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Cape Explosives Works
Somerset West district, Western Cape

BAKER and MASEY: Architect

Type:Factory and Offices


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34°05'42.27" S 18°48'52.15" E Alt: 7m

Also refered to as the De Beers Dynamite Co.


This concern is an illustration and monument of the far-sightedness of Cecil Rhodes, for it was by his initiative that the company was formed in 1899 with the express object of providing "cheap dynamite for the development of South African mines." This purpose has been successfully kept in mind, but since the factories were opened for work in July, 1903, explosives have been manufactured for many other processes, including the breaking of boulders, shaft and well-sinking, breaking up stumps of trees, and winning clay for brickmaking. And thus while the price of dynamite on the Rand has been reduced to one-half the figure previously ruling, suitable explosives have been introduced to meet many other demands, and a new industry has been established on South African soil.

The site of the works covers an area of 3,300 acres (1,335 hectare) of land, on the north-eastern shore of False Bay, and close to Somerset West. An abundant water supply was one of the recommendations of the site, and another was the ease and cheapness with which the raw materials could be brought by sea. And besides a connection with the South African Railways at Firgrove, there are 27 miles (43.45km) of rails within the area, and these are so arranged that heavy supplies can be handled with a minimum of labour and transported to the spot where they will actually be used. Two or three ordinary locomotives are kept constantly under steam, and a fireless locomotive is employed for service in those portions of the area where the fire would be a source of danger.

The chief raw materials in the manufacture of dynamite and kindred explosives are glycerine, nitrate of soda, sulphur, and coal, no one of which is to be found in the vicinity of the works, and the entire supply has therefore to be imported ; but the company makes a practice of utilising Colonial products wherever possible, as in the case of Natal coal, which is used in large quantities. The employees of the works number nearly 1 000, of whom about 400 are whites (mostly of Colonial birth), and the rate of wages compares very favourably with that of any similar factory in the world, while every precaution dictated by experience is taken to ensure the safety of the hands, and all that organisation can do is achieved for their comfort, on and off duty.

During the last financial year no fewer than 286,082 cases of explosives were sent from the works to the Rand alone, and these were mainly blasting gelatine, gelatine dynamite, and gelignites, the powerful explosives best adapted for use in gold-mining. For other purposes the company produces Lig.-Dyn. dynamite, coal-powders, and flameless explosives, but all alike are manufactured under the most scientific and carefully elaborated system. Apart from the buildings in which the various complex processes of manufacturing the explosives are conducted, the premises include ten large magazines for storing high explosives, and a perfectly equipped chemical laboratory, which contains the most delicate instruments in existence for testing explosives. The factory also possesses fully equipped workshops, including foundry, boiler shop, and wood and metal working shops containing up-to-date modern machine tools. Power and light for all workshops and the accessory factories, as well as for offices and dwelling-houses, are generated in the company's own power-house, and the collodion cotton, or "gun-cotton," which plays an important part in the composition of some of the most powerful explosives, as well as the cartridge cases, detonators, and fuses, are nearly all made on the spot.

The purity and strength of every explosive sent out from the works is carefully ascertained by highly trained experts, who spare no pains or expense to maintain the reputation of the factory, not only as the largest and best equipped of its kind in the world, but as a contribution towards the attainment of its founder's ideal of a self-contained South Africa.

[Playne, Somerset. 1910-11. Cape Colony(Cape Province) Its history, commerce, industries & resources. London: The Foreign and Colonial Compiling Publishing Co. pp 114 & 116]

Compare the Manager's House to Bell House, designed by SOLOMON & MARSHALL.