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Notes and news — April 2001

In this issue:

The Royal Gunpowder Mills — Waltham Abbey

Incorporating mills, Royal Gunpowder Mills, Waltham Abbey. © Robert Mason The Royal Gunpowder Mills at Waltham Abbey are due to open as a major industrial archaeological and educational centre this spring (foot-and-mouth disease permitting). For the first time there will be public access to a site which has been largely closed to the outside world over most of its history.

The Mills have been involved for 300 years in the manufacture and development of explosives and propellants. A large proportion of the site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument. 21 buildings have been listed by English Heritage — one Grade 1, eight Grade 2* and 12 Grade 2.

Gunpowder was first produced in Waltham Abbey in the early 1660s when Samuel Hudson converted an oil mill, previously a fulling mill, situated on the Millhead Stream, to gunpowder production. From 1702 the Walton family expanded and developed the Millhead into a major producing centre operating on an industrial basis and becoming a principal supplier to the Board of Ordnance.

Reflecting concern over security, volume and quality of supply from private firms, the Government purchased the Home Works in Faversham in 1759. Then in 1787, following a recommendation from Major, later Lt General Sir William Congreve, then Deputy Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich, purchased the Waltham Abbey mills from John Walton. Congreve instituted a programme of refurbishment and rebuilding and laid the foundations of the high standards of manufacturing practice and product quality based on scientific method which became the hallmark of what had now become the Royal Gunpowder Mills. The close link with the Research Laboratory at Woolwich was to continue throughout the Mills' history. His son, also later Sir William, followed in has father's footsteps in 1814 as Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory (in 1805 he had invented the gunpowder propelled Congreve rocket), including control over Waltham Abbey and built on the standards established by his father, introducing new machinery, improved charcoal production and a continuing emphasis on close control of raw material and finished product quality. These developments took place in parallel with a surge in demand arising from the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

Waterwheel-powered gunpowder press. Royal Gunpowder Mills, Waltham Abbey. © Robert Mason After a period of relative quiet the Crimean War 1854-56 revealed glaring deficiencies in British military supply and this, coupled with later fears of French invasion, led to massive expansion of the Mills from mid-19th century. Coupled with this the new mills employed a new power source — steam. The steam mills form the core of the listed buildings. In the 1870s reflecting significant increase in gun size there was further expansion and evolution of processing facilities to accommodate the new moulded powder types.

By the 1880s gunpowder had reached the peak of its influence as a service propellant. Although generally the main outside association of explosives and propellants is with the military application, they have an extensive civil application in a wide range of activities — mining, quarrying, tunnelling, road making, construction, etc, and in sporting use. Waltham Abbey had established itself as a leader in manufacturing and technology and its developments and innovations were diffused throughout both the military and civil sectors in Britain and overseas. However, within a very short timescale gunpowder based on the natural products saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur and charcoal had been supplanted by chemically based materials. In 1890 the mills commenced production of guncotton (nitrocellulose) on a new site to the south of the town — the South Site, the original area now being termed the North Site.

A few years later the propellant cordite, a blend of guncotton, nitroglycerine and mineral jelly, was developed. A plant, together with nitroglycerine production, was established on the South Site and from 1896 an extensive programme of conversion of North Site gunpowder facilities to cordite and building of acid and nitroglycerine factories was instituted. By 1910 cordite had replaced gunpowder as the main service propellant. However, gunpowder was still required for specialised fuse purposes and production continued on the water-powered Millhead. In the late 19th century production of picric powder was introduced and, by 1910, tetryl (CE).

Waltham Abbey continued as a standard-setter for manufacturing practice and quality of chemical explosives, diffusing the technology throughout the industry.

Inevitably the First World War brought a huge increase in production at Waltham Abbey, now termed the Royal Gunpowder Factory. This was achieved by additional building, round-the-clock working and an expansion of the labour force from 1,200 to 5,000, the addition being almost all female. Cordite output rose from 26 tons per week to 140 tons.

Royal Gunpowder Mills, Waltham Abbey. © Robert Mason In the 1930s Waltham Abbey became of prime significance as the centre, in conjunction with Woolwich, for research into and building of pilot plant for improved production of TNT and the new explosive RDX. The site was vulnerable to air attack and the intention was to construct full production facilities in safer areas in the west, based on the development work at Waltham Abbey. In the event not all were built by 1939 and for two years Waltham Abbey was the sole producer of the vital RDX and also of tetryl. When full production had been achieved in the west, principally Scotland and north west England, production at Waltham Abbey ceased in 1943. In the meantime, in 1940 a parachute mine had severely damaged the last mill on the Millhead Stream and over 150 years of Government production of gunpowder at Waltham Abbey came to an end.

The site reopened in 1945 as a Government research establishment under various titles, the last the Royal Armaments Research and Development Establishment. Research covered a wide spectrum, ranging from liquid fuels for rockets and other aspects of rocket propulsion, properties of explosives, explosives handling, RDX production methods, materials and polymer research, and pre-production plant for rocket motors was built. The Establishment closed in 1991. All trace of activity on the South Site was removed and the North Site became the basis for the centre about to open. Les Tucker
Royal Gunpowder Mills, Beaulieu Drive, Waltham Abbey, Essex EN9 1JY. Tel: 01992 767022. Fax: 01992 710341. Website:

Stanley's Drawing Instrument Works

The remarkable William F Stanley (GLIAS Newsletter October 1995) built his drawing instrument works, foundry and saw mills alongside the railway at South Norwood, immediately north of the station on the west side of the line. The address of the office was 12 Belgrave Road, SE25 and timber could be delivered directly to the works by railway wagon. The site was in use for the manufacture of drawing instruments until 1926 when manufacturing was transferred to New Eltham. The architecture was by Stanley himself.

