The Royal Arsenal, Woolwich carried out armaments manufacture, ammunition proofing and explosives research for the British armed forces at a site on the south bank of the River Thames in Woolwich in south-east London, England. It was originally known as the Woolwich Warren, having begun on land previously used as a domestic warren in the grounds of a Tudor house, Tower Place. Much of the initial history of the site is linked with that of the Board of Ordnance, which purchased the Warren in the late 17th century in order to expand an earlier base at Gun Wharf in Woolwich Dockyard. Over the next two centuries, as operations grew and innovations were pursued, the site expanded massively; at the time of the First World War the Arsenal covered 1285 acres and employed close to 80000 people. Thereafter its operations were scaled down; it finally closed as a factory in 1967 and the Ministry of Defence moved out in 1994. Today the area, so long a secret enclave, is open to the public and is being redeveloped for housing and community use.
- 1 Early history: from Warren to Arsenal
- 2 The Royal Regiment of Artillery and the Royal Military Academy
- 3 Crimean War build-up and aftermath: mechanization and innovation
- 4 Social and sporting activities
- 5 World War I
- 6 World War II
- 7 The final run-down
- 8 Closure
- 9 Present day
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 Sources
- 13 External links
Early history: from Warren to Arsenal
The Board of Ordnance initially looked on the site as "a convenient place for building a storehouse for powder and other stores of war, and for room for the proof of guns". At this time the site was overseen by a Storekeeper, based in the old house (Tower Place). To begin with much of the Warren was preserved as open space with cannons stored in the open air and guns proofed on ranges to the east. Gunpowder was first stored in a converted dovecote; but before long specialist buildings began to appear.
The Royal Laboratory
An ammunition laboratory was set up at the Warren in 1695. Manufacture of ammunition had previously taken place within the royal armoury at Greenwich Palace; but in 1695 construction of Greenwich Hospital began on the palace site, so the laboratory was relocated downstream at Woolwich. Laboratory Square was built in 1696 to house its operations (which included manufacture of gunpowder, shell cases, fuses and paper gun cartridges). It consisted of a quadrangle with a gateway at the north end, buildings along either side and a clock tower at the south end, beyond which further buildings were ranged. The manufacturing process was conducted by hand, overseen by a Chief Firemaster; early paintings show artisans at work in the courtyards among pyramid stacks of shells. A pair of pavilions, which once faced each other across the centre of the courtyard, are now the oldest surviving buildings on the Arsenal site; they were being restored for residential use in 2013.
The Royal Brass Foundry
A gun foundry, overseen by a Master Founder, was established in 1717. (The decision of the Board of Ordnance to set up and supervise its own foundry operations followed a devastating explosion at the private foundry it had previously used in Moorfields.) The original Foundry building survives. Its handsome exterior encloses a space designed for pure industrial functionality, with height to accommodate a vertical boring machine, and tall doors permitting easy removal of newly-made cannons.
Completed guns could then be taken to the nearby Dial Square complex (built 1717-20) to be finished and stored. Behind the surviving frontage and archway, two long warehouses stood (one for the Navy, one for the Army) with workshops alongside.
In 1770 a revolutionary horizontal boring machine was installed in the Foundry by Masterfounder J. Verbruggen which inspired Henry Maudslay, who worked at the foundry from 1783, to his inventions improving the lathe.
The Carriage Works
By the 1750s manufacture of gun carriages was also taking place on site. In 1803 this activity was formalized as the Royal Carriage Department.
By 1777 the Arsenal had expanded to 104 acres (0.4 km²). Shortly afterwards, convict labour was used to construct a 2.5-mile-long (4.0 km) (approximately) brick boundary wall, generally 8 feet (2.4 m) high. In 1804 this wall was raised to 20 feet (6.1 m) near the Plumstead road, and to 15 feet (4.6 m) in other parts. In 1814–16, convict labour was also used to dig a canal (the Ordnance Canal), which formed the eastern boundary.
In 1805, at the suggestion of King George III, the complex became known as the Royal Arsenal. The Napoleonic wars prompted an increase of activity at the Arsenal, which affected all areas of its operation. Between 1806 and 1813 the massive Grand Stores complex was constructed alongside new wharves by the river, a 'New Laboratory Square' was built to the north of the original and in 1803-5 a substantial Royal Carriage Factory was built. Its outer walls, complete with a contemporary chiming clock, survive; within, where there are now new apartment blocks, there was once a vast engineering and manufacturing complex staffed by wheelwrights, carpenters, blacksmiths and metalworkers.
