Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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HISTORY

FAMILY HISTORY

NICHOLAS GRUEBER & CORKAGH’S FIRST GUNPOWDER MILL

Extracts from the following appear in the book ‘CORKAGH - The Life & Times of a South Dublin Demesne 1650-1960’ by Turtle Bunbury, published by South Dublin County Council in May 2018. The County Library in Tallaght have the books as part of their Local Studies collection; readers can either visit the Library or contact them via 01 4597834.


GRUEBER OF LYONS

I was once lucky enough to stand on the American Civil War battlefield of Chattanooga, Tennessee, where I learned that the main reason why the North defeated the South was because the North’s guns were more efficient and more accurate. The British Ordnance entrusted with arming William III’s soldiers during the 1690s had learned a similar lesson following their hard-won victories over both Louis XIV and the Jacobites. Whoever has the better armaments will probably come up trumps. A major factor in the context of such weaponry is the quality of one’s gunpowder and, to this end, William III and his successor Queen Anne were blessed with a healthy supply courtesy of a French Huguenot family called Grueber who ran gunpowder mills at Faversham in Kent. Nicholas Grueber of this same family built the mills at Corkagh, Clondalkin, County Dublin.

One of the worst events of the French Wars of Religion took place in 1572 when the country’s Catholic populace rose up and murdered thousands of Protestant Huguenots in what became known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Lyons, where the Gruebers lived, suffered as badly as any city during the ensuing carnage and the river Rhône was said to have been full of floating corpses, including that of the composer Claude Goudimel.

Although peace had been restored by the time of Nicholas Grueber’s birth in Lyons on 3rd September 1671, his childhood was marked by an escalation in Huguenot persecution by the French authorities that culminated with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

Daniel Grueber, father of Nicholas, was taking no chances. In 1683 he emigrated with his wife and seven children to the comparative safety of the London parish of St. Swithin. The family were naturalized in Charles II’s England on 21st November 1682, alongside fifteen other Huguenot refugees including Philip and Madeleine Chenevix whose lives would become further entwined with both the Gruebers and Corkagh over the course of the coming century.[i]

Daniel may already have been skilled in gunpowder manufacture before he left France. By 1684 he was leasing both gunpowder and leather mills along Faversham Creek in Kent, 48 miles east of London. Faversham had been the cradle of Britain's explosives industry since at least the 1570s. Thirty-six barrels of local powder were reputedly acquired by Guy Fawkes and his conspirators in their failed attempt to blow up Westminster in 1605. By coincidence, the Colleys’ friend Winifred Letts later settled at Faversham. Winifred’s great-niece Oriana Conner recalls visiting an old shot tower at Faversham with her father as a young girl. He explained how the molten lead was dropped through a grid to fall the height of the tower, becoming spherical as it plunged into a trough of cold water to harden.

As well as Faversham, Daniel had mills at Ospringe and Preston, while he also ran a nifty fleet of barges that carried powder and skins to Faversham and returned with groceries.[ii] He was to the fore during the Glorious Revolution and from July 1690 until his death in mid-1692 he supplied precious gunpowder to the British government’s Board of Ordnance, in partnership with James Tiphaine, another Huguenot refugee. [iii] The start of his partnership with Tiphaine coincided with the death in action of the Duke of Schomberg, the Master General of the Ordnance, at the battle of the Boyne on 1 July 1690. The Duke was something of an icon to the Huguenot families who later became associated with Corkagh.


MONSIEUR GRUEBER’S PETITION

In the autumn of 1717, William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, must have stirred in his chair as Nicholas Grueber, a 46-year-old French merchant, stepped forward to present his petition. Grueber’s request would ultimately lead to the construction of the first gunpowder mill at Corkagh. It was nearly twenty years since Grueber had first arrived in Ireland - and over three decades since his family fled from his native France.

After his father’s death in 1692, Nicholas and his brother Francis took over the business and the Grueber mill evolved into the largest of the five Faversham mills supplying powder to the Ordnance, as well as to the British East India Company. [iv]

In 1699 Nicholas Grueber terminated his partnership with Francis, having moved to Ireland the previous year. It is not known why or when he first went to Ireland but at Michaelmas 1698 he became a Freeman of Dublin under the terms of the 1661 Act of Parliament to encourage Protestants to settle in Ireland.[v] In 1703 he married 21-year-old Marguerite Moore at the French Church on Peter Street, Dublin. Within a few years, he had taken a 41-year lease on a house on Ormond Quay where he and Marguerite raised at least six sons and two daughters. [vi] Running along the northside of the River Liffey, the broad quay was constructed in the 1680s. It seems most likely that the Gruebers lived on the east side, known today as Lower Ormond Quay and home to the Morrison Hotel. A civic report from 1709 remarked that ‘the houses of most note where persons of quality do lodge do lie on the east end.’[vii]

