates were saved by Provost R M Hogg for restoration of the Powder House, a rescue assisted by Rev. Ranken of the Old Parish Church. It was repaired in 1961 and again in 1992 by Irvine Development Corporation. It is an attractive and well built octagonal building topped by a weather cock.
The 1870 print shows that it was placed in a remote situation, a golf-course being developed around it in later years and when this closed it remained, still fairly remote, in a small park next to the old manse. Ironically, Irvine is close to the site of the old Nobel ICI explosives plant at Ardeer, which from the mid-1930s become the centre of gunpowder manufacture in Britain; and was the last site in Britain to manufacture gunpowder.
Dockra limestone quarry lies between Barrmill, Broadstone and Gateside and had two gunpowder magazines; the older one was built some distance from the works.' The quarries closed before WW2.
A gunpowder magazine was located near the site of the Low Well in the village of Barkip, also known as The Den, near Beith, North Ayrshire.
The Gunpowder Magazine in Berwick-upon-Tweed was built in 1745 to service the Barracks and sited at a safe distance from them to the south. It is a solid stone building, heavily buttressed, windowless, stone roofed and enclosed by a stone wall.
Brean Down Fort, Somerset
Brean Down Fort was one of a number of Palmerston Forts built to defend the British, Irish and Channel Island coastlines. It was originally built in stages between 1862 and 1870; to protect the Bristol Channel. It had a large, underground, main gunpowder magazine, 15 foot (4.5 m) by 18 foot (5.5 m) by 20 foot (6.1 m) high, built to the recommendations of the 1863 Royal Commission. The magazine still exists. A further two, smaller, underground magazines, No. 2 magazine and No. 3 magazine, were also built. No. 3 magazine exploded on 3 July 1900 destroying most of the barracks. Gunner Hains was killed. It was concluded that he had killed himself by firing a ball cartridge down a ventilator shaft into the magazine which held 3 tons (3 tonnes) of gunpowder, causing the magazine to explode. The fort was reused in both the First and Second World Wars; and additional expense magazines constructed. The fort is now owned by the National Trust.
A sizeable magazine stands in the unexpected surroundings of London's Hyde Park. Opened by the Board of Ordnance in 1805, its structure is similar to other British magazines of this period except for the fact that the exterior is more ornamented here than elsewhere (probably in deference to its setting) with a Palladian style portico and other features. The magazine provided the army with a stock of gunpowder in the capital, in case of 'foreign invasion or popular uprising'. It remained in MOD hands until 1963, after which it served as a storage facility. From 2013 it is to have a new lease of life, having been refurbished and extended by Dame Zaha Hadid, as the Serpentine Sackler Gallery.
As early as 1461, the Tower of London included a 'powderhous' within its walls. With the establishment of the Board of Ordnance there, its use as a gunpowder store increased. In the Tudor period the White Tower was refitted for this purpose, and by 1657 the entire building apart from the chapel was being used to store gunpowder. Gunpowder was still being stored there when the Ordnance Board was disbanded in the mid-nineteenth century.
The Royal Navy Ordnance Base (later RNAD) Bull Point was the last great work of the Board of Ordnance before its disbandment in 1856. Plymouth's Devonport Dockyard had previously made use of Magazines at Morice Yard (1720) and Keyham Point (1775), but space was limited and people were living close by, so the Board sought a new, more isolated spot for its Magazines.
Bull Point was and is unusual in the unity and precise purpose of its design: rather than developing gradually over time, it was planned as a whole, and with a particular view to meeting the storage needs of emerging new types of artillery. Four Magazines were built (1851–54) each holding 10,000 barrels. These were followed by a series of other buildings specifically designed for particular uses. From the start, the site was fully integrated with the nearby Laboratory complex at Kinterbury (established in 1805), where damaged powder was treated before being passed on to Bull Point for storage.
The buildings are mostly still in place within the MOD Bull Point RNAD site: all of one style, mostly ashlar with rock-faced dressings, they are said by English Heritage to comprise "both the finest ensemble in any of the Ordnance Yards and a remarkable example of integrated factory planning of the period".
The inhabitants of Portsmouth petitioned the Master General of the Ordnance in 1716 to remove the gunpowder, as they were worried about the hazards it posed to the town, but nothing was done at that time. A further petition was sent to the Board of Ordnance in 1767 following an explosion which caused extensive damage. This led to the construction of the Priddy's Hard magazine at Gosport, in a remote area, across the water from Portsmouth.
The Square Tower still exists. After 1779 it was used for other purposes; including employment as a semaphore station in 1817.
In addition to Priddy's Hard, new magazines were also established at Tipner Point (where two magazines of 1798 still stand, alongside their cooperage and shifting house) and at Marchwood (1814) where one of several surviving buildings is now home to Marchwood Yacht Club. After a period of expansion, Marchwood was by 1864 Britain's largest magazine complex, according to The Times newspaper, with capacity for 76,000 barrels.
Priddy's Hard, Gosport
Priddy's Hard, began life as Priddy's Hard Fort; however in 1768 King George III authorised the construction of a gunpowder magazine inside the ramparts. Priddy's Hard magazine was constructed in 1779 to avoid the need to store gunpowder in the Square Tower, Portsmouth.
Both the fort and the magazine came under the control of the Board of Ordnance until 1855; control passing, first to the War Office, and then the Admiralty in 1891. Priddy's Hard became a Naval Armaments Depot, finally closing in 1977.
Purfleet Royal Gunpowder Magazine was established by Act of Parliament in 1760, built to the design of James Gabriel Montresor and opened in 1765, with a garrison in place to protect it. Previously, gunpowder had long been stored at Greenwich, but fears of an explosion there prompted the building of this new establishment, further afield. The purpose of Purfleet was to store newly manufactured gunpowder, prior to its distribution elsewhere.
Purfleet was centred on five large Magazines, each one capable of holding up to 10,400 barrels of gunpowder. These substantial brick-built sheds were windowless, with copper-lined doors and sand-filled roof voids - all designed to prevent (or mitigate the effects of) an explosion. By the end of the eighteenth century, Purfleet was receiving regular consignments of powder from Waltham Abbey, to provide both the Navy and the Army with supplies.
The Ministry of Defence finally closed and sold the site in 1962, and several buildings were demolished to make way for a new housing estate. Some significant original buildings remain, however: the clock tower, the proofing house (in which samples of new consignments were tested) and one Magazine. This Magazine, No. 5, has been designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument and now houses a small museum. According to English Heritage, it represents (along with the Magazine at Priddy's Hard) "the most outstanding example of a typically British type of magazine, with twin barrel vaults, that relates to a critical period in Britain's growth as a naval power in the decades after the Seven Years War." Inside, a good number of original features have survived, including some unique wooden overhead cranes, early forerunners of the gantry crane.
Magazine Cottage in Sedgeford was built during the 17th century by the Le Strange Family as a gunpowder store during the Civil War. Now a residential house and a landmark for the many walkers of the ancient Roman road Peddars WayIt was to be said that a secret passageway led from the house to the coast.
Tilbury, Essex, and Gravesend, Kent
Upnor Castle, Kent
In 1668, following the Dutch Raid on the Medway, Upnor Castle was reassigned from serving as an artillery fort to be 'a Place of Store and Magazine'. Thenceforward, barrels of gunpowder were transferred to Upnor, primarily from the Tower of London. The castle was recognized as unsuitable for this role as early as 1806 when a new magazine and shell store were designed for an adjacent site; due to the Crimean War construction was delayed until 1856. In 1877, more new Magazines were built inland at Chattenden (the two sites being linked by a railway). Gunpowder storage at Upnor continued until 1913; Chattenden remained in military ownership for a further 100 years.
Waltham Abbey, Essex
Gunpowder magazines still survive at the Royal Gunpowder Factory, Waltham Abbey, including its Grand Magazine, first constructed in 1804; and rebuilt in 1867-8.
Weedon Bec, Northamptonshire
The former Ordnance Depot at Weedon Bec includes four Magazines dating from 1806-1810, along with another built in 1857. The Magazines stand in their own compound apart from the main storehouses within a containing wall. Each Magazine is separated from its neighbour by an earth-filled 'traverse' building, designed to absorb the impact of an explosion - the first time large Magazines had been provided with traverses. Like all the main buildings at Weedon, the Magazines lie along the bank of a branch of the Grand Union Canal for ease of transport. In 1827 the four magazines contained 10,500 barrels of powder, along with 1,463,700 ball and 693,746 blank cartridges.
