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Gunpowder magazine

A gunpowder magazine is a magazine (building) designed to store the explosive gunpowder in wooden barrels for safety. Very few survive in the United Kingdom, as gunpowder is no longer manufactured there. Gunpowder, until superseded, was a universal explosive used in the military and for civil engineering: both applications required storage magazines. Most magazines were purely functional and tended to be in remote and secure locations.




Main articles: History of gunpowder, Gunpowder, and Gunpowder warfare

Production of gunpowder in the England appears to have started in the mid-13th century with the aim of supplying The Crown.[2] Records show that gunpowder was being made, in England, in 1346, at the Tower of London; a powder house existed at the Tower in 1461.[2] Gunpowder was also being made or stored at other royal castles. It was also stored in Scotland, in royal castles, such as Edinburgh Castle.

The use of gunpowder for both military and civil engineering purposes began to be superseded by newer nitrogen-based explosives from the later 19th century. Gunpowder production in the United Kingdom was gradually phased out during the mid-20th century. The last remaining gunpowder mill at the Royal Gunpowder Factory, Waltham Abbey was damaged by a German parachute mine in 1941 and it never reopened.[3] This was followed by the closure of the gunpowder section at the Royal Ordnance Factory, ROF Chorley, the section was closed and demolished at the end of World War II, and ICI Nobel's Roslin gunpowder factory which closed in 1954.[3] This left the sole United Kingdom gunpowder factory at ICI Nobel's Ardeer site in North Ayrshire, Scotland; it too closed in October 1976.[3] Since then gunpowder has been imported into the United Kingdom.

Gunpowder magazines

In many cases, the gunpowder was stored in locations which were both remote from habitations and could be made secure. In earlier times, gunpowder was stored wherever a safe site could be found.

In Scotland

The remains of old storage magazines are prominent in the landscape around the old Nobel's Explosives site in Ayrshire, many protected by large earth banks which acted as blast walls; these are not all gunpowder magazines, as the site has long been associated with other explosives, particularly dynamite and ballistite.

Dumbarton castle

Main article: Dumbarton Castle

Dumbarton Castle contained two powder magazines; both located high up on Dumbarton Rock. The oldest went out of use in 1748, being replaced by a new Magazine designed by William Skinner. The new magazine, located on The Beak, has a barrel-vaulted roof, with double doors and indirect ventilation. It was designed to hold 150 barrels.[4]

Fort George

Main article: Fort George, Highland

Fort George, was built between the end of the Jacobite rebellion and 1769. The Grand Magazine was designed to hold 2,500 barrels of gunpowder. It was constructed between 1757 and 1759; and was built strong enough to withstand a direct hit from a mortar. It has a slate roof laid on brick vaults, which sit on stone pillars. To prevent sparks, no iron fittings are used in the magazine: the wooden floor is held by wooden dowels; and the doors and shutters sheathed with copper sheet.[5]

Knockenlaw mound

An unusual example exists in East Ayrshire, Scotland at Knockinglaw (now Knockenlaw mound); it is shown on the 1896 OS and still exists in very poor condition as of 2007. It is near Little Onthank on the outskirts of Kilmarnock, and was originally a tumulus in which urns had been found.[6] A powder magazine was built into this large pre-existing earth mound at an unknown date and the site is now in a housing scheme.

The Irvine pouther magazine


The Pouther (Scots) for Powder House in Irvine (Map reference: NS 3238 3847), North Ayrshire, Scotland is a rare survival and was possibly first constructed in 1642, as records show that orders for large quantities of gunpowder were met in 1643, 1644, and 1646. James VI, of Scotland, had instructed that all Royal burghs should have powder magazines. The saltpetre derived from deposits in byres, stables and doocots would be stored in the Powder House.

Plans for rebuilding it were made in 1781, at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, and accomplished by 1801; its use was discontinued in 1880.[8] When the Golffields wash-house was demolished in 1924, its slates were saved by Provost R M Hogg for restoration of the Powder House, a rescue assisted by Rev. Ranken of the Old Parish Church. It was repaired in 1961 and again in 1992 by Irvine Development Corporation. It is an attractive and well built octagonal building topped by a weather cock.

The 1870 print[7] shows that it was placed in a remote situation, a golf-course being developed around it in later years and when this closed it remained, still fairly remote, in a small park next to the old manse. Ironically, Irvine is close to the site of the old Nobel ICI explosives plant at Ardeer, which was the last place in Britain to manufacture large quantities of gunpowder.

In England

Brean Down Fort, Somerset

Main article: Brean Down Fort

Brean Down Fort was one of a number of Palmerston Forts built to defend the British, Irish and Channel Island coastlines. It was originally built in stages between 1862 and 1870; to protect the Bristol Channel. It had a large, underground, main gunpowder magazine, 15 foot (4.5 m) by 18 foot (5.5 m) by 20 foot (6.1 m) high, built to the recommendations of the 1863 Royal Commission. The magazine still exists. A further two, smaller, underground magazines, No. 2 magazine and No. 3 magazine, were also built. No. 3 magazine exploded on 3 July 1900 destroying most of the barracks. Gunner Hains was killed. It was concluded that he had killed himself by firing a ball cartridge down a ventilator shaft into the magazine which held 3 tons (3 tonnes) of gunpowder, causing the magazine to explode.[9] The fort was reused in both the First and Second World Wars; and additional expense magazines constructed. The fort is now owned by the National Trust.


