By Andrew Westcott
I do like to holiday for a week or two in Cornwall each year if I can, and one place I have found particularly interesting is the area of Hayle, specifically the region known as Upton Towans which is near the village of Gwithian. This place is located on the north coast of western Cornwall, and forms part of the coastline of St. Ives Bay, a popular place for wind and kite surfers, along with surfers of the more conventional kind.
St. Ives Bay Holiday Park is my preferred base at the time of writing, and this borders, and is in fact partially built upon, Upton Towans. This consists of an area of ancient sand dunes which arose many hundreds of years ago, but due to changing weather patterns they have been deprived of their supply of fresh sand, and have since stabilised and are now overgrown with a diverse array of vegetation. One of the most prolific animals to be found on these relict dunes are rabbits, the sandy, well-drained substrate being ideal for them, and adders have also found the conditions to be favourable along with a good range of small mammals on which they feed. Also unusually common here are glow worms which reveal their locations by the eerie glow of bioluminescence the males produce in the late summer evenings.
Despite finding the flora and fauna of the area of great interest, I cannot wrench myself away from the area's industrial archaeology, the remnants of which seem to be almost everywhere you look - primarily of the National Explosives Company, and to a lesser extent Boiling Well Mine.
Upton Towans is known locally as Dynamite Towans, and there is a good reason for this as the National Explosives Company was founded here in 1888 in order to produce dynamite for the mining industry, along with other explosives. (I see the company also referred to as National Explosives Works and National Explosives Factory.) Precise records seem hard to come by, and a visit to the Cornwall Records Office at some time in the near future is a must. In the meantime I have tried to glean whatever information I can from various sources, including snippets I've found scattered around the Internet.
No page on the National Explosives Company at Hayle would be complete without the obligatory photo of the one remaining chimney, which can be seen in photo 2 to the left. This chimney was restored in 1998 and was, I believe, part of the nitric acid production factory. I have seen suggestions that this chimney is part of the mining operations associated with Boiling Well Mine, but this is untrue as there are no longer any remains of the old mine workings left above ground level. However, in the vicinity of the chimney there are many remains of buildings related to the explosives factory and their foundations can be seen all around this area.
As I understand it, the National Explosives Company was founded in 1888 by Shilson, a Cornish gunpowder manufacturer, to produce dynamite for the local mining industry. 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, particularly those of the Navy, and production soared with the company employing at its peak in the region of 1,800 people with the site covering an area of around 300 acres. The company was fairly short-lived as companies go, and 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. The site was cleared of all salvageable machinery and equipment during the following year and by the end of 1920, all that remained were various buildings scattered about the dunes. I understand that the site continued to be used for explosives storage into the 1960s, after which the site became derelict, and the majority of the structures demolished and the rubble removed.
At the easterly end of the site were the factories for producing sulphuric and nitric acid, but to the west were the dunes, and it was here that the 'danger buildings' were constructed, serviced by a narrow gauge rail network along which trams operated, to move material between the huts and the main factory.
The buildings in which dangerous materials were to be manufactured or stored were isolated from one another by being built within large sand bunkers. The reason for this was to ensure that if an explosion did occur in one building, the resulting blast would be absorbed or deflected upwards, minimising the chances of the blast triggering further explosions in neighbouring huts or simply causing structural damage to them.
I am aware of 2 explosions at the factory - a detonation of blasting gelatin on 19th October 1899, and a much larger incident involving the detonation of almost 2 tons of nitroglycerin on 5th January 1904 where 4 people were killed instantly and one severely injured, to later die too. Records suggest that this explosion was so powerful that considerable damage occurred in St. Ives, some 3.5 miles across the bay, and that it was also heard on Dartmoor. I find it difficult to get my head around the fact that so much damage was caused at such a distance, but we have to give the reports of the time some credence. At the bottom of this page you can read a report on this particular incident, which helps to give some indication of the scale of the blast.
Returning to the protective sand bunkers, these are now the most obvious of the factory's remains and many can be found apparently built at random around the dunes. For those interested, I have prepared 2 images of the entire site as seen from the air (copyright Google Maps), one downsized and visible at the bottom of this page, and a high resolution image to download if you wish, on which the remains of many of the bunkers built to protect the danger buildings can be seen.
