Eyeworth Pond, near Fritham is one of the New Forest’s beauty spots but its origins are far removed from the tranquil scene we see today. Surrounded by ancient woodland, nowadays it is home to a variety of waterfowl, including brightly coloured Mandarin ducks, which visitors come to feed and photograph. However, this is no natural pond as it was originally constructed as a reservoir by creating a dam to hold up the water of the Latchmore Brook which feeds it.
In 1851 the Deer Removal Act was passed by Parliament and this provided the trigger for a series of events that led to the creation of the pond. The Act required the complete removal of all deer from the New Forest within a two year period as it had long since fallen from prominence as a royal hunting forest and the demand for trees for the expanding Royal Navy placed different demands on it. At the time there was a chain of Keeper’s Lodges across the Forest that were effectively made redundant as a result of the Act and one of these was situated at Eyeworth.
In 1855 Eyeworth Lodge plus 43 acres of land was first leased to a retired publican but after four years he died. It was then let to two men – Drayson a London businessman, and Campbell, an explosives expert. They had established a black powder (gunpowder) company and needed a large remote area in order to develop their works. For over seven hundred years the dull-black mixture of sulphur, potassium nitrate (saltpetre), and charcoal – gunpowder is only a mixture, not a chemical compound – had been used in all forms of weaponry. The site at Eyeworth ideally suited their requirements and the New Forest also provided a ready source of charcoal. Despite these advantages it appears that the business was not particularly successful.
Gunpowder had two main disadvantages. When fired, it produced a fierce recoil and a lot of smoke which impaired vision on a battlefield – the “fog of war”. In around 1864 the first successful smokeless powder was made by Edward Schultze, a Prussian artillery captain. This powder was originally manufactured at Potsdam, near Berlin, but the factory caught fire in 1868 burning to the ground. Shortly after this event, Clement Dale and William Bailey acquired the Eyeworth site and established the Schultze Gunpowder Company. Little is known about Capt. Schultze apart from the fact that he is widely credited with inventing the world’s first smokeless gunpowder. It seems unlikely that he was directly involved with the Eyeworth site but his original manufacturing process was used and subsequently enhanced considerably by the company.
Schultze’s process produced a chemical compound, the main constituent of which was nitrocellulose. Initially it was fairly crude but its advantages over traditional gunpowder were nevertheless obvious by virtue of its smokeless qualities and less fierce recoil. The business was not particularly successful in its early years and in 1871 it had only four employees. An article in the November 1872 edition of Popular Science described the site and the production process, “Here and there at intervals wide apart are various buildings of light structure from one of which rises a tall chimney instrumental in raising steam to drive a 10hp sawing machine which rapidly creates the “wood powder”. This is subjected to chemical washing leaving hardly anything behind save pure woody material, known as lignine or cellulose. The next operation involves the conversion of these cellulose grains into a sort of gun cotton material by digestion with a mixture of sulphuric and nitric acids. Next it is washed with carbonate of soda and dried. The resultant grains are stored away until the time of packaging and dispatch when they are charged with a definite percentage of a nitrate powder – nitrate of baryta is preferred. All the buildings requisite for manufacturing this explosive are cheap and flimsy so that if they did catch fire no loss would ensue. The plant and machinery is of small cost in comparison to that used for making black gunpowder and Schultze wood powder is sold at a price commensurate with its cheap production“.
It was not until 1874, with the appointment of RWS Griffiths, a chemist, as general manager, that the company’s fortunes began to change as he refined the process and quality of “Schultze Powder” as it became known universally. The powder was more suited to cartridges for sporting guns and by 1878 it had become the world’s leading sporting gunpowder. Leading shotgun cartridge manufacturers, Eley and Kynoch, both used Schultze powder in their cartridges.
The company then experienced a period of rapid expansion creating a mini population explosion in the village of Fritham as the workforce increased significantly. As a consequence, the company was involved in the provision of a church (known as the “tin tabernacle”), a co-operative store and workers’ cottages under the direction of RWS Griffiths who was known to be extremely caring for his workers and sought to look after those who suffered industrial injuries. The Schultze factory was not situated in a remote area without good reason as the manufacture of gunpowder was often hazardous. This is borne out by the following extract from the “Annual Register” of 1871:-
“While a man named James Mills was engaged alone in the drying house he was blown forty yards by the explosion of 740 lb of powder. His head was buried in the earth, his clothing was found burning and full of splinters. The drying-house was blown to atoms, and bricks were found fully half a mile from the spot. A large boiler was hurled some distance, several workmen’s houses were shattered, and the laboratory destroyed, but fortunately the magazine, which contained several cwt. of powder, escaped.”
This was obviously not an isolated event as House of Commons Parliamentary Papers in 1878 contained reports of further explosions at Eyeworth in August and December 1877 and on one of these occasions one man was killed and three were injured in the Dusting House. No doubt in order to reflect these dangers, workers’ wages were £1 a week compared to the agricultural wage of 12 shillings.
As previously described, part of the company’s manufacturing process involved soaking wood fibre in large vats of sulphuric and nitric acid and after it came out of the acid vats it was washed in copious quantities of water. It was this demand for water that gave rise to Eyeworth Pond. After some planning problems which lasted several years, permission was eventually granted in 1883 for the creation of a six million gallon reservoir by creating a dam across the brook. The overflow from the reservoir cascaded down a steep flight of stone steps falling into a culvert under the bridge across the road, and onward into the factory complex – the sluice gate and steps are still visible today.
In the same year, a track was constructed along the side of the reservoir in a north easterly direction to link up with the Downton to Cadnam road which still exists as one of the Forestry Commission’s cycle routes. The track was called Powder Mill Road and its purpose was to provide a route out of the factory for the horse drawn wagons of explosives avoiding the village of Fritham. The company also had premises at Redbridge on the edge of Totton where the nearest rail station was located. From here the gunpowder would have been loaded onto steam trains from the company’s horse drawn carts. The year 1883 must have been one of high activity for the Schultze factory. Not only was the reservoir and Powder Mill Road constructed but Eyeworth Lodge was completely rebuilt on the site of the former Keeper’s Lodge and it became the residence of RWS Griffiths as well as company headquarters and research laboratories.
By 1895 the factory was working 2 shifts 24 hours a day 6 days a week with over 100 employees and was the world’s largest supplier of sporting gunpowder, producing 20,000 lbs of powder per week. A company statement from this period indicates a workforce of 3 chemists, 6 manufacturing, commercial, and administrative staff, 127 male workers and 1 female worker. At the same time the factory complex comprised of 20 “non-danger” buildings, 18 “danger” buildings, 14 magazines, 15 offices and stores and 5 stables (providing accommodation for 40 horses) – many of these buildings were of wooden construction, making them relatively cheap to replace in the event of an accident and all the “danger” buildings were painted white. The gated entrance to the factory complex was approached via the Foreman’s House and it was the responsibility of the Gatekeeper to search all the workmen as they entered, taking from them any tobacco, matches, etc.
At its peak the Schultze Gunpowder Company was the largest employer in the New Forest and they also had offices in Gresham Street, London plus agents around the world. By this time it had become the largest nitro-compound gunpowder factory in the world, supplying 75% of global sporting gunpowder needs. Around 1897 they decided to form an American branch and joined with the Anglo-American E C Gunpowder Co under the name of American E C & Schultze Gunpowder.
The photo (left) below shows some of the buildings that have survived. The two parallel black wooden buildings and the red brick building to their right are believed to be the original stables and cart houses which provided accommodation for 40 horses and sleeping accommodation for the men in charge. The roof of Eyeworth Lodge can be seen in the background.
During the company’s heyday, Schultze powder won many awards and competitions worldwide when, perhaps its most famous advocate was the American sharpshooter, Annie Oakley. She had a starring role in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show which toured the USA and Europe and the musical “Annie Get Your Gun” was based on her exploits. Oakley made no secret of the fact that she only ever used Schultze powder but when the Wild West Show arrived in France for a series of shows, she discovered to her horror that France forbade the import of foreign gunpowders. Fearing that the use of inferior French gunpowder would affect her sharpshooting accuracy, she filled hot water bottles with Schultze powder and she and the female riders of the show smuggled them into France hidden under their bustles. When supplies ran low before they left France, further supplies were sent to her hidden in egg shells.
As the company entered the 20th century, it faced increasing competition and following RWS Griffiths’ death in 1906 after 32 years in charge, the business went into decline. During the First World War the business also suffered from anti German sentiment and it appears that the company had to resort to newspaper advertisements declaring that all shareholders and management were British! In 1912 Eley Bros purchased Schultze for a sum of around £60,000 which guaranteed its immediate survival under new ownership.
Nevertheless during the First World War and just after sales plummeted. In 1918 in an effort to rectify the increasing decline among cartridge manufacturers, Explosives Trades Ltd. was formed to bring together the UK explosives industry into one entity – 29 companies, including Nobel Explosives, Eley, Kynoch and Schultze, were merged into the new company. In 1920 Explosive Trades Ltd changed its name to Nobel Industries which later merged with three others to form ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries) which, for most of its history was the UK’s largest manufacturer. It was around this time that production stopped at Eyeworth and the factory closed.
Nowadays, little evidence remains of this once thriving industry in the heart of the New Forest. Eyeworth Lodge is now a private residence as is the Foreman’s House and one of the former workman’s’ cottages. A farm now occupies most of the site and the remaining factory buildings have survived as farm outbuildings. The only other clue to its existence is a black post box at the entrance to the Forestry Commission car park in Fritham. It was erected by the Schultze company to save the postman, the long downhill trip to the gunpowder factory each day before the advent of motor vehicles.
The map below show the extent of the factory and its buildings in 1898.
A map of the area as it remains today.
View Eyeworth – Schultze Gunpowder site in a larger map