Book reviews — June 2019
'The Factory that Became a Village: The History of the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock', by Jim Lewis
160 pages, illustrated. Redshank Books 2018, softback £18. ISBN 978-0995483446. Requests for books by post, enclosing a cheque made out to Libri Publishing Ltd, should be sent to John Sivak, Libri Publishing Ltd, 13 Gordon Road, Enfield EN2 0PU. Post and packaging is free to addresses in the UK.
As the author explains his previous book From Ice Age to Wetlands, see GLIAS Newsletter 295, p10, was written in relative haste so as to be in time for the official opening of The Walthamstow Wetlands in November 2017. The Factory that Became a Village is rather more weighty and Part 1 contains serious historical argument and is well referenced. The section at the end of the book outlining the conservation and regeneration of the Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) at Enfield makes lighter reading.
During the Napoleonic War the Royal Manufactory of Small Arms in Lewisham was proving inadequate and the Board of Ordnance decided to build a new factory on a larger site at Enfield. This had the advantage of water power and navigation down the Lea to the Thames. In 1816 the manufacture of gun barrels was commenced there and by 1818 a lock-and-finishing department was at work. A sword-making department was set up in 1823. The Enfield factory remained quite modest in size until the Crimean War of 1853-6 when production was greatly increased.
A machine shop on American mass-production lines was built in the mid 1850s, using American machinery and powered by steam engines. This shop was based on a design by Sir John Anderson (1814-1886) manager of Woolwich Arsenal and built by the Royal Engineers. The workforce increased to 1,000 and by 1860 an average of 1,744 rifles a week was being produced. Another major expansion took place in 1866 when the watermill was replaced by further steam power. The total number of steam engines increased to sixteen and by 1887 there were 2,400 employees.
RSAF Enfield expanded again in both World Wars. Decline set in after World War II and in 1963 half the site was closed. The RSAF was privatised in 1984 and was later bought by British Aerospace (BAe) who closed the remainder of the site in 1988. RSAF Enfield was notable for its Pattern Room which housed a collection of master patterns of every weapon ever made there. One reads in the book that it was proposed that this wonderful collection built up at Enfield was to be sold off piecemeal to private collectors and dispersed. Fortunately this dreadful suggestion was never carried out and this unique collection is now held at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds.
Chapter 5 of The Factory that Became a Village deals with the Great Skills Debate. This is about the skills required for the mass production of fully interchangeable parts, and whether the introduction of the mass production of fully interchangeable parts reduced the skills of the workforce or enhanced them. On page 75 professor Robert B Gordon at Yale University writing in 1988 claimed that with experience, in the mid 19th century American skilled artificers could work to tolerances of about a thousandth of an inch. Apparently this was by feel and without using a micrometer — a very bold claim. Prof Gordon has more recently, in 2010, written about the Armoury Gauging System and Interchangeable Manufacture in Arms and Armour.
Professor Gordon's views are in complete contrast with much mid 19th century British opinion. Henry Maudslay and James Naysmith both claimed that they could train a butcher or a baker to produce high quality work in a relatively short time. The skill of the craftsman had been transferred to the machine.
This book will interest two types of reader, those with a detailed interest in precision engineering and the manufacture of small arms, and those interested in the industrial archaeology of the Enfield site and what there is to see there now following conservation and regeneration. The book is not that easy to find one's way around, an index would have been useful. The Factory that Became a Village can be recommended to both groups of people. Bob Carr
© GLIAS, 2019