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John Charles Burnham.

John Charles Burnham Part 2

By Collections blog

John Charles Burnham in India


1894 – 1899


Burnham moved to India to work as Chief Chemist in an experimental Cordite Factory in Kirkee which is in the state of Maharashtra in West Central India (Mumbai is in the same state). The factory was listed as producing small arms and pistol ammunition. It is still there today.


1899 – 1915

Burnham was appointed Manager and Chemist at the Government of India Explosives Factory, Aruvankadu Nilgiris in the state of Tamil Nadu in Southern India. This factory produced Cordite and gun cotton (and still produces explosives today).


His advice was sought by the Government on many occasions, and his services were recognised by the award of the Companion of the Star of India (CSI) in 1911 at the Delhi Durbar which was hosted by King George V and Queen Mary (photographed below).


You can see our previous article about John Charles Burnham here:


If you enjoyed this article then the following books (available from our online shop) may be of interest to you:

Gretna’s Secret War

The Devil’s Porridge Museum Guidebook

HM Factory Gretna map

Kenneth Bingham Quinan Part 2

By Collections blog

Kenneth Bingham Quinan  “The great KBQ.”


KBQ was probably the most important person behind the construction and successful operation of HM Factory Gretna (the greatest munitions factory in World War One, The Devil’s Porridge Museum tells its story).

Part 2: KBQ goes to war

“There is Q an American by nationality, a South African in experience, a man with a drive like a steam piston.”  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote this after visiting HM Factory Gretna

On December 19th 1914 a cable sent from the High Commission for South Africa in London stating that K B Quinan was urgently required in Britain.

The High Commissioner immediately cabled De Beers in Kimberley.

“Quinan required urgently in London – can he catch mail steamer leaving Cape Town this afternoon?”

Quinan cabled back, “Yes.”  He packed up his life, made arrangements for the management of the factory and steamed out of Cape Town at 4.30pm that same day.  He was 36 years old, a bachelor and said to have ‘an arresting personality.’

Steam ship Norman

It is said that the steamship, Norman (pictured left), delayed its departure for an hour to enable the man of the moment to board (this was a very unusual occurence and suggests how valuable KBQ was to the British Government).

“For the next four years Quinan’s inspiration, personality and indefatigable labour earned him a wide reputation as one of the greatest organisers and men of genius who had worked in Britain during the War.”  Quote from an article in The Chemical Engineer Journal, 1966.

Quinan was put in charge of the Factories Branch of the Ministry of Munitions (about 20 factories in total).

He worked seven days a week throughout the War and was mainly based in London in his offices at Storey’s Gate.

KBQ brought several of his colleagues with him from South Africa and trained many people who went on to become key figures in the teaching of Chemistry and in Chemical Engineering.

Lord Moulton

Above: Lord Moulton was the Chairman of the Committee on High Explosives.  He observed that British explosives experts were working 16 hours a day and that help was needed from the Empire.  He reached out to KBQ.

He oversaw all the munitions factories in World War One including:

3 Ammonium nitrate factories

2 Calcium nitrate factories

1 Ammonium perchlorate factory

1 Synthetic Phenol factory.

Quinan was also involved in several notable projects including:

the design and construction of a plant for the production of TNT near Chance & Hunt works, Oldbury

the dismantling of distillation units at Rotterdam and for their re-erection at Barrow in Furness and near Avonmouth, Bristol

In 1918, KBQ was put in charge of the Experimental Chemical Warfare and was involved in the building of a phosgene plant in Calais.  Phosgene was a poison gas used in World War.

“KBQ then turned his attention to the design and construction of the big factories at Queen’s Ferry, Sandycroft and Gretna.  These were to produce 600 tons of TNT, 15 tons of tetryl, and 800 tons of cordite weekly, and it is doubtful whether any larger factories for these products have ever been built in Europe.  They were completed in astonishingly quick time – Queen’s Ferry and Sandycroft were operating very early in 1916, and Gretna several weeks later.”

Quote from an article in The Chemical Engineer Journal, 1966.

Part 3 coming soon…

If you found this article interesting, you might like:

Gretna’s Secret War

KB Quinan

Kenneth Bingham Quinan ‘the great KBQ’

By Collections blog

Kenneth Bingham Quinan  “The great KBQ.”


KBQ was probably the most important person behind the construction and successful operation of HM Factory Gretna (the greatest munitions factory in World War One, The Devil’s Porridge Museum tells its story).

An American by birth but a resident in South Africa at the start of the War, he was described as having energy like a ‘steam piston’.  He was integral to the construction of the Factory site (nine miles long and two miles wide in total), recruited the chemists and technical experts necessary for the production of cordite and compiled over 300 technical manuals at the end of the War to maintain the expertise gathered during the War.  A founding member of the Institute of Technical Engineers, he was the presiding genius of the Factory which employed 30,000 people at its height, 12,000 of whom were women.

This is the first in a series of articles looking at his life and contribution.

In 1878 KBQ was born in New Jersey to parents of Irish and English extraction., their sixth child.  His father and uncle had both been involved in the American Civil War.  KBQ’s father was aide de camp to Stonewall Jackson (a Confederate general) and his uncle, Colonel W R Quinan, was gunnery expert and mathematician at the prestigious West Point Army Academy.

W R Quinan explosives

KBQ;s uncle, W R Quinan published a book on his research into explosives.

KBQ had a normal schooling but no higher education.  He spent some time aboard a sailing ship and then joined his uncle in 1890 at an industrial explosives factory in Pinole, California.  He spent ten years there learning on the job with his uncle.

California powder works

W R and K B Quinan both worked at the California Powder Works which mainly made explosives for gold mining.

Cecil Rhodes, founder of Rhodesia and later the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, invited W R Quinan to travel to South Africa to help construct a dynamite factory to break the monopoly of the Nobel Company.  He arrived on board a ship which was also laden with bricks, timber, soda and iron (all items to build the factory).

Cecil Rhodes cartoon

Cape Explosives Works was established by Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes added much of southern Africa to the British Empire. He was determined to break the Nobel dynamite monopoly and the Quinans helped him to achieve this.

W R Quinan played an integral part in the creation of the plant at Somerset West.  KBQ joined his uncle in South Africa April 1901, he worked as his assistant for many years becoming General Manager of the Cape Explosives Works in 1909 (his uncle retired at this time due to ill health).  W R Quinan died while in Australia but his body was returned to Somerset West for burial.

KBQ in South Africa

“…a unique preparation for the task he was to undertake for Britain throughout the First World War.”

From 1909 to December 1914, KBQ was General Manager of Cape Explosives Works.  This factory had 1000 native employees and approximately 350 Europeans.

“…both Quinans were Americans and introduced the less conventional equipment, processes and methods prevalent in the USA….The underlying idea was to facilitate a system of planned inspection and maintenance in strict rotation.  This was essential for plant carrying explosive risk but a somewhat similar system operated throughout the factory and KBQ insisted on its rigid application.”  All quotes from an article in the Chemical Engineer Journal, 1966.

Quinan house

This house in South Africa is called Quinan House. It was built in 1901 for the General Manager of the De Beers Explosive Works. It was declared a National Monument in 1973.

There are two streets with the name Quinan in Somerset West: W R Quinan Boulevard and Quinan Road.  Our next article will focus on how and why Quinan came to Gretna to join the British War effort.

Quinan house

Quinan House today.

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