RNCF Holton Heath, Dorset

The Royal Naval Cordite Factory (RNCF), Holton Heath was opened in January 1916 and was the first purpose-built site for cordite MD production in the country. Other factories in the country were already in existence, but they also produced other weapons for the armed forces. The site at Holton Heath was selected because its adjacency to the South Western railway, had a plentiful supply of water and was well-placed for export to the principal naval dockyards on the south coast. The site was chosen in autumn 1914 by the Admiralty for the manufacture of an independent supply (government supply) of high-quality cordite for the Royal Navy. Since nitroglycerine and guncotton, the principal ingredients of cordite, are volatile and highly explosive and a remote and secure location was required for its production. The western edges of the factory were occupied by service buildings including general offices, laboratories, a police station, surgery, changing rooms, messes, workshops, boiler house and generating station. A group of buildings, the general offices, main laboratory and explosive stores, and other buildings are listed with a Grade II status.

RNCF Holton Heath was equipped to be largely self-sufficient. Guncotton and acid factories, now largely demolished, were constructed mostly in the southern part of the site adjacent to the railway (former London and South Western Railway). The site also produced Tetryl, was used to ignite cordite charges, being the only product to be manufactured at Holton Heath that was not used for cordite production. The decision to manufacture it is because its main ingredients (sulphuric acid and nitric acid) were already being produced there. The ‘danger’ buildings that produced the volatile materials, were located within a fenced enclosure in the central part of the site. To provide protection, they were either sunk below the ground or were enclosed by earth banks to minimise damage to other structures should there be an explosion.

Cordite production ceased at Holton Heath in 1945 at the end of World War 2. The factory was placed on a care and maintenance basis and production switched to the Holton Heaths twin factory, the Royal Naval Propellant Factory Caerwent in South Wales. Some parts of the site continued as the Admiralty Materials Laboratory until 1977 when it became part of the Admiralty Marine Technology Establishment (AMTE). It later became the Admiralty Research Establishment, and latterly part of the Defence Research Agency, remaining operational until 1997 when it finally closed.

For a more detailed history and a information on the processes, please visit Historic England.

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