Ballincollig Gunpowder Mills – May 2010
Early in the morning of Monday 3 May my brother Nic and I arrived in Cork from Swansea on the Fastnet Lines ferry ‘Julia’. Our mission was to explore our recently discovered Irish ancestry: Cork families with the surnames Leslie, Lawton, and Uvedale, plus, if we were lucky, a few old Bagges. The same morning, we set off for Ballincollig Gunpowder Mills, a place intimately associated with the Leslie family, to meet up with Margaret Jordan who later introduced us to Catryn Power, County Archaeologist.
Our ancestral quest had begun a few years ago, with the totally unexpected revelation of a family secret: Indian ancestry through the unions with Bengali women of two previously unsuspected Cork ancestors who worked and died in India in the 18th and early 19th century. This intriguing addition to our genealogy became apparent through a single telltale word in the 1881 UK Census: ‘Calcutta’, the birthplace of our great-grandfather, Edward Hind Wood (1861–1933). His foreign birth was a detail which had been either suppressed or unknown within the family, but it was hardly insignificant, because from it came the revelation of an ancestry stretching back, via Cork, to 11th-century Scottish royalty and beyond!
The key to this long lineage was Matthew Leslie (c1755–1804), the great-grandfather of Edward Hind Wood, and son of an eminent Cork doctor, Charles Leslie (?–1793). Matthew went out to India to work for the East India Company at an early age. His career took him to some remote and politically sensitive locations in Bengal, and to a position of considerable civic importance by the time of his death in 1804. His younger brother, Charles Henry Leslie (c.1762–1842), meanwhile, was of a more commercial inclination. It was he who established the Ballincollig Gunpowder Mills in 1794, on land alongside the River Lee which he and his partner John Travers already owned. For the next twenty years, the mills were the largest in Ireland, occupying 90 acres in Leslie’s time, and expanding to 431 acres once the Board of Ordnance purchased the operation from him in 1805. It may well be that Leslie’s older brother, my ancestor Matthew, helped with acquisition of the most elusive of the main ingredients of gunpowder, saltpetre, the principal source being at that time the area of Bengal in which he had considerable influence.
Catryn showed us around the site. Reminders of many of the buildings remain in what is now a public park, which straddles the line of a feeder canal which Leslie had built to transport materials across the site and pwer the mill. These remnants are necessarily at some distance apart, positioned originally to reduce the risk of a chain reaction from any accidental explosion. It used to be possible to walk along a short section of the canal, to see close-up its refurbished stone walls and sluice-gates, and to visit one of the restored mills, situated near blast walls which stand as sturdy reminders of the hazardous nature of the venture. Sadly, and somewhat incomprehensively, these extraordinary reminders of a unique 18th-century industry can now only be glimpsed from the main path. Considerable sums have been spent on the restoration of the site, archaeological research, interpretative materials, and a new visitors’ centre, yet this section is now closed, denying the public an understanding of the most important parts of the process.
It does seem baffling. The centre is part of a large public open space, where on the fine Bank Holiday afternoon that we visited, there were hundreds of people out walking, relaxing, or playing sports. If this rare gem of industrial archaeology were in some obscure location off the beaten track, one might understand the reluctance to persevere, to spend further funds on marketing a site which might, in the end, attract relatively few people. But the Ballincollig buildings are so very convenient, so close to the main Cork–Killarney road, and in such an attractive setting, it really does seem tragic that not only the 18th- and 19th-century structures are being allowed to deteriorate again, but the brand new one too!
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not just being partisan here. Of all the many life-stories I’ve now discovered among my ancestors and their families, Charles Henry Leslie’s is one I’m less than completely convinced by. The production of gunpowder – though it does, of course, have peaceful uses too – is not exactly the most positive of contributions to human happiness. And it gets worse if I mention that he was also a banker, and worse still that, with a certain current topicality, Leslie’s Bank – ‘one of the great institutions of the South of Ireland’ – had to borrow from the government to avert one financial crisis, yet still failed a large number of creditors when it finally collapsed in 1825.
[Photo shows left to right: Mark Davies, historian; Peter Deller, historian; Fr Cormac Breathanch, P.P. and Nic ap Glyn]
But the aspect of Leslie which undoubtedly was admirable was his vision to convert a few watermeadows into such an enormously viable and strategically important business, despite having no background experience in this hazardous and complicated trade. What Leslie started, and his successors expanded on, is a remarkable testimony to human ingenuity, whatever emotions the production of gunpowder itself inspires. The site would hold obvious particular interest for anyone enthused by military history, the industrial past, or canals, but this was an operation of such local, national, and international importance that its continued closure seems nothing short of a tragedy.
The fully renovated building in the closed section is called the Incorporating Mill. Hopefully incorporation is what it will achieve again one day soon – back into the realm of public access and public education.
6th June 2010