1668, William Baber, a gunpowder maker, requests payment for providing powder for the Royalist cause

Transcription from ‘Petitions in the State Papers: 1660s’, in Petitions in the State Papers, 1600-1699, ed. Brodie Waddell, British History Online, William Baber, powdermaker. SP 29/232 f. 243 (1668).

To the Kings most excellent majestie

The humble peticion of (the undone) William Baber powdermaker


That your petitioner in the time of your blessed fathers greatest extremity furnished his said majestie with severall great quantities of gun powder at Bristoll Worcester Shrewsbury Taunton Exeter and other places besides 1000 pounds and upwards of his uncle Randolph Tomms powder maker at Bristoll and 500 pounds more of his son William Baber who was powder maker at Taunton and Exeter and in that his said service lost his stock and materialls amounting to at least 1500 pounds more all which may at large appeare by certificates if required; for which your petitioner hoped to have received satisfaccion ere now in regard he and they were imployed by Sir George Strode and John Wansford esquire who had his said late majesties engagement for his said losses and premisses and were secured by Marybone Parke and other landes since disposed of for other persons; so that your petitioner can neither have satisfaccion from Sir George Strode or his heires or from Wansford otherwise

Now for as much as your petitioner by reason of this is unable to satisfie his debts then contracted for so that he is dayly tormented with the prosecucion of his mercylesse creditours and for that your petitioner is still unsatisfyed part of the 800 pounds due to him by account from the office of the ordnance for gun powder delivered at New Colledge in Oxford.

Hee therefore most humbly beseecheth your majestie (for Gods sake) that his distressed condicion may be considered and heard and some speedy course taken for his satisfaccion as your majestie in your princely wisdome and justice shall thinke fitt 

And your petitioner shall (as in duty bound) pray etc 


The peticion of William Baber [illegible]

Furnished his majesty in the late wars with powder for which hee remains unsatisfied, praying that his majesty will commiserate his poor condition and orde his reliefe

Att the court at Whitehall January 20th 1667/8 His majesty is graciously pleased to referre it to Collonell William Legg lieutenant of his majestys ordnance and to Laurence Squibb esquier to consider of this petitioners pretencions to examine of what nature his debt is, how contracted, what hath been payd of it what remaines further due to him and from whom, and to report the same to his majesty, who will then declare his further pleasure for the peticioners just satisfaccion [Arlington?] 

Report by Judith Ufland

This petition was submitted by William Baber of Bristol, a gunpowder maker. During the Civil War he provided the Royalists with powder at Bristol, Worcester, Shrewsbury, Taunton, and Exeter with a value of £1,500 and additionally provided other materials with the same value, which is certificated. These were used by Sir George Strode and John Wansford esquire. Due to their financial difficulties he could not claim payment from them. He also provided New College Oxford with powder to the value of £800. He is seeking the King’s intervention. The King referred the matter to Colonel William Legg, lieutenant of the Kings Ordinance and Laurence Squibb.

William Baber

William Baber – presumably the petitioner’s father – was first documented in 1603 when he was outlawed, together with his son William and a member of his family Randolph Tomms, for working as illegal powdermakers in Bristol.[1]

William’s life in Bristol circa 1619 has been described by Brenda J. Buchanan as ‘unlike the lives of his contemporaries who were sometimes brought briefly within the law to serve the shipping of the port. Baber however was never licensed’.[2]  William’s name is occasionally mentioned in the State Papers, such as in 1631 when it was recorded that ‘John Coslett [Corseley] and William Baber, two powder makers of Bristol, have of late bartered with Thomas Hilliard, the saltpetreman, for great quantities of his Majesty’s saltpetre, and have caused the same to be conveyed secretly, in the night, in close sacks and barrels, to Bristol, and have there converted the same into powder for their private benefit’.[3]

