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Memories From An Old Firework Factory


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#1 spectrum

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Posted 26 January 2008 - 07:06 PM

I may be repeating myself from an earlier post, I recently saw something on ebay which has prompted me to put this on anyway.

In 1983 I was fortunate enough to be offerred a position at Astra Pyrotechnics, this company was based at the Astra Fireworks factory in Kent - both fireworks and pyro's were made simultaneously on the same site as two separate enterprises. Pyrotechnics were seen as very much the future on this factory and, as the place developed, Pyro buildings replaced the old traditional places where fireworks had been made for decades.

The place was built in the mid / late 1940's and little had changed when I got there, it really was a living museum. The work practices, tooling, firework designs (down to the labels) and buildings were, when I got there, just as they had been when the place had been set up. I still dream about the place - my fondest working memories are there.

The factory was built, like many others of its type, on poor grade land, semi-marshland in fact bounded on one side by a main road and to the rear by the river Stour. The buildings were best described as functional and nothing more, all linked by a network of little pathways, old cracked and uneven, put down on a very tight budget.

The factory had developed and grown but, as it had done so, parts of it had become quite dilapidated and abandoned. One such area was known as "the match factory" which, due to the fact that Astra ceased match production (they used to own the "Cleveland Match") was in a very sorry state of disrepair and used purely for the storage of cheap, bulky semi-obsolete bits and bobs. Old tubes for fireworks no longer made, display stands, toubillion spoons etc.

(The reason I mention this is that an ebay seller referred to the place in an advert for old firework memorabilia and described the place in a way which rung true to me)

The match factory was based in a part of the site at the far end of the factory, behind offices and various old workshops, it really was an out of the way place. When you ventured behind these workshops you felt as though you were travelling into another world, the sounds of the factory disappeared and silence fell on you - literally - I am not exagerating this memory. The place was accessed by a dirt track, overgrown and always wet and muddy, it felt haunted and I am sure it was. You see before it was taken over by Astra the place was a re-settlement camp, a POW camp if you like for dispossessed aliens here in the war. Foriegn nationals who couldn't go home but shouldn't have been here. The match factory was in fact the remains of accomodation blocks built for the internees. Grey, cold and miserable, like a set from a black and white war film only the walls, floors and surrounds actually seemed to radiate the misery uncertainty, discomfort and unhappiness felt by the occupants during the last world war. There was still in fact the hooks on the walls from which they internees hanged their hammocks - the place was set out as a "H" block. Whilst awful, it was trully fascinating. It was, what I imagine Auschwitz to be like in terms of construction, but the memories seemed, as I say, to broadcast themselves from the place.

I recall going into the place on a number of occassions. I worked for a while in the bit that joined the two dormitories of the "H" but, to my eternal regret and frustration, did not explore as much as I could have or take any photographs. In part of the bit I worked in (I was there because it was used for Red Phosphorus processing) it had been knocked about a bit, doors closed and blocked up. At one time this was a link and there was evidence of this in the form of two old doorways, long closed. Again, frustratingly, part of this access link was closed off and sealed forming a hidden and inaccessable room. I will never know what was inside there!) The reason I know this is that the central link room was approximately 12ft across yet the gap between the two barracks it linked was twice that or more.

As you looked at the blocks - imagine you are looking at a "H" from the top down NOT the side - the left hand accomodation dormitory, around the size of a large church hall, was the most frequently used being the first bit you came to. This contained a match store - bengal matches - and more commonly used tubes. Then there was the middle link. Then there was the right hand accomodation dorm. This one was in much worse condition than its neighbour and possibly the most infrequently used place within the factory premises. Almost completely deserted. Although the company owned the land around this block, it was so badly overgrown and derelict that you could actually get around it, at the far end the right hand side bounded onto the river and you were in danger of falling into the water. Because of the lack of maintenance, the floors collapsed, and it was, by chance at this time that I chose one day to explore the place running an errand for my boss which took me there.

The collapse revealed to me a treasure trove of old labels and display stands, returned to the factory from toy shows attended throughout the 1940's, 50's and 60's. The building was built on stilts due to the unsound ground and stuff had somehow just dropped down. There was van loads. I got a bollocking from Mr Fraser for being there but, in the true character of the place, this was immediately followed by a full explanation of what was what. Again followed by a second bollocking and a warning not to hang around there. Lovely times and lovely people.

