A single flame, the hiss of ignition, and an unbearable silence before complete destruction. For five centuries, gunpowder dominated European warfare, and for very good reason.
How gunpowder changed the game
Gunpowder, also known as black powder, is the earliest-recorded chemical explosive. This mysterious mixture has been used in mining, fireworks, even for launching rockets, but its main usage has been in the development of artillery. In Europe, it was used almost exclusively for military purposes. Thought to have been developed in China around the 9th century, gunpowder was a technical innovation that would change the world.
Gunpowder is man-made. With a recipe of sulphur, saltpeter, and charcoal, the highest quality ingredients were sought from all over the world: sulphur extracted from the volcanic regions of Italy, and saltpeter taken from India and, though much later, even Chile. The sulphur and charcoal act as a fuel, whilst saltpetre oxidises the mix - quickly. The effect is intense, and was surely magic to the middle ages.
As knowledge of gunpowder spread along the Silk Road, so did the advancement of artillery. By the 15th century, firearms had reduced the bow and arrow to a weapon of the past. Large artillery pieces, known as bombards, came to dominate early modern warfare, and cannons capable of firing heavy rounds meant traditional city walls were no longer keeping out the enemy.
A fine black powder had put Berwick, among many other towns and cities, in a vulnerable position.
Adapting to change
A jewel between two countries with a history of warfare, Berwick was too important and prosperous to leave open to injury. Previously its walls had been successful in handling threat, but technology was advancing, and in the mid-15th century, an extensive programme of repairs were ordered to reinforce Berwick's fortifications.
Earthworks capable of absorbing heavy cannon fire were built up behind the existing stone walls. Over time, these were extended outside of the walls as well. Gun-towers and platforms were built along the length of the works, and cannons were installed at strategic points around the town, putting any potential enemy in the firing line. All that was needed now was our own gunpowder.
Powder was held in various towers or buildings within the town walls, but over time, this proved to be inconvenient, clumsy, and inadequate. By the early 18th century, the town finally had a purpose-built barracks, the first of its kind, and town walls capable of scaring off even the most dedicated rebel. Yet the gunpowder always seemed to be damp...
Berwick's new gunpowder magazine appeared on the map in 1751, thirty years after the completion of Ravensdowne Barracks. The magazine was a modern innovation. Settled in the safety of the earthworks between Windmill Bastion and King's Mount, it was designed by Dugall Campbell, an engineer for the Board of Ordnance, an early Ministry of Defence.
Your first impression of the Gunpowder Magazine is of high, impenetrable walls. The grey stonework is neat and uniform, inset into the earth so that from inside the small complex, the walls are taller than they seemed from the outside. As you enter the only gate to the property, the building suddenly looks bigger. Now down on its level, the stone walls are austere, supported by a series of eight buttresses, and fashioned in a military style similar to that of the Barracks. The roof is pointed much higher than you might expect too, especially when compared to the house next door, built a century later.
These are all safety features. The high walls, buttresses, and vaulted roof are a part of Campbell's original design, and ensure that any accidental explosion of the valuable powder stored inside would inflict the least damage possible. Any blast would be contained inside the building by the supporting buttresses, and directed up, through the empty roof and into the sky, instead of out through the Magazine walls, avoiding disaster to both lives and property.
The thick walls house a series of internal gutters, running underneath the floor inside. These are made visible by vents in the outside wall. Looking through the small opening, these vents seem to slope upwards. They're the shape of an upside-down 'Y', and meant that the floor underneath the stored powder was well-ventilated and dry, but safe from any danger too, as an accidental spark would hit the stone and be put out before finding its way inside the store.
Let's go inside. It's dark and cool in here; there are no candles allowed. The Gunpowder Magazine has two doors: one at the front, and one at the rear. The front door is larger, lined in non-ferrous metal to match the boot-scraper beside it, another fire-prevention method which limited the risk of sparks from boot-nails. As you step through, you'll notice a wooden barrier in the wall, which could be brought down to prevent any unauthorised access. There's even some original paperwork on the door, depicting rules and regulations. The Magazine was manned by the garrison, and as such was properly regimented to fit in with army life. Special clothing and boots without nails were to be worn, without exception.
Opening the rear door allows some natural light to shine all the way through the building, with a high window above - a later addition to the original plans and kept closed with a door. The store smells dry. The floorboards sound hollow as you walk over the guttering underneath, and all around you are barrels of gunpowder.
The Magazine was built to hold 624 kegs, around 28,000kg of black powder. For comparison, Guy Fawkes had amassed only 2,500kg of powder for the Gunpowder Plot, an amount which had an estimated blast zone of up to 900m. Standing in the middle of this store of explosives, you can understand why you
were explicitly told to wear soft shoes. Powder kegs were stored on top of one another on racks, and moved with an internal crane. The crane was mounted on rails, able to move up and down the length of the building to lower the barrels onto the shelves inside. Similar to the outside, there is no metal within which might cause a spark. An accidental explosion would have had dire consequences to a walled town.
Luckily for us, the Gunpowder Magazine's safety features were never put to the test.
The end of an age
The thing with spending money on the defence of a town is that it's very worthwhile, until it's not.
In November of 1815, the Second Treaty of Paris was signed, officially ending the Napoleonic Wars. The Gunpowder Magazine had seen nearly 75 years of important use, but with the end of the war came a national demilitarisation, and expenditure on Berwick's defences was reduced. The Barracks became neglected and only intermittently used, and artillery was put into store in Leith. Despite a programme of improvement of coastal defences in the 1860s, Berwick received no new guns, and the town was no longer considered strategic enough to defend in the way it was used to. The town walls were altered for public use, and the Magazine laid dormant.
Gunpowder was heavily used during the Napoleonic Wars. Battlefields were clouded with smoke from fired rifles, which needed to be cleaned after each use to prevent blockages. In the smog, friend was hard to distinguish from foe, and signals from commanders inevitably missed. Gunpowder was effective, but not without its disadvantages.
In the late 19th century, smokeless powder began to overtake its cousin in popularity. Smokeless powder has less solid material, so produces less fouling, less rusting, and, as the name suggests, less smoke. The development of this new explosive helped to advance artillery further, and very quickly, gunpowder was left behind in its barrels. The Age of Gunpowder was over.
Solid and solemn, the Gunpowder Magazine remains a feature of Berwick's town walls and defences, a reminder of military importance. It is open free of charge during Heritage Open Days for you to explore.