Ballincollig Royal Gunpowder Mills

Ballincollig Royal Gunpowder Mills

Ballincollig Royal Gunpowder Mills was one of three Royal gunpowder mills that manufactured gunpowder for the British Government. The Ballincollig gunpowder mills were opened in the late 18th Century; and were bought by the Board of Ordnance in 1804. They are situated in the town of Ballincollig (Ireland) on a canal specially built to facilitate the transport of materials to and from the mills. The mills were sold by the British Government in 1832, but were reopened by a Liverpool merchant family, the Tobins, who had been involved with the African slave trade.Fact|date=June 2008 They finally closed in 1903.


The manufacture of gunpowder involved many skills. The trades mentioned in the board of ordnance list and in (1815) include the following: carpenter, cooper, millwright, master mixer, refiners of brimstone (sulphur), charcoal, and saltpetre, press-house, corning house, glazing house, dusting house men, sawyer, shave cleaver. While a great deal has been written about the process of manufacturing gun-powder in many parts of the world, very little has been written about the work of the different trades in gun-powder mills. This is a brief look at the work of some of these trades.


One of the most important trades in the 19th century mills was that of the millwright. The millwright was responsible for the construction and maintenance of the waterwheels and gearing which came off them to run the machinery. At its peak in Ballincollig in the middle of the 1850s there was over 20 waterwheels – 12 in the composition or incorporating mills, and wheels in the charcoal, sulphur and saltpetre refineries, and also in the corning houses and press houses.

As much of the millwrights work was done on site, one of the most important tasks was to insure that the gears which transferred power from the waterwheels to the millstones engaged properly. To achieve this the gears were all driven in before the teeth were cut to shape. “had the shaping been done beforehand the teeth would have been damaged by the blows…then there could be trouble from the outset, starting from the outset, starting with a faulty engagement which worsened until it set up a train of damaged gears”.

Millwrights preferred to have engaging teeth of iron and wood. In this way almost all the wear of the engaging gears was taken up by the wooden ones and these had to be periodically replaced. As well as this, it was felt that iron and wood engaged better than iron and iron and that quieter and smoother running resulted.

Millwrights were held in high regard because of the many skills they possessed. Throughout the 19th century the millwrights became more mathematical and the foremost millwrights, particularly in England and the continent, established “rules” in relation to the supply of water and the energy which was created forerunners of the engineers of the present day and many millwrights firms developed into mechanical engineering firms as water power declined in importance and the steam engine took over.

Gunpowder men

The charcoal men and the sulphur and saltpetre refinery played a very important part in the manufacture of gunpowder. Gunpowder had to be uniformly good and this depended on pure ingredients being produced by these men.

The mixer’s job was to mix these three ingredients in the gunpowder. The mixture – now called the ‘green charge’ – was next taken to the incorporating or composition mills. This was the most important process because here gunpowder was produced. For the men involved this was a difficult and dangerous task. As the large millstone ground the mixture on a bedstone, the millmen remained outside, entering only to moisten the charge with distilled water and to insure that none of the charge stuck to the millwheels.

The press house and the corning house men also had important jobs in their own way. In pressing moisture from the gunpowder, the press house men had to ensure a uniform quality in the powder and doing this depended on obtaining ‘press cake’ of equal density and hardness. When the press cake went to the corning mill, grains of various sizes were produced, but there had to be consistency amongst the different grain sizes. This was the task of the corning house men. Due to the large quantities of dust produced in the process, these men had a very dangerous job.These were the most important skills directly involved in the manufacture of gunpowder. But because of the large quantity of powder produced, the coopers were numerically the strongest section of the workforce.


Coopering involved the making of barrels or casks of staves that were bound together by hoops of copper or wood. They were fitted with a head and bottom. The barrels were made of oak and had to be fitted extra tight so that dampness would not seep into the powder when it was stored. In the late 1830’s there was 16,000 barrels of gunpowder being produced each year in Ballincollig. By 1856 there were about 50 coopers and apprentices employed in the mills.


Coopers had to undergo a five-year apprenticeship. The apprentices had to be at least fourteen years of age and to be able to read and write. Their training was governed by the rules of the Cork coopers society. They usually worked from 6am to 6pm in summer and from light to dark in winter. In 1887 all boys in the society in the second of their time had to pay 2d (1p) per week until the end of their apprenticeship. Many of the Ballincollig coopers had sons in the trade with them.

Craft of Coopering

The sequence of operations in coopering may be grouped as dressing, raising, heading and gathering. Making casks was ‘heavy’ work from beginning to end, so all the coopers tools were strong. There was a considerable range and almost every one of the tools were peculiar to the trade though some had a ‘family’ likeness to those of other trades.