It was here that steam power first came to be used in the Arsenal in 1805. Indeed, the Arsenal was a renowned centre of excellence in mechanical engineering, with notable engineers including Samuel Bentham, Marc Isambard Brunel and Maudslay employed there. Brunel was responsible for erecting the steam sawmills, part of the Royal Carriage Department, Maudslay later expanded this buying more steam machinery.
It also became a noted research facility, developing several key advances in armament design and manufacture.
Several early 18th-century buildings on the site have been attributed to the architects Sir John Vanbrugh or Nicholas Hawksmoor (both of whom are known to have designed buildings for the Board of Ordnance); but whilst acknowledging their influence (direct or indirect), the Survey of London credits Brigadier-General Michael Richards (Surveyor-general for the Ordnance board at the time) as having played the leading part in their design.
The Royal Regiment of Artillery and the Royal Military Academy
In 1716 two companies of artillery had been formed at the Warren by Royal Warrant; by 1722 the detachment had grown and was named the Royal Regiment of Artillery. These troops (who were under the auspices not of the Army but of the Board of Ordnance) provided a versatile workforce on site, as well as helping ensure its security; they were housed in barracks within the compound.
In 1720, the Board established an on-site Academy for the education of its Artillery officers (alongside those of its newly formed Corps of Engineers). Tower Place had by this time been demolished, and the new building erected in its place provided a base for the new Academy. Beginning in the 1770s, the Artillery troops moved out of the Warren to new barracks on Woolwich Common; the Royal Military Academy was similarly relocated in 1806 (although some of the Cadets did not finally vacate the Arsenal until as late as 1882). The old Military Academy building then became part of the Royal Laboratory.
Crimean War build-up and aftermath: mechanization and innovation
Levels of arms manufacture naturally ebbed during the relatively peaceful years after Waterloo; at the same time, the Arsenal fell behind the pace of technological change. In the early 1840s, Scottish engineering pioneer James Nasmyth toured the site and described it as a 'museum of technical antiquity'. Nasmyth was subsequently engaged to help modernize the complex; but it was only when Britain was on the brink of war that the pace of mechanization increased.
Thus, in 1854, the old Laboratory Square was roofed over to be a vast machine shop at the heart of what was now a munitions factory. The open spaces of the Royal Carriage Works were similarly roofed over, and the area of its operations expanded. The Brass Foundry, renamed the Royal Gun Factory, was rehoused in large steam-driven workshops for production of modern iron cannons. A new Shot and Shell Foundry, completed in 1857, enabled manufacture of the latest types of ammunition.
In the wake of the Crimean War there was widespread criticism of several aspects of Britain's military command. The Board of Ordnance, much criticised for inefficiency, was disbanded in 1855, and the War Office then took over responsibility for the Arsenal and all its activities.
As part of the preparations for the Crimean War (1854–56), Frederick Abel (later Sir Frederick Abel) had been appointed the first War Department Chemist with the aim of investigating the new chemical explosives which were then being developed. He was mostly responsible for bringing Guncotton into safe use and for winning a patent dispute brought by Alfred Nobel against the British Government over the patent rights to Cordite which Abel had jointly developed with Professor James Dewar. A new Chemical Laboratory was built to Abel's requirements; this was numbered Building 20. Abel was also responsible for the technical management of the Royal Gunpowder Factory. He retired from the Royal Arsenal in 1888. 1854 also saw the installation of a Retort house for the Royal Arsenal's Gas Works.
By the time of the Crimean War the Royal Arsenal was one of three Royal munitions Factories; the other two being the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield Lock, and the Royal Gun Powder Factory, Waltham Abbey, Essex. In the second half of the century, the Royal Arsenal greatly expanded its area eastwards outside its brick boundary wall onto the Plumstead Marshes.
Social and sporting activities
In 1868 twenty workers at the Arsenal formed a food-buying association operating from a house in Plumstead and named it the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society. Over the next 115 years the enterprise grew to half a million members across London and beyond, providing services including funerals, housing, libraries and insurance.
