The boundary of Dartford / Wilmington / Hawley is fairly unremarkable – as anyone who’s driven down Hawley Road, past its housing estates and industrial units would probably agree. However, did you know that this unassuming part of the borough has been the subject of archaeological excavations, council crisis talks and even explosions? Matters of life and death – literally in some cases – have occurred in the area around Powder Mill Lane, so why not walk through its history and discover more…

Did You Know?
The first recorded mill in this location was in 1086, according to the Doomsday Book.

Clearly, the clue to its history is in the name, Powder Mill Lane. Dartford has a long tradition of industrial milling, thanks mainly to the River Darenth running through it. Records show evidence of Saxon and Roman settlements all along the river, and it is believed that the waterway would have been used to transport grain. Corn and wheat were other valuable resources, and so the foundations for processing and distributing goods were established along the Darenth Valley route.

Locals will be familiar with the Papermaker’s Arms, further along Hawley Road, now sadly boarded up. The pub’s origins date back to the 19th century but papermaking was central to the area from the 16th century – and had the royal seal of approval no less! German entrepreneur Sir John Spilman founded the first successful paper mill in England on the banks of the Darenth in 1588. Queen Elizabeth first granted him a licence to print white writing paper and the paper mill flourished, employing around 600 local people. Apparently, Queen Elizabeth was so taken with Spilman that she invited him to become her own personal jeweller!

Can You Spot?
Sir John Spilman’s tomb in Holy Trinity church? In 1858, the Legal Society of Papermakers paid to have it restored, as a testament to his legacy. His mill led to the mass production of paper, which had previously been unavailable to all but the very rich.


However, it was gunpowder rather than paper which made the biggest impact on Powder Mill Lane. In 1732, Dartford’s first gunpowder mill was opened on the site, after one had been established in Faversham. Again, proximity to a river was key and the mill became so successful that by the early 19th century it was one of the largest powder mills in the UK!

It seemed nothing could stop this thriving industry, as demand for gunpowder grew (mainly by the military). At one point, the powder mill site included over a hundred buildings, with much of the local population employed there. Many workers lived on site, including its owners, the Pigou family, who believed their presence reassured others that the mills were safe…

Out With a Bang!
…Which, sadly, wasn’t the case. Minor explosions occurred regularly until 1833, when a huge blast destroyed seven mills and tragically killed seven mill workers. Homes were razed to the ground and it signalled the decline of gunpowder manufacturing in Dartford. By 1907, works ceased completely and much of it was derelict by the 1920s.

Which may have been the end of the story, if it hadn’t been for exciting new discoveries in the twentieth century. In 1983, as Sterling Homes began developing the site, concerns over conservation were raised – most notably by the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit. They queried the disruption caused by building on the footprint of what had been the North, Central and South mill, along the banks of the River Darenth. Powder Mill Lane was of great historical interest, and to their credit, Sterling Homes (in consultation with Dartford council) re-routed proposed river channels in an effort at conservation. I must reference an excellent book on the subject entitled The Dartford Gunpowder Mills by Brian Philp (Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit) if you’re keen to learn more. Here’s hoping you are – and that, next time you pass the nondescript industrial estates of Hawley Road, you remember its explosive history of paper, powder and people power.

Clair Humphries is a Script Consultant for ATS Heritage and Content Partner for Ordnance Survey.
Twitter: @clairhumphries
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