The 2 photos here show details of a bunker. The lefthand photo is of a good example of a bunker, this one in good condition 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 walkers. One point of interest is that the interiors of many of the bunkers have a surface of closely-mown grass, good enough maybe to turn the head of the most critical bowling enthusiast. Rabbits are the reason for this - they live in burrows in the banks of the bunkers and come out to feed in relative safety on the grass in the centre and in so doing keep the vegetation under control.
The righthand photo shows large threaded studs protruding from a mass of cast concrete. Many of the sand bunkers 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 leaden ducting, as the lightweight wooden construction of the buildings would not have provided much support on their own. Such pipework and ducting would have been quite heavy and I would imagine that on account of the sensitive materials some of it may have been transporting, a solid and secure anchor point would have been very important. 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.
Link to 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."
The factory was originally managed by J W Wilkinson, but in 1904 at the time of the explosion we know from reports that a Mr William Bate was assistant manager at the site. At some point William Bate was promoted to manager of the site and is significant here in that he had the forethought to have photographs taken around the site while he was in charge. Whether he was the photographer or whether he commissioned the photos I don't know, but it is thanks to him that we have a record of what the factory looked like in the early 1900s. One thing in particular I decided I wanted to do on this page was to place original images of the site here, alongside contemporary images I have taken of the same features, as viewed from the same locations, to show how things have changed over the 100 years or so which have elapsed since the originals were taken. The sites of many of the original photos are difficult to identify, but those I have been able to find so far appear below. As with most of the photos on this page, they can be clicked on to view a larger image in a separate window.
I did initially experiment with making my photographs monochrome to match the old ones, but the results appeared a little confusing so I left mine in colour to make it immediately obvious which were the old photos and which were the recent. The Cornwall Records Office hold the copyright to the old monochrome photographs shown here. If anyone with the appropriate authority wishes me to remove the copyrighted material, please let me know via my e-mail address and I will of course comply, but I feel it would be a great pity not to make these historic images as widely available as possible.
First of my comparison photos is the pair above. The file names of the original images give some clue as to what the buildings were, and these were described as 'cordite drys'. Cordite, although an explosive, found use as a propellant in various firearms and artillery guns and was typically made up using over 50% nitroglycerin, a small amount of petroleum jelly with the rest consisting of nitrocellulose or 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.
Regarding the above pair of photos, it was difficult to get to the precise location of the original photographer due to undergrowth, 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 100 years but 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 a chimney can be seen in both photos. Can you see it?
The old photo above is of 'cartridge huts', with mine next to it to show how 100 years have changed things. Cartridge in this sense means sticks of dynamite rather than gun cartridges. Nitroglycerin on its own takes the form of a clear, oily liquid and is highly unstable, but it was discovered that by mixing it with an inert substance, it became safe to handle. Diatomaceous earth, which is a soft rock high in silica due to the presence of the fossilised remains of countless billions of microscopic diatoms, was generally used and the mixture would then be extruded into rods which would then be wrapped in grease-proof paper or similar and packed in crates ready for shipment. This operation was carried out in purpose-built cartridging huts which were relatively small, 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 banked up around them. There were many huts like this at various places around the site.
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. Little has really changed here, St. Ives is still there and the sky line is little changed, with the bunkers 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.
The photos above apparently show nitroglycerin buildings. Nitroglycerin is a high explosive in liquid form which is well known for its instability - an impact can easily detonate it. It is generally regarded to be unsafe to pump nitroglycerin which may come as no surprise, although at this factory I understand it was moved through pipework under gravity between storage vats and the points of use. The production of nitroglycerin is a complicated process involving several stages, and presumably these buildings were involved in this somewhere.
It looked like I wasn't going to be able to find the spot from which this photo was taken, until I noticed the low flat structure on the top of the hill at the far left of the sky line in the old photo. I recognised this as being the building at the top of a large dune known locally as Jack Straw's Hill. (The shed to the right was known as Jack Straw's Castle.) Using this as a datum point I now at least had a clue, and after a lot of relocating I was able to get close to the position the original was taken from, although overgrown dunes limited my options somewhat. 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 small wooden sheds have now gone.
Examining the right-hand side of the old photo and looking at the route the trams took, compare this with the new photo and you can still easily see evidence of where the tracks once ran.
The old photo above is apparently of cotton drys. 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.
