This article appeared in the Summer 1970 (Issue #20) edition of the Kent Archaeological Review.
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Faversham Gunpowder Mills --
Restoration Makes Good Progress.
This time last year the Chart Gunpowder Mills were still derelict, and could be reached only by those who knew their way through the lush undergrowth just off South Road.
During the last nine months there has been a complete transformation. Restoration of the Mills has made good headway, and around them has sprung up some of the most attractive housing built in the town since the war.
The first task was one of the most difficult. The original edge-runners used to "incorporate" the "green charge" of powder on the stone "bed" of the surviving mill had been removed many years ago, and replacements were needed. Great circular stone monoliths weighing between three and four tons each, they were bound to present problems. But the first task was to find them. The Faversham Society, which is carrying out the restoration, was offered a pair from a disused works in Furness, but realised that transport might be expensive. Fortunately one of our keenest members, Bill Bunting, knew of a more convenient source of spares -- the Oare Works, another of the old Faversham powder factories. Incredulous members of the special Chart Mills working party followed him through vegetation of almost sub-tropical density to find no less than five runners hidden under a bramble thicket. A lorry and a crane were hired, and the two best runners moved into Chart Mills.
Work could now begin on the superstructure. The massive brick blast-wall posed few problems -- it only needed clearing of ivy and re-pointing. But the wooden shed around the mill was a much tougher proposition. As the word "shed" implies, it is clad only with weather-boarding and roofing-felt. The idea of this light finish to the building is to minimise damage to the surrounding area in the event of an explosion. But the timber framework has to cope with considerable torque from the eight or nine tons of machinery, and the main beams are massive. The original timber had decayed badly, and the shed that has been built is virtually new. Though there were no plans of the original structure, the restoration is completely authentic. Andrew Osborne, our architect, was able to piece together most of the clues from the surviving materials, and the Public Record Office provided the rest of the information in the form of an early 19th century scale drawing of some similar mills at Waltham Abbey, which at the time were under the same (Government) management. The drawing in fact was done by a Faversham man. Altogether the building work cost nearly £2,500.
Meantime a start was made on the engineering work. The major triumph so far was perhaps the easing of the big vertical cast-iron wheel which transmits power from the water-wheel to the wooden crown wheel over the edge-runners. After forty years' exposure to the elements this had -- not surprisingly -- jammed fast in the "neutral" position. If the Society's ambition to restore the mill to working order were to be achieved, it had to be released. A team of members worked at this frustrating task week-end after week-end. It would have been no good just clouting the wheel with a sledgehammer -- almost certainly the casting would have fractured. So a combination of methods had to be used. Here the offer of free penetrating oil from Plusgas Ltd (mentioned in "Review" Number 15) came in useful. Not just pints but gallons were poured into a plasticine trough formed at the top of the wheel. Then intense heat was applied with an oxyacetylene torch, and finally a little bit of brute force was carefully used. In the end the wheel yielded, and now it revolves on its bearings as sweetly as on the day it was first installed. This, and other internal metal parts, have been thoroughly cleaned and given a coat of rust-inhibiting paint. They look so splendid now that most visitors ask "Where did you get that magnificent new machinery made?" That so many people should make this mistake about components which are now well over a 100 years old is a tribute not so much to our volunteers as to the foundry-men (probably Hall's of Dartford) who produced them in the first place.
Other visitors with a better knowledge of foundry-work or engineering do not make the same mistake. But almost invariably they comment on the very high standard of the work. One recent visitor -- an engineer -- spontaneously congratulated the Society three times in the space of about twenty minutes. This is the sort of compliment our members appreciate very much. We decided from the start that as a pioneer scheme for the restoration of an industrial monument, all the work should be carried out to the highest possible standards.
There is still much to do before the mill can work again. One complicated piece of machinery that will have to be made is the spindle of the two edge-runners. Another is the "drenching tank," an automatic device designed to extinguish any fire in the mill in the event of an explosion. And new vanes (each about seven feet long) have to be made for the big water-wheel. There is also landscaping work to be carried out on the site, for it is the Society's intention to lay this out as a small public open space and hand it over to the Borough Council. Already £200 has been spent on expert surgery to the many fine trees round the Mills.
The Mills are already a considerable attraction to visitors, and we are always pleased to show individuals and parties round. In due course we hope to have a little "mini-museum" on the local explosives industry inside the mill, though obviously this will have to be very carefully arranged or it will detract from the appearance of the shed and machinery. Taking pride of place may well be a recent acquisition of which we are particularly proud -- a traveller's sample of gunpowder actually made in Faversham more than 70 years ago. This turned up at an auction in Lewes during the summer. We heard about it over our impeccable bush-telegraph system, and (against all our usual rules where museum material is concerned) we bought it. There are six bottles of different grades of powder in a black leather case, and we think this is probably a unique survival.
We still need money, of course. To date we have raised about £1,800 ourselves, and another £1,800 has come in by way of grants from the Ministry of Public Building and Works, the Faversham Borough Council and the Kent County Council. But we are still about £200 short of our target. If there is any reader of the "Review" who has not yet subscribed, and who thinks the Mills are a deserving cause, we shall be pleased to hear from him or her. But there can't be many of these -- so many of our readers have already been so generous!