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Argyll Gunpowder Industry

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We don't usually allow complete articles simply taken from other sites (we'd link), but the original has been discontinued, therefore we accepted this offering and hope we're helping to preserve the story so it is not lost. This article was retrieved from a search engine cache of the former Tighnabruaich Community Site (dead link).

About the author

Kennedy McConnell was an RAF electrical engineer working on the Turing designed "Bombe" decoding machines. In 2003 he produced a professionally filmed lecture series, which has been copied on to videotape and DVD. The full series, comprising approximately seven hours of detailed historical analysis, can be viewed at Dundee Central Library. There are additional copies of the film at the Bletchley Park Trust, the Scottish National Museum, the Imperial War Museum and the National War Museums of America, Australia, and Canada.

You can read abstracts of Kennedy's lectures on the BBC People's War website.

Kennedy McConnell died peacefully, at home, on Sunday, April 20th 2008.
- Source

An additional article, which shares the same title as the one below, accompanied the above biography: The People of the Powder Mill By Kennedy McConnell accompanied by a matching picture gallery.

The People of the Powder Mill

An article by Kennedy McConnell of Dundee

It may surprise some readers to learn that Argyll was once famous for its high grade black gunpowder. Nevertheless, for over eighty years, the manufacture of gunpowder was a thriving industry in the county. My interest in this era was aroused about ten years ago, while I was researching the Argyll branch of my wife's family tree. One of her great-grandfathers, Archibald Morrison, worked in the family business of Morrison and Mason, which was a well known Glasgow building firm. During 1855, Archibald came to Millhouse, in the parish of Kilfinan, to supervise an extension to the Gunpowder Works there. Before the contract was completed, he had married Mary Taylor, the daughter of a crofting family from Deargbruach Farm, on the east side of Loch Fyne, the marriage taking place in Tighnabruaich Church in 1856. Their first child, William Morrison. was born in Rothesay in 1858, and although the family moved back to Glasgow, William spent his boyhood holidays with his Taylor grandparents on the croft at Loch Fyne, Throughout his adult life he brought his family back every summer to a cottage situated near the original croft. For over a century, Archibald and Mary's descendants have kept alive the Argyll connection. and looked upon Stillaig Farm, where the cottage is located, as their second hone.

The Argyll gunpowder industry consisted of four manufactuaries which were known locally as "powder mills". These were located at Furnace (near Inverary), Glen Lean (near Dunoon), Melfort (near Kilmelford) and Millhouse (near Tighnabruaich). The Melfort works closed in 1874, followed by Furnace in 1883 and Glen Lean in 1903. The following account is concerned solely with the fourth factory at Millhouse, where production commenced in 1839 and continued until 1921. The closure of the powder mill at Millhouse marked the end of an industry which had influenced the lives of several generations of local families. More than 100 names of the men and women who participated in this remarkable enterprise are mentioned, in the hope that this will help readers who are seeking family history links with that part of Argyll.

The essential ingredients of black gunpowder are saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur, all of which had to be imported by sea. The gunpowder factory had its own pier at Kames, on the Kyles of Bute, where supplies of these raw materials were unloaded. In the early days, these incoming cargoes were carried by sailing ships, but in later years the trade was taken over by "puffers", bearing names such as Moonlight, Starlight, Skylight, and Twilight. Situated adjacent to the "Black Quay" ,as it was known, stood the building where the saltpetre was refined ready for subsequent processing at Millhouse. From 1900 onwards. the Foreman in charge was John Nimmo, and among the men he supervised were Charles Black, Maitland Black, Duncan Carswell, Archibald McBride, Neil McGilp, James McIntyre and Duncan Whyte. The Mill Manager lived in a house overlooking the refinery, his name was Joseph Dalton and he had his own horse and carriage, the coachman being E. Walmsley. The next Mill Manager was Arthur Dunford, who in turn was succeeded by the last holder of the post, Neil Gillies.

Much of the gunpowder made at Millhouse was exported as far afield as New Zealand, so deep sea sailing vessels had to be used. These ships anchored near the Bute shore, where they were moored to a large buoy from which a red flag was flown. The cargoes of gunpowder barrels had to be ferried out from the pier at Kames in smaller boats. Some of the deep Sea ships had intriguing names such as Antagonist, Lady Gertrude Cochran and Rebecca Catherine Pritchard. One steamer, aptly named Guy Fawkes was operated by the gunpowder works to handle goods and services.