Until recently the buildings were being used by J S M Joinery Ltd but there was an unfortunate fire at the end of 1998. It is proposed to convert the old works, now gutted, into flats and as this is a conservation area hopefully some original features of the Stanley Works will be retained. You can get quite a good view of what is happening from the train between London Bridge and Croydon. If you know where to look it is also possible to catch a glimpse of the Stanley Halls themselves.

In South Norwood High Street Wetherspoon's have opened their William Stanley public house and following the book on W F Stanley by Eloise Akpan which came out in 2000 the great man will now perhaps become better known, as he richly deserves. Bob Carr
Eloise Akpan's book (see review) can be bought from the Town Hall building, Katharine Street, Croydon. It should also be available by post direct from the author herself at 28 Hurlstone Road, London SE25 6JD

King's Cross redevelopment

To the east of York Way considerable redevelopment work is about to take place. This will involve the demolition of buildings on the 1850s Pontifex brass foundry site and the construction of a large hotel. Some of the property to the east of York Way will be opened up to the general public with the creation of inner-block courts with shops and cafes. The Brass Foundry site has been empty and fenced off for quite a while.

In Caledonia Street the 1906 Laundry Building on the south side has had a group of artists in residence for some time but they were asked to move out by Christmas 2000. It is not intended to demolish the Laundry. Caledonia Street is a short street running east from York Way to the Caledonian Road. The Pontifex site is immediately to the north of this street and it is possible to see something of the buildings at the back by walking east along Caledonia Street and turning north into Balfe Street. This street runs from north to south immediately to the east of York Way. An inviting archway on the west side of the street at number 17 leads into Albion Yard where blue, for washing white clothes, was manufactured. Over the arch are inscribed the inviting words 'Works and Mills 1846'.

Balfe Street is interesting with some quite elegant houses and is well worth the detour to explore. It is just to the south of Battlebridge Basin and the London Canal Museum. The museum is open in the week even during the winter up to 4.30pm and the admission charge for adults is a modest £2.50. It has a useful bookstall at the entrance. Tel: 020 7713 0836 for details.

Recently it has been brought to the notice of GLIAS that number 34b York Way which dates from 1873 has a hipped roof structure of remarkable design in timber, cast and wrought iron. It is of sufficient interest for listing to be considered. Bob Carr

King's Cross gazetteer

Kew Bridge Bull engine to be restored

The 1859 Bull engine at the Kew Bridge Steam Museum is to be restored to working order (GLIAS Newsletter October 2000). It was built by Harvey's of Hayle 1856-59 for the Grand Junction Waterworks Company and was similar to two others also of 70 inches diameter supplied to the company's Campden Hill Pumping Station in 1857. The stroke was 10 feet and with steam at 40psi it produced 160hp at 8-10 strokes per minute. The pump diameter is 28 inches. The Bull engine at Kew worked until January 1944.

Initial financial help is being obtained from the Science Museum Prism Fund but much greater sums are needed. Bob Carr
For further information contact Nick Morgan. Tel: 020 8568 4757 (museum); 01462 441861 (home)


Crossrail, the £3.5billion Central London rail scheme, may finally get the green light with news that the Corporation of London is pushing for a renewal of the project ditched by the government in the 1990s.

The project has its origins in a joint plan by the Tube and British Rail in the 1980s for a heavy rail system, carrying mainline trains, to run east-west under the capital, stopping at Liverpool Street, Farringdon, Tottenham Court Road, Bond Street and Paddington.

The line would be able to carry 600,000 passengers a day at a rate of 24 trains an hour.

National Monuments Record

The National Monuments Record has unveiled the first 15,000 photographs to be displayed on the Images of England prototype website. Eventually all the c370,000 listed buildings in England will be on the site (
Further information from Ann Vink, NMRC, Kemble Drive, Swindon SN2 2GZ. Tel: 01793 414779. Email:

Book search services

121 Books Search Service claims to be the all-inclusive book search service and has the knowledge and experience to track down out of print books. No obligation quotes are given and books are delivered to the customer's door.
121 Books Service London office. Tel: 020 8566 7502. Email: Website:
Ann Jones Booksearch Service offers a selection of secondhand and out of print books for sale on IA, transport and engineering subjects. A free book search service is also available.
Details from Bryher, Barncoose Terrace, Redruth, Cornwall TR5 3EP. Tel: 01209 211180

Gordon Bishop Associates

Traditional photographic developing and printing services in black and white, using chemicals, are still available at Gordon Bishop's who are now at 23a Paddington Street, W1, in the basement. They have been in business for about 30 years and provide a personal service making contact sheets from negatives and selective enlargements at quite a modest cost. Bob Carr
Tel: 020 7486 1464 for more information

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© GLIAS, 2001