Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills

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Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills
The Royal Gunpowder Mills, Waltham Abbey, an Anchor Point of the European Route of Industrial Heritage, (ERIH), set in 175 acres (0.71 km 2) of parkland and containing 21 buildings of major historical importance, mixes history, science, and attractive surroundings. It was one of three Royal Gunpowder Mills in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the other mills were at Ballincollig and Faversham, but is the only site to have survived virtually intact. The Royal Gunpowder Mills, Waltham Abbey, were in operation for over 300 years; however, from the mid 1850s onwards the site was involved in developing new nitro-based explosives and propellants. The site grew in size, and gunpowder became less important. Shortly after World War II it became solely a Defence Research Establishment - firstly the Explosives Research and Development Establishment, then the Propellants, Explosives and Rocket Motor Establishment Waltham Abbey; and finally the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment Waltham Abbey. Its superior production methods and high quality results earned it a reputation on an international level and played a significant part in the rise of Great Britain as an international power.

Pre-Gunpowder use of the site
The story of gunpowder production at Waltham Abbey begins with a fulling mill for cloth production; originally set up by the monks of the Abbey on the Millhead Stream, an engineered water course tapping the waters of the River Lea. Mills were adaptable and in the early 17th century it was converted to an 'Oyle Mill', i.e. for producing vegetable oils. In the Second Dutch War gunpowder supply shortages were encountered and the oil mill was converted to gunpowder production, possibly in response to this. In 1665 it was acquired by Ralph Hudson using saltpetre made in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. The Hudson family sold out to William Walton at the end of the 17th century, starting a family connection lasting almost a hundred years. The enterprise was successful under the Walton's tenure and the Mills expanded up the Millhead Stream as additional production facilities were added; the material progressing from one building to another as it passed through the various processes. The Waltham Abbey Mills were one of the first examples in the 18th century of an industrialised factory system, not often recognised. In 1735 they were described by Thomas Fuller, a local historian, as 'the largest and compleatest works in Great Britain.'

Purchase of the site by the Crown
In the 1780s there was fresh concern over security, quality and economy of supply. The then Deputy Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich, Major, later Lt. General, Sir William Congreve advocated that the Waltham Abbey Mills should be purchased by the Crown to ensure secure supplies and to establish what would now be called a centre of excellence for development of manufacturing processes and to establish quality and cost standards by which private contractors could be judged. In October 1787 the Crown purchased the Mills from John Walton for £10,000, starting a 204 year ownership. Congreve was a man of immense drive and vision, a pioneer of careful management, quality control and the application of the scientific method. Under his regime manufacture moved from what had been a black art to, in the context of its day, an advanced technology. The distinguished engineer John Rennie coined the phrase ‘The Old Establishment’ in his 1806 report on the Royal Gun Powder Factory. The term refers to the gunpowder mills when they were still privately owned, before they were acquired by The Crown in 1787. Reflecting this, the Mills were able to respond successfully in volume and quality to the massive increases in demand which arose over the period of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars from 1789, culminating in the victory at Waterloo in 1815. In the years following Waterloo the Mills entered a period of quiet with a steep decline in staff numbers and production levels. However there was a steady advance in machinery and process development. The quiet was not to last. Conflict broke out in 1854 with the Crimean War with Russia, followed by the Indian Mutiny and a succession of colonial conflicts followed, culminating in the Boer War of 1899 - 1902. All of this provided the impulse for further development. Whilst the Mills' function was to provide gunpowder for military use, either as a propellant for use in guns, or as a military explosive for demolition, etc., improvements effected there were a strong influence on private industry producing for civil activity - construction, mining, quarrying, tunneling, railway building etc. which created a massive demand for gunpowder in the 19th century.

Research into other explosives
Under the leadership of Sir Frederick Abel, first, Guncotton was developed at Waltham Abbey, patented in 1865; then, the propellant Cordite, patented in 1889. Again there was a close link with production for civil use, with chemical engineering improvements at Waltham Abbey being disseminated to private industry. All this meant that Waltham Abbey had become a leading centre of Victorian and later science and technology, but for reasons of security largely unknown to the outside world.

World War I
World War I 1914 - 1918 brought a huge upsurge in demand. The Mills increased staff numbers by around 3000 to a total of 6230. The 3000 additional workers were largely female, recruited from the surrounding area and this was a significant social phenomenon. After WWI there was again a period of quiet before anxieties about the future again surfaced. It was decided that production at Waltham Abbey would be gradually transferred to the west of the country, safer from air attack from Europe. However in the meantime production continued and crucial development work was carried out on TNT production and on the new explosive RDX.

World War II
During WWII Waltham Abbey remained an important Cordite production unit and for the first two years of the war was the sole producer of RDX. This was the explosive that was used in the Bouncing Bomb. Total transfer of RDX production to the west of England, to ROF Bridgwater; and dispersal of Cordite production to new propellant factories located: in the west of Scotland, three co-located factories at ROF Bishopton, to Wales, ROF Wrexham, and to the North East, ROF Ranskill, was achieved by 1943. Many Waltham Abbey staff played a vital role in developing the new Explosive Royal Ordnance Factories, training staff and superintending production. The Royal Gunpowder Mills finally closed on 28 July 1945.

Post World War use of the site
In 1945 the establishment re-opened as a research centre known as The Explosives Research and Development Establishment, or ERDE; and was in existence to 1977, when it became the Propellants, Explosives and Rocket Motor Establishment, Waltham Abbey, or PERME Waltham Abbey. As a research centre Waltham Abbey was responsible for military propellant and high explosives and expanding into the increasingly significant field of rocket propellants, solid and liquid and a range of specialised applications, e.g. 'snifters' for altering space vehicles direction when in flight, cartridges for firing aircraft ejector seats, engine and generator starter cartridges - these applications have been called 'a measured strong shove'. The rocket activity later extended to the production of rocket motors, including work on the Skylark project. In 1984 the South site and the Lower Island works were handed over to Royal Ordnance Plc immediately prior to its privatisation. The North side however remained in Ministry of Defence control as a research centre; becoming part of the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment. After various reorganisations of Governmental research, the research centre finally closed in 1991, bringing to an end 300 years of explosives production and research.

Sale of the North site by the Ministry of Defence
Following funding from the Government and the Heritage Lottery Fund, the majority of the original North site was saved. It has been sympathetically decontaminated and a heritage visitor centre has been created allowing the public to learn about the science, nature and history of the site.

Heritage site
A large area of the North site is listed as the Waltham Abbey SSSI; and another, but separate, area is a scheduled ancient monument. Visitors can see exhibits related to gunpowder making, tour the site on a land train and see a demonstration narrow gauge railway.

Sale of the South site by Royal Ordnance
The South site also known as Quinton Hill was vacated by Royal Ordnance around the same time and was also decontaminated. This site was totally cleared of buildings and is being redeveloped, with new roads built, including the A121 link road to the M25 motorway. On one side of the A121 road the site is being developed with housing and on the other side a large distribution warehouse. Much of the remaining land was converted into the 255 acres (103 ha) Gunpowder Park, which is part of the Lee Valley Park and was opened in 2004. The regenerated parkland is dedicated to the arts, science and wildlife.

Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills in fiction
  • The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells Book 1 Chapter 17 ‘The Thunder Child’ Here there were rumours of Martians at Epping,and news of the destruction of Waltham Abbey Powdermills in a vain attempt to blow up one of the invaders