At about the time of his marriage, Nicholas received dreadful news from England where the family mill at Faversham had exploded and, as Daniel Defoe put it, ‘shattered the whole town’. Grueber’s thirteen-year-old nephew was the only casualty. Defoe recalled how the youngster ‘was not in the mill, or near it, when it blew up, but in a boat upon the river, rowing cross for his diversion … [he] was kill’d by a piece of the building of the mill, which fell down upon him in the boat.’ [viii]

Nicholas Grueber’s activities in Ireland in the first decades of the century are presently unknown but he would have paid close heed to the developments in Europe, as well as the rise of John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, who orchestrated a series of victories over the French. Phillip Chenevix, Grueber’s brother-in-law, was killed in action during Marlborough’s splendid triumph at Blenheim in 1704. The wars finally culminating with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 by which France, Spain and Bavaria were compelled to recognize Great Britain's sovereignty over various lands including Gibraltar, Minorca and substantial chunks of Canada.

Marlborough was also Master General of the Ordnance and it was in that capacity that he masterminded the establishment of two permanent companies of field artillery in 1716. These two companies, which became the Royal Regiment of Artillery from 1722, were expressly tasked with training troops how to convey artillery pieces to the front line. A new age had come for European warfare and it was all about gunpowder.

Perhaps Grueber was inspired by the formation of Marlborough’s field artillery units. Or perhaps he acted in response to the failed French-backed plot to install James Stuart on the British throne in the Jacobite Rising of 1715. Or maybe he simply saw a gap in the market and went for it. In any case, on 17th September 1717 Grueber presented his petition to the Irish Parliament that met amid the decrepit confines of Chichester House on College Green, Dublin. He informed those gathered that ‘he hath brought into this Kingdom proper Artificers for making Gunpowder’ and that he was now ‘proposing to erect Powder Mills, and to furnish his Majesty's Stores with such Quantities of Powder as shall be requisite.’[ix] In other words he sought parliamentary support to establish a mills in Ireland that would directly supply gunpowder to the Irish government. Maybe there was a few nervous coughs from the gathered MPs. After all it was only a few generations since an accidental explosion of gunpowder along the Dublin quays in 1597 had demolished forty houses and killed 126 people.

Grueber’s petition was forwarded to a parliamentary committee, which was also urged to consider claims made by the East India Company that such a mill would infringe upon its monopoly on importing saltpetre. The committee found in Grueber’s favour on 7th October 1717, concluding ‘that the erecting [of] proper Mills for furnishing his Majesty’s Stores with Gunpowder is highly necessary for the Defence and Safety of this Kingdom.’ [x] The committee recommended that three hundred barrels of ‘Tower Proof’ gunpowder would be required every year to meet the demands of the Army and Ordnance ‘in Time of Peace’. A further one hundred barrels were to be ‘laid up Yearly for 21 years, towards encreasing [sic] his Majesty’s Stores in this Kingdom.’ Grueber was to be paid £8 and fourteen shillings per barrel and, to get him started, they advanced him the cost of four hundred barrels ‘for the first year, and one Moiety [part] for every year after, during a term of 21 Years’.


CONSTRUCTING THE MILLS AT CORKAGH

The committee’s findings made their way to the desk of the new Viceroy, the Duke of Bolton, a man memorably described by Swift as ‘a great booby’. At length the Duke signed the permit granting Grueber a government contract for twenty-one years. Grueber duly began looking for a suitable site on which to establish Dublin’s first large-scale gunpowder manufacturing business.

Grueber would surely already have known his fellow French émigré Lewis Chaigneau whose new mansion at Corkagh stood close to the banks of the River Camac, a tributary of the Liffey upon which Grueber himself lived. He would also have been entirely familiar with David Chaigneau, son and heir of Lewis, who was High Sheriff of Dublin in the year that Nicholas secured parliamentary backing. David Chaigneau would go on to become one of the most influential members of Dublin Corporation.

The full extent of why Corkagh appealed to Grueber is unclear but, rising in the Slade of Saggart, the mountain waters of the Camac were utterly vital. The surrounding landscape must have also boasted plenty of alder and willow to provide charcoal, one of the three key ingredients for gunpowder. However, it is not yet known how Grueber imported the other two imperative ingredients, sulphur and saltpetre, nor how he transported the gunpowder away again. Carting gunpowder was by no means a cheap exercise; the barrels had to be sealed in fireproof leather bags in case any sparks flew up when the iron wheels clattered along the stony roads.[xi] He might have fantasised about floating the barrels up and down the Camac on custom-made barges akin to those his father had used on the Thames the previous century, but the Camac is too narrow and too shallow for anything larger than a canoe and even that would encounter difficulties on some stretches.