Dressing was the preparation and shaping of the staves from the butt. According to the size of the cask, the staves are cut and dressed, the outer face with a backing knife and the inner with a hollowing knife. The stave containing the bung hole was made a little wider than the others. Work on the staves was done on a showing-horse; this ‘animal’ was to be found in the equipment of a number of woodcrafts.

Assembling the staves in the trusses to form the cask was known as raising. Heading was the making of the heads which fitted into the ends of a cask. The heads were made in four or five sections of oak according to the size of a cask. These sections are joined by means of dowelling. When the heads have been prepared with bevels in top and underside to engage with the cask grooves they were put in the casks. Gathering was the completion of the hooping to produce the finished cask. Copper, rather than iron, hoops were used for powder barrels because of the danger of a spark from the iron hoops. When the hoops have been driven home, the cask was said to have been gathered and the hoops were secured by a number of tenter hooks.


From the 1870s the number of coopers in the Powder Mills declined. Some of this was due to the decline of production in the Ballincollig mills, but some was due to the use of metal canisters to hold powder as the mills changed their production to sporting powders. Some of the decline was also due to the importation of barrels from Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, as machine cut staves were cheaper than those produced by the Ballincollig coopers.

After a temporary problem in the summer of 1886, when the mills were closed to the lack of water, there was a general distress in 1889 amongst the powder mill workers, but the coopers were particularly hard hit. “All the coopers are idle for a considerably period; several have gone to England… the remainder…are watching every chance that may turn up to give them employment… but they cannot succeed.

The difficulties the coopers experience lead to industrial trouble. In 1892, the coopers were in dispute with the management over the importation of powder barrels which meant that for the previous 3 months coopers were only able to earn twelve shillings a week.

In 1886 the coopers were again in dispute over the introduction of new machinery which would cut their “already low wages” by 33 per cent. When they refused to accept the managers terms they went out on strike. Eventually, the manager agreed to take back all but three who were regarded as ringleaders, who should be suspended for some time at least as “an example”. The company threatened the closure of the coopererage and the use of machine made casks. Unfortunately for the Ballincollig coopers, there was a general decline in coopering in Cork at the end of the last century so that efforts to get the permission of the Cork coopers society to try to find work in the city were in vain.

As a result of the decline in demand for coopering, coopers and their families emigrated to England in 1889, as we have seen, and continued to do so afterwards. Some went to find work in England and Scotland. But some were lucky to find work elsewhere in Ireland, at least temporarily. In 1886 the Cork Coopers were not pleased when they heard that Ballincollig coopers had found work in Limerick.

When the Powder Mills finally closed in June 1903, coopers still appealed to the coopers society to allow them to find work in Cork City, but the society refused to listen. It was a sad end to a once proud trade in Ballincollig.

The Hazards of gunpowder manufacture at Ballincollig

During the nineteenth century the manufacture of gunpowder at Ballincollig, and its transportation through Cork City, caused much concern and some fatal accidents. From the opening years of the century the hazards associated with transporting such a hazardous substance through busy streets are evidence.

A number of accidents occurred in the mills early in the century. On the 10th November 1803, two barrels of gunpowder exploded in the processing shed and five men perished in the blast. Five years later, on the 25th August 1808 a ‘dreadful explosion’ at the mill claimed further lives. The shock waves from both of these blasts were clearly felt in Cork. But the city itself also experienced the dangers associated with gunpowder.

Dangers in the City

As a number of gunpowder wagons made their way along George’s Street (present day Washington Street) in August 1803, vibration disturbed one barrel and, unnoticed by the car men, the contents flowed along the ground in a steady trickle. A stumble by one of the car men produced a spark and without warning the escaped gunpowder exploded. Though many bystanders were shaken by the blast no injuries were noted. A far different tale would have been told if the powder casks had become engulfed in the explosion. A local newspaper reported the incidents and urged that caution be exercised in the future.

‘As we know not of any similar case having occurred in this city, we need not , through apprehension of its being repeated, enjoying any lesson of caution; but upon the whole, the transportation of so formidable an article of destruction, subject to so many accidents, should be in all cases the object of incessant vigilance’

Two years later the same newspaper returned to the subject of gunpowder when it warned of the dangers of storing large quantities in city retail premises. It is suggested that powder be stored in a detached depot and that retailers only stock limited quantities. On 15 October 1805 , the mayor of Cork was complimented for drawing attention to the fact that a main street grocer was stocking far more powder than his licence allowed. The gunpowder was seized and lodged in the ordnance store. A couple of days later the powder stock of a South Main Street grocer was also seized and confiscated. Early in 1806 further precautions were taken and it was ordered that gunpowder be shipped from Blackrock and not from the cities quays as is the current practice

In November 1810,Ballincollig gunpowder was again associated with a major disaster in the city itself . At about 10 o clock on the evening of Saturday, 3 November a violent explosion rocked the St. Barry’s area of the city and in Brandy Lane, the centre of the blast, three houses were demolished and a number of others were set on fire.