Building work on the Square Tower, Portsmouth, started in 1494; and from the end of the 16th century until 1779 it was used as a powder magazine, with a capacity of 12,000 barrels of gunpowder.[10]

The inhabitants of Portsmouth petitioned the Master General of the Ordnance in 1716 to remove the gunpowder, as they were worried about the hazards it posed to the town, but nothing was done at that time. A further petition was sent to the Board of Ordnance in 1767 following an explosion which caused extensive damage. This led to the construction of the Priddy's Hard magazine at Gosport, in a remote area, across the water from Portsmouth.

The Square Tower still exists. After 1779 it was used for other purposes; including employment as a semaphore station in 1817.[10]

Priddy's Hard, Gosport

Main article: Priddy's Hard

Priddy's Hard, began life as Priddy's Hard Fort; however in 1768 King George III authorised the construction of a gunpowder magazine inside the ramparts. Priddy's Hard magazine was constructed in 1779 to avoid the need to store gunpowder in the Square Tower, Portsmouth.

Both the fort and the magazine came under the control of the Board of Ordnance until 1855; control passing, first to the War Office, and then the Admiralty in 1891. Priddy's Hard became a Naval Armaments Depot, finally closing in 1977.[11]

Waltham Abbey, Essex

Gunpowder magazines still survive at the Royal Gunpowder Factory, Waltham Abbey, including its Grand Magazine, first constructed in 1804; and rebuilt in 1867-8.

In Ireland

Ballincollig, County Cork

Main article: Ballincollig Royal Gunpowder Mills

The Ballincollig gunpowder mills were first opened in the late 18th century and were bought, in 1804, by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland's Board of Ordnance to help defend the Kingdom against attack. They were one of three royal gunpowder factories; but the Ballincollig mills became disused after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. They were sold off by the government in 1832, in a semi-derelict condition; but were bought by a Liverpool merchant and were reopened to manufacture gunpowder; finally closing, just over a century ago, in 1903. Many buildings survive and, together with the associated canals, were incorporated into a regional park - Ballincollig Regional Park. The site contains a number of powder magazines, as well as Expense magazines.[12]

The No. 2 magazine was built by the Board of Ordnance and is the oldest magazine. It is 29 foot (8.9 m) long by 28 foot (8.6 m) wide. It has a groin-vaulted roof. The magazine is protected by earthen banks on two sides; with doors at both ends. The No. 1 magazine is newer; and was built sometime after 1828. It is 80 foot (24.5 m) long by 25 foot (7.6 m) wide and has solid walls, but is now roofless.[12]


  1. ^ McKay, Archibald (1880). The History of Kilmarnock. Pub. Kilmarnock.
  2. ^ a b Cocroft (2000). Chapter 1: "Success to the Black Art!".
  3. ^ a b c Cocroft (2000). Chapter 4: "The demise of gunpowder".
  4. ^ MacIvor, Iain (1981). Dumbarton Castle: Official Guide. Edinburgh: HMSO. ISBN 0-11-490830-3.
  5. ^ MacIvor, Iain (1996). Fort George: The Official Souvenir Guide. Edinburgh: Historic Scotland. ISBN 0-7480-1078-5.
  6. ^ Smith, John (1895). Prehistoric Man in Ayrshire. Pub. Elliot Stock. P .85.
  7. ^ a b Wilson, Professor.(1870) The Works of Robert Burns, Pub. Blackie & son. London.
  8. ^ Strawhorn, John (1985). The History of Irvine. Pub. John Donald. ISBN 0-85976-140-1. P. 69.
  9. ^ van der Bijl, Nicholas BEM (2000). Brean Down Fort: Its History and the Defence of the Bristol Channel. Cossington: Hawk Editions. ISBN 0-9529081-7-4.
  10. ^ a b Sadden, John (2001). Portsmouth: In Defence of the Realm. Chichester: Phillimore & Co. ISBN 1-86077-165-3.
  11. ^ Semark, H.W. (1997). The Royal Naval Armaments Depots of Priddy's Hard, Elson, Frater and Bedenham (Gosport, Hampshire) 1768-1977. Winchester: Hampshire County Council. ISBN 1-85975-132-6.
  12. ^ a b Webb, Jenny and Donaldson, Ann (2006). Ballincollig Royal Gunpowder Mills: a hidden history. Dublin: Nonsuch Publishing. ISBN 1-84588-540-6.


  • Cocroft, Wayne D. (2000). Dangerous Energy: The archaeology of gunpowder and military explosives manufacture. Swindon: English Heritage. ISBN 1-85074-718-0.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Gunpowder_magazine". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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