Wat Tyler Country Park – Explosives Factory (Early 20thC)

Please remember the video above was produced early on in Beyond the Point’s past. The video’s finish is not up to the level of professionalism we now display, nor is it entirely accurate for information. The article below will offer more detailed accuracy.

Around December 2011, we managed to get a tour around the country park with historian Alistair MacRae from the education team, and a ranger who specialized in the wildlife side of the park. A great thanks is given for a superb and in-depth tour! The site as put into action by Alfred Nobel – founder of the Nobel Peace Prize – who invented Dynamite in 1863, being a more safe and reliable method in which to manufacture Nitroglycerin – what would have been a viscous oil-like explosive made from Glycerin and Nitrogen. Although not as extensively produced at the factory, guncotton – explosive in a cotton-wool form, was made for use in cordite – an explosive used for sparking at the base of cartridge shells, propelling the bullet outwards, like a miniature ‘cannon’, were also made here. The factory was built in 1891 by the British Explosives Syndicate, with the main intention of the explosives to be used for weaponry, but also in mining. The factory saw heavy use in the First Wold War, but couldn’t make itself of enough use afterwards, and closed in 1929.

We arrived at around 11:30 and began too have an explore of the park by ourselves. Although the park is home to several WW2 pillboxes and defences covered here: We started looking around the initial visitors’ area and took a path which was covered in a wooded ‘decking’, similar to the wooden boarding used by workers so that grit on their shoes wouldn’t ignite any explosive. We saw some revamped buildings which would have been the firing range used to test cordite in the .303 rounds fired in the standard-issue Lee-Enfield rifles of the time.

The Cordite testing ranges

We then headed down the path and came to the dock-area of the site, which would have been where ships would have dropped supplies off, arriving from down up from the passage between Coryton and Canvey, going up past Vange. In the docking area we saw the remains of an old wooden jetty away off, probably in use by the factory, and also two anti-tank blocks from World War Two. Most importantly we saw an old Lighter boat which would have brought in shells from the US. It had clearly got stuck in the marsh and has rotted there to this day. We also found a ‘washing bowl’ from the factory, which would have been used to wash guncotton. A channel for drainage into the mud could be seen infront of it cut into the marsh.

Keith Webster describes the boat on BenfleetHistory.org.uk:

Regarding the so called Lighterboat stranded in Wat Tyler country park, if you are refering to the large wooden vessel in the saltings to the south east of the slipway at Pitsea creek she is in fact a wooden lightship built in the 1840’s for Trinity House, I believe she was the Nore light vessel & was run down & sunk by a coaster before the war then refloated & used as Erith yacht club’s floating clubhouse. Later came to Pitsea & was abandoned in the 1960’s.

A wrecked lighter used to bring goods to the factory

The washing bowl

We next came across an old crane presumably to take goods off of barges bringing them in.

A goods crane

We then looked at a Vickers machine-gun pillbox which was on the site, and then continued on in through the woods, finding another pillbox. We continued through the woods and came across a strange concrete tunnel. Also, we founded remains of an old brick wall.

A factory brick wall

We then headed back to the Visitor Centre for a quick sandwich, before meeting Alistair at 1 o’clock. He then showed us the exhibition about the park’s explosive factory history, which offered a hands-on detailing of its past, which gave us a bit more of an idea of ‘what it was all about’ before setting off. The first place Alistair took us was to the tunnel built into a mound (the park’s highest point) we had visited earlier, giving us a rundown on what the point of it was. It would have been roughly where the Nitroglycerin production started, in which pipes would have sent necessary liquids down into a pit.

The ‘mysterious’ tunnel

We were then led down the hill which the tunnel pipes would have led on to (except for one pipe which could cut off the explosives by sending them to an isolated tank, in case of fire). At the base of the hill was a pit containing foundations for a building where the chemicals would have been first processed. The foundations in brick can be seen below:

The production would have then continued across the site through several buildings which would have further processed the Nitroglycerin. These building foundations were surrounded by ‘blast mounds’ – gold-bar shaped earth mounds which would have protected the buildings surrounding it from the flying debris of the building inside, which would have of course exploded.

A blast-mound

The explosive would have been carried between buildings via man-pushed ‘bogey’ carts, which would have ran along rails –  a fragment remains in the park which can been seen below. What made Nobel’s Dynamite so safe was that the Nitroglycerin it would have used would have exploded even under subtle sudden pressure. Instead, it was mixed with a cat-litter type earth/sand called ‘kieselguhr’, which would make it safer and thus easier to work with.

The last remaining bogey rail

We then carried on the trail to where some more blast mounds where, but this time they would have protected buildings which would have contained women packaging the Dynamite into red ‘cartoon-style’ packaging, just without the fuse. these buildings would sit one between each of the mounds seen below:

From here the Dynamite was ready to be taken to a different area for final production. We were taken to seen a mystery building, which appeared to have a reinforced roof and possible loop-hole, referencing to it being maybe modified for WW2, although this could just have been something else of similar appearance. We also saw a second building which also doesn’t fit criteria well for any building sort, so too remains a mystery. It’s door and flooring are probably from the 1980s when the park was bought by a company hoping to bring it up to something like it is now.

We finally were shown another WW2 pillbox, and also a blast-mound containing a memorial to three men who were killed in the explosion of the building based there. The blast mound had a side missing due to the explosion, and what marks the spot is several stones from St. Michael’s church in Pitsea, which is now only a tower, where these men, or what was left of them, were buried.


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