The interesting twist to the story is that the Astra owed its existence to 2 of the former occupants of this place. Messrs Lax and Yellins were dispossessed Jews keeping out of Hitlers way in the war and confined to the place - then it was called Lord Cowans Camp. They were internees. After the war, these two enterprising guys decided (one being a chemist) to set up a business making Sparklers and then Fireworks. They got into hot water attempting to do this at a private address in London and, following a visit by a man from the Home Office, decided to seek more suitable premises - their former prison!

The rest is, history.

If I have repeated myself I apologise, I have learn't a lesson. Listen to people - I wish to God I had taken more notice of the old gits I worked for and more photographs of the place I worked in.

I will be happy to answer any questions.

#2 pyrotechnist

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Posted 02 March 2008 - 09:00 PM

Hey by any chance was the site you worked on this one Firework Factory ? if so which part was this derelict building located?
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#3 spectrum

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Posted 02 March 2008 - 11:07 PM

Hey by any chance was the site you worked on this one Firework Factory ? if so which part was this derelict building located?


I reckon this was Wallop Fireworks, just a complete guess mind. They now produce military pyrotechnic countermeasures. This is just a hunch. If I am right I cannot point out the building I have described because it is on another site 150 miles away!!!

#4 pyrotechnist

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Posted 08 March 2008 - 06:29 PM

I reckon this was Wallop Fireworks, just a complete guess mind. They now produce military pyrotechnic countermeasures. This is just a hunch. If I am right I cannot point out the building I have described because it is on another site 150 miles away!!!


The factory shown in that picture is Wells' Fireworks in its production days :) which if I remember right was used after Wells' closed by Astra Fireworks. So if it was this old site that you worked on I am intrigued as to which section this building was :) though some of the buildings have been knocked down now most of this place is still there.
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#5 spectrum

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Posted 09 March 2008 - 09:54 PM

The factory shown in that picture is Wells' Fireworks in its production days :) which if I remember right was used after Wells' closed by Astra Fireworks. So if it was this old site that you worked on I am intrigued as to which section this building was :) though some of the buildings have been knocked down now most of this place is still there.



Sorry mate, you are absolutely right, this is the old Wells site - Unwins when I knew it. What a smashing picture.

Most of the place is still there as you say, when I was posted there by the Astra bosses we met an old boy, name of Tom, who actually participated in the building and moved the old factory down from Mitcham by horse and cart!! I wish I could speak to him now.

I will be speaking with the former M.D. shortly and will ask questions for you. I have some good memories about this place, on th LHS was the office and reception, turn left inside the gate and that led to toilets and the canteen at the end. Turn right and there was the enginnering shop and the lab (small square building with pointed pyramid roof.

Factory sheds as you see either side of the main drag and magazines to the top and beyond the picture, keep going up and you come to the thames. he road at the bottom is Joyce Green Lane

#6 pyrotechnist

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Posted 13 March 2008 - 11:49 PM

Nice thank you for the information :) some buildings on that site that look very strange in construction which I wish I knew what they were. I would be grateful if you could ask some questions :). I have a lot more pictures of how the place looks today if you would be interested in looking at them.
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#7 crystal palace fireworks

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Posted 24 May 2008 - 07:08 AM

I may be repeating myself from an earlier post, I recently saw something on ebay which has prompted me to put this on anyway.

In 1983 I was fortunate enough to be offerred a position at Astra Pyrotechnics, this company was based at the Astra Fireworks factory in Kent - both fireworks and pyro's were made simultaneously on the same site as two separate enterprises. Pyrotechnics were seen as very much the future on this factory and, as the place developed, Pyro buildings replaced the old traditional places where fireworks had been made for decades.

The place was built in the mid / late 1940's and little had changed when I got there, it really was a living museum. The work practices, tooling, firework designs (down to the labels) and buildings were, when I got there, just as they had been when the place had been set up. I still dream about the place - my fondest working memories are there.

The factory was built, like many others of its type, on poor grade land, semi-marshland in fact bounded on one side by a main road and to the rear by the river Stour. The buildings were best described as functional and nothing more, all linked by a network of little pathways, old cracked and uneven, put down on a very tight budget.

