Arklow’s explosive history: Kynoch, 1895-1918

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2006), Volume 14

Arklow's explosive history Kynoch, 1895-1918 1

 

The establishment of the Kynoch explosives factory in Arklow was due to the vision and ambition of two men, Arthur Chamberlain and A.T. Cocking. Arthur Chamberlain was a Birmingham industrialist and brother of the famous liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain. In 1888 Chamberlain joined the board of Kynoch and set about reviving the fortunes of the ailing company. In 1891 he became chairman of the board and within twelve months he had turned the company around. In 1893 the engineer A.T. Cocking approached the company with a proposal for the manufacture of a new explosive, cordite, which had recently been developed by Alfred Noble, the inventor of dynamite. Cocking was confident that cordite was set to replace gunpowder as the explosive charge in military and sporting munitions and in industries such as mining and engineering.
For centuries gunpowder had been the explosive charge used in bullets for small arms and in shells for artillery, but with the arrival of faster-firing rifles and bigger artillery pieces in the late nineteenth century the need for a new and more efficient explosive that produced less smoke had become urgent. By combining two existing and notoriously unstable explosives, guncotton and nitro-glycerine, Alfred Noble had made the breakthrough and created a smokeless explosive that was more powerful than gunpowder. Yet unlike gunpowder, cordite was unaffected by moisture or temperature, making it a very safe explosive to handle and to store. Unless it was contained within a strong chamber like a bullet or shell cordite wouldn’t explode: when it was ignited in the open air it burnt away harmlessly.

Arklow chosen over Brittas Bay

After his early success with the Birmingham factory Chamberlain was ready to expand. In November 1894 he told the directors that he had secured a modest order of ‘600 tons extending over three years’ from the British government. In the same month Chamberlain and Cocking visited two possible production sites in Wicklow—Arklow’s north beach and Brittas Bay, five miles up the coast. Chamberlain and Cocking finally settled on the Arklow site over the more remote Brittas Bay alternative. The north beach was situated less than half a mile from the harbour at the mouth of the Avoca River, making it easy to ship explosives to England. There was a rail connection nearby, and the town itself, with a population of 5,000 people, offered a ready workforce. Apart from this there was one other major advantage to the Arklow site, one that almost certainly clinched the deal. At the mouth of the Avoca River there was an existing chemical factory, the Arklow Chemical Works.

Two women loading a bogey car-the factory had an extensive network of bogey tracks to facilitate the movement of chemicals and explosives around the site. (G.D. Kelleher, Gunpowder to guided missiles)

Two women loading a bogey car-the factory had an extensive network of bogey tracks to facilitate the movement of chemicals and explosives around the site. (G.D. Kelleher, Gunpowder to guided missiles)

Although the works had been in abeyance for some years, after an inspection it was clear that the factory was capable of producing the necessary chemicals to render Kynoch self-sufficient in the manufacture of cordite. Soon afterwards the purchase of the Arklow Chemical Works was completed, and in July 1895, a mere eight months after Chamberlain’s first visit to Arklow, the factory was producing cordite.
On the opening of the Kynoch factory the mayor of Dublin and several MPs made a public announcement to voice their gratitude for the new enterprise, saying ‘we feel it is our duty to convey to you the expression of our thanks for opening a new industry and a fresh source of employment in Ireland’. On one of his first visits to Arklow Chamberlain met the local parish priest, Father Dunphy, who assured Chamberlain that the people of Arklow were eager to work. One detects more than a hint of desperation amongst the Irish camp for this ‘fresh employment’. The town had a long seafaring tradition and in the mid-eighteenth century was one of the greatest fishing ports in Ireland or Britain, with a huge fleet of oyster boats, sloops, trading vessels and small coasters mooring in what was then a muddy estuary. But by the late nineteenth century the local economy was struggling and the prospect of a major new source of employment was very welcome.

Industrial disputes

The factory, which Kynoch proudly boasted to be ‘the biggest of its kind in the world’, initially employed 260 people made up of men, women and teenage boys and girls as young as fourteen. Women and girls were employed in the less dangerous parts of production such as the preparation of cotton for ‘nitration’ to make guncotton and in the filling of cordite cartridges for the mining industry. Women were by far the lowest-paid, earning around four shillings a week.