Crowds of people converged on the area, some to satisfy their curiosity, others to offer assistance. A scene of utter chaos awaited them ; dismembered bodies, clothing , household furniture and ware, plus other debris, were strewn all around. Parties were organised to comfort survivors, fight fires and carry out other tasks. Rescuers worked through the night and b morning 19 bodies had been taken from the ruins. The deaths of three survivors in hospital brought the number of fatalities to 22. The cause of the tragedy was ascribed to the pilfering of gunpowder from the Ballincollig Mill. A worker had found a ready market for the powder in quarries near the city and each evening he brought small quantities to his home in Brandy Lane. It surmised that carelessness while drying the powder with candles was the cause of the explosion. The apparent greed of one Ballincollig mill worker had sent over 20 people to premature graves.

Mills closed by the British Government

The Ballincollig Powder Mills fell into disuse a few years after the Napoleonic Wars and the Duke of Wellington ordered ‘The whole of the wooden part of the manufactory to be taken down (and) the foundations to be preserved’ The machinery was oiled, painted and maintained. Some of the equipment was put up for auction in 1831 and soon many of the buildings were in dilapidated state. In 1833 it became known that the concern had been taken over by Sir John Tobin and Company of Liverpool and it was planned to have it operating in the near future.

Mills re-opened as a private company

Within a few months the complex was being renovated and workers were employed at clearing out the disused waterways. By mid 1835 at the Ballincollig mills , trading as the Royal Gunpowder Mills Company , had commenced the manufacture and the weekly wage bill was almost 200pounds. Before the end of the 1830’s there were about 200 people employed at the mills and the annual production of gunpowder was in the region of 16,000 barrels. To reduce the danger of accidents the various departments were placed at some distance from each other ; materials were transported on small canals which eliminated the hazard of sparks from horses hooves. The quantities of gunpowder exported between 1836 and 1842 were : 1836 – 7,517 casks ; 1837 – 6,267 casks, 1838 – 9,835 casks ; 1839 – 16,045 casks ; 1840 – 13,914 casks ; 1841 – 16,489 casks ; 1842 – 17,738 casks. Having such quantities of gunpowder passing through the city gave cause for alarm and in June 1842 the matter was discussed by the Harbour Board. It was agreed that great caution should be exercised while shipping the material and it was suggested that the shipping point be moved from the navigation wall down river to Rochestown. It was later suggested that new road to be constructed to transport the gunpowder from Ballincollig to Cork, and a plan to build a canal was also suggested..

Corning House Explosion

A fatal accident occurred at the Ballincollig Powder Mills on 25 June, 1841, when two men were killed by an explosion in the corning house. Little is known about this incident, but two years later another fatal accident took place. Shortly after reporting for work on Saturday, 29 July,1843, John Carol and Jeremiah Long donned their working clothes and special shoes and went to their place of work at the granulating (corning mill). In the building at the time were 21 barrels, each containing 100lbs of gunpowder. One of the men put the machinery in motion and two minutes later a massive explosion rocked Ballincollig. ‘Slates, timber, lead and stones were thrown to a great distance, not a stone in the mill was left standing; even its foundations were torn up and scattered ; and the only part of the machinery standing is a large metal wheel used in the process of granulating. Carrol and Long were killed instantly, their bodies were cast a considerable distance , and in quite different directions. They were wholly denuded of clothes and presented a shocking appearance – mutilated and scarcely recognizable.’

Prior to the accident three troops of the 2nd Dragoon Guards had been inspected by General Sir Octavious Carey in a field near the mill; they had moved to the far end of the parade area just a few minutes before the explosion otherwise the casualty list could have been far greater. At an inquest on the following day a verdict of death by accident was returned.

