The Powder Mills

The furnace closed in 1813 and was soon replaced by other industries, one of them related to the iron making process. Cannons and cannonballs are no use without gunpowder, and the damp climate of Argyll was ideal for its manufacture. Mills had already been built at Glen Lean in Cowal and Kilmelford in Nether Lorn.

In 1841 it was Dunoon man Robert Sheriff who applied for the licence to build the powder mills on the lands of Goatfield. The mills went through several hands, and by 1879 they  were in the possession of an English company, John Hall & Son.

Once again there was an influx of new families to the village, men with expertise in the industry who had worked at Glen Lean or Kilmelford, and some have gone but many of them stayed.  

The process required water power to drive the mills, and a channel was cut to bring water from the River Leacan near the Brenchoille Bridge. This fed a dam at the top of the site.

The men and their families were accommodated in the little row of cottages that were built for them. Every day, except Sunday, they crossed the road to the watch house, where they were checked for combustibles and changed into clothes with no pockets (where matches & pipes could be concealed).

The ingredients, charcoal, sulphur, and saltpetre, were brought separately to the mixing house, then the mix was carried up the slope to the massive incorporating millhouse. The water passed through the incorporating mills, where the mix was ground into a paste called a millcake. The process then pressed, corned and glazed the cake, in three separate buildings specially allocated for each step. It was then taken to the drying house where a stove was used, before dusting off, putting in kegs, and storing in the magazine.

One would think that some locals expressed disquiet about the dangers of having this dangerous process so close to habitation. The Explosives Act of 1875 contained regulations about the control of manufacture, handling and storage, and our powder mills failed to comply. The inspector’s report was issued on the 24th October 1876, and it was pointed out that the stove was too close to the dusting house, and several other buildings were too close together, and also too close to the main road and some cottages.

The most serious failing was that the main magazine, which could hold 80 tons of gunpowder, was only 100 yards from the new Board School, when the new law stated it should be at least three miles away. It did have a massive and solid stone screen, but it was deemed to be illegal (the magazine is now Mungo Sinclair’s joiners shop: the screen was removed in the 1970s. Of course, Redwell Park was not built when the magazine was in use).

The inevitable happened on the afternoon of Saturday 29th September 1883. The factory had closed at 2.00pm and a shinty match was due to be played in the adjacent field. There were still ten workmen and boys finishing off, but fortunately no one within 80 yards of the stove.

At 3.10pm there was an enormous explosion. The stove and its boiler house were completely demolished (the heap of stones is behind the old telephone exchange). The mill manager, Willie Robinson, had been standing outside his house at Inverleckan, and had crossed the road to speak to his son Robbie. He was hit by a large stone, which took off one of his legs and broke the other: he died shortly afterwards.

There were no other fatalities although several buildings were damaged. Fortunately the shinty match had been delayed, as players and spectators had gone to the aid of the occupants of a cart that had overturned. Six cartloads of stones were later removed from the shinty field.

Colonel Ford, HM Inspector of Prisons, was summoned to investigate the accident, and his report was sent to the Secretary of State for Scotland. The conclusion was that a spark may have set the 40 foot high boiler house chimney on fire, with some burning soot landing on the roof of the stove. A wooden ventilator was kept partly open, and it had been previously noted that it was coated with gunpowder dust. Never was the old adage “an accident waiting to happen” more true.

This was the final straw for the village inhabitants. They petitioned the Secretary of State, on whose desk the report lay. John Hall and Son had no appetite for completely rebuilding the facility to comply with legislation, and so it closed.