Sunday, 4 August 2019

Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills

Not having been before, I didn’t know quite what to expect when I joined my local history group on a visit to Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills recently. I had heard of the site, where gunpowder had been made since the 17th century, but was otherwise slightly in the dark about what went on there. The visit was a revelation. 

The first surprise was just how big the site is. It is reached by a turning off the A121, opposite a McDonalds and a branch of TK Maxx. The presence of the site is announced by a roadside board, but first you must travel through an estate of recently built executive homes. You start to wonder if you are heading the right way, but eventually the road ends in a car park, and the gates of the complex are revealed. 

This innocuous entrance manages to conceal a site of 175 acres in total, which would once have been even larger (before the housing developments). The whole site is effectively an island, bounded by the River Lea and various of its tributaries. The site is low-lying and no doubt prone to flooding, but water was central to the industrial activities that took place here. 

There had been mills here for many hundreds of years, associated with the monks of Waltham Abbey itself. An early 17th century mill was adapted for making vegetable oil, and then at some point again, and certainly by the 1660s, converted to the manufacture of gunpowder. 

The tour of the site began with a video, on show in the permanent exhibition hall, which explained the 9th-century Chinese origins of gunpowder: a mixture of saltpetre (potassium nitrate, 75%), sulphur (10%) and charcoal (15%). Water could also be added to enable the gunpowder to be formed into blocks or cakes by means of screw presses.

The mills at Waltham Abbey were owned first by the Hudson family, and then the Walton family, who eventually sold to the Crown in the 1780s. The military use of the mills was associated at first with Lieutenant-General Sir William Congreve, who oversaw the expansion of production. Gunpowder was a useful propellant, since it generated sufficient power to fire a bullet or rocket, without being so great as to explode the device from which the ammunition was fired. 

The gunpowder produced at Waltham Abbey played an important role in the wars with France, and also influenced American gunpowder production. The line in the US anthem ("The Star-Spangled Banner") -- "...the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air" -- is a reference to the Congreve rockets that were used in naval and military assaults at this time (invented by Sir William's son). 

Gunpowder continued to be manufactured at Waltham Abbey into the 19th century, and was used in the Crimean war and later the Boer war, as well as for large-scale civil engineering such as the building of the railway network. Steam-powered technology replaced the use of the water-driven mills. The second stage of the mills’ life was connected with the development of cordite as a replacement for gunpowder from 1889 onwards. Cordite, an admixture of guncotton and nitroglycerine, had the benefit of being smokeless, and became the primary produce from the Waltham Abbey site during World War One. Thereafter, other explosives produced at Waltham Abbey included TNT and RDX, used in the bouncing bomb in World War Two.

The third phase of the site’s development came after 1945, when it served as the Explosives Research and Development Establishment, or ERDE during the Cold War. Here, rocket technologies were developed, right up until the site was decommissioned in 1991. 

Still owned by the Ministry of Defence, the gunpowder mills site is now largely run by volunteers, some of them former members of staff from ERDE days. We were taken on a trailer ride across the site, which is heavily overgrown in parts. Nestling among trees, scrub and ponds are semi-derelict remnants of each of the three phases: 18th-century powder mills, 19th-century cordite-mixing plants, and 20th-century research structures. The buildings often showed signs of their high-explosive purposes: they would have solid blast walls built next to them, or be built in shapes (such as the E-form) that were considered better for minimising the effect of accidental explosion. 

We heard of how the workers at the site had to take special care with their clothing. Matches and anything else that could cause a sudden detonation were strictly forbidden. In fact, the fear of contamination by dirt meant that workers often had to change into special clothing, including leather boots known as ‘Waltham Abbeys’. They would be instructed to work patiently and carefully, and to walk slowly and to avoid any action that might cause a sudden spark. There were fatalities at the site from time to time. Those workers involved in mixing acids for cordite were told to jump into the nearest water if the acid ever spilled on them. We heard of one worker, required to monitor temperatures all-day long, who was given a one-legged stool to sit on, to deter him from falling asleep on the job.

