PROTECTING HORSES AT THE ELTERWATER GUNPOWDER WORKS
Since the largest industry in the Lake District is now tourism, it can be easy to forget Cumbria’s industrial past when we travel here to enjoy the majestic scenery. Nonetheless, we have many items in The Armitt collection that hearken back to our industrial history.
In the nineteenth century, ‘horsepower’ was an incredibly meaningful tool. Without the motorised vehicles, we have today, horses were key workers in industrial workplaces like the Elterwater gunpowder works. When David Huddleston first opened the site in 1824, horses were required to move heavy loads and transport materials.
The works were powered by water from Great Langdale Beck on the edge of Elterwater village, which was divided within the area of the works into a series of ponds and channels. The site was originally based on two acres on the left bank of the beck, but by 1861 it had expanded to 22.5 acres.
Gunpowder was made by mixing saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal – all flammable materials, and the smallest spark was capable of igniting the gunpowder and causing an explosion. Therefore, horses on-site wore these slippers to stop their metal shoes from sparking. Unfortunately, six men lost their lives in 1863 when a consignment of gunpowder exploded at Low Wood, Ambleside.
The works finally closed in 1930, when all the process buildings were burned down as required by law because of the danger of gunpowder residues. After the First World War, demand for gunpowder steadily declined. The site was sold to Richard Hall, who developed it as a holiday centre and converted several of the standing buildings to new uses as hostel or hotel accommodation. This signalled the pivot from industrialisation to the tourism industry.
In 1981, the site was acquired by new owners who turned it into a timeshare resort and country club called the Langdale Estate, constructing many new buildings on previously undeveloped parts of the site. The shells of several gunpowder buildings still survive, but have been gutted and re-fitted internally; in many cases, the external fenestration has also been changed. A few ruined structures, particularly some of the incorporating mills, have been preserved as items of historical interest and set out on display to the public. The weir and leat system has been retained as an attractive water feature within the resort. Part of the course of the works’ internal tramway system also survives as earthworks.
What remains are the surviving buildings, the scars on the Lake District landscape, and artefacts like these horse slippers in our collection.
Jecock, M., Lax, A. and Dunn, C. J., Elterwater Gunpowder Works, Cumbria: An Archaeological and Historical Survey (Archaeological Investigation Report Series AI/9/2003). London: English Heritage
The Armitt Collection