Lifting lid on explosive chapter

The unfinished remains of the explosives factory. Below, picturesque Cornaa

The unfinished remains of the explosives factory. Below, picturesque Cornaa

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THE Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society will be continuing its winter series of monthly lectures with a talk by Charles Guard on Saturday, January 25, entitled ‘The Bellite Factory – A Murky Affair’.

This talk, to be held at 2pm in the Manx Museum lecture theatre in Douglas, will focus on a 19th-century scheme by a Swedish firm to create an explosives factory at picturesque Port Cornaa, on the island’s scenic north-east coast between Glen Mona and Ramsey.

Cornaa Beach

Cornaa Beach

Although it is a serene beauty spot today, the little coastal inlet – consisting of a tidal lagoon behind a high bank of shingle – was no stranger to minor industry by the late 19th century.

It had for long been used by the local community as a place at which to land limestone which could be burnt in a kiln, remains of which can be seen just above the high watermark, to create fertiliser with which to ‘sweeten’ the area’s peaty and acidic soil for growing crops.

In 1791 there had even been a scheme to create a proper harbour for small coasting vessels, but this had failed due to there only being 18ft depth of water at high spring tide.

Up the Cornaa river, in Ballaglass Glen and in the upland tract known as the Corony Valley between Snaefell and North Barrule, various mining concerns had operated, with varying degrees of success, since the mid-1800s.

But in 1890 the lower valley was bought by a Swedish company intending to construct a factory for the manufacture of a new explosive called ‘Bellite’ which had been patented by Carl Lamm in 1885.

It was a mixture of 83 per cent ammonia and 17 per cent dinitrobenzole and was said to have considerable advantages over traditional explosives, such as dynamite, traditionally used for blasting in mining.

But why had the Swedes selected such an obscure spot, or the Isle of Man at all?

True, the island had its own metal ore mines, of course, in areas such as Laxey and Foxdale, but these were on the decline at the time.

The ostensible reason given by the Scandinavian company for choosing the island was that its plant back home in Sweden was blocked in by ice in winter, whereas the Irish Sea remained ice free.

But it seems its main motivation was to take advantage of less stringent Manx rules over explosives than those which existed in the UK.

Directly to the east across the sea lay the Cumbrian coast, with many metal ore and coal mines in the Maryport, Workington, Whitehaven and Millom areas, and in other parts of the Irish Sea there was convenient access to other industries such as the huge slate quarries of North Wales.

The company’s intention was to build a jetty against the rocks on the north side of the bay. Trucks running on rail would then have linked this to the factory, situated a little higher up the valley to avoid the risk of flooding from the lagoon. Work actually began on building the factory, the concrete shell of which can still be seen, but then an alarm cry was raised by a report in the Isle of Man Times.

Soon a tremendous outcry had been raised by local people about the potential danger of an accidental explosion at the plant.

This led to the matter being debated by Tynwald and legislation was rushed through restricting the plant’s activities to mixing ingredients manufactured elsewhere and packing the mixture into cartridges.

This clearly failed to meet the Swedish company’s ambitions, as work on the scheme ceased in September 1892, leaving just the concrete ruin and the tranquil spot we can enjoy today.

To find out more, don’t miss Charles Guard’s talk.

As well as the Bellite factory lecture, the society’s activities will continue with further Traditional Buildings of Mann fieldwork sessions on Saturdays, February 15 (details to be finalised) and March 16 (meet 10.30am at Round Table crossroads, destination Ballavel), as well as an iMuseum indoor research session concerned with Manx traditional buildings on Friday, January 31 and and a Manx National Heritage library session from 11am to 2pm on Friday, February 1 (call 861560 in advance if attending).

Future lectures include Rachel Crellin on ‘Changing times: tracing change from the Ronaldsway Late Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age on the Isle of Man’ (drawing on her doctoral archaeological research) on Saturday, February 8; and former society president and current senior marine biodiversity officer of the Fisheries Directorate at the Department of the Environment, Food and Agriculture Dr Fiona Gell giving her resident’s lecture on ‘A Glimpse into the History of the Manx Marine Environment’ on Saturday, March 1.

For further details of the society, visit and

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