A military site between Wareham and Poole was so secret it
was deliberately left off an Ordnance Survey map published in the 1940s. At its
peak it was the largest industrial complex in Dorset employing around 2,000 people. It was the Royal Navy Cordite Factory. Cordite was a smokeless material
developed to replace gunpowder as a military propellant. It was used in large
weapons such as tank guns, artillery & naval guns. It was so called because
of its cord like appearance.
The explosives site was built during World War I at Holton
Heath with the help of around 500 bricklayers. First Lord of the Admiralty,
Winston Churchill had decided the Royal Navy needed its own cordite
manufacturing facility. During this war, certificates were issued to men working
at Holton Heath to prove they were engaged on important war work and were not
avoiding joining the armed forces.
The factory included a power station, two acid factories, a
reservoir, various buildings and a hospital area. Adjacent to the Dorchester to
Poole railway line, a five mile internal standard gauge railway was constructed
and also a 14 mile narrow gauge network. Poole, Wareham, Wimborne &
Bournemouth would provide the labour for the site. Despite much of the work
being dirty and dangerous, there was no shortage of recruits because pay was
better than working in local agriculture. Horton Heath railway station opened
in April 1916 for Admiralty staff and was only made available to the general
public from July 1924. In the early years, site security was provided by an
armed detachment from the Metropolitan Police. So many people were employed
there that two rail footbridges had to be built to accommodate the rush at the
start and end of each shift. There was also a jetty in Poole Harbour from where
cordite was shipped to Gosport. Large quantities of water were needed for
cordite production so a pipeline was built from Corfe Mullen which pumped water
from the River Stour.
There were many dangers in the Holton Heath processes and some
of the working conditions were unpleasant with the risk of acid burns and the
inhalation of dangerous fumes. There were also some serious accidents the worst
being on Tuesday 23rd June 1931 when ten staff were killed including
the chief chemist. A further 19 employees were injured. The explosion was heard
as far away as Blandford.
cordite production ceased in 1945, Holton Heath remained open as a a military
site but it eventually closed in the late 1990s.
Illustration: Cordite production at Holton Heath.
(Source: Royal Navy Cordite Factory Association)