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 had stood. As was usually the case, heavily overgrown areas prevented me from standing in exactly the right spot, but this was pretty close. The dunes to the right no longer exactly matched, so all I could do was line up the three bunkers 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. 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 bunker. 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 which can be seen here: 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 bunker out from my location. 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 you can see a photo of the remains here: Remains of hut.
The pair of photos above show some more cartridging huts. There were many of these located around the site suggesting that producing the cartridges of dynamite was one of the more common tasks undertaken at the factory.
This site has been one of the more elusive locations to find, and I pretty much stumbled upon this site by recognising the distinctive high dune to the right of the photos. I spent more than an hour here just changing location very slightly in an attempt to get the various closer features to line up with those on the horizon, but never did quite get them to match perfectly. I can only assume that the shape of the dunes has changed sufficiently over the last 100 years to make this impossible. Movement more that 10 feet or so in any direction changed things far too much, and the photo here was the closest approximation.
Although the sand bunkers can still be seen, there are absolutely no remains of any of the foundations of these 3 huts, suggesting to me that they were constructed entirely of wood.
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 probably made my attempts at repositioning the camera quite amusing for any onlookers.
Much seems to have changed in this area and very few of the existing bunkers seem to bear much relationship to how things look in the old photo. Despite this, 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.
Modern lenses and CCD sensors create a perspective which is different from the cameras of old with their large format glass exposure plates, and this may account for some discrepancies between the two. Changes to the site and gradual erosion of the structures probably account for the remainder.
The annotation attached to the old photo here suggested that these buildings were cordite stores. This was a relatively easy location to find, as I was already familiar with the rather unique-looking bit of wall visible in the larger version of the old photo.
The wall in question can be seen in the large version of the old photo between the near left-hand bunker and the pathway going just behind it. In more recent times the wall has lost the top couple of courses of stonework, but even so the top of it can still just about be seen if you look carefully, peeping over the vegetation growing on the top of the bunker in the large version of the new photo.
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.
Going back to the odd bit of wall, the reason it was built seems to be the subject of some discussion, one person suggesting to me that the area was a bridge and this was the wall to the side of it. I don't believe this to be the case, as for one thing there is no stream for the path to cross. I favour the idea that this was a blast wall built to isolate the two bunkers, as their entrances have been built facing each other. Quite why they were built this way is a mystery, perhaps it was a construction oversight and it was cheaper to build the blast wall than re-build an entire bunker. It is also possible that the wall was built to protect passing trams from a possible explosion within the nearer bunker, but then, why not a wall on the other side of the track too?
By way of further evidence to support my theory, the wall is not constructed using ordinary bricks or concrete blocks as other walls on the site were. It is instead built from large, dark, heavy rectangular blocks known as scoria blocks. The Cornwall Copper Company operated in Hayle up until 1820, and developed a rather imaginative solution to getting rid of the large quantities of slag or scoria generated during the copper ore smelting process, which was to cast it into rectangular blocks for building purposes. These scoria blocks, believed to have been cast in 3 different sizes, were then sold for 3d for 20, or offered free of charge to CCCo. employees to help with building their homes. These blocks were used and re-used in many structures in and around Hayle, including the building of this wall.
The width of this wall is roughly 18 inches, and the photo to the right 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 stone runs the entire thickness of the wall as do most of them and typically these large rectangular blocks measure 18 inches in length, with cross-sectional dimensions of 13 inches by 10.5 inches, although some blocks do vary slightly from this. 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 shot I took here is a bit tenuous to say the least, but it is in the right area. If you look carefully at the horizon, the same sand dune can be seen relative to the one remaining chimney. This chimney is the one just visible in the centre of the old photo, almost directly behind a nearer chimney.
I believe the path as shown in the recent photo follows a different course to that in the old photo, having been moved to accommodate new buildings. This photo refers to 'the cottage', this being Pearce's Cottage, presumably 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 to be still seen within the trees.
This pair of photos is unusual in as much that I didn't even 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. So I quickly admitted defeat and took a general photo from a closer distance simply to record something other than the bloomin' trees. The cottage itself is now in a fairly poor state of repair, having been allowed to deteriorate and the roof has long since collapsed. A 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 layout of the cottage seems relatively unremarkable and although it is now difficult to be sure, seems to have been a 3 bedroom house with kitchen and large lounge downstairs, although it is possible that this large room may have been divided in two, although there is no evidence on the walls to suggest this. There is a separate room built on the eastern 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 in fact have been a workshop area, and there are remains to the side of what could have been a forge for heating and working metals. In support of this, the floor outside the house beside this possible forge is paved with acid and heat resistant 'metalline' branded bricks.