A Kynoch marketing pamphlet extolling the virtues of the revolutionary new explosive, cordite. (Birmingham City Archive)

A Kynoch marketing pamphlet extolling the virtues of the revolutionary new explosive, cordite. (Birmingham City Archive)

Young boys, also employed in the preparation of cotton and as assistants with the ‘cordite presses’, were paid double the wages earned by their female counterparts. The average weekly wage for men was twelve shillings, rising to sixteen shillings for those involved in the most dangerous parts of production in the appropriately named ‘danger houses’. These wages were about the industrial average for Ireland at the time, but a family would have struggled to feed, clothe and keep themselves warm during winter on this tiny income. It’s hardly surprising, then, that during its 22 years in operation the factory was plagued by countless strikes by dangermen, bricklayers, electricians, boilermen and boys preparing cotton, invariably over pay.
The first dispute, and by far the most bitter, took place only four months after the factory opened in October 1895 after an explosion occurred in one of the ‘drying houses’, blowing one of the employees to pieces. The factory was closed until further notice and some of the workers said that they would not return unless they received an increase in pay. Relations between the workers and the management deteriorated even further when it was claimed by the management that the explosion might have been caused deliberately.

Seaward view of the factory. Note that many of the smaller buildings in the foreground are ringed by mounds of sand to protect surrounding buildings in the event of an explosion. (Under five flags: the story of Kynoch works 1862–1962)

Seaward view of the factory. Note that many of the smaller buildings in the foreground are ringed by mounds of sand to protect surrounding buildings in the event of an explosion. (Under five flags: the story of Kynoch works 1862–1962)

In the investigation that followed, the company was exonerated of responsibility and it was stated that the explosion might have been accidental or deliberate. The report said that a short while before the explosion a wine bottle had been found in a trough that was used to move nitro-glycerine from one building to another and could have caused an accident if it had flowed into the vat at the end of the trough and hit the bottom. Around the same time a match that had been resting on a bogey track was ignited as a bogey wheel passed over it. The report concluded that the above incidents pointed to a possible attempt at sabotage with the express intention of then asking for more money. The Wicklow Newsletter refuted the allegations as ridiculous and was of the opinion that the bottle had simply been hidden in the trough and that the idea of trying to cause an explosion by placing a match on a bogey track was almost laughable.
Chamberlain’s response went much further than the report. In what could best be described as a slanderous outburst he said, ‘There has been characteristic cowardice on the part of the work people in not informing their superiors of wrong doing’. In defence of the workers Father Dunphy argued that ‘In the long established industries of this kind in England, explosions have occurred through the recklessness of the workmen, skilled though they be, and one has not heard them accused of malice’, and he in turn accused the management of ignoring his warning regarding recruitment and ‘that officials had employed felons, tramps, drunkards and men of the most indifferent character’. These arguments had little impact on the management or Chamberlain, and eventually the workers returned to work without any wage increase.

Accusations of anti-Irish agenda

Despite this early setback the initial order was completed, and company records show that bigger orders from the army and navy followed; the factory expanded, taking on more workers to meet the increased demand. Between 1900 and 1903 the factory received huge orders for cordite to supply troops fighting in the Boer War in South Africa. After the war the demand continued until 1907, when the factory suffered a major blow: a batch of cordite was rejected, with the government claiming it to be inferior. Following this a large quantity of the explosive was seized from the factory, and rumours of a possible closure began to circulate. This was not the first time that cordite had been rejected for not meeting the required standards; on this occasion, however, the government made the even more serious claim that the cordite contained mercury, something that was absolutely prohibited as it had the effect of distorting tests on the product.
Once again Chamberlain reacted aggressively and strongly denied the claims. He pointed out that the particular batch in question had actually been supplied in 1901 and that the test for detecting the minute quantities of mercury did not exist at that time. Chamberlain also claimed that the company was being treated unfairly, and at a meeting of the shareholders in 1909 revealed that one of the inspectors, Captain M.B. Lloyd, had overlooked the presence of mercury in cordite from another supplier, Curtis and Harvey, a company the captain subsequently joined as a director. Chamberlain decided to have the matter settled in court; after four years the case was concluded in the House of Lords, ending in a photo-finish with blame being apportioned equally between both sides and the company being awarded the pathetic sum of £200.
The general opinion in Ireland was expressed by Mr Cogan MP when he said: ‘when any attempt was being made to revive industry in Ireland, the brains of British officialdom were got to work to discover the most insidious method of destroying that industry’. From the very outset there had been unjustified objections to the planting of a factory in Ireland. The director of contracts in the War Office at the time, George Lawson, believed that the site was inappropriate because ‘it was separated by a considerable sea channel, i.e. when our needs are sharpest this might prove to be a considerable disadvantage’. As it turned out, during the First World War huge quantities of cordite were shipped to Woolwich from Arklow without a single serious incident.
In fact Chamberlain only managed to secure the initial order to manufacture cordite in Arklow by putting political pressure on the British government. The government understood that Kynoch would be supplied with ‘cordite pulp’, an almost completed product, from another manufacturer and that Kynoch would only be doing the final processing in Ireland.

