WONERSH
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HISTORY SOCIETY

CHILWORTH GUNPOWDER WORKS

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.