Essex men and women in explosive work at gunpowder mills

Royal Gunpowder Mills Image copyright Crown Copyright
Image caption Untrained women were called on to work alongside men to produce high explosive for the conflict

Contractors surveying the Iraq railway line in the 1960s came across an old Turkish fort where they found unused explosives made at the Royal Gunpowder Mills in Essex.

This explosive was a favourite of TE Lawrence of Arabia fame.

So it was likely it was left over from a raid on the line by his band of Arab irregulars in World War One.

This is a favourite tale of Les Tucker, the archivist at the Royal Gunpowder Mills in Waltham Abbey.

Image copyright Crown Copyright
Image caption Women were not protected from having to work the heavy machines at the mills

He has paid tribute to the people who worked there and the superintendent Colonel Fisher described as a senior military officer of the Edwardian age.

Everything was running smoothly with 26 tonnes of high explosive produced in 1913 by a staff of 600 men.

"All of a sudden Armageddon. World War One broke out and Whitehall wanted production of 150 tonnes a year overnight," Mr Tucker said.

"Poor old Colonel Fisher was called on to recruit what ultimately became 3,000 females never seen before on the site and all totally untrained.

"But he was able to cope and by the end of the war total staff reached 6,200 with a 50/50 split, men and women."

Royal Gunpowder Mills development

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Gunpowder output surged to meet the threat from Napoleon

Output from the Royal Gunpowder Mills at Waltham Abbey has varied over the years, according to whether the country was at war or peace.

It was set up in response to demand for gunpowder to fire cannons on the ships involved in the Second Dutch War in 1665.

In October 1787 the Crown purchased the mills from owner John Walton for £10,000 in time for the wars against Napoleon - starting a 204-year ownership.

The mills expanded volume, output and quality during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars from 1789, culminating in the victory at Waterloo in 1815.

A period of quiet with a steep decline in staff numbers and production levels in the mid-19th Century ended when conflict broke out again in 1854 with the Crimean War with Russia.

The Indian Mutiny and a succession of colonial conflicts followed culminating in the Boer War of 1899 - 1902.

By this time smokeless propellants such as cordite were being developed and produced for army and navy guns to prevent their position being given away when fired.

The mills were asked to increase output of this and other explosives to meet demand for World War One.

During the Second World War, explosive production was moved to the West Country to escape attack by enemy bombers.

The Waltham Abbey site became a research centre after the war and was finally closed in 1991. A museum was set up later.

Men did the ingredient mixing and worked the acid plants but women were expected to do some of the heavy work like operating the railways and boiler house stoking.

Staff increased 10-fold for World War One output and half were untrained but not one fatality occurred.

"You didn't run or move at a fast pace," Mr Tucker said.

Image copyright Crown Copyright
Image caption By the end of the war women accounted for half the workforce of 6,200

"You could always tell explosive workers going to lunch because you could see them marching at a slow, steady pace on the way to the canteen.

"This was the safety they tried to imbue into people.

"Through history the mills have had an underlying philosophy of very high quality."

The mills are now a heritage centre and Mr Tucker said criticism was sometimes levelled because it was a site that created destruction.

"During World War One people at the mills regarded their function as providing the best possible way for British servicemen to stop the conflict.

"And they did stop it. We regard that as an essential part of the country's history."

Image copyright Crown Copyright
Image caption Some of the staff at the Royal Gunpowder Mills in Essex during World War One

More on this story

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites