© Wonersh History Society - www.wonershhistory.co.uk   (WHS)


In   1636   a   corn   and   fulling   mill   was   converted   into   the   gunpowder   works   by   the   East   India Company.      It   closed   in   1920   and   is   now   a   Scheduled   Ancient   Monument.      Anyone   who   hasn’t visited   the   27   acre   site   before   will   probably   be   surprised   to   find   just   how   much   still   survives, particularly structures from the 1880s and 1890s. Until    the    middle    of    the    19th    Century    when    high    explosives    were    produced,    there    was    no alternative   to   gunpowder   and   at   one   time   Chilworth   was   one   of   the   most   famous   industrial   sites in   Britain   employing   600   people   at   its   peak   (although   many   only   provided   services   such   as   the coopers who made the barrels). The   mills   were   established   on   the   course   of   the   fast   flowing   Tillingbourne   (ideal   for   powering   the early   mills   before   steam)   and   barges   brought   raw   materials   such   as   sulphur   and   saltpetre   to   the site   up   the   Thames   and   Wey   and   the   Godalming   navigation.      On   their   return   journey,   the   barges took    the    finished    gunpowder    to    temporary    storage    in    magazines    at    Barking    Creek    on    the Thames Estuary. Not   surprisingly,   explosions   were   a   significant   hazard   and   there   were   many   fatal   accidents during   the   working   life   of   the   mills,   the   force   of   one   explosion   causing   the   collapse   of   St Martha’s   Church   over   half   a   mile   away.      Even   transporting   the   gunpowder   had   its   risks   and   in 1864   two   men   were   killed   when   a   powder   barge   exploded   as   it   was   being   hauled   from   the Stonebridge gunpowder wharves at Shalford (see photo) to Dapdune Wharf in Guildford. THE IMPORTANCE OF BOOTS Six   men   were   killed   in   the   worst   explosion   recorded   at   Chilworth   and   all   because   of   a   hob   nailed   boot.      A   man   slipped   and   the      spark created   by   his   hob   nailed   boots   ignited   the   powder   in   a   powder   tram   and   this   first   explosion   set   off   a   second   explosion   in   the   corning house.  The subsequent inquest was held at the Percy Arms pub. George   Brett   was   a   shoe   and   boot   maker   who   lived   in   Wonersh   and   he   was   interviewed   by   various   History   Society   members   between 1958   and   1973.      During   the   time   George   made   boots   for   the   mill   workers,   no   metal   at   all   could   be   used   because   of   the   danger   of   sparks so   soles   were   fixed   with   wooden   plugs,   a   square   plug   being   driven   into   a   round   hole.      This   held   the   sole   very   firmly   and   was   completely waterproof   because   as   soon   as   the   peg   became   damp   it   would   swell   and   bind   even   tighter.      Pegs   were   also   more   secure   and   longer lasting   than   stitches.      The   holes   for   the   pegs   had   to   be   bored   with   an   awl   and   if   an   awl   broke,   the   whole   boot   had   to   be   completely   taken to pieces to make sure no metal had been left in. Trams   pushed   by   hand   were   used   for   carrying   trays   of   powder   from   one   part   of   the   mill   to   an   other.      The   men   pushing   them   wore   boots with   brass   nails.      Brass   doesn’t   give   off   a   spark   but   even   so,   these   boots   were   worn   outdoors   only.      If   a   tram   man   had   to   go   into   the   mill he   slipped   on   ‘shooshers’,   large   metal-less   overshoes   which   always   stood   at   the   mill   entrance   and   in   these   he   shuffled   to   wherever   he had to go. More information about George Brett here:
George Brett, Shoe Maker George Brett, Shoe Maker
Gunpowder Store, Stonebridge
Corning:  turning moistened cakes of gunpowder into grains which are graded to ensure the predictability of firing.