In 1886 workers at the Arsenal formed a football club initially known as Dial Square after the workshops in the heart of the complex, playing their first game on 11 December (a 6-0 victory over Eastern Wanderers) in the Isle of Dogs. Renamed Royal Arsenal two weeks later (and also known as the 'Woolwich Reds'), the club entered the professional football league as Woolwich Arsenal in 1893 and later became known as Arsenal F.C., having moved to north London in 1913. Royal Ordnance Factories F.C. were another successful team set up by the Royal Arsenal but only lasted until 1896.
World War I
At its peak, during World War I, the Royal Arsenal extended over some 1,300 acres (530 ha) and employed around 80,000 people. The Royal Arsenal by then had the Royal Gun Factory, the Royal Shell Filling Factory (which closed in 1940), the Research and Development Department and the Chief Chemical Inspector, Woolwich (the successor to the War Department Chemist). The expansion was such that in 1915 the Government built the 1300-home 'Well Hall Estate' at Eltham to help accommodate the workforce.
In addition to both the massive expansion of the Royal Arsenal and private munitions companies, other UK Government-owned National Explosives Factories and National Filling Factories were built during World War I. All the National Factories closed at the end of the War; with only the three Royal (munitions) Factories (at Woolwich, Enfield and Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills) remaining open through to World War II.
It appears likely that up to the end of World War I, the Royal Arsenal would have been guarded by the Metropolitan Police Force, as they also guarded the Royal Navy Cordite Factory, Holton Heath, in Dorset and the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Priddy's Hard, Gosport up to that time. Since then the Royal Arsenal would have been guarded, until its closure, by the War Office Police Force, who became in 1971 the Ministry of Defence Police Force.
During the quiet period after the end of World War I, the Royal Arsenal built steam railway locomotives. The Royal Arsenal had an extensive standard gauge internal railway system and this was connected to the North Kent Line just beyond Plumstead railway station. The Royal Arsenal also cast the Memorial Plaques given to the next-of-kin of deceased servicemen and servicewomen.
World War II
The build-up to World War II started in the late 1930s / early 1940s. Abel's old Chemical Laboratory was by now too small and new Chemical Laboratories were built in 1937 on Frog Island, on a former loop in the Ordnance Canal. Staff from the Royal Arsenal helped design, and in some cases managed the construction of, many of the new second World War Royal Ordnance Factories (ROFs) and ROF Filling Factories. Much of its former ordnance production was moved to these new sites as the Royal Arsenal was considered vulnerable to aerial bombing from mainland Europe. The original plan was to replace the Royal Arsenal's Filling Factory with one at ROF Chorley and one at ROF Bridgend. It was then realised that many more ROFs would be needed. Just over 40 ROFs were opened by the end of World War II, nearly half of them Filling Factories, together with a similar number of factories built and run by private companies, such as ICI's Nobels Explosives (although these explosive factories were not called ROFs).
The Royal Arsenal was caught up in the Blitz on 7 September 1940 and after several attacks the fuze factory was destroyed and the filling factory and a light gun factory badly damaged. Explosive filling work ceased on the site, but the production of guns, shells, cartridge cases and bombs continued. In September 1940, prior to the raid, some 32,500 people worked there; but after the raid this dropped to 19,000. The numbers employed on site had increased by February 1943, with 23,000 employed, but by August 1945 were down to 15,000. 103 people were killed and 770 injured, during 25 raids, by bombs, V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets. The staff of the Chemical Inspectorate, working with explosives, were evacuated in early September 1940. Shortly afterwards one of the Frog Island buildings was destroyed by bombing and another damaged. The laboratories were partially re-occupied in 1945 and fully re-occupied by 1949.
The final run-down
During the quiet period after the end of World War II, the Royal Arsenal built railway wagons between 1945 and 1949; and constructed knitting frames for the silk stockings industry, up to 1952. Armament production then increased during the Korean War.
From 1947 the British atomic weapons programme, called HER or High Explosive Research, was based at Fort Halstead in Kent (ARDE), and also at Woolwich. The first British atomic device was tested in 1952; Operation Hurricane. In 1951 the AWRE moved to AWRE Aldermaston in Berkshire.
An approximately 100 acres (40 ha) area of the site, around what is now Griffin Manor Way, was used for an industrial estate; the Ford Motor Company becoming its first tenant in 1955. Two of the roads on this estate Nathan Way and Kellner Road appear to have links with people connected with the Royal Arsenal: a Col. Nathan, at the Royal Gunpowder Factory; and, W. Kellner being the second War Office Chemist.