On account of the poor photographic conditions, I have taken the 3 photos above to show certain features in a bit more detail.
This shows the remaining part of the original boundary fence, visible in the old photo of the cottage. Considering that this fence is around 100 years old, it's done pretty well for any of it to survive. My garden shed is in a pretty bad way after just 20.
This shows where the front porch used to be. 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. (Closeup of porch) Broken slates from the roof litter the floor here.
This photo shows the window on the end of the room, visible in the old photo. The metal object to the left of the window is a compressed air tank and has been positioned on a purpose-built plinth. I've no idea what such a thing would be doing attached to a residential dwelling, unless the purpose of this room was not residential. (Closer view of cylinder)
Further image links:
Metalline brick in paved area outside workshop
Looking into workshop through window
I'd be interested to find out who this Pearce gentleman was and determine his area of expertise, if any. I'm assuming he held a prominent position within the company as he was permitted to live in a cottage on the premises, so maybe he was involved in security or was an engineer for the site? I have found a thread making mention of people who may be connected, at this location on ancestry.co.uk if you wish to have a look.
Roy Carne 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."
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."
I'm assuming this object had something to do with the manufacture of explosives on account of where it was found and my personal thinking is that the hooks were an aid to lifting the device, which presumably is fairly heavy. If you know what this is or can offer any guesses, please contact me using the e-mail address at the bottom of the page - I'm seriously intrigued!
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 gong straight and then up to the left, they were jutting out of a sandy footpath!"
I don't know what the purpose of this badly rusted component was, but considering its location adjacent to a tramway, I'm thinking it may have been part of a latching or ratchet system. I've seen this artefact myself, and if it is still exposed on my next visit (and I can find it again) I'll excavate it a bit more and take detailed photos of it. As for what it was for - basically I have no idea - do you?
Tallie sent me several images of an unusual-looking iron artefact discovered whilst walking around Upton Towans, the photo above illustrating it quite nicely.
Coming as I do from a farming background, this object appears to be of a size and design which suggests it may have been a farm gate hinge. If this is the case, the spiked end would have been hammered into a wooden gate post with the shorter protrusion facing upwards. A second spike would have also been used either above or below this one to form both gate hinge points. This design could also have been set into a drilled granite post. I may, of course, be wrong!
The question I do have in my mind is that the hinging section seems to be tapered rather than cylindrical as I'd have expected, seeding some doubts about my initial thoughts. Whether or not this was in use directly by the explosives factory is unknown, but looking at the weathering, it certainly dates from around that time.
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."
That's a good suggestion, and probably most likely to be what this pin was for.
The lefthand photo here is of some concrete foundations with large steel studs protruding from it. This was the location of some very heavy plant, and I like to think it was a large steam or internal combustion engine installed for some purpose. The studs are designed to restrain something of great weight, each measuring 1 and 3 quarters of an inch in diameter with a thread pitch of 5 TPI. Maybe this machine was for electricity generation, or compressed air?
The righthand photo 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 just 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 are not immediately visible to the casual walker due to the heavily overgrown nature of the area, but a short spell of deft ivy-work on my part revealed this section for your enjoyment. I was still pulling thorns from my fingers a week after I took this photo.
As is common knowledge, a system of trams was used to transport material to and from various locations around the site, these running on a network of rails. The routes the trams took still remain, and are inadvertently kept clear of vegetation by walkers, as the tramways now provide many of the recreational paths throughout the towans. Virtually all of the steel rails were removed from the site during its decommissioning, but there is one place on the site where some sections of rail are still in their original location, and these can be seen in the photo to the far left. Note the provision for one set of rails to cross the path of the other. The rails themselves are of narrow gauge, 2 feet in this case, 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.
The middle photo of the three above shows where a section of the old tramway has eroded revealing a cross-section of the substrate, and as can be seen, a layer of cinders is very much in evidence. Many of the old tramways have a layer of cinders covering them, and this provides an easy way of determining where the trams operated. I feel it is unlikely that the cinders fell from the boilers of steam-operated locomotives, and prefer the idea that the cinders were waste material from the factory's boilers and placed on the tramways to stabilise the sand and to act as ballast for the sleepers and rails.
