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Chilworth’s West Lodge Reveals Its Wartime Secrets – Hopes It Will Now Be Preserved

Published on: 22 Dec, 2016
Updated on: 22 Dec, 2016

By Gavin Morgan

New research backed up by English Heritage has unearthed the wartime role of West Lodge, part of the Chilworth Gunpowder works.

West Lodge in Blacksmith Lane, Chilworth.

It appears to have been built to improve security at a time when the gunpowder works were at their peak, supplying explosives for the First World War.

Today, West Lodge, stands at the entrance to an enchanting tree-lined walk owned by Guildford Borough Council. The walk takes the visitors past some fascinating remains of a dangerous industry.

At its height about 600 people worked here. Some lived in Chilworth and others cycled over from Guildford. West Lodge was at the heart of the site. Here workers would be checked and ask to hand over anything likely to cause an explosion. In return they were given brass tokens which could be used to count how many people were on site in the event of a disaster.

Millstones once used to grind charcoal to a fine powder.

As you walk through you are given tantalising glimpses of what went on here. Giant millstones which used to grind charcoal to a fine powder line the path. Small towers of bricks and a circular chimney base are all that remain of a steam engine.

Remains of a tramway.

A few pieces of iron across the stream recall a tramway link. Today it is hard to imagine the sinister and dangerous scenes that once occurred here. In the winter of 1901 a workman was unloading explosives from the tram. His hobnail boots created a spark and the resulting explosion claimed the lives of six people.

Further along, the mighty walls of one of the few standing factory buildings has an almost Orwellian feeling. These ruins are Guildford’s equivalent of the tin mines that adorn the picturesque Cornish coast line. They intrigue and delight the curious walker and make this a unique place.

Remains of the gunpowder works buildings.

In the 1990s English Heritage recognised the importance of this site and gave the ruins scheduled monument status.

West Lodge, however, was not included because it was occupied at the time by a council employee. Furthermore, its historical importance was not recognised. Some people believed that the back of it was built after the gunpowder works closed because it did not appear on a 1922 sale map. As a result the council has considered selling the building and allowing part of it to be demolished. Click here for previous story.

It is hoped that this new research will ensure West Lodge is  protected as a place of historic interest.

The front of West Lodge was built in the 1880s  to check employees before they entered the site via the iron gates you see today. During the First World War security had to be increased. In fact the whole site was deliberately omitted from the 1916 Ordnance survey map with good reason.

St Martha’s Church was camouflaged with branches during the First World War.

Air raids were a continual risk and gunpowder works were an obvious target. St Martha’s Church was camouflaged with branches and in 1915 an anti-aircraft gun was installed at the gunpowder works.

In the same year a Zeppelin dropped bombs at St Catherine’s and locals believed it was hunting for the factories.

[Ed: local and military historians who have in recent years researched the raid by the German L13 Zeppelin and have studied the evidence, conclude that its commander was lost, but believed he was over another target – the waterworks by the Thames at Hampton. Click here for our previous story.]

The german L13 Zeppelin that dropped 12 bombs on St Catherine’s Village in 1915.

Amidst this tension a new building was erected just inside the gates possibly to allow sentries to be on duty 24 hours a day and provide them with sleeping accommodation.

This new information emerged through careful examination of the buildings and a reassessment of historic maps. The rear section was originally a separate building and not a 1920s residential extension. Futhermore, although the new building does not appear on the 1922 map, the blanked out 1916 map shows that a change in boundary indicating that something had definitely been built.

West Lodge is the only complete building from the Chilworth Gunpowder Works still owned by the council. The local community would like to include it as part of the gunpowder works monuments and find a use for it. As we remember the sacrifices of the First World War on all sides it would be an appropriate time to keep the building in public ownership and give it a future helping us appreciate this aspect of our past.

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