By 1800 the mining industry in Cornwall was becoming increasingly hungry for gunpowder, some 4000 barrels a year were being brought in from up country at great expense. The first Cornish mill to manufacture the explosive was set up in Cosawes Woods near Ponsanooth in 1809 and another, roughly a mile away, was established by the Fox family at Kennall Vale in 1812. But a series of tragic accidents have led to this beautiful woodland being considered one of the most haunted places in Cornwall.
PLEASE NOTE: the following contains descriptions of a number of tragic accidents which caused serious injury and death. Newspapers in the 19th century did not hold back on the details, so please be aware you may find some content upsetting.
The Vale of Kennall
The Kennall River rises at Carmenellis near Stithians and flows for around five and a half miles before joining Restronguet Creek at Perranarworthal. This picturesque, deeply wooded area was first mentioned in the Doomsday Book and despite becoming an integral part Cornwall’s industrial revolution it remains a haven for wildlife. It is said that the last wild stag in the whole of Cornwall was seen in Ponsanooth as late as the 1930s.
The river was vitally important to the Fox family’s foundry at Perranarworthal and their new gunpowder works at Kennall Vale. By 1859 there were some 39 waterwheels along its course and the Kennall was being used to power a large number of mills. At Kennall Vale the Powder Works employed around 50 people and had a complex of buildings beside the fast-flowing river. The surrounding woodland however seems to have remained largely untouched. The works actually became a bit of a tourist attraction, with curious visitors arriving at the gates to request a tour. They were refused for safety reasons of course, but in 1862 the West Briton published an account of a private tour of the factory to whet their reader’s appetites.
“Passing by Perranwell and arriving at the crest of the next hill which overlooks Ponsanooth we obtained a first peep at the Vale of Kennall, and the first question that arose was – where are the Powder Mills? For looking down on that tranquil valley and glancing along the green concavity of it’s leafy slopes so completely are the mills hidden amongst the foliage, no one could imagine that beneath these peaceful shades the most tremendous and dangerous compound ever invented by man is being continually elaborated.”West Briton, 20 June 1862
The gunpowder works thrived for nearly 100 years, producing at its height of production around 5000 barrels of explosive a year. The factory eventually closed in 1910 and the mills fell into ruin.
A Dangerous Valley
The site of the former gunpowder works has now been reclaimed by nature and is a reserve managed by Cornwall Wildlife Trust. But the peace and tranquilly of this popular walking route belies some of the dramatic and tragic events that have occurred here. Gunpowder production was, of course, a very volatile industry and accidents were common and often deadly.
Workers at Kennall Vale were required to wear special clothing made of serge cloth to reduce the chance of sparks from static. They worn cloth covers on their shoes or soft slippers, again to prevent the possibility of sparks from hobnails, smoking was banned of course. Scales, weights, sieves and most of the machinery was made of copper and any iron parts were covered with leather, again for safety reasons.
Despite these stringent safety measures between 1826 and 1889 I have found reports of 13 major explosions at Kennall Vale. There were also numerous smaller incidences during the same period. In May 1838 five mills blew up in one day with the part of one roof being found a mile away, one man was injured. In a similar incident in 1879 four mills were destroyed, this time there were no casualties. Two explosions in February and November 1883 led to the Powder Works being prosecuted for breaches of the Explosives Act. Despite this action there was another blast in April 1897 and in 1889 there were two explosions in quick succession, one in July and another in August. Over the years various accidents resulted in several men being badly burnt and tragically at least six deaths. I give more details of some of these incidents below.
Author’s Note: In recent years various articles have been written about the hauntings at Kennall Vale and often these reports have confused the dates and names of those who died and circumstances of the explosions. I have researched these incidents as thoroughly as I am able and hopefully can set the record straight here.
Spooky Goings On At Kennall Vale
It is only in the last 20 years or so that Kennall Vale has become well-known as a haunted location. In the West Briton in 2002 Michael Williams (an author who often writes about ghostly goings-on) reported that a local photographer, Paul Richards, had noticed some strange effects on some of his images of the valley. There was an ‘inexplicable blurring’ in the depth of field. Williams later explored Kennall Vale himself with a medium who apparently made contact with a Spaniard and a young boy said to have died in an explosion.
Other walkers in the woods have reported hearing unexplained loud noises, the echoes of past explosions and disembodied voices shouting.
“Visitors are ensnared by the place’s ambience and eerie beauty, and it is not unusual to come across solitary men and women meditating in the derelict sheds and enclosures, trying to make contact with ‘nature spirits’ or whatever else lingers there”Paul Newman, Haunted Cornwall, 2005
More recently in January 2019 an paranormal investigator, Mark Davies, shot a video which seems to show a strange silhouette at the modern foot bridge across the river. At the time the bridge was closed for repair which is why it is blocked off in the video. I have posted his film, which was shot at night below so that you can make up your own mind about what they saw.
The most recent event happened in March 2020. There was another strange sighting was reported in the papers when Tina-Marie Lally found a ‘shadow person’ in a photograph she had taken on a walk in the nature reserve.
Below I detail the four explosions which resulted in the six recorded deaths at Kennall Vale during its time as a gunpowder factory. As I mentioned above this events have often been misreported in recent articles but I have used contemporary records to piece together what happened in each case. I should also remind you that some of the content is upsetting.
Elizabeth Rutter & Mr. Weeks, 1826
The first major explosion at Kennall Vale occurred in 1826. The accident happened at lunch time on a Friday 17th February. At around 12.30pm Elizabeth Rutter, who was 68 years old, was bringing a number of the workers some roasting potatoes that she had made at her home in Perranwell, a couple of miles from the gunpowder works. Somehow she carried a lit spark with her into one of the buildings on her clothes. According to the Royal Cornwall Gazette this was noticed by the men almost immediately but before they could do anything the ember dropped and the explosion was instantaneous. Two men escaped relatively unhurt and were able to explain what had happened. Elizabeth Rutter was badly burnt and died that evening and another man, only named in the paper as Weeks, was also seriously injured and died two days later.
John Martin, 1841
No one is exactly sure what caused the explosion that killed John Martin. He was just 29 years old and had only been working at the powder mills for eight weeks when the accident happened on 8th January 1841. The other workers later said that everything was carrying on much the same as usual that morning. Then at about 7am there was such a tremendous blast that one of the mills was reportedly ‘blown into the air’ and the sound was heard many miles away, shaking houses in the neighbouring village. At the coroner’s inquest held at Ponsanooth a few days after the accident John Carlyon Esq was told that John Martin’s head was found a quarter of a mile from the site of the explosion. The rest of ‘the fragments of his body’ found ‘in different places’ around the Powder Works. Carlyon passed a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’.
John Martin left behind a wife, Grace, who he had married in 1835 and their two small children, John Henry aged 5 and little Grace aged 3. I was unable to discover what happened to his family after his death.
Thomas Martin, 1859
Born in 1800, Thomas Martin lived at Tregast in Gwennap with his wife Mary and their four children. The 1851 census gives his occupation as ‘gunpowder maker’. Thomas was described as a ‘very steady man’ who had working at the mills in the powder works for seven or eight years prior to the incident. Again it is unclear what caused the explosion but a witness, John Grouse, describes seeing Thomas working in the breaking-house, pounding the cakes of gunpowder at a wooden table with a wooden mallet at around 9am. Just a few moments later Grouse heard an huge blast come from the breaking-house quickly followed by another from the press house. The explosions were heard in Falmouth and both buildings were completely destroyed.
Thomas Martin’s body was found on a bank several metres from the breaking-house by Grouse and some of the other men. He died soon after, he was 60 years old.
William Dunstan & James Paddy, 1887
The story of William Dunstan has been frequently misreported, often the wrong date for the accident is given (there was another explosion in 1838, see above, in which one man was injured but this was not William Dunstan) and the circumstances also seemed to have become confused with early incidents. James Paddy, who was injured and died a few days later, is often forgotten completely. So I will try and set that straight for the two men who lost their lives and so that those interested have a clearer understanding of the history of Kennall Vale.
William Dunstan was born in Stithians in 1843 and at the time of his death he and his wife Alice and their nine children were living in Paper Mill Yard in Penryn, which has since been demolished. In 1887 he was working as a ‘gunpowder pulveriser’ at Kennall Vale Powder Works. His fellow worker James Paddy was 60 years old and lived at Tremenhere, a hamlet just above the valley, with his wife Elizabeth and their two adult sons. Paddy was a wagon driver who was paid to used his horse and cart to transport the gunpowder.
On the morning of Monday 7th November at about 8am there was a huge explosion. The sound of the blast brought a crowd of people to the gates of the factory anxious for news. The newspapers reported that women were shouting for their husbands and children were crying, so it was with relief that they heard that there had only been one death and one man injured.
The explosion had completely destroyed the upper press-house. Huge blocks of stone had been thrown several metres, timber and slate was spread over a large area and all the windows of the other surrounding buildings had been blown out. James Paddy was found in the river about 15 metres from the building. His hands and face were badly burnt and he had lacerations to his head, right arm and leg. His horse was also singed. At first Dunstan couldn’t be found at all. Then his leg was discovered a few metres from the blast site. Eventually the rest of his body was found some 30m away but he was already dead.
James Paddy was taken to Truro Infirmary for treatment. He told investigators he had no clue what had caused the explosion and all that he remembered was that he had been collecting the powder from Dunstan when he saw a bright flash. Five days after the accident it was decided that Paddy’s leg needed to be amputated, sadly he died soon after the operation.
William Dunstan left behind his wife, Alice, and nine children. The village of Ponsanooth kindly held a fundraiser a couple of weeks after the explosion to provide money for the young widow.
I first visited Kennall Vale as a child, when there were no wooden walkways, bridges or fences, it was like my own personal adventure playground. The whole reserve was fairly overgrown then and only really visited by people local to the area. I have to admit that nothing strange has ever happened to me there, and I have never found the atmosphere particularly out of the ordinary from any other historic ruin. But I have never been to Kennall Vale after dark, and something tells me that I might not feel quite so comfortable there then.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not this valley is a beautiful place to discover. There are plenty of interesting remains from the industrial past to explore, the river is stunning and the woodlands gorgeous, it is a photogenic place all year round.