The righthand of the above photos shows where a particularly large cutting was made through the dunes in order to maintain a reasonably level gradient. In this instance, 2 parallel tramlines ran through this cutting as suggested by the evidence of 2 line crossings at the location shown in the first photo, although the evidence for the extra set of tracks is out of shot here. The tramway actually passed through a tunnel just over halfway through this cutting which is indicated on site maps from the time, although this tunnel has long since collapsed or been dismantled. There were cartridging huts to the left of the tunnel location (visible in photo 14), so maybe the tunnel was made to protect the trams and their volatile contents from a possible explosion.
Just as cuttings were dug through high dunes to level the tramway's gradients, measures were taken to avoid low areas and the tramway lines often followed around the contours of the dunes to get to their destination via a level route. Sometimes this wasn't possible or practical in which case the low-laying areas which needed to be crossed were built up to form a raised tramway, known in railway parlance as an embankment.
The three photos here show good examples of embankments to be found amongst the dunes, and as is mostly the case these old tramways have become the modern recreational pathways through the dunes.
I'm unsure exactly how the tram system operated or was powered, but my own thoughts are that individual trolleys would have been pushed in and out of the buildings by hand, and a self-powered 'service loco' would come around at intervals, either on a timed schedule or by request to collect the trolleys which would be hitched to the end of a train of other trolleys for transportation around the site. I can't find any information on how the tram system was powered, but it was likely to have been by small steam-powered locomotives, locos using the recently invented internal combustion engine or by using a combination of winches and hand-power.
The photo to the far left is of the foundations to be found at the top of the large dune known locally as Jack Straw's Hill. No-one seems to know exactly who Jack Straw was, but his association with this hill remains. Jack Straw's Hill is pretty much the highest point on the site, and 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. This link shows a photo I took of it on the distant skyline taken with my little camera, zoomed in quite a bit.
The structure shown in the lefthand photo can be seen from several locations around the site, and is the same one seen further back in the page in photo 10, far left of the skyline. Judging by the extent and size of the concrete structures, it was intended to bear a fair bit of weight, and coupled with the fact that it was not very high - perhaps a metre or two - I believe it must have been a reservoir for some liquid, the most obvious being water. Given the height of the hill, this would have enabled a gravity-fed water supply to the rest of the site via a system of pipes. As if to offer evidence for the water storage theory, there are considerable rust deposits around these foundation castings, presumably left there when the reservoir was emptied and dismantled. Some such rust deposits can be seen in the middle photo.
To one side of the hill is an interesting inclined plane made up of pads of bituminous material, shown in the right-hand photo. These bituminous pads measure typically 24 inches by 32 inches, and are spaced about 6 inches apart. Back when the site 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 tram trolleys to be winched up and down the hill.
One of the main tasks in the manufacture of explosives was the production of sulphuric and nitric acid, and the remains of the building shown in the lefthand photo is of one of the acid production plants and is the only such building still standing to any degree.
The floor of the factory was lined with a special type of brick designed to be resistant to acid attack, made with a clay which had a high silica content and hard-fired to the point of vitrification. Several manufacturers of the day produced such bricks, and the photo in the middle shows a portion of the floor of the acid factory, most of which would have been lined with this type of brick, as were any other surfaces which could come into contact with acids including the tower.
Visible in the middle photo is the way the floor has collapsed into a cavity below. This cavity is just one of many flues passing from the factory floor out to the chimney outside, all of which were lined with the same acid resistant bricks. The righthand photo shows one of the several ditches leading out to the chimney, a product of a collapsed flue. Unfortunately the route this flue took is now rather overgrown but the depression can still be seen. Hot gasses passing along 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.
I'm unsure exactly how this part of the plant operated, but it probably involved the burning of sulphur or iron pyrites to produce sulphur dioxide as an interim step in the production of sulphuric acid. If I'm able to research the processes used here, I'll describe it for those interested.
Here's a little something for the brick collectors out there.
The five images here are of bricks I borrowed from around the acid production 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 don't have any information on the manufacturers of these bricks and the dates they were in business except to say that some information on the Internet is evidently wrong or incomplete as the National Explosives Factory where these bricks were used was built in 1888 and closed down in 1919.
The first two photos are of bricks marked 'OBSIDIANITE', but having variations in the other markings, one having 'ACID PROOF' moulded into one face, and the other bearing the words 'TRADE MARK'. I believe these may have been made at the Charles Davison & Co brickworks in Buckley.
