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Gems of the Archive: Milling with a Bang!

This week I have been looking at Gems with a Bang! Don’t worry, the Mills Archive is still standing…

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One of the items (which I hope Mildred is keeping in a safe place) is a gunpowder horn, dating from around the 1850s. Amazingly, it still holds a small amount of black powder within – which was produced by Chilworth Powder Mills, a company founded in the early 17th Century by the East India Trading Company, who used the gunpowder in their armies and on their ships. Chilworth was owned by a succession of individual owners over its 300 years of trading, before being eventually shut down in 1920. Its powder armed the soldiers of the Civil War, the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic War, amongst many others.

The company saw its greatest expansion at the build up to the First World War – throughout the conflict they produced vast amounts of explosive, in particular brown powder for use in the shells of the large artillery pieces. It was, rather ironically, owned by a German Company until it was taken over by the Admiralty in 1915. The end of the war tolled the death knell for powder mills, as overproduction during the war years meant that the supply was greater than the demand, and prices subsequently slumped. 

Adjustable powder measures, like this horn we have at the Archive, were crucial to the production of gunpowder. They allowed riflemen and sportsmen to precisely measure out the exact amount of shot they needed, and to keep the amount the same for repeated measures, allowing accurate testing of gunpowder.

Before developments in smokeless gunpowder, armies across the world would have used powder produced in these mills, just like what is left in the horn. It’s wonderful to have in our collection such a tangible link to the past. By keeping and preserving Gems like these, we are able to pull on the threads of history that stretch back hundreds and thousands of years, capturing small glimpses into the lives of the countless people who came before us.