Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

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Royal Gunpowder Factory

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1897. Pulping and Moulding room.

of Waltham Abbey

1787 the Crown purchased the Waltham Abbey Mills from John Walton for £10,000; they were renamed the Royal Gunpowder Factory. Under William Congreve, manufacturing of gunpowder moved from what had been a black art into a technology.

1789-1815 Massive increase in production, after which production levels dropped but machinery and process development continued.

1854 Further increase in demand due to the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny and eventually the conflicts up to the Boer War of 1899-1902.

1865 Under the leadership of Sir Frederick Abel gun-cotton was developed at Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills, patented in 1865.

1876 Details of a sixty-six inch turbine for their works [1]

1870s Cast iron aqueducts installed. At least one, possibly two, have survived.[2]

1887 Report by Lord Morley's committee into the Manufacturing Departments of the Army, which consisted of 4 establishments: Woolwich, Waltham Abbey, Enfield and Birmingham; the committee made a number of recommendations for reorganisation, having taken account of modern industrial practices[3].

1889 The propellant Cordite was patented.

1889 William Anderson was appointed Director General of Ordnance Factories, responsible for the ordnance factories, laboratory, carriage department and gun factory at Woolwich Arsenal, the small-arms factories at Enfield and Birmingham, and the gunpowder factory at Waltham Abbey.

1890s Waltham Abbey switched to the production of cordite, supplying about 70 tons per week by 1914.

Chemical engineering improvements at Waltham Abbey were disseminated to private industry so Waltham Abbey became a centre for science and technology but largely unknown for reasons of security.

WWI Huge increase in demand. Staff numbers doubled to 6230. Production was massively expanded from such that over 30,000 tons of cordite were produced during the war. The site also produced tetryl (CE) for use in fuses, as well as small quantities of gunpowder.

1915 Retitled Royal Ordnance Factory, Waltham Abbey.

Post-WWI Development work was conducted on TNT production and on the new explosive RDX. Production was to be gradually transferred to the west of the country, safer from air attack.

1936 The government decided that Woolwich Arsenal and Royal Gunpowder Factory would be relocated to Chorley in Lancashire, Bridgend in South Wales, and Bishopton[4].

WWII An important cordite production unit and for the first two years of the war was the sole producer of RDX. Total transfer to the west was achieved by 1943. Waltham Abbey staff developed the new factories, trained staff and superintended production

1943 The Mills finally closed.

1945 Re-opened as a research centre for military propellants and high explosives and expanded into rocket propellants and a range of specialised applications for explosives. Part of the Ministry of Supply, Chemical Research and Development Department.

1948 became the Explosives Research and Development Establishment of the Ministry of Supply

1962 Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment of Ministry of Defence

1984 Became Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment. North site remained Ministry of Defence; south site became part of Royal Ordnance

1986 Royal Ordnance was bought by British Aerospace (BAe)

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. The Engineer of 1stDecember 1876 p379
  2. [1] London Canals wbsite: Lee Navigation – the old order at Waltham
  3. The Times, Saturday, Jul 30, 1887
  4. History of Bridgend Royal Ordnance Factory [2]
  • National Archives [3]
  • History of Waltham Abbey Gunpowder Mills [4]
  • History of BAE Systems [5].