The third photo shows a brick displaying the trade mark 'METALLINE' and apparently made by the Buckley Brick & Tile Co. Ltd. This particular brick is a little less common because it has one edge rounded off for the purpose of creating a neat rounded edge to any platform or ledge which required this type of acid resistant brick. There are other bricks of the more normal shape from this manufacturer around the site but I was unable to dislodge any intact for photographing.
The particular design of brick shown here can be seen in situ at the acid production factory forming what can best be described as a window ledge on some of the large apertures in the wall, a photo of some in place can be seen in the photo to the right, where they contrast clearly with the conventional type of brick which is used for the majority of the building.
The fourth brick in my little exhibition is marked C.Davison & CO'S "ADAMANTINE". According to sources on the Internet C. Davison was based in Ewloe near Chester, and the company was established in 1844 which would fit nicely with the date the explosives factory was in operation, although I'd need a serious brick collector to get in touch to confirm this, and the origins of the other bricks featured here.
The fifth and final brick shown here was a bit of an unknown, being marked simply 'CORNWALL'. OK, it was certainly used and re-discovered in Cornwall, but who manufactured it? I received this information by e-mail:
"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."
(My thanks to Helga P. for this information.)
For those with an interest in historic bricks and manufacturers, the following web site has images of an astounding number of bricks and may be of interest:
In the photos to the left can be seen two of the four concrete huts which remain standing on Upton Towans, which were constructed and used as part of the National Explosives Company complex.
The one on the left has been imaginatively decorated in recent times, presumably by younger members of the local community. Although the roof has now gone on all four examples, the walls remain and are generally in a safe condition. I'm unsure exactly what these huts were used for, as most of the buildings on the site were constructed of wood for safety reasons, but all four of these huts were serviced by the tram network.
All four of the huts are located near each other at the more remote western part of the site, but unfortunately I haven't yet been able to identify any of them in any of the old photographs so cannot be sure as to their original purpose. Concrete was not the building material of choice where the possibility of an explosion existed, so these were probably used for the storage of non-volatile components, although they do sit in bunkers so there is a bit of a contradiction going on here.
There were once many buildings associated with the explosives works but the vast majority have been knocked down, possibly for safety reasons. Much of the rubble was taken from the site but some was used to reinforce areas of wear such as pathways.
In this particular photo we can see some of the concrete blocks and bricks which once formed the walls of a building, these having been set into the pathway. If you examine the photo at all, you will notice what appears to be a date written into the plaster covering one of the blocks on the footpath.
If this is a date, it would be 1920, the year the site was being cleared of any salvageable machinery and materials. It seems odd to me that this date should appear because as far as I'm aware, no construction was going on here in this year, rather the opposite. If you look closely it could just be 2 numbers - 19 and 20, written into separate squares and may be part of a larger consecutive sequence. So we have at least 4 possibilities: Maybe the writing is a genuine date and it was placed in the render in 1920. Maybe it was written earlier but for some reason the person decided to post-date the wall. Perhaps it's not a date at all, and part of a larger number grid. Just possibly it was made in far more recent times as a point of interest for the casual walker? I don't know, so you decide.
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.
The most obvious remains are the large sandbanks which made up the protective bunkers surrounding the buildings in which dangerous materials were produced or stored, and on occasions you may come across rows of what appear to be concrete beams set in the ground. These formed the foundations of many of the buildings on the site, and many such foundations remain such as the large ones at the top of Jack Straw's Hill, visible from the adjacent campsite and from many points around the dunes.
In addition to these very obvious remains there are many smaller ones to be discovered also. In the lefthand photo can be seen 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, possibly to support pipework for transporting liquids and possibly for communication cabling and power. These posts would have needed some form of guying to keep them stable, 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.
The righthand photo 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.
This photo shows the remains of a double wall which once supported a number of large tanks of some fluid. The tanks would have been mounted on their sides straddling the two walls, and the top of the walls built up a bit around them to ensure they were secured. On the end of the wall nearest us you can still see where the wall was profiled around the end tank to secure it.
When I first discovered these remains I became a bit excited as I thought I had located another site which was featured in one of the old photos I had, as after all, the double wall is fairly distinctive and the old photo showed exactly that - the tanks supported by the double wall structure.