Shortly after the closure of the Woolwich Royal Ordnance Factories the Frog Island chemical laboratories were moved into a new building erected in 1971, in what was to become the Royal Arsenal East. The old Frog Island area was then sold off and a relocated Plumstead Bus Garage was built on part of this site. This action separated what remained of the Royal Arsenal, some 76 acres (310,000 m2), into two sites: Royal Arsenal West, at Woolwich; and, Royal Arsenal East, at Plumstead, approached via Griffin Manor Way. It also led to breaking down of parts of the 1804 brick boundary wall. Part of it near Plumstead Bus station was replaced by iron railings and chain link fencing; later the public roadway (now the A206) was also changed at the Woolwich market area and the Royal Arsenal's boundary was moved inwards so that the Beresford Gate became separated from the site by the A206.
The Royal Arsenal site retained its links to ordnance production for almost another thirty years as a number of the Ministry of Defence Procurement Executive's, Quality Assurance Directorates had their headquarters offices located there. These included the Materials Quality Assurance Directorate (MQAD), which looked after materiel, including explosives and pyrotechnics; and the Quality Assurance Directorate (Ordnance), (QAD (Ord)), which looked after ordnance for the Army. MQAD being the successor of the old War Department Chemist and the Chemical Inspectorate. There was a separate Royal Navy Ordnance Inspection Department that looked after the Royal Navy's interests.
MQAD was based, until closure of the site at Royal Arsenal East; and all the buildings on this site were given E numbers, such as E135. Belmarsh high-security prison was built on part of Royal Arsenal East, becoming operational in 1991.
The Royal Arsenal ceased to be a military establishment in 1994. The sprawling Arsenal site is now one of the focal points for redevelopment in the Thames Gateway zone, but the links to its historic past are not lost. Many notable buildings in the historic original (West) site are being retained in the redevelopment; the site includes Firepower - The Royal Artillery Museum telling the story of the Royal Artillery, and Greenwich Heritage Centre which tells the story of Woolwich, including the Royal Arsenal.
Parts of the Royal Arsenal have been used to build residential and commercial buildings. One of the earliest developments was Royal Artillery Quays, a series of glass towers rising along the riverside built by Barratt Homes in 2003.
The western part of the Royal Arsenal has now been transformed into a mixed-use development by Berkeley Homes. It comprises one of the biggest concentrations of Grade I and Grade II listed buildings converted for residential use, with more than 3,000 residents. The first phase of homes at Royal Arsenal, "The Armouries", consisted of 455 new-build apartments in a six-storey building. This was followed by "The Warehouse, No.1 Street". The development has a residents' gym, a Thames Clippers stop on site, a Streetcar car club and a 24-hour concierge facility for residents. Wellington Park provides open space and a public house, the Dial Arch, opened in June 2010.
Plans have now been submitted for a new masterplan encompassing further land along the river. More than 1,700 homes already exist at Royal Arsenal Riverside, with an additional 3,700 new homes planned, along with 270,000 sq ft (25,000 m2) of commercial, retail, leisure space and a 120-bedroom hotel by Holiday-Inn Express. Also included in the plans is the new Woolwich Crossrail station, which has been part-funded by Berkeley Homes.
- Broadwater Green
- Firepower – The Royal Artillery Museum
- Royal Arsenal Railway
- Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills
- Hogg, Brigadier O.F.G. (1963a). The Royal Arsenal Woolwich. Volume I. London: Oxford University Press.
- Hogg, Brigadier O.F.G. (1963b). The Royal Arsenal: its Background, Origin and Subsequent History Woolwich. Volume II. London: Oxford University Press.
- Hornby, William (1958). Factories and Plant. History of the Second World War: United Kingdom Civil Series. Her Majesty's Stationery Office and Longmans, Green and Co.
- Masters, Roy (1995). The Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. Britain in Old Photographs. Strood: Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0-7509-0894-7.
- Saint, Andrew; Guillery, Peter (2012). "Chapter 3: The Royal Arsenal". Woolwich. Survey of London. Volume 48. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300187229.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Royal Arsenal, Woolwich.|
- A brief description from 1887
- Official site about the redevelopment project
- A developer's site about the redevelopment project.
- History of the Well Hall (Progress) housing estate for Arsenal workers