Gunpowder Magazines in Australia
There are surviving Magazines at the following locations, among others:
- Jack's Magazine, Saltwater River, Victoria
- Goat Island, Sydney
Gunpowder Magazines in Ireland
Ballincollig, County Cork
The Ballincollig gunpowder mills were first opened in the late 18th century and were bought, in 1804, by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland's Board of Ordnance to help defend the Kingdom against attack. They were one of three royal gunpowder factories; but the Ballincollig mills became disused after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. They were sold off by the government in 1832, in a semi-derelict condition; but were bought by a Liverpool merchant and were reopened to manufacture gunpowder; finally closing, just over a century ago, in 1903. Many buildings survive and, together with the associated canals, were incorporated into a regional park - Ballincollig Regional Park. The site contains a number of powder magazines, as well as Expense magazines.
The No. 2 magazine was built by the Board of Ordnance and is the oldest magazine. It is 29 foot (8.9 m) long by 28 foot (8.6 m) wide. It has a groin-vaulted roof. The magazine is protected by earthen banks on two sides; with doors at both ends. The No. 1 magazine is newer; and was built sometime after 1828. It is 80 foot (24.5 m) long by 25 foot (7.6 m) wide and has solid walls, but is now roofless.
Gunpowder Magazines in the United States of America
Gunpowder magazines survive at the following locations, among others:
- Camp Parapet Powder Magazine, Metairie, LA, listed on the NRHP in Louisiana
- Powder House Square, a neighborhood and landmark rotary in Somerville, Massachusetts
- Hessian Powder Magazine, Carlisle, PA, listed on the NRHP in Pennsylvania
- Powder Magazine (Charleston, South Carolina), a U.S. National Historic Landmark and listed on the NRHP in South Carolina
- Jefferson Ordnance Magazine, Jefferson, Texas, listed on the NRHP in Texas
- McKay, Archibald (1880). The History of Kilmarnock. Pub. Kilmarnock.
- Cocroft (2000). Chapter 1: "Success to the Black Art!".
- Cocroft (2000). Chapter 4: "The demise of gunpowder".
- MacIvor, Iain (1981). Dumbarton Castle: Official Guide. Edinburgh: HMSO. ISBN 0-11-490830-3.
- MacIvor, Iain (1996). Fort George: The Official Souvenir Guide. Edinburgh: Historic Scotland. ISBN 0-7480-1078-5.
- Smith, John (1895). Prehistoric Man in Ayrshire. Pub. Elliot Stock. P .85.
- Wilson, Professor.(1870) The Works of Robert Burns, Pub. Blackie & son. London.
- Strawhorn, John (1985). The History of Irvine. Pub. John Donald. ISBN 0-85976-140-1. P. 69.
- Hume, John R. (2004) Vernacular Building in Ayrshire. Pub. Ayrshire Arch. & Nat. Hist. Soc. Ayrshire Monograohs 29. ISBN 0-9542253-2-5. P. 59.
- van der Bijl, Nicholas BEM (2000). Brean Down Fort: Its History and the Defence of the Bristol Channel. Cossington: Hawk Editions. ISBN 0-9529081-7-4.
- Listed building information
- Gallery website: history and future plans
- Parnell, Geoffrey (1993), The Tower of London, Batsford, ISBN 978-0-7134-6864-9
- English Heritage National Survey of Ordnance Yards and Magazine Depots, pp40-46
- Sadden, John (2001). Portsmouth: In Defence of the Realm. Chichester: Phillimore & Co. ISBN 1-86077-165-3.
- New Forest Council website
- English Heritage National Survey of Ordnance Yards and Magazine Depots, pp 50-52.
- Semark, H.W. (1997). The Royal Naval Armaments Depots of Priddy's Hard, Elson, Frater and Bedenham (Gosport, Hampshire) 1768-1977. Winchester: Hampshire County Council. ISBN 1-85975-132-6.
- listed building report
- Thurrock Local History Society
- Purfleet Heritage & Military Centre
- English Heritage National Survey of Ordnance Yards and Magazine Depots
- Local authority report
- Webb, Jenny and Donaldson, Ann (2006). Ballincollig Royal Gunpowder Mills: a hidden history. Dublin: Nonsuch Publishing. ISBN 1-84588-540-6.
- Cocroft, Wayne D. (2000). Dangerous Energy: The archaeology of gunpowder and military explosives manufacture. Swindon: English Heritage. ISBN 1-85074-718-0.
- RCAHMS Canmore archaeology site
- General Roy's Military Survey of Scotland 1747 - 52
- Old maps of Scotland from the National Library
- Old Ordnance Survey Maps
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