The problem was that the photo description suggested the site was 'Jack Straw's Castle', and my photo wasn't taken at that location. For a while I thought maybe someone other than myself had got it wrong, but after examining the site of Jack Straw's Castle at the top of Jack Straw's Hill I was able to find foundations which correlated nicely with the old photograph, but unfortunately the walls which supported the tanks were long gone. As far as I can tell, there are no old photos of this particular site.
The main factory was constructed on the site of disused mines, and there would have been extensive spoil heaps remaining from these mining operations. The factory buildings and their foundations were constructed largely of concrete.
It would seem that the spoil heaps were used in the making of the concrete needed, and this makes good sense, as for one thing the material had to be removed, and for another, material would have been needed to make the concrete required so the logical step would be to use one to create the other.
If you examine the photo above closely by clicking on it to see the high resolution version, you can see some green deposits characteristic of copper ores, and the red colouration of ferrous mineralisation. This composition can be seen in the concrete used throughout the site.
Upton Towans consists, by its very nature, of sand dunes. These dunes are many thousands 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.
It has been suggested to me that rabbits are heavily implicated in this, where collapsed burrows cause the initial depression and sand exposure 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.
The lefthand photo shows a dune featuring an enormous blowout, where hundreds of cubic metres of sand have blown out creating the cavity seen here - this is the blowout visible in photo 19. On Upton Towans there is another dune featuring an even larger blowout than this, where the entire sand dune has been hollowed out to resemble a volcano crater, leaving a thin rim just wide enough to walk around - an interesting experience for anyone afraid of heights. The righthand photo is of a blowout on the top edge of a bunker, 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, and Wheal Emily which was located on Gwithian Towans further to the North.
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.
Walking around Upton Towans, you may encounter one of the 3 air shafts which are still open to the surface, each with a protective grid placed over the top as shown in the lefthand photo here. I have discovered a fourth, but this is behind the remains of Pearce's Cottage which was built on the site of the works, rather than amongst the dunes. The 3 air shafts are on an east-west line across the dunes, and the drainage adit opens out onto the beach as shown in the photo to the right.
The leftmost of this trio of photos shows a pair of rails protruding from the cliff-top, complete with trolley, and I believe it is an artifact left over from the Wheal Emily mining operations or possibly the time when sand was commercially removed from the area. Unless you happen to look right at the cliff-top in this area, you would be unlikely to spot them, plus it does involve a fair walk along the beach of St. Ives Bay so I'm left wondering how many others have seen this interesting occurrence.
There were two major storms on this coast recorded in recent centuries - one in 1760 and a more recent storm in 1869 which were both responsible for depositing a large quantity of sand in the area. I suspect the 1869 event was responsible for burying this relic in situ, to finally be revealed by the mechanism of coastal erosion.
As such the cliff face below the tracks is at the mercy of a constant assault from the sea, so 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. In any case, I'm pleased to be one of the few who have noticed them and to have been able to record their existence by way of photography.
The cliff is quite high here, perhaps 40 feet or so, and directly below is a drainage adit, shown in the middle photo above. I can only assume the two are connected, and there is other evidence of mining operations to be found at sea level in this area, until such time as the sea destroys the remains. The photo above right is a shot up the only accessible adit, which opens out at sea level although the far end has been washed away effectively leaving a mine tunnel running through the rocky outcrop.
The image below shows the entire National Explosives Company site as it was in 2014, as seen from the air. This image was made up as a montage of many screen shots from Google Map's 'satellite' view, so technically carries their copyright. If you are feeling brave, you can download a jpg version of the original which will enable you to zoom in on various features, but be aware it weighs in at a rather large 7.5Mb:
National Explosives Company, Hayle, entire site - high resolution.
By downloading the high resolution image and viewing it in your browser zoomed in, you can see many of the features still remaining, particularly the protective sand bunkers and the routes the tramway took. Also visible is the one remaining chimney by virtue of the shadow it casts, the shells of the 4 remaining concrete huts, 3 ventilation shafts of Boiling Well Mine, many foundations, Pearce's Cottage and the place where the Boiling Well Mine drainage adit opens out onto the beach.
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.
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.
In: The Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry. April 15, 1904.
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.
I intend to spend a lot more time roaming over the dunes of Upton Towans and no doubt will have more photos and text to add to this in time. I hope you have found my little bit of research and photography to be of some interest.
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