Workers queuing up outside the factory. (Birmingham City Archive)

Workers queuing up outside the factory. (Birmingham City Archive)

This was Chamberlain’s original intention, but once he visited Arklow and purchased the Arklow Chemical Works this was no longer the case. When the government discovered that Kynoch would not be manufacturing the product in Britain but in Ireland they objected, and it looked like the order was going to be withdrawn. Not to be thwarted, Chamberlain approached John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, to lobby the War Office not to obstruct the building of the factory, and following a deputation to London the objections were dropped and approval was given, somewhat begrudgingly, to manufacture cordite in Arklow.
If an anti-Irish agenda did indeed exist it could never actually be proven. Chamberlain nonetheless stated openly in an interview to Arthur Griffith in 1907 that ‘it was a definite part of English policy to prevent any serious industrial or commercial development in Ireland’. While Chamberlain may simply have been venting his anger at the loss of revenue caused by the dispute, and although his commitment to industry in Ireland probably extended no further than his ability to make a profit there, he did, however, prove that there was an element of favouritism in the way that the government chose to deal with the issue of cordite production. Nevertheless, his litigation deepened an already serious rift between the company and its most important customer, and no more orders were forthcoming until the beginning of the First World War. Luckily the factory remained open and struggled on, sustaining itself with orders from industry and sporting munitions.
In October 1913 Arthur Chamberlain died, and in true dynastic style his son, Arthur Chamberlain, stepped into his father’s shoes as chairman of the board. As a man Chamberlain senior does not appear to have been an endearing or charming character: quite the opposite. Even the company biography described him as ‘of ascetic appearance and grave demeanour . . . and a detachment which at times came perilously near ruthlessness’. As an employer he was very opposed to organised labour, and yet in other ways he was progressive and almost altruistic. The company built two rows of terraced houses in Arklow for the management. Inside the factory there was a large canteen and a recreational hall that had a reading room and billiard tables; the same hall was frequently used for dances and other social functions for all the workers. Chamberlain was also the first employer ever to institute ‘sick clubs’ and a shorter working week of 48 hours. However, his generosity didn’t always extend to his Irish employees. There were no ‘sick clubs’ for the workers in Arklow, and while their English counterparts were earning a top wage of 22 shillings per week, wages in the Arklow factory remained fixed at what Cocking referred to as the ‘native rate’ of 16 shillings per week.

First World War boom (in more ways than one)

With the outbreak of war in Europe the issue of the ‘mercury’ dispute was conveniently forgotten and the factory once again received very substantial orders to meet the colossal demand for munitions on the western front.

The final product. These bundles of cordite were then packed into wooden crates, shipped to Woolwich and used as explosives in bullet cartridges and artillery shells. (Birmingham City Archive)

The final product. These bundles of cordite were then packed into wooden crates, shipped to Woolwich and used as explosives in bullet cartridges and artillery shells. (Birmingham City Archive)

