ON THIS DAY: 22 September 1917: 28 deaths in factory fire in Arklow

The 'Kynoch' cordite factory in Arklow c 1895. Photo Credit: Illustrated London News [London, England], 3 August 1895 under CC licence

At 4 o clock on the night of the 22nd of September 1917 an explosion occurred at the Kynoch Cordite (a smokeless explosive) factory in Arklow which claimed the lives of 28 people and injured many more.

The factory was established by a British industrialist and engineer in the 1890’s in Arklow’s North Beach area less than half a mile from the harbour at the mouth of the Avoca River, making it easy to ship explosives to England. Arklow was close to Dublin, had a railway, a ready workforce and a chemical factory. The Kynoch factory claimed it was the biggest in the world. It initially employed 260 people made up of men, women and teenage boys and girls as young as fourteen. The pay was the average industrial wage, which was not a good one, and impossible to raise a family on same; the factory was the subject of continuous strikes by staff hoping for better pay and conditions.

Staff relations at the factory were not good; with constant allegations by workers that the conditions were not safe and management insisting they were. One worker in 1895 was blown to pieces in one of the drying houses and though the factory was closed for a while after, there was not a real satisfactory solution or answer to the dangerous conditions the workers were exposed to.

The factory received large orders but on several occasions the cordite was rejected for not being up to standard. Though Arthur Chamberlain the owner was generous to the workers in his other factories, in terms of pay and conditions, it was noticed that those generosities were not give to his Irish employees. As reported in History Ireland “There were no ‘sick clubs’ for the workers in Arklow, and while their English counterparts were earning a top wage of 22 shillings per week, wages in the Arklow factory remained fixed at what Cocking referred to as the ‘native rate’ of 16 shillings per week.”

There was a boom in orders at the outbreak of the First World War; the factory had increased substantially and now employed over 5,000 making it a major employer in town and indeed the whole country.  But it was a very dangerous work environment with injuries and deaths regularly occurring. In fact, a hospital was opened specifically to deal with the injuries from the factory, about 900 cases a week mostly burns and injuries from acid.

The majority of those who lost their lives in the factory were killed instantly. 10 workers were found alive at the site and taken to the local hospital but two subsequently died there. One of these men was the only locally-born employee among the victims; the rest came from various parts of Ireland.

The local curate arrived to give last rites and found bodies around the factory, many of them charred and several without limbs.

The force of the blast was felt far beyond the site itself: two nearby houses were completely destroyed and four or five were seriously damaged. The local coroner heard the explosion from his home two miles outside the town; he told reporters that one of his bedroom windows was thrown open and the whole house was ‘lit up brilliantly by the great flashes of light’.

Ambulances and fire brigade services came from as far as Dublin to deal with the carnage at the scene.

Once notified of the incident, fire brigade and ambulance services were immediately dispatched from Dublin, offering support to the military who had already arrived on the scene.

The factory closed down 3 years later and little are left of the 200 odd buildings which dotted the Arklow coastline.


Men queue up for work outside the factory in Arklow. Photo credit: Birmingham City Archive


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