11Crane Park – a quiet nature reserve – used to be home to gunpowder mills which regularly blew up.
There is a Shot Tower by the Crane River in Twickenham, which was part of a gunpowder mill and is the last visible symbol of what was a thriving local industry. The manufacture of gunpowder greatly expanded in the 17th century, first because of the Civil War and then because of the three Dutch wars. It then became used for cartridges for shooting game and for commercial mining.
In 1791, there were 31 gunpowder mills around London, most situated either on the Thames or rivers running into the Thames. This was because salpetre, charcoal and sulphur were needed to manufacture gunpowder and charcoal could be found on riverbanks. The river also powered the mills and transported barges.
The Crane River Gunpowder Mill opened in the 1760s and was part of a complex of gunpowder mills known as the Hounslow Gunpowder Mills. These mills had been a major centre for the manufacture of gunpowder as they briefly had the Crown monopoly to manufacture gunpowder for the Ordnance from 1669 to 1671.
The ownership of gunpowder mills appears to have run in families. The Grueber family owned several mills in the South East of England. One of the Grueber family owned the Hounslow Mills in partnership with a Mr Harvey, which became Curtis and Harvey in 1820.
The manufacture of gunpowder is obviously dangerous and that was why the mills were generally built away from towns and villages. The mill workers had one of the most dangerous jobs in the country and there are reports of many accidents in the Hounslow Mills, often causing fatalities.
On 11 March 1758, an explosion was felt as far away as Reading. In 1772 three local mills blew up, shattering windows in nearby buildings and local Twickenham resident, the writer and Whig, Horace Walpole wrote to one of his relations, complaining that all the decorative glass had been blown out of his Strawberry Hill House home.
In the period 1833 and 1887, the Times Newspaper reported eight incidents including two causing fatal injuries at Hounslow Mills. Abraham Slade noted in his diary for 1859 that: ‘On the 29 of March the Powder Mills blew up, sending 7 poor souls into eternity in a moment. It has broken a great deal of glass in Twickenham & neighbourhood. We thought the whole place was coming down.’
The Twickenham mills ceased manufacturing in 1927 and all that remains is the road Powder Mill Lane and the now listed Shot Tower.