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You are in: Essex > History > Local History > Waltham Abbey's explosive history

Canon at the Royal Gunpowder Mills in Waltham Abbey

The mills have a long and varied history

Waltham Abbey's explosive history

For over 350 years, the Royal Gunpowder Mills in Waltham Abbey were one of the most important sites in the world for the development of explosives.

The first record of gunpowder being manufactured didn't appear until 1665, where parish records showed two people had been killed by a powder mill.

Situated in the Lee Valley, the area was a perfect location to harness the natural power of water to grind and process the various ingredients to create the explosives.

Steam powered mills

The steam-powered mills had six bays each

At one time, 13 mills were in place in the original mill stream that stands to the south-west of the site.

"The valley was important, not only for using the water for the power, it was also for the transportation as well, so it was a perfect site in that respect," explains Services Manager at the Royal Gunpowder Mills, Brian Harvey.

As Britain looked to expand its empire and the need for gunpowder increased, the west Essex site grew until 1787, when the Crown took over ownership from the Walton Family.

The site soon developed a reputation for developing some of the finest and most consistent gunpowder in the world.

"This was a very important site, which logged the history of explosive manufacture over a period of over 350 years like no other site in the country"

Brian Harvey, Royal Gunpowder Mills services manager

"They worked in close conjunction with the laboratory at Woolwich, who were doing the development of processes," explains Brian. "So the gunpowder here was raised to a new level.

"The government made all the other private manufacturers around the country produce gunpowder to this standard, so it became a very important site and set the standard for gunpowder right around the country."

Follow that steam

The site grew ever larger in the middle of the 19th century, but as steam took over from the water power the production factories moved into large steam driven mills.

The first of those, built in 1857, had six bays in a row with a drive-shaft running through it from the engine. However, after this blew up a few years later, subsequent designs saw the beam engine in the middle of the bays.

Original mill stream cutting

Milling began on the site in the mid-1500s

As the site expanded further into the woods to the north of the original site, the layout of Gunpowder Mills developed into what Brian Harvey describes as "a flow production line, very much modern in concept.

"The material came in through the gates and was gradually fed through the various processes, one-by-one, to the end of the site and the great magazine, where all the material was stored waiting for the boats to come up from the Thames.

"They would then be taken down the River Lee and discharged to wherever they needed to go - such as the great magazines at Purfleet and Woolwich for both the navy and the army.”

Chemical world

The era of gunpowder being used as an explosive and propellant began to draw to a close at the end of the 19th century end, as chemical alternatives – such as cordite – came to the fore.

Thick walls of old factory

Super-thick walls designed to contain explosions

However, this didn't spell an end to the Gunpowder Mills as the buildings were converted to embrace the new technology.

"They just took out the old steam engines and put electric motors in to drive the belts for the mixing machines," explains Brian.

Rather than seeing production slow down, the two World Wars saw the Waltham Abbey site as busy as ever.

"During the Great War of 1914-18, this was one of the largest producers of cordite for the war effort," says Brian. "It had around 6,200 people here, 24-hours-a-day, seven days a week."

Millstone at the Gunpowder Mills

Millstones weighed up to four tonnes

The site was also used during the first half of World War II to develop RDX, which was used in the infamous bouncing bomb.

"A pilot plant was set up here to make sure that it was satisfactory," informs Brian. "There's a pond in the woodland where this was tested under water – so this site played its part in the Dambusters raid."

On Dangerous Ground

By its very nature, accidents, incidents and fatalities were an everyday fear throughout the Gunpowder Mills history.

Brian points to two examples from the Second World War that highlighted the dangers involved: "There were two massive explosions in the woodlands where they were producing nitro-glycerine.

Old explosives workshop

Parts of the site remain closed to the public

"The first one, in January 1940, broke windows as far away as the East End of London. The seismic equipment at Kew detected the explosion.

"Five men died, three of them were never discovered – they just vaporised in the explosion.

"Three months later the same thing happened again and another five men died. The roof on the local church lifted and was dropped down six-foot to one side!"

World-wide importance

Production of explosives ceased at Waltham Abbey in 1943, but once again the site was able to evolve and continue.

Street sign at Royal Gunpowder Mills

The top-secret work can now be explored

"It was set up in 1945 as a research establishment by the Ministry of Defence to develop rocket propellants, amongst other things," Brian says. "A lot of rocket propellants for our missiles were developed here at Waltham Abbey.

"In 1991, the site was closed totally for the last time. It was a very large, expensive site to maintain – the Cold War was over, and missile development was virtually in the hands of the Americans."

For the past 15 years since its decommissioning, the site has become a visitor attraction, and with over 20 of the buildings listed and the woodland area designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, is one of the country’s most important sites of its kind.

"It was quickly realised that this was a very important site, which logged the history of explosive manufacture over a period of over 350 years like no other site in the country, or in the world," Brian proudly claims.

last updated: 08/07/2009 at 15:30
created: 08/07/2009

You are in: Essex > History > Local History > Waltham Abbey's explosive history

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