The Swain family

James Swain was clearly a workman at the Powder Mills in 1876 because his descendants, who still lives locally, have a bible given to him by the company. It is inscribed “The Society for Promotion of Christian Knowledge. Curtis & Harvey. Christmas 1876”. Clearly Curtis & Harvey were earnest employers and expected (or hoped for) the same qualities from the employees.

James had been born in 1840 and at the time of the 1841 census, aged 1, was living at Cage Green, Tonbridge. The family were still at Cage Green by the time of the 1851 census. One of his first jobs seems to have been as a servant/under-gardener (1861 census) and as a “bricklayer’s labourer” in the 1871 census, after which he seems to have moved to Curtis & Harvey. His role at Curtis & Harvey in 1876 is unclear but in the 1881 census he is called a “general labourer”, living at Little Hawden – near the Powder Mills. The 1891 census calls him an “agricultural labourer” but by this time he had moved to the Powder Mills Cottages which probably means that he was still working at the Powder Mills, with his wife Hannah and the youngest of six or seven children, Charles, aged 12, born when Hannah was 44. In 1901 James and Hannah, were together with Sarah, a 30 year old daughter and Charles, who is called a “wool sorter”. Hannah is described by then as being blind in one eye. It might seem therefore that the Swain link with gunpowder had ended.

James disappears from view but the next recollection of the Swain family comes from another relative living locally – Tony Bowles – who had an Uncle Charlie Swain, born around 1907. It seems he was the grandson of James; it is not known by which of James’s children. Uncle Charlie worked at the Powder Mills in the 1920s and moved to Ardeer in 1934 with his family. Early in the Second World War Tony Bowles was evacuated to Ardeer to live with his uncle and aunt. Uncle Charlie was still working at the Powder Mills making Black Diamond Powder and on one occasion he smuggled a thimbleful of powder out of the works. He put a few grains on the back doorstep and lit a match. “There was a whoosh and a mini explosion which left a scorch mark that was still there when I went back several years later”, his nephew recalls.

The third story about the Swain family and the Powder Mills comes from a Frank Chapman “Warwick” column in the Kent & Sussex Courier. It appears that after ten years in Scotland with ICI, Charlie retired and – homesick – returned to the Tonbridge area with another of the original Leigh Powder Mill workers, Mr King. talking to the Courier, he recalled his grandfather, James, had “worked at the Powder Mills for forty years” – which sort of completes the circle.

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