Just three years later two men were injured when another mill exploded. One man had his clothing burned, the other received a severe back injury when he was hit by flying timber. On 15 April, 1847 , the military were called in to help contain a fire at the cooperage in the mill complex. Their efforts to prevent the fire spreading to the neighbouring powder store were successful, but the cooperage itself was reduced to ashes. Again, in June 1858, an explosion demolished a small mill in Ballincollig, but no injuries were reported.

erious Explosions

Between 1859 and 1862 three explosions claimed a dozen lives at the Ballincollig Mills. The first of these explosions took place in the dusting house on a Saturday in August 1859. In this building the dust was removed from the gunpowder. Early in the morning the pure gunpowder was removed between 30 and 40 barrels were brought alongside the barge-boat and 20 year old John Corcoran looked after the barge-horse. The dusting house workers were William Looney, the foreman; Timothy Lyons and James Merrick. As the unloading proceeded, a sudden explosion demolished the dusting house and the adjoining press house; a buttress wall of stone and earth which separated the two timber buildings was also levelled. The five men were killed instantly and the huge crater left by the explosion was soon filled with canal water. Three of the bodies were recovered and brought to a nearby shed; a search commenced for the others.

A more melancholy sight then this could not be imagined, surrounded as if it were relatives of the deceased, bewailing their fate with loud and incessant lamentations; but it was horrible in the extreme to see from time to time persons coming in, bringing in, wrapped in grass or cloth, a blackened cinder that was once a hand , a foot, or other portions of one of the dead men. Those awful relics were scattered far and wide, some of them having been found on the brow of the hill on the opposite side of the river, nearly half a mile away from the scene of the catastrophe.

Nearly two miles at Lisheen House young Morgan O Connel was knocked unconscious by a window which was displaced by the blast. The cause of the explosion was a mystery and it was surmised that friction between barrels or a spark from a pebble was to blame. A verdict of accidental death was returned by the jury.

The tragedy was soon forgotten and a new ‘pressing mill’ was constructed on the site. The hydraulic equipment for working the machinery was situated under the floor and, as an added safety precaution the floor itself was covered in leather. Shortly before noon on 23 October 1861, the building was cleared and eight barrels of powder and eight barrels of dust were brought in for processing. Twenty minutes later an explosion was heard and when workers arrived at the scene little of the building or its contents remained. Five men who were working gin the mill died in the explosion; they were; Owen Begley, the foreman, Thomas Long, George Davidson, Thomas Hailey and Timothy Merrick. A verdict of death by accident was also returned in this case. But a couple of days later it emerged that one of the men who was retiring because of ill health had decided to treat his companions. He had crossed the river and purchased drink which he brought to the mill. The Cork Examiner noted:

‘It is a fearful warning as to the consequences of yielding to a momentary temptation, while on the other hand it is in a certain degree satisfactory for the sake of those engaged in similar operations, to know that the catastrophe arose from causes which are avoidable and that it would probably never occurred had the unhappy victims but adhered to the rules of the establishment'.

The third fatal accident occurred in the drying house or ‘west stove’, almost exactly 12 months later , on 25 October 1862. Thirty barrels of gunpowder exploded and the small building was ‘blown utterly to pieces, leaving not a trace of its existence save a few beams, sticks and stones on the ground’ John Hallissy and David Leahy were killed by falling rubble.

More Explosions

During the next few years further explosions took place. On 22 January 1864 a blast at one of the composition mills caused a chain reaction which blew up 3 other mills. About 220lbs. Of gunpowder was involved, little serious damage was caused and three of the mills were expected to be operational within a few days. Again, on 8 October 1869. three compounding sheds were destroyed in an explosion’ the material was in an unfinished state and little damage resulted. Two more sheds at the ‘Black Mills’ were demolished in an explosion in June 1870; only ‘ a few fragments of timber and debris of stone work discoloured by the powder remained to mark what had existed.’ Following an explosion at the Black Mills in April 1872 a man named John Corcoran died. His companion, 70 year old William Dinan was severely injured in the blast. Three months later an explosion demolished another shed at the Black Mills. In March 1877 an explosion occurred at the incorporating mill and Thade Connel received severe burns. In this mill, rollers driven by water power moved around a trough and crushed certain ingredients; as a safety precaution – workers were not allowed to remain in the building while the machinery was in motion. The equipment was stopped before workers entered and it was thought that Connel may have been scraping encrusted powder from the roller when the blast occurred . Though hopes were entertained for his recovery, Connel died a few days later.

ee also

* Gunpowder
* Eleutherian Mills
* Faversham explosives industry
* Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills


* Cocroft, Wayne D (2000). "Dangerous Energy: The archaeology of gunpowder and military explosives manufacture". Swindon: English Heritage. ISBN 1-85074-718-0.
* Crocker, Glenys (1988). "Gunpowder Mills Gazetteer: Black powder manufacturing sites in the British Isles". (The Wind and Watermill Section: Occasional Publication 2). London: The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. ISBN 0-903090-97-X.

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