The Gunpowder Industry of Bristol

The metropolitan gunpowder industry was heavily regulated. Due to the expansion of the metropolis it became difficult to find new sites in which to set up powder making facilities.  In comparison the countryside offered areas of secluded wooded valleys where the Bristol gunpowder makers could set up their nitre-beds to produce saltpetre.  Since the early seventeenth century illegal gunpowder was produced in and around Bristol.  With the move away from the metropolis to the countryside, the Bristol manufacturers were able to develop their skills and their businesses beyond the control of the Crown.[4]

Saltpetre, often written ‘saltpeter’, is potassium nitrate, the main component of gunpowder. Both legal and illicit powdermakers collected animal manure and human waste to make gunpowder.  One method of producing saltpetre is to dig nitre-beds which were prepared by mixing animal manure and/or human waste with a compost of earth or straw which was then covered against rain. It was kept moist with urine and turned often to accelerate decomposition, then leached with water after one year to remove the soluble calcium nitrate which was then converted to potassium nitrate by filtering through potash.[5]

Gregory Clark describes living conditions in England, stating that: ‘the majority of people […] lived in dwellings with beaten earth floors covered by rushes that were only infrequently renewed. Into these rushes went deposits of waste food, urine and spit. Indeed the effluvium deposited on floors from the ordinary business of the household was so rich that allegedly when saltpeter men were empowered in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries to dig out earth floors as rich sources of saltpeter, they dug not just barn floors but also the floors of houses’.[6]

The Royalist Demand for Gunpowder

Before the outbreak of the First English Civil War in 1642 most of the powder mills and the Tower where supplies were stored, were in and around London and so under Parliamentary control. When war broke out King Charles I moved, together with his Court, his army and equipment to Oxford.  However, there was no ready supply of gunpowder in Oxford and no team of craftsmen to produce it. The Royalists called for help from ‘rogue’ gunpowder makers and the previously illicit powdermakers gained respectability.  William Baber with the aid of his son and his uncle Randolph Thomms, moved to Oxford, which was becoming a munitions-making town. William Baber emerged as the leading powdermaker.  He delivered nearly 150 barrels in the first six months of 1643.[7]

By Spring 1644, when Baber returned to Bristol, the King’s ordnance commissioners took control of the Oxford power works which produced a fraction of their gunpowder requirements. Saltpetre interests prepared a draft Commons order proposing that ‘the saltpeter men may be permitted in all counties, at seasonable times and hours, to dig grounds apt for that purpose’. Dwelling houses were excluded, but excavation of outhouses, dovecotes, barns, and latrines were permitted. By October 1643 the State’s agents were empowered to search and dig for saltpeter in all pigeon houses, stables, and all other outhouses, yards, and places likely to afford that earth, at fit season and hours, between sun rising and sun setting, showing the great need for this commodity.[8]


[1] B. J. Buchanan, ‘“The Art and Mystery of Making Gunpowder”: The English Experience in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’, in The Heirs of Archimedes, Science and the Art of War through the age of Enlightenment (2005), ed. by B. D. Steel and T. Dorland, p. 29.

[2] Buchanan, ‘The Art and Mystery of Making Gunpowder’, p. 29.

[3] ‘Charles I – volume 200: September 18-30, 1631’, in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Charles I, 1631-3, ed. John Bruce (London, 1862), pp. 148-156. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/chas1/1631-3/pp148-156.

[4] Buchanan, ‘The Art and Mystery of Making Gunpowder’, pp. 240-242.

[5] ‘Potassium Nitrate’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potassium_nitrate

[6] G. Clarke, A Farewell to Alms A Brief Economic History of the World. (2007), pp. 125-126. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Farewell_to_Alms.

[7] B. J. Buchanan, ‘Bath’s Forgotten Gunpowder History, The Powder Mills in the Eighteenth Century’, Bath History Journal, X, p. 77.

[8] D. Cressy, The Mother of Gunpowder, (2013), pp. 126-128.

This report is part of a series on ‘Petitioners in the reign of Charles II, 1660-1685’, created through a U3A Shared Learning Project on ‘Investigating the Lives of Seventeenth-Century Petitioners’.