Grueber’s lease commenced on 1st January 1719; Chaigneau was to be paid an annual rent of £15 and six pounds of Battle-powder. [xii] The labourers set to work on building the mills and storehouses, as well as damming the Camac at intervals to provide power for the mills. Grueber is also presumed to have ordered the cutting of a mill-race, or artificial channel, to bring in more water from a nearby tributary called the Brittas River.[xiii]

Just over five years after his lease began, Grueber was back before the Irish Parliament on 30th September 1724, where he informed them, ‘That upon the Encouragement formerly given him by the Government, and by this House, he had erected Powder Mills, and other necessary Buildings, and is now erecting another Mill, and enlarging the Works; and praying Encouragement therein’.[xiv] By ‘encouragement’, of course, he meant further capital assistance from the government which was an option that English gunpowder producers did not have at this time. Another committee was appointed ‘with Power to send for Persons, Papers, and Records’. Once again it was good news for Grueber as the committee ‘ordered that Leave be given to bring in Heads of a Bill for further Encouragement in the finding and working of Mines and Minerals in this Kingdom’.

The Corkagh mills were certainly producing gunpowder by 1729, if not before, but the records are elusive. It is not yet known whether Grueber’s original mills are represented by any of the four ruins that stand at Kilmatead today, along with two millponds. These may well be from a later period, possibly even from the Arabin era in the early nineteenth century. [xv]

While most of Grueber’s gunpowder was for the use of the Army, such powder was also playing an increasingly important part in the Industrial Revolution, such as it was in Ireland, by enabling otherwise rocky routes to be blasted clear for the laying of canals and new roads. It may be relevant to note that Nicholas Grueber was Treasurer for the financially struggling Work-House of the City of Dublin in 1736.[xvi]

In November 1733, the Dublin Evening Post reported that ‘the gunpowder mills near Clondalkin were blown up, by which several persons received much damage.’[xvii] Grueber rebuilt his mills soon afterwards and made regular deliveries of 300 barrels to the Irish government for the remainder of the 1730s and through into the 1740s. The published Treasury records note a payment as late as 5th July 1743. Indeed, the mills may have been producing even later but the Treasury’s last published calendar ended in 1745.[xviii]

Meanwhile, across the Irish Sea, things were going downhill for Nicholas’s brother Francis who was rescued from bankruptcy in 1728 by businessman Thomas Coram (1668-1751), with whom he subsequently traded as Messrs. Grueber & Coram. Following Francis’s death in 1730, the Grueber connection to the English gunpowder milling industry rapidly dwindled. The Board of Ordnance purchased the Faversham mill outright in 1759 and it became the Royal Powder Mill. [xix]

It is not yet known when Nicholas Grueber died, nor where he was buried. A deed of lease and release pertaining to six acres at Corkagh notes that he was deceased by 24th April 1743. The under-tenant for the powder mills at this time was his nephew Major Philip Chenevix.

FOOTNOTES

[i] Ibid, p. 37.

[ii] Dictionary of National Biography; Faversham Gunpowder Personnel Register 1573-1840 (Faversham Society's Faversham Papers).

[iii] Crocker, A. G., ‘Gunpowder Mills: Documents of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’, Surrey Record Society, 2000, p. 81-82.

[iv] Dictionary of National Biography; Faversham Gunpowder Personnel Register 1573-1840 (Faversham Society's Faversham Papers).

[v] Crocker (2000), p. 81-82.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Christine Casey, ‘Dublin: The City Within the Grand and Royal Canals and the Circular Road with the Phoenix Park’ (Yale University Press, 2005), p. 111.

[viii] The boy was thirteen-year-old Francis Greuber whose father and namesake would later be buried alongside him in Faversham. Dictionary of National Biography; Faversham Gunpowder Personnel Register 1573-1840
(Faversham Society's Faversham Papers).

[ix] ‘The Political State of Great Britain’, Volume 14, (London, Sept 1717), p. 267.

[x] The Post Man & the Historical Account, Oct 19-22, 1717.

[xi] Gillian Wagner, ‘Thomas Coram, Gent., 1668-1751’ (Boydell & Brewer, 2004), p. 69.

[xii] Crocker (2000), p. 81-82.

[xiii] The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volumes 86-87 (1956), p. 47.

[xiv] His name is spelled as Nicholas Gruther in The Historical Register, Volume 9, p. 135.

[xv] ‘There is said to have been up to seven mills operating along the river at its peak.’ (C. Rynne, ‘Industrial Ireland 1750-1930’ (Cork: Collins Press, 2006), p. 290. However John D’Alton suggests there were actually nine mills in ‘The History of the County of Dublin’, p. 719.

[xvi] Guy Miege, ‘The present state of Great Britain and Ireland’(J. Brotherton, 1738), p. 89-90.

[xvii] Ball, F Elrington, ‘A History of the County Dublin’, p. 119; Dublin Evening Post, Nov. 24-27, 1733.

[xviii] Crocker (2000), p. 81-82.

[xix] Gillian Wagner, ‘Thomas Coram, Gent., 1668-1751’ (Boydell & Brewer, 2004), p. 69.

 

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