The future of the site is somewhat uncertain. After all, what is to be done with a group of largely derelict buildings, tucked away on an abandoned wetland site? Waltham Abbey has similarities with a site such as Orford Ness, also decommissioned in the early 1990s and now maintained by the National Trust in a spirit of ‘curated decay’. At Orford Ness, the history of 20th century military research vies with the conservation of a particularly rare form of shingle and the plant and animal life that is associated with it. At Waltham Abbey too, nature is slowly intruding to become the more dominant feature of the site, now that the leather-clad workforce has disappeared. In the middle of our trailer tour, we caught a glimpse of a group of fallow deer, their large antlers just visible to the naked eye as they sheltered from the sun under a clump of alder trees. 

Waltham Abbey Gunpowder Mills can be visited in the summer months on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Special tours can also be booked through Invitation to View

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Bartlow Hills

A landscape palimpsest worthy of the name is at Bartlow in Cambridgeshire, near to the northern Essex border. Here, the Victorians drove a railway line through a Roman burial ground laid out in the first century AD. The railway itself disappeared in the 1960s, not having anywhere near the longevity therefore of three of the Roman mounds, the central one (at 13 metres) the largest of its kind in northern Europe.
Victorian railway tunnel cutting into Mound 5 at Bartlow Hills

Whatever possessed the Victorians to think that this was a good spot for a piece of transport infrastructure? Not long before the railway arrived the mounds had been excavated, revealing a treasury of finds: containers of cremated remains, lodged within wooden chests that also included vessels of food and drink, flowers, box leaves, incense and traces of blood, wine and milk mixed with honey. The finds were taken to Easton Lodge in Essex, the home of the Maynard family, but the fire of 1847 that destroyed the Elizabethan mansion  at Easton also destroyed the majority of the artefacts (though some examples still survive at Saffron Walden Museum).

Mounds 4 and 7 at Bartlow Hills

Perhaps the removal of the treasures inclined the railway company to think there was no harm in driving a train track and tunnel through this most ancient of sites. There were originally eight mounds in total, and traces of a few more survive on private land adjacent to the three that still stand today. These three are now held in guardianship by Cambridgeshire County Council, meaning that the mounds are fully accessible for public visiting. It is well worth climbing the stairs on the largest of them, to take in the view from the top.

The footpath leading to the mounds begins in the churchyard of Bartlow church, itself well worth a visit because of the remnants of its elaborate wall paintings. Three of these survive too, details of late 14th-century decorative paintings depicting St George’s dragon, the weighing of souls by St Michael, and the bearded face of St Christopher. The church is one of only two round-towered churches in Cambridgeshire, and it is said that King Cnut ordered it to be built after the Battle of Assandun, when the Danes were triumphant over the English army of Edmund Ironside. (Sadly there is no evidence to support this theory, and the exact location of the Battle of Assandun remains unknown.)

St Michael, weighing souls, Bartlow Church

St Christopher, Bartlow Church

St George's Dragon, Bartlow Church

Bartlow Church, Cambridgeshire


Saturday, 5 January 2019

Enoch Girling put it out

One of my Christmas highlights was the series of Late Junctions on Radio 3 hosted by Stewart Lee. Lee’s passion for interesting (if obscure) music made for some very enjoyable discoveries, which included for me the Suffolk-based violinist Laura Cannell. Cannell’s recent album, Hunter Huntress Hawker, featured on the set list, and I subsequently discovered it had been recorded in St Andrew’s church, Covehithe, on the Suffolk coast.

This reminded me of the visit we made to St Andrew's in August last year, while taking our (now customary) Suffolk holiday. It was a somewhat typical late summer’s day – for which read grey, cold and rainy. I had not been to Covehithe before but had heard much about it – not least from the China Miéville short story. (Miéville once worked in Chapel Books in Westleton, not far from Covehithe.)

Covehithe is significant because half of the church is no longer there. The bulk of the 15th-century fabric is now ruinated, having been pulled down in the second half of the 17th century when the costs of repairing it had become too prohibitive. Instead, the parishoners downsized, and built a smaller thatched church on the footprint of the earlier one, abutting the still-standing tower.

The medieval ruins are evocative. But then so is the 17th -century church. Inside is a 15th-century font. Two curious medallions on the north and south walls record the rebuilding of the church with the words ‘James Gilbert put it out 1672’ and ‘Enoch Girling put it out 1672’. Gilbert and Girling were officers of the parish, who ‘put out’ the contract for the rebuild.  

