Saltpetre Works & The Lowwood Gunpowder Company
caution !! this is an initial draft ...
Nitre Beds, Petre Men & Gunpowder -
Gunpowder, 'black powder', was in demand way before 1605 ... ask Guy Fawkes? ... and black powder manufacture needed saltpetre.
Black Powder - KNO3 + C + S = KS + CO2 + N2 and rapidly expanding gases.
Perhaps it was the Chinese, or the Arabs, but some say it was Roger Bacon, the father of empirical science, who invented gunpowder in the 13th century and first wrote about creating a horribly fracas of thunder & lightning with saltpetre.
Gunpowder was saltpetre, sulphur & charcoal 6/1/1. The manufacture of black powder was traumatic. Charcoal, sulphur & saltpetre were carefully mixed, milled & powdered to increase surface area. The powdered mixture could ignite explosively and the rapidly expanding gases caused all manner of havoc. Mixing and corning with liquid controlled the granule size and reduced explosive dust generation during manufacture. The secret of quick complete combustion was the control of the granule size. The 'black powder' was the propellant for bullets. This was important technology if wars were to be won. Bullets had to fire without guns exploding ...
Charcoal and sulphur were readily available but the oxidising saltpetre was more of a problem. Initially saltpetre supply was critical as the only source of potassium nitrate was from organic matter, rotting meat & urine.
During the 17th century the infamous 'Petre Men' had had the King's authority to collect saltpetre from anywhere, anyhow and anybody. They collected the effervescence from limy soil which had been 'contaminated'. The white flowers of potassium nitrate bloomed naturally in places where animal waste and urine met calcium nitrate in lime rich soils. The Petre Men scraped the valuable compound from the floors of dung heaps and pigsties and sometimes from the lime mortar in brick work. The blooming was sometimes encouraged by the scattering of wood ashes but more often the Petre Men were loathed by the farmers and household alike. Government intrusion and disruption of private property was the problem. On the pretext of the King's authority the Petre Men spoiled property, interfered with agriculture, and paid too little for transport. Hundreds more abuses could be cited from a cascade of complaints.
K2CO3 + CaNO3 = KNO3 + CaCO3
Saltpetre - potassium nitrate - KNO3
Saltpetre was any nitrate salt, but KNO3 was the best because it was least hygroscopic. Ca(NO3)2 and NaNO3 absorbed water and caused the gunpowder to spoil more rapidly.
Chile Saltpetre, NaNO3, was found in large quantities in Chile and Peru, but this was not known until later and largely used as a manure. Nitre, KNO3, was very much rarer.
The Petre Men went out of business with the advent of nitre beds ...
Nitre Beds & Saltpetre
During the 18th century a saltpetre industry grew up, based on artificial nitre beds which was described in graphic detail in 1862. Saltpetre supply was still critical during the American Civil War and James Chesnut Junior, Chief of Military Department in the USA was very concerned -
'It is not believed, however, that the supply thus obtained will be sufficient for the exigencies of the war. It is very important, therefore, that steps should be taken to insure a sufficient and permanent supply of this invaluable article. This can only be done by means of nitre beds. I proceed, then, to give a very brief account of the method of making these'.
Joseph Leconte was commissioned to write the instructions ... !?
Saltpetre manufacture was a filthy process, the requirements were - organic decay from thoroughly rotted muck & manure - intimate mixing of potash or lime - moisture from urine - exposure to air from regular turning - shelter from leaching rain. Nitre beds were prepared by shovel mixing of massive heaps (15' x 6' x 5') of organic muck with potash and some straw to give porosity to the pile. Ammonia from the decomposition produced the nitrate by bacterial oxidation. Under cover from the rain, moistened with urine and turned regularly to accelerate the decomposition, the festering could last a year before the whitish efflorescence of the nitre appeared. The ripeness of the 'black earth' was checked by the old hands by taste! When ready the heap was repeatedly leached with water, counter currently with fresh earth, until a strong lye was obtained which contained about one lb of salt per gallon. The potassium nitrate was crystallised out with wood ashes to increase the yield. Boiling tended to remove common salt impurities which were much less soluble at elevated temperatures. During boiling organic matter tended to accumulate as a scum which was raked off. The residual concentrated nitre solution was then cooled slowly and the nitre flour formed and sank to the bottom of the boiling vat where it was removed and dried.
Was this the process that was industrialised at the Acton Bridge Saltpetre Works in Cheshire?
K2CO3 + CaNO3 = KNO3 + CaCO3
Saltpetre - potassium nitrate - KNO3
Alternatively stale urine could be soured in a vat with straw hay for several months as urea degraded into ammonium carbonate. Salts would deposit on the straw and were recovered with a water wash and precipitation with wood ashes or potash.
There used to be a flourishing trade in urine ... around 1850 in Glasgow, William Twaddle produced a hydrometer to check the gravity of urine ... apparently the canny Scotsmen were known to augment their supplies by dilution ... usually with water but perhaps with waste whiskey after ingestion?
Urea - H2NCONH2.
The long term Government encouragement of nitre beds did not inhibit importation. By 1800 most of the saltpetre was imported from India by The East India Company.
The East India Company grew the profitable saltpetre trade from the seventeenth century. From quiet beginnings under James I, the company revolutionized the supply and transformed the gunpowder industry, and helped make England a great power. From their first shipment in 1624 ‘for the service of the state’, the Company imported increasing amounts of saltpetre from the sub continent. During the 18th century Great Britain controlled some seventy percent of the world’s saltpetre, enough to furnish a global military empire.
Saltpetre was both imported from distant lands and extracted at high cost from soil rich in dung and urine until chemical explosives of 1860s. Nevertheless until the development of the Haber process for fixing atmospheric nitrogen at the beginning of the 20th century, nitrates were always in very limited supply.
It was unromantic to suggest the Empire was built on the power of urine and excrement, and limy soils in India and in Essex. But clearly there was ingenuity involved in coaxing out the white mother of gunpowder, potassium nitrate.
Harnessing urine in national interest!
During the 19th century increasingly saltpetre supplies were imported from naturally occurring deposits in Chile & Peru. But this material was NaNO3 largely used for acid production and as a manure it was hydroscopic and not used for explosives.
Saltpetre was manufactured in the nitre beds and was a filthy process; the potassium nitrate came from rotting cows, decomposing organic material ... dung heaps! But was this the process at Acton Bridge? Certainly there was evidence the old methods continued into the 19th century?
Saltpetre: David Cressy The Ohio State University
'At the heart of the matter lay the vitalizing power of urine and excrement, and the miracle of nitrous rich soil, whether in India or in Essex. Equally important was the ingenuity of making that soil yield the mother of gunpowder, the formidable potassium nitrate. Of crucial concern was the harnessing of organic material in the national security interest, without too high a social or political cost. Successive regimes responded variously to the ramifications of saltpetre dependence by diversifying international supply, importing foreign expertise, intensifying domestic exploitation, or encouraging entrepreneurs. England’s saltpetre enterprise tested royal authority against individual rights and hastened the formation of a centralized power. Its practitioners explored the limits of private, public, domestic and even ecclesiastical space. Generations of saltpetre men dug and boiled, and projectors offered schemes of more hope than promise, until East Indian importers finally relieved householders of that intrusive imposition. Seen from multiple perspectives, through the eyes of Privy Councilors and common lawyers, artillerymen and military planners, natural philosophers and grubbing projectors, kings and subjects, the saltpetre economy could prove mysterious and miraculous, villainous and vexatious, profitable and indispensable, a foundational experience of the early modern state'.
Interestingly by 1862 W H Wakefield were making saltpetre from the 'Wakefield Process' or the conversion process -
KCl + NaNO3 = KNO3 + NaCl ...
Was this the production process at Acton Bridge, supplementing Lowwood production after their disastrous fire in 1862?
In 1915 in the 'Industrial Nitrogen Compounds & Explosives: A Practical Treatise on the Manufacture', the 'Conversion Process' was described -
Germany alone produces 20,000 tons of KNO3 and
Great Britain imports annual 10,000 tons, while over 30,000 tons are
produced in other countries, almost entirely by the so called 'conversion
process', using as raw material German potassium chloride, mined in
Strassfurt and Chile saltpetre, sodium nitrate NaNO2.
This process depends on the fact that under certain conditions of temperature and pressure, solutions of potassium chloride and sodium nitrate, when mixed undergo double decomposition, sodium chloride being deposited and potassium nitrate remaining in solution -
KCL + NaNO3 = NaCl + KNO3
Conversion takes place readily because KNO3 is much more soluble in hot and much less soluble in cold water than is sodium nitrate.
Potassium nitrate thus obtained is exceedingly pure. In fact, that technically produced for the manufacture of black powder must not contain more than 0.1 to 0.05 % NaCl.
In a large iron pan, provided with a mixing apparatus and indirect steam heating arrangement, there is added 188kg of KCl (88% containing NaCl) and 180kg of Chile saltpetre and 160kg of mother liquor from a previous operation. The pan is boiled by indirect steam. The amount of water present is not sufficient to dissolve all the difficult soluble NaCl present, whereas the readily soluble KNO3 at once goes into solution. The liquid is filtered hot and the undissolved salt, after covering with a little water is drained and sold as such. The mother liquors are allowed to cool, when 'raw' KNO3 crystallises out - still in a particle state, however. containing several % of NaCl.
The crude KNO3 is once more dissolved by hot water and allowed to crystallise in copper pans provided with stirrers. 'Refined' potassium nitrate is thus obtained, which, after passing through a centrifugal machine, washing with very little water and drying is almost quite free of NaCl.
Potassium nitrate is one of the oldest known salts of potassium and is characterised by the fact that when mixed with oxidisable mater it give rise to readily inflammable products such as black powder, gun powder.
KNO3 is the final result of the oxidation of of nitrogenous organic material and so it is steadily produced in the soil from decaying organic matter by bacterial action. It thus occurs, together with other nitrates, as an efflorescence in the soil in tropical countries like India.
So saltpetre production at Acton Bridge was an ongoing part of William Edward Maude's business strategy. He was a Liverpool Merchant importing goodies from wherever he could find them and then adding value by local processing at Acton Bridge into new marketable products. Saltpetre was imported and refined into 'usable' saltpetre for gunpowder. As Fred Page noted,
'Maude was involved in on-going imports from Chile, he could have been bringing in anything containing nitrate in some form. Enterprising manure and glue works would be capable of converting the nitrates in caliche, for example, into saltpetre without too much effort. It seems to me to be very unlikely that glue works used ‘piss and shit’ (pardon the chemistry terms) to produce a nitrate'.
The Saltpetre Works
In 1876 Worrall's Directory of Warrington listed the Lowwood Gunpowder Co Ltd, Acton Bridge under the management of John Edward Harrison, confirming that the Acton bridge saltpetre works was operated by the Lowwood Company. Clearly Tommy Astles managed William Edward Maude's manure works and John Edward Harrison managed the Lowwood Saltpetre works next door.
In 1872 The Cheshire Observer reported on the perpetual battle John Harrison had with the authorities ... if it wasn't the stench it was black smoke!
On July 1st 1876 an article in the Northwich Guardian reported the launch of the Lowwood coaster ‘Leven’ by Wincham Co, followed by trials in October/November and at sea in December. The 'Leven' was owned by The Lowwood Gunpowder Co and shipped saltpetre from the Acton Bridge works up the coast to Ulverston ... or transhipped imported material from Liverpool?
The 1881 Census recorded that the Manager of the Saltpetre Works was John E Harrison (1826-??), a local Northwich born man who lived on site at Salt Petre Works House with his wife Mary Wakefield who he had married in 1846 at St Mary's Great Budworth. Also resident in the household was John's 23 year old nephew William Wakefield who was an Engine Tester & Driver at the Works ... more of William later ...
John E Harrison was an enterprising fellow and contributed enthusiastically to the excitement around Acton Bridge when on Good Friday 1877 when he organised a trip down the Weaver to the Runcorn bridge on his new pride & joy the screw steam ship Leven ... and again on Easter Monday from Northwich to New Brighton and back with the Wincham brass band adding flavour.
The Lowwood Gunpowder business originated in Lowwood, near Ulverston on the river Leven in Cumbria, in 1798. Most of the English gunpowder factories were built in the south east close to power and the metropolis. Factories in Somerset (1720s) & Thelwall (1750s) were built to supply the slave traders in Bristol & Liverpool respectively. Gunpowder was and important part of the infamous triangular trade. The later Cumbrian and Cornish mills largely manufactured blasting powder, and Lowwood was increasingly associated with this trade..
W H Wakefield was first in the area at Sedgwick in 1764. Lowwood's licence to manufacture gunpowder at the works was issued at the Lancaster Quarter Sessions on 2nd October 1798. The company was formed by Daye Barker (the senior partner), James King, Christopher Wilson junior and Captain Joseph Fayrer (who also acted as the company's Liverpool agent). The company officially traded as Daye Barker & Co, but was always know as The Lowwood Gunpowder Co. In 1858 Daye Barker left the partnership which was dissolved.
The Lowwood site on the Weaver at Acton Bridge may have provided similar attractions to the parent site by the Leven - close proximity to timber and the charcoal that was derived from it, the sparse population which meant that the dangerous processes did not impact on residential areas, and a ready made power supply in the form of fast flowing water. However the Acton factory was only involved in saltpetre ... since the slave trade days the merchants of Liverpool had always been close to the gunpowder manufacturers perhaps W E Maude of Blawith was involved in the Lowwood Company's choice of Acton Bridge as a site for sourcing saltpetre? Blawith and Lowwood were neighbours ... ?
After the demise of the 'African' powder trade in 1807 there was a residual business in 'country' powder for sport but blasting powder for quarries and mines started to predominate.
Lowwood manufactured black powder which was prepared by intimately mixing three ingredients - saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur. The mixing was done formerly in barrels with lignum vitae balls, but at Lowwood a new incorporating system was used with a limestone edged running mill. To avoid dust and the associated explosion risk, the latest methods involved dampening of the cake. The objective was to coat every charcoal and sulphur particle with a layer of saltpetre.
In 1862 The Westmorland Gazette published a detailed report of a fire in the gunpowder works ...
Was saltpetre production at Acton Bridge first reference in 1865 supplementing supplies destroyed by the Lowwood fire?
Did the Acton Bridge plant supply the saltpetre from the 'conversion process' of NaNO3 to KNO3? The so called 'Wakefield Process'?
The conversion process was relatively simple and produced a pure product as Colin W Whittaker described in 1934 in 'A Review of Patents in the Manufacture of Potassium Nitrate'.
We now think Bob Ashford has correctly suggested that the Acton Bridge Saltpetre Works was involved in the production of Sodium Nitrate from imported Chilean
Sent: 22 November 2016 13:24
To: john p
You may remember that we were in contact a couple of years ago. I was asking you about the saltpetre refinery at Acton Bridge and comparing it with what I thought was happening in Devon/Cornwall in the mid-1800s.
I have written up my ideas. These have now been published in the Journal of the Trevithick Society. A copy of the paper is attached. I hope you find it interesting. Please respect the copyright, which is held by the Trevithick Society.
Since writing that article, information has come to light that has caused me to revise my thinking on how the sodium nitrate was treated when it arrived at gunpowder works down here. Previously I thought that it was just milled to give a particle size that was suitable for making a uniform blend with the charcoal and sulphur. This I now think is wrong. Instead, it was refined by a process similar to re-crystallisation: dissolving in a minimum of hot water, filtering off debris and then cooling. Fine sodium nitrate crystals precipitate. I have tried it! They are small enough to blend directly with the charcoal and sulphur.
At the Dartmoor Powdermills site there was a building that I have now assigned to sodium nitrate storage and refining. Its main feature is that it has a boiler, which I believe was used to circulate hot water through pipes around the building, keeping it warm and dry. This is a necessity: sodium nitrate is hygroscopic, though not badly so. It would be fine for blasting powder, though not for gunpowder because the crystals tend to stick together in a moist atmosphere. The chemical was probably transported from Chile/Peru in sacks. After a few months at sea in the hold of a ship under compression from the sacks on top, it is likely that stuff arrived as solid, sack-shaped lumps. Since it was fairly pure already, ‘refining’ was mainly a process of converting those lumps to fine crystals that could be used directly by the powder makers.
Do you think that Acton Bridge saltpetre refinery could have been doing something similar? It is very likely that Maude also traded in sodium nitrate if he was active in guano. Maybe he stored the sodium nitrate at Acton Bridge and used the refinery to supply saltpetre in a form that was suitable for the gunpowder plants in Cumbria. It would have been a natural acquisition target for Lowwood Gunpowder when the opportunity arose. Do you remember the shipment of saltpetre from Acton to Milnthorpe station in 1852? That was in barrels, so clearly something had happened to it since it left the ship. Barrels (rather than sacks) would be needed for a hygroscopic product.
What do you think? I am suggesting that the saltpetre refinery at Acton Bridge was actually processing the sacks of sodium nitrate as imported into fine crystals, sold in barrels. Was there a boiler and/or chimney stack there? And where did the barrels come from? Was there a cooperage nearby?
Best Regards Bob Ashford
Bob, attached a lecture given by Maude to the Kendal farmers in 1862 after he had retired to be a Gentleman farmer.
He was clearly passionate about agricultural improvement (soil & stock breeding).
W H ‘Gunpowder’ Wakefield was secretary of the Farmers Club.
It is easy to imagine that W E Maude, a Liverpool merchant, invested in the Acton Bridge zinc rolling
then bone grinding and manures, supplemented by his nitrate imports and then saltpetre manufacture for the Cumbrian mills.
The Acton Bridge business was adding value to Liverpool imports.
Maude went on the add value to his Kendal estates from soil and stock improvements.
He was a business man not a farmer as his lecture makes clear.
The were certainly boilers and barrels at Acton Bridge.
This reference to the Kendal Farmers Club is interesting. It seems that Maude had more involvement in ground bones, guano and nitrate than just profit. It suggests another connection to W H Wakefield. The 1852 saltpetre shipment might just have been for fertiliser use. But I think I would still put my money on sodium nitrate rather than potassium nitrate being refined at Acton Bridge.
John, I do not know how convinced you were by the paper I sent you, but if sodium nitrate was being used in SW England as I think, it is very likely that it was used elsewhere in Britain a few years later. The know-how was in the hands of Robert Barclay Fox, a Falmouth Quaker. He would have passed the knowledge onto the Cumbrian Quakers. The possibility needs further research.
Bob got it right, 'competing companies used cheaper sodium nitrate rather than potassium nitrate in their formulations'.
See Ashford, B., 2016. A New Interpretation of the Historical Data on the Gunpowder Industry in Devon and Cornwall. J. Trevithick Soc., Volume 43, pp. 65-73.
The manufacture of gunpowder was a dangerous business, the explosion risks were substantial, but saltpetre factories produced stenches not explosions ... nevertheless there were dangers in all factories and on the 23rd of September 1865 the factory at Acton Bridge recorded a fatal accident resulting of a mundane risk; a fall from a plank. And a scalding at Gatebeck in 1865 ... and another at Northwich in 1871 when The Cheshire Observer reported another tragic fatality at Saltpetre Works ... accidents at Lowwood were potentially for more serious.
Initial sales of gunpowder were for fighting ships, but the black powder was known as 'Africa' powder as sales were boosted by the slave trade. Until the abolition of slavery in Britain in 1807, the gunpowder formed part of the triangular trade route, being exported to Africa where it was exchanged for the slaves who were then transported to the Americas, the ships returning to Liverpool laden with sugar, cotton & tobacco. After the end of slave trading, Low Wood concentrated on the manufacture of blasting powder for use in the mining and quarrying industries.
Daye Barker died in 1835 and his son (also called Daye) succeeded him in partnership with one of his brothers, John Barker. The firm suffered a decline from the 1860s, with the advent of modern explosives.
On July 1st 1876 an article in the Northwich Guardian reported the launch of the Lowwood coaster ‘Leven’ by the Wincham Company, to be followed by trials in October & November and at sea in December.
Interestingly the same year The Wincham Shipbuilding Company Ltd was in trouble. A year later an application in bankrupcy was made by Parrs Bank in an attempt to retrieve debts from the company through the Joseph Parks estate; the owners. It seems the court had no jurisdiction over property which was not owned by the bankrupt. Joseph Parks and family were into salt & steel and originally manufacturers of salt pans, their bankruptcy was recorded in 1876 ... much later they employed George Birchall in their offices, a job he claimed he secured through his enthusiastic success as a local cricketer!?
In 1878 The Wincham Shipbuilding, Boiler & Salt Company Ltd was involved in another landmark case concerning the plight of creditors.
Jessel MR was of the opinion that the Directors of a limited company were after all trustees for the Company, that is, the share holders, and not for trustees for the creditors. In this case a director was sought to be made liable on the assumption that he knew about a resolution entered in the Minute Book of the company said to have been passed at a meeting which he had attended. It was, however, held that there was no presumption of law that a director knew the contents of the books of the company!
In the Court of Appeal Jessel MR, reversed Bacon V-C
judgment in the Hallmark case. Sir George Jessel, re Wincham Shipbuilding,
Boiler and Salt Co, (1878) said -
'The Vice-Chancellor decided the question on this ground; that the directors were trustees of all their powers. So, no doubt, they were. But it is further said that they exercised their powers in breach of trust and for their own benefit, and, therefore, that the act which they did was nugatory. But it appears to me that the question is, for whom were they trustees? It does not appear that the Vice-Chancellor considered this point; but it makes all the difference whether they were trustees for the persons who were injured by what had been done in this case, namely, the other creditors of the company. It has always been held that the directors are trustees for the shareholders, that is, for the company. They are the managing partners of the company, and if they abuse their powers, which they hold in trust for the company, to the damage of the company, for their own benefit, they are liable to make good the breach of trust to their cestuis que trust like any other trustees. But directors are not trustees for the creditors of the company. The creditors have certain rights against a company and its members, but they have no greater rights against the directors than against any other members of the company. They have only those statutory rights against the members which are given them in the winding up.'
Perhaps very relevant today and perhaps little understood; the success of the limited company followed from the sharing of risk and the limiting of liability amongst, shareholders, employees and creditors ... everyone involved shared the inseparable risks and rewards ... the shareholders risk was 'limited' to their investment ...
By 1882 the Lowwood Company was a fading star and they were ready to sell out.
The W H Wakefield company which had moved to Gatebeck in 1850, took over the business which included the Acton Bridge saltpetre works. The Liverpool Mercury reported on the 25th of September 1882 the sale of the works which had been 'in excellent order and active operation up to a recent date' ...
'Old fashioned gunpowder, or black powder, began to be superseded by moder explosives from 1860 onwards, and when the First Wold War ended in 1918 the demand for all explosives suddenly fell. A merger was arranged by the Nobel organisation (later ICI) and the industry was rationalised. Black powder was still preferred for slate quarrying, because it shattered the rock less than modern explosives, and ICI modernised the Lowwood plant in 1928'.
NB production of saltpetre in Chile was well established and by 1887 The Manchester Courier reported production to match all the European and American market ... providing free trade was the practice of the day. But this was NaNO3 and largely used for acid production and as a fertiliser.
W H Wakefield.
W H Wakefield & Co (National Archives BT 31/31886/77740) acquired its name from William Henry Wakefield (1828-1889), a banker and gunpowder maker, of Sedgwick House, Kendal. He was a descendent of John Wakefield who opened the first gun powder mills in Cumbria, at Sedgwick near Kendal in 1764. The mills moved from Sedgwick to Gatebeck, near Endmoor in 1850. John, an entrepreneur of wide ranging interests, also opened a bank in Kendal in 1788. In 1890 the London Illustrated News reported the passing of W H Wakefield - 'Wills and Bequests include - Mr W H Wakefield JP and Chairman of the Quarter Sessions late of Sedgwick House near Kendal'. W H Wakefield's obituary appeared in the Carlise Patriot in 1889.
The Rise & Progress of the British Explosives Industry -
Gatebeck Works was built by John Wakefield in 1851 and
replaced the Old Sedgewick Works (1768-1854) and was operated until 1936.
The works lined both banks of Peasey Beck between Endmoor and Gatebeck
providing power for waterwheels and turbines although this was supplemented
by steam engines. The works had the earliest plant in England for
manufacturing saltpetre from sodium nitrate.
The factory was originally simply Gatebeck, but became Gatebeck Low Works after 1896 when a new plant, Gatebeck High Works was built.
The firm became W H Wakefield around 1866 when John Wakefield died.
Blasting black powder was the main product and in 1864 a saltpetre refinery was built to produce potassium nitrate from the inferior sodium nitrate by a process that became known as the 'Wakefield Process'. The saltpetre manufactory was the earliest in England.
In 1876 a tramway was built connecting the works to a wharf on the Lancaster Canal and to Milnthorpe railway station.
In 1917 C H Wakefield merged with the Nobel organisation which became ICI.
In 1857 Gatebeck were supporting better rail transport for their business.
In 1859 Gatebeck Mills were advertising for coppice wood suitable for charcoal. In 1865 The Westmorland Gazette announced that T W Holme & Co were selling Wakefield saltpetre (potassium nitrate) to farmers as a manure.
In 1883 Slater's Directory of Liverpool confirmed the Liverpool offices of both The Lowwood Gunpowder Co and W H Wakefield & Co in the centre of town at Orange Court, Castle Street.
Also in 1883 J A Berly's British, American and continental electrical directory indentified the Acton Bridge works as The Lowwood Gunpowder Co, Saltpetre Works, Acton Bridge, Northwich suggesting the business continued to trade under the Lowwood name.
In 1882 at the Congregational Church in Over, Northwich, a local William Wakefield (1858-1936), John Edwards Harrison's nephew, married Tommy Astles' 19 year old daughter Mary Adelaide (1864-1929). John Harrison was the manager of the Acton bridge Saltpetre Works. Tommy's Manure Works was right next door to the Saltpetre Works. Was this love across the steaming nitre beds at Acton Bridge?
By 1884 when Maude Alice's first born arrived, William had risen to Foreman at the Saltpetre Works and the family had moved to Juniper Street, Kirkdale, a stones throw from the Orange Court offices. By the time of their second son Herbert Victor in 1891 they had moved back to Little Leigh. Was this imposing gentleman related to the gunpowder dynasty?
Perhaps not ... William's Dad Samuel, was a joiner & cabinet maker from Castle, Northwich. William's Mum, Alice Bostock, had died when his birth was registered on 24/5/1858. This could explain why he went to live with his uncle John Harrison at Salt Petre House. John had married Samuel's sister Mary Wakefield at St Mary's Great Budworth in 1846. Samuel & Mary's father was Thomas Wakefield who married an Elizabeth? No sign of any connection with the 'gunpowder' Wakefields here ... just robust Northwich stock with trades & enterprise!?
Lancashire Record Office -
The Low Wood Gunpowder Works were established at
Haverthwaite on the River Leven, south of Windermere, in the late 18th
century. The first licence to manufacture gunpowder at the works was issued
at the Lancaster Quarter Sessions on 2 October 1798. The company was formed
by Daye Barker (the senior partner), James King, Christopher Wilson junior
and Captain Joseph Fayrer (who also acted as the company's Liverpool agent).
The company was officially known as Daye Barker & Co, but reference among
the papers listed below is also made to the Low Wood Gunpowder Co.
Initial sales were of gunpowder used in the slave trade (known as 'Africa' powder), as well as powder for ships. Until the abolition of slavery in Britain in 1807, the gunpowder formed part of the triangular slave trade route, being exported to Africa where it was exchanged for the slaves who were then transported to the Americas and sold, the ships returning to Britain laden with sugar, cotton & tobacco. After the end of slave trading by British ships, Low Wood concentrated on the manufacture of blasting powder for use in the mining and quarrying industries.
Daye Barker died in 1835 and his son (also called Daye) succeeded him in partnership with one of his brothers, John Barker. The firm suffered a decline from the 1860s, with the advent of modern explosives, and was sold to W H Wakefield & Co (a competing gunpowder firm) in 1882.
After the Great War there was a rationalisation of the industry and in 1918 Explosives Trades Ltd (renamed Nobel Industries Ltd in 1920) was formed.
In 1926, all remaining gunpowder producers were taken over by ICI, who modernised the Low Wood plant in 1928. The Low Wood mills finally closed in 1935.
Any corrections and additional information gratefully received contact john p birchall
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