The Gun Cotton and Munitions factories

1861  Thomas Prentice erected a factory on the bank of the River Gipping to manufacture gun cotton in accord with was termed the Von Lenk process i.e. a long cotton yarn was dipped in a mixture of nitrated cotton that was placed in wire baskets and immersed in running water and left for several weeks.


After several rebrandings, see below, in 1898 the company began making Cordite on a site to the north of the railway line. This was extended in 1904 to provide for the manufacture of smokeless powders for shotguns, rifles and revolvers.

Products were transported by barge and rail to Ipswich. The Archangel was the New Explosives Company own ocean going barge. transporting explosives to Russia. Though by 1910the  road became the preferred method for transport.

news report
!964 test explosion
19th century logo for the Stowmarket Gun Cotton (Stowmarket LH Archives

On an afternoon in January 1867 Elijah Francis had his left hand blown off at the Gun Cotton Works. He was ramming some mining cartridges, and instead of using a wooden mallet he was using a metal hammer, contrary to orders, when the cartridge burst and inflicted the injury. He was taken home, and Mr. Freeman amputated the arm just below the elbow. He is going on well. The poor fellow has a wife and six children. A lad who was with him when the cartridge burst escaped uninjured.

In 1870  the factory changed its name to the Patent Safety Guncotton Company ltd in acknowledgement of a new process using cotton waste, with Eustace Prentice as managing director.

At the time of the infamous Gun Cotton Explosion of August 11th, 1871 the factory stood in Stowupland, on the bank of the River Gipping. Although workers travel led to work in the factory from Stowupland we were fortunate none of our people were killed or recorded as seriously injured.  We know from the census that a David Stockings (age 20) from Saxham Street worked as a labourer at the Gun Cotton factory in 1871, his younger brother Thomas (age 18) worked at the Iron Foundry. 10 years later the family had moved from Saxham Street, and the men are all recorded as working on the land.

Artist sketch of the explosion


Magazines contained explosives as dry compressed discs in total 13 ½ tons.  The crater formed was oval in shape 35 yards long, 22 yards wide, and 9 to 10 feet deep.

One hour later a second explosion occurred killing yet more including Edward and William Prentice

13 people died and the noise was heard at a distance of 30 miles, and the shock felt over a radius of 7 miles.

It was put down to mishandling or rough handling or sabotage by contamination.]

Artists sketch of the area after the explosion

After 1871 the factory was rebuilt with a larger and improved plan and renamed Stowmarket Guncotton Ltd

In 1881 it was renamed The Explosives Company Ltd

In July 1885 it became the New Explosives Company Ltd

And then after  the  1915 explosion it was renamed the Necol Industrial Collodions Ltd

During the 1st World War  the number of employees increased from 500 to 2000 employees working in continuous shifts and commuting from Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds on special trains.

In 1914, 400 employees went on strike. They were paid 15s 11d for a 54 ½ hr week whilst other explosive workers were paid at least 10s a week more. Over nearly 4 months wages were increased  by a farthing an hour.