St Andrew's church is now partly looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust, and is well worth a visit.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

A Bray Library in Newport, Essex

Our village has the reasonably rare honour of having been given a Parish Library in the early 18th century. This was also known as a Bray Library, since it was a gift of the ‘Trustees for Erecting Parochial Libraries’ associated with the clergyman Thomas Bray (1656-1730).

Thomas Bray

Bray was a missionary and founder of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) in 1698. His particular interest was in publishing Christian texts for circulation in the colonies – he spent time in Maryland, establishing parish libraries there in order to plant the Church of England in North America. On his return to this country in around 1701 he began establishing libraries of theological works in parishes here too. Perhaps 80 parish libraries were established in this way, of which Newport’s was one, having been founded in 1710.

The records of the SPCK happen to be held at the University Library, Cambridge. I invited a rare libraries expert from the University Library, Mark Purcell, to inspect what remains of Newport’s Bray library. The Library is held in the room above the porch, normally firmly locked, and accessible only via a very steep spiral staircase (albeit now nicely restored). The room itself is somewhat bare and very dusty. It consists of two book cases and a book cupboard – perhaps the original cupboard used for housing the Bray library, since the markings of where the catalogue would have been pasted can still be seen on the inside of the cupboard door. Various boxes of papers gather dust, and cobwebs and rodent droppings are much in evidence.

The original Bray Library cupboard
According to an excerpt from the official directory of Parochial Libraries, which Mark copied for me, Newport received 72 volumes in 1710. More volumes were added in 1834. The collection was given up in 1870 but then re-established in 1879 and further augmented in 1889 and 1896. Of the original 1710 volumes, only 49 remained by 1834 and then only 3 or 4 by 1959. Therefore, the Newport Bray Library is, unfortunately, nothing of the sort, since very few of the original books remain in the collection.

However, there are lots of books, perhaps 800 or so, many of them dating from before 1800. These must be associated with the periods of library augmentation in the 19th century. Mark wondered if the story of the Library is connected with what happened to the Newport Free Grammar School (now the Joyce Frankland Academy). The school was originally housed in the building now known as Church House, directly opposite the church, before moving to its new site in c.1878. Perhaps the building of the new school premises, and the removal of the school from the immediate vicinity of the church, was the reason why the room above the church was fitted out as a library room in around 1879. Certainly, Mark felt the fireplace now in the room dated from this time.

It seems a shame that Newport's Parochial Library is not often seen or used, but then the texts will be of little relevance to readers today (many of the earliest are in Latin or Greek). We already have a handwritten list of the books in the room, but perhaps there is work to be done to write this list up into a more detailed database, which could include a record of the various handwritten inscriptions inside (sometimes giving evidence of the provenance of individual volumes). The first task, though, would be simply to dust the room, though this is likely to be a filthy job that would then need to be repeated on a fairly regular basis.

Monday, 6 August 2018

8.16am, Monday August 6th

In his 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, HG Wells prophetically imagined a history of the future. It was not an optimistic prospect. He anticipated a world war of colossal magnitude starting in 1940 and finishing in 1949. Aerial weaponry would be put to devastating effect, levelling entire cities. Wells postulated that humankind would be shattered as a consequence, and would face years of famine and disease. Only through the dictatorship of a technologically-driven elite would a new, utopian world order be established.

Wells’ vision certainly had an impact. It inspired Alexander Korda’s film Things to Come (1936), and was manifestly prescient about the outbreak of world war, even though this happened a year earlier than Wells anticipated, in 1939. 

In his prediction of the way technology could be harnessed for militaristic ends, Wells was perhaps mindful of the discoveries of the scientist Leo Szilard, whom he had met in 1929. Szilard was an émigré Hungarian physicist, who in 1933, the same year as Wells' book, conceived of the nuclear chain reaction process, which led to his patenting of the design for a nuclear reactor. Emigrating to the USA, Szilard became closely involved in the Manhattan Project, though he later expressed deep remorse that his scientific discoveries had been employed so directly to cause human death and destruction.

Monday 6th August 1945 will forever be significant, as the date that a USA B-29 Superfortress bomber dropped an atomic bomb, ‘Little Boy’, over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The day had begun much like any other – a regular summer morning in a busy, bustling city, for a time Japan’s capital. A typhoon on 1 August had delayed the bombing raid, but now all was calm and peaceful. ‘The hour was early, the morning still, warm, and beautiful… Shimmering leaves, reflecting sunlight from a cloudless sky, made a pleasant contrast with shadows in