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Arthur Percival MBE MA DLitt FSA FAHI

May 2005

OARE GUNPOWDER WORKS is now open to the public free of charge - from 8am to 5pm on weekdays and 9am to 4pm at weekends. Leased by Swale Borough Council for 175 years from Bretts, the site has been conserved and made suitable for public access by Groundwork Medway Swale. Much of the necessary funding came by way of a key £900,000 contribution from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

This is the second most important gunpowder site in the UK after the former Royal Gunpowder Factory at Waltham Abbey. Like almost all powder plants, it has always been an area of great beauty and charm: even in its heyday a visiting journalist mistook it from the distance for a game reserve. Leats and narrow-gauge canals thread their way through woodland managed to minimise damage in the event of a 'blow' (accidental explosion); and at the north end, closest to Oare village, is Burney's Pond, one of the two millponds created to power the gunpowder mills.

To be seen nearby is one of only three surviving gunpowder mills in the UK, repatriated in 2004 from Ardeer in Ayrshire. This dates from 1926. (Another, the oldest in the world, is at Chart Mills, in Faversham, on the former Home Works.) Among impressive remains which have been conserved and consolidated are those of the 19th-century glazing and corning houses. Special trails (including one for wheelchair users) have been laid by Groundwork to ensure that the site can be enjoyed to the full.

The Works lies just off the B2045, quickly reached via the A2 and close to the M2. It was also second of the three Faversham powder factories to open. Started by Huguenot immigrants from Lyon in the 1680s, it came to be a main supplier of the East India Company. One of the founders, Francis Grueber, also traded in silk in Seething Lane, City of London. His many descendants now live in the UK, India and New Zealand.

A visitor centre, complete with explanatory displays, is being created in the former cooperage, but at the time of writing the displays are not yet complete. Volunteers will be needed to staff this, initially at weekends and Bank Holidays, and offers of help will be welcomed by Arthur Percival. It will be a rewarding and enjoyable job - and, yes, there are toilets and tea-making facilities!

It has taken about ten years to realise what at first sight seemed just a dream, and members of the Society have been much involved, providing advice and gunpowder expertise. Warmest thanks to Swale Borough Council (and Sheila Smith in particular), Groundwork Medway Swale and the Heritage Lottery Fund!

Fuller information, with illustrations.

(A wide range of publications on the history of explosives manufacture is available from the Faversham Society at the Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre, 10-13 Preston Street, Faversham, Kent ME13 8NS). The Society is a registered charity run by 100% voluntary effort for the good of the community, and all profits are ploughed back for the care and conservation of the area and its treasures.

In addition, on the debit side, the conserved remains of the Royal Gunpowder Factory at Ballincollig, Co Cork, are no longer open to the public; and on the credit side, the Gorham-Sebago Land Trust hopes to restore what survives of the gunpowder plant at Gorham, Maine, USA, which started in 1828.

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