The factory had developed and grown but, as it had done so, parts of it had become quite dilapidated and abandoned. One such area was known as "the match factory" which, due to the fact that Astra ceased match production (they used to own the "Cleveland Match") was in a very sorry state of disrepair and used purely for the storage of cheap, bulky semi-obsolete bits and bobs. Old tubes for fireworks no longer made, display stands, toubillion spoons etc.

(The reason I mention this is that an ebay seller referred to the place in an advert for old firework memorabilia and described the place in a way which rung true to me)

The match factory was based in a part of the site at the far end of the factory, behind offices and various old workshops, it really was an out of the way place. When you ventured behind these workshops you felt as though you were travelling into another world, the sounds of the factory disappeared and silence fell on you - literally - I am not exagerating this memory. The place was accessed by a dirt track, overgrown and always wet and muddy, it felt haunted and I am sure it was. You see before it was taken over by Astra the place was a re-settlement camp, a POW camp if you like for dispossessed aliens here in the war. Foriegn nationals who couldn't go home but shouldn't have been here. The match factory was in fact the remains of accomodation blocks built for the internees. Grey, cold and miserable, like a set from a black and white war film only the walls, floors and surrounds actually seemed to radiate the misery uncertainty, discomfort and unhappiness felt by the occupants during the last world war. There was still in fact the hooks on the walls from which they internees hanged their hammocks - the place was set out as a "H" block. Whilst awful, it was trully fascinating. It was, what I imagine Auschwitz to be like in terms of construction, but the memories seemed, as I say, to broadcast themselves from the place.

I recall going into the place on a number of occassions. I worked for a while in the bit that joined the two dormitories of the "H" but, to my eternal regret and frustration, did not explore as much as I could have or take any photographs. In part of the bit I worked in (I was there because it was used for Red Phosphorus processing) it had been knocked about a bit, doors closed and blocked up. At one time this was a link and there was evidence of this in the form of two old doorways, long closed. Again, frustratingly, part of this access link was closed off and sealed forming a hidden and inaccessable room. I will never know what was inside there!) The reason I know this is that the central link room was approximately 12ft across yet the gap between the two barracks it linked was twice that or more.

As you looked at the blocks - imagine you are looking at a "H" from the top down NOT the side - the left hand accomodation dormitory, around the size of a large church hall, was the most frequently used being the first bit you came to. This contained a match store - bengal matches - and more commonly used tubes. Then there was the middle link. Then there was the right hand accomodation dorm. This one was in much worse condition than its neighbour and possibly the most infrequently used place within the factory premises. Almost completely deserted. Although the company owned the land around this block, it was so badly overgrown and derelict that you could actually get around it, at the far end the right hand side bounded onto the river and you were in danger of falling into the water. Because of the lack of maintenance, the floors collapsed, and it was, by chance at this time that I chose one day to explore the place running an errand for my boss which took me there.

The collapse revealed to me a treasure trove of old labels and display stands, returned to the factory from toy shows attended throughout the 1940's, 50's and 60's. The building was built on stilts due to the unsound ground and stuff had somehow just dropped down. There was van loads. I got a bollocking from Mr Fraser for being there but, in the true character of the place, this was immediately followed by a full explanation of what was what. Again followed by a second bollocking and a warning not to hang around there. Lovely times and lovely people.

The interesting twist to the story is that the Astra owed its existence to 2 of the former occupants of this place. Messrs Lax and Yellins were dispossessed Jews keeping out of Hitlers way in the war and confined to the place - then it was called Lord Cowans Camp. They were internees. After the war, these two enterprising guys decided (one being a chemist) to set up a business making Sparklers and then Fireworks. They got into hot water attempting to do this at a private address in London and, following a visit by a man from the Home Office, decided to seek more suitable premises - their former prison!

The rest is, history.

If I have repeated myself I apologise, I have learn't a lesson. Listen to people - I wish to God I had taken more notice of the old gits I worked for and more photographs of the place I worked in.

I will be happy to answer any questions.



Hello Paul,

Long time no speak, how`s it going?

Take a look at the pics below..........I think they might be of interest to ya!

http://www.bexley.go...eview_jun06.pdf

keith




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