The conversion of the raw materials from Kames into gunpowder at Millhouse required ten separate processing stages, each accommodated in a specially constructed building known as a "house". A detailed description of these processes is outwith the scope of this article, but the names used to identify the various houses were Mixing, Charging, Breaking-down, Pressing, Corning, Dusting, Glazing, Stoving, Heading-up and Packing, These processing houses were widely dispersed throughout the grounds to minimise the risk of an explosion spreading from one building to another. Trees were planted in the intervening spaces for the same reason. Horse drawn bogeys were used to convey the goods around the works, and these ran on a small gauge railway system. The production machinery was driven by water power, the large volume of water required being drawn from Ascog Loch. A network of channels distributed the water throughout the mill before it was discharged onto the Craignafeich Burn. The "waterman" was Donald McNichol, followed later by John Miller.

Despite the layout precautions described above, and the enforcement of stringent safety precautions, the danger of explosion was an ever present threat. Some of the more serious explosions resulted in loss of life.

In 1842, two workmen were killed, and in August 1846, seven more died when a Corning House blew up. Only one name of the nine victims has been confirmed to date. A headstone in the graveyard at Kilbride Church has been erected to the memory of Colin McLachlan, who was killed in the 1846 disaster.

Another major explosion occurred in December 1863, when seven workmen were killed. On that occasion a Corning House was exploded by a flash of lightning during a severe storm, The gale carried fragments from the burning wreck to several other Process Houses, each of which exploded in turn. The shock waves were felt as far away as Dunoon and Rothesay. The injured were tended by Dr Fletcher, and the Guy Fawkes was despatched to Rothesay for Dr McI,achlan. Those killed were Michael Bourtrie, Donald Crawford, Hugh Hunter, Colin McEwan, Alexander McNichol, ... Pilse, and John Sinclair.

The next major accident took place in 1870, when a contemporary press headline read: AWFUL EXPLOSION AT A POWDER MILL. FOUR MEN AND A BOY BLOWN TO ATOMS, The four who died were named as John Carswell, Alexander McGlashan, Duncan McPherson and Hugh Stewart. The boy's name was George Smith.

The last fatality occurred during the dismantling of the mill machinery in 1923, when John McGilp died in Greenock Infirmary from powder burns. Apart from the fatal accidents detailed above, several employees are known to have sustained injuries while working in the mill, e.g. Edward Hill, William Turner, Alexander Weir and Archibald Whyte.

Many of the works employees lived in company owned houses in Millhouse. Most of these have been renovated and are still inhabited. A manuscript list dated 1894 shows the allocation of the twelve garden plots as follows: Donald McNichol, waterman; Donald Weir, engine keeper; Walter Brown, millkeeper; John McVicar, works carter; John McNichol, corning; Robert McLean, millkeeper; Archibald McNichol, millkeeper; Charles Millar, engineer; Neil Whyte, saltpetre factory; Alexander Baxter, dusting; and James Brown, pressing. Plot 13 was designated as the washing green.

The Valuation Roll for the year 1913/14 lists the following tenants at Millhouse: Robert McLean, powdermaker; John Turner, watchman; Robert Livingstone, powdermaker; Archibald Turner, powdermaker; Henry Docherty, powdermaker; John McNeill, Powdermaker; Matthew West, pensioner; AlexanderTurner, powdermaker; John McGilp, cooper; Archibald Whyte and Archibald Scott, powdermakers; David Young, engineman; Robert McCallum, cooper; Walter Brown, powdermaker; Thomas Pirie, cooper; Neil Whyte, stablekeeper; Allan McTaggart, millwright; Hugh McFarlane, carpenter; Edward Hill, Bellman; Archibald Paterson, powdermaker; Laclan McNeill and Joseph Denn, foremen; and Duncan McEwen, pensioner.

When the powder mill finally closed in 1921, all the employees who were made redundant received gratuities based upon occupation and service, the recipients being:

1/5 years: Mary McBride and Mary Young, packing; Archibald Stewart and Arthur Wright, labourers; John Turner, Jr, pellets; P McTaggart, trucks; Nell McGilp Jr, mills; and James Mackie, engineer;
5/10 years: Alex. Stewart and James McNeill, composition; Maitland Black and David Allan, saltpetre;
10/15 years: Lizzie Young, packing; Donald Turner, heading; Dugald Weir, trucks; Neil Whyte, Jr, wharf; Charles Black, saltpetre; Neil McGillp, Jr, mills;
15/20 years: D. Carswell, Jr, and Edward West, trucks; R. Livlngstone, corning;J. Paterson, carpenter; D. Carswell, sr, saltpetre; Edward Hill, mess room; James McQueen, engines; and A.E. Knox, office;
20/30 years: W Salisbury, watchman; A. Gemmill, timekeeper; Archd Paterson, mills; Neil Whyte, stables; Petr McPherson and D. McNeill, carters; E. Walmsley, coachman; J. McGilp Jr, store; Alex. Turner;
30/40 years: Archd Turner, composition; John Whyte, mills; J McGilp,sr, magazine; Robert Turner and Alex. Campbell, sr, carters; Hugh McFarlane carpenter; Duncan McCallun and David Young, press; and James Mcintosh, cooper;
40/50 years: J Mcpherson and Archd Millar, mills; Donald Weir, glazing; Archd. Scott, packing; N. McGilp, sr, saltpetre; Dugald McCallum, carter; J. McVicar, pensioner;
Foremen:30/40 years - John Nimmo, saltpetre; 40/50 years - John Turner,gunpowder; Robert McCallum, cooperage

The level of production was run down gradually, so a number of employees had departed prior to the final closure. The loss of so many jobs was a severe blow to Kames, Millhouse and the surrounding district. Alternative employment was very scarce, and some of the workmen had to leave the area to find suitable jobs, while others had to accept whatever kind of work was available locally.