Kynoch constructed dozens of new buildings, and the site of the factory now extended over one and a half miles northward from the mouth of the Avoca River up the entire length of the north beach and beyond. The number of employees increased from a pre-war figure of 600 to almost 5,000. Special trains and charabancs were put into service to transport the new workforce coming from many of the surrounding towns and villages, even from as far south as Wexford town and as far west to Shillelagh. A garrison of 100 soldiers was brought in from County Cork to protect the factory. Employees, now working around the clock, were offered substantially more pay, with wages increasing to £2 per week. The traders, and in particular the publicans and those with boarding houses, benefited significantly from the war boom. Workers flocked to the local drinking houses in great numbers, to the alarm of the management, who feared that it would adversely affect productivity; but after negotiations with local representatives the opening hours were restricted to from 10am to 2pm and from 5pm to 10pm.
The new employment that the war brought to Arklow and the surrounding areas was no doubt very welcome, but local people also knew that there was potentially a high price to pay for working in such a dangerous industry. The explosion in 1895 was only the first of four fatal accidents and numerous minor accidents that occurred before the war. In 1907 one man died when a fire broke out in an acid house. In 1910 two men were blown up while pushing a bogey containing arkite paste, and a similar accident happened one year later, again killing two men and damaging fifteen buildings. There was, however, another less deadly but more insidious and more prevalent danger, that of toxic fumes from the nitric and sulphuric acid. The Institute of Civil Engineers in London were of the opinion that ‘the fumes were extremely injurious to workpeople’, and the Wicklow People said that ‘fumes had resulted in a number of men having been either wholly or partially incapacitated from further work owing to the noxious gases’.
When the factory went into war production all the workers were issued with a rulebook briefly outlining general safety regulations, but with the huge increases in production safety was obviously a secondary concern. The number of injuries increased to the point where it was necessary to open a hospital. Almost 900 cases were reported while the hospital was in existence, 135 of which were classified as serious, which is an average of almost one a week; many of the injuries would have been burns inflicted by acid. In 1917 the ministry for munitions produced an extremely comprehensive handbook with very detailed guidelines on safety in munitions factories. Ironically it was in this year that the Arklow factory had its worst accident. At four o’clock on the night of 21 September the town was rocked by a massive explosion. Tragically, 27 men died and six were seriously injured. There was some suggestion that the explosion might have been caused by a German submarine attack, but the inquest that followed concluded that it could not be attributed to any malicious attack and a verdict of accidental death was recorded. A more plausible explanation offered by one of the employees at the time is that ‘men had been drying hankies on the steam pipes which could become very hot causing them to ignite’.

Closure

When the factory went into war production the workers were issued with this rulebook, briefly outlining general safety regulations. Nevertheless, the number of injuries increased to the point where it was necessary to open a hospital. (Birmingham City Archive)

When the factory went into war production the workers were issued with this rulebook, briefly outlining general safety regulations. Nevertheless, the number of injuries increased to the point where it was necessary to open a hospital. (Birmingham City Archive)

Five months later the factory was hit by another disaster, the news that it was to close. The people of the town no doubt anticipated a major reduction in the number of workers once the war ended, but the announcement that it was to close altogether came as a great shock. There was consternation at what they saw as a very bleak prospect once the factory upon which they had become so dependent had gone. Locals felt that it had contributed to the war effort, and even the management, who had so damningly criticised their Arklow employees when it first opened, said in 1907 that ‘From none of our works or factories do we get more valuable service than from our factories in Ireland’. Some felt resentment in the light of the recent accident and the lives that had been lost, and again there were accusations of a conspiracy on the part of the British government against Irish industry.
In reality British government policy had little bearing on the final fate of the Arklow factory. As early as 1915 negotiations were taking place for a grand conglomerate, Explosive Trades Ltd, to buy up, then merge and rationalise 40 explosives manufacturers in the UK, including the factory in Arklow. Large numbers were let go in stages throughout 1918, and by 1919 only 100 workers remained. By the end of 1919 it was down to a mere handful; then the sale of the factory was announced, machinery was dismantled and removed, and most (but not all) of the buildings were knocked down.
Very little remains of the 200-odd buildings that once littered the coastline of the north beach in Arklow. The handful of stone structures that were left standing have now almost entirely disappeared. The sea too has reclaimed some of the site, and with it, one feels, a part of Ireland’s industrial heritage. A stranger walking along the north beach would have no inkling of the small but significant part Arklow’s chemical industry played in the monumental events of the early twentieth century. Although the factory buildings are gone, what remains is proof that there did exist the desire and the ability in Ireland to be part of a modern industrial economy, but that opportunity, certainly in the case of Arklow, was to be denied until much later, when its chemical industry again flourished and is still flourishing today.

Anthony Cannon is a graduate in History and English currently working for the London Metropolitan
University.

Further reading:
J. Rees, Arklow: the story of a town (Arklow, 2004).

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