Since becoming involved with the history of the Millhouse powder mill, and the saltpetre refinery at Kames, I have accumulated a large amount of miscellaneous information. A selection of these papers has been deposited with the Argyll Archives Office at Lochgilphead, and with the District Library headquarters at Dunoon, This will be added to when further information is obtained.

Unfortunately much of the history has been lost forever, but I feel that it is worthwhile trying to compile a register of the people who were employed in the powder mill at any stage in its existence. Such a register would be potentially valuable to future genealogists. Towards this end I have appealed for information through the columns of The Dunoon Observer. Similarly, any readers who are interested in this project are invited to get in touch with me at the following address: Kennedy J McConnell, S Victoria Road, West Ferry, Dundee DD5 lBD, Scotland.

In the meantime I wish to record my sincere gratitude to the many people who have provided information and assistance in the preparation of the foregoing account.

Kennedy J McConnell, Dundee

Index to "The People of the Powder Mill"

This contribution is a sequel to "The People of the Powder Mill" which appeared in Newsletter No. 24 (April l987) of the Glasgow and West Highlands Family History Society. In that article I told the story of the Kames/Millhouse gunpowder works and the people who worked there. Since then my search for the names of more employees has continued and the following index includes all who have been identified so far as well as those who were mentioned previously. One interesting feature is the number of names which are not of local origin. My research indicates that many of these workers migrated from gunpowder mills in the South of England. They brought their families with them and some of their descendants still reside in the Kyles of Bute area.

Names and Occupations

(GPM = gunpowder maker and SPM = saltpetre maker)

ALLAN, David (SPM)
BALLANTYNE, David (GPM)
BAXTER, Alexander (GPM)
BAXTER, Christina (packer)
BAXTER, Daniel (SPM)
BENN, Joseph (foreman)
BLACK, Charles (SPM)
BLACK, John (cooper)
BLACK, Maitland (SPM)
BOURTRIE, Michael (GPM)
BROWN, James (GPM)
BROWN, Walter (millkeeper)
CAMPBELL, Donald (carter)
CAMPBELL, Alexander (carter)
CARMICHAEL, Alexander (GPM)
CARMICHAEL, Archibald (millkeeper)
CARMICHAEL, Daniel (GPM)
CARSWELL, Duncan, sen. (SPM)
CARSWELL, Duncan, jun. (GPM)
CRABB, George (labourer)
CRAWFORD, John (GPM)
CURRIE, Mary (packer)
DALTON, John (manager)
DAWSON, Thomas (GPM)
DOCHERTY, Henry (GPM)
DUNFORD, Arthur (manager)
DYKES, Henry (labourer)
EDWARDS, Charles (millkeeper)
FEEN, Alfred (GPM)
GEMMILL, Alistair (timekeeper)
GILLIES, Neil (manager)
HEADRIDGE, John (carter)
HILL, Edward (GPM)
HILL, John (GPM)
HOLMAN, Thomas (GPM)
HUNTER, Hugh (GPM)
KENNEDY, John (carter)
KERR, Alexander (GPM)
KNOX, Arthur (office clerk)
LAIRD, John (boiler stoker)
LIVINGSTONE, John (GPM)
LIVINGSTONE, Robert (GPM)
MACKIE, John (engineer)
MARTIN, Alexander (watchman)
McALLISTER, Jessie (laboratory)
McALPINE, John (carter)
McBRIDE, Archibald (SPM)
McBRIDE, Mary (packer)
McCALLUM, Alexander (GPM)
McCALLUM, Dugald (carter)
McCALLUM, Duncan (GPM)
McCALLUM, Robert (cooper)
MCDONALD, Donald (labourer)
McDONALD, Hector (carter)
McEWAN, Colin (GPM)
McEWAN, Duncan (GPM)
McFADYEN, Donald (cooper)
McFARLANE, Hugh (carpenter)
McGILP, John, sen. (cooper)
McGLASHAN, Alexander (GPM)
McGLASHAN, Hugh (GPM)
McGlLP, Archibald (carpenter)
McGlLP, John Jun. (storeman)
McGlLP, Neil, sen. (SPM)
McGlLP, Neil, Jun. (GPM)
McGREGOR, George (GPM)
McINTOSH, James (cooper)
McINTOSH, Thomas (cooper)
McINTYRE, James (SPM)
McKELLAR, Duncan (stablekeeper)
McKELLAR, Robert (carter)
McKENZIE, Donald (GPM)
McLACHLAN, Colin (GPM)
McLEAN, Robert (GPM)
McMILLAN, Thomas (storekeeper)
McNEILL, James (GPM)
McNEILL, John (GPM)
McNEILL, Lachian (foreman)
McNElLL, Duncan (cooper)
McNElLL, Donald (carter)
McNICHOL, Alexander (GPM)
McNlCHOL, Archibald (GPM)
McNlCHOL, Donald (waterman)
McNlCHOL, John (cooper)
McPHERSON, Duncan (GPM)
McPHERSON, James (GPM)
McPHERSON, John (GPM)
MCPHERSON, Peter (carter)
McQUEEN, James (enginekeeper)
McTAGGART, Peter (GPM)
McTAGGART, Allan (millwright)
McVICAR, Charles (engineer)
McVlCAR, John (carter)
MELLIS, John (engineer)
MILLAR, Charles (millwright)
MILLAR, Neil (GPM)
MILLER, John (Waterman)
MILLER, Thomas (gardener)
MORRISON, Alexander (cooper)
MUIR, Nathan (GPM)
NIMMO, John (foreman)
OLDING, Alfred (millwright)
OLDING, William , sen. (millwright)
OLDING, William, Jun. (cooper)
OLDING, William (labourer)
PATERSON, Anne (bag sewer)
PATERSON, Archibald (GPM)
PATERSON, John (carpenter)
PILSE (GPM)
PIRIE, Thomas (cooper)
SALISBURY, William, Sen. (GPM)
SALISBURY, William, Jun. (GPM)
SCOTT, Archibald (GPM)
SCOTT, Barslow, sen. (GPM)
SCOTT, Barslow, Jun. (GPM)
SINCLAIR, Duncan (millwright)
SINCLAIR, John (GPM)
SMITH, George (GPM)
STEWART, Alexander (GPM)
STEWART, Hugh (GPM)
STEWART, James (labourer)
SUTTON, Charles (GPM)
TEAGUE, George (labourer)
TURNER, Alexander (GPM)
TURNER, Archibald (GPM)
TURNER, Donald (GPM)
TURNER, Duncan (enginekeeper)
TURNER, John (watchman)
TURNER, John (GPM)
TURNER, Robert (carter)
TURNER, William (GPM)
WALMSLEY, Edward (coachman)
WARK, John (office clerk)
WEIR, Alexander (GPM)
WEIR, Donald (engineer)
WEIR, Dugald (cooper)
WEIR, John (cooper)
WEIR, Peter (carter)
WEIR, Neil (GPM)
WEST, Edward (GPM)
WEST, Matthew (SPM)
WHYTE, Alexander (carter)
WHYTE, Archibald (foreman)
WHYTE, Catherine (packer)
WHYTE, Duncan (carter)
WHYTE, Duncan (GPM)
WHYTE, John (GPM)
WHYTE, Neil (stablekeeper)
WHYTE, Neil (office clerk)
WHYTE, Neil (wharfman)
WRIGHT, Arthur (labourer)
YOUNG, David (carpenter)
YOUNG, David (engineman)
YOUNG, Elizabeth (packer)
YOUNG, Mary (packer)

The above index may be useful to members who are researching ancestors from the parish of Kilfinan in the county of Argyll.
I am willing to try to help with relevant enquiries. Requests for further information should be addressed to:
Ken McConnell, 8 Victoria Road, West Ferry, Dundee DD5 lBD.

Ken McConnell (Attributed to the author).

Our additions

The Argyll Mills:

BBC Radio 4, Making History

The mills of Argyll were mentioned during a Radio 4 programme which looked at the gunpowder industry:

Making History first consulted Graeme Rimer, the Academic Director of the Royal Armouries in Leeds. He told the programme that we know that gunpowder was first used by the Chinese for fireworks between the 8th and 10th centuries but that its military and blasting uses were not developed until at least 200 years later. The Franciscan monk Roger Bacon was experimenting with gunpowder in the 13th century.

Gunpowder was primarily supplied by small private companies up until the 18th century when the military began sourcing their supplies from just two mills. From the 1770s onwards Acts of Parliament were passed to make the use of gunpowder much safer. However, manufacturing it was always dangerous and small private companies thrived throughout the 19th century supplying companies involved in engineering schemes throughout the British Empire.

Originally, black powder (gunpowder) was made by mixing equal amounts, by weight, of elemental sulphur, charcoal and saltpeter (potassium nitrate). The ratio was later adjusted to 75:15:10 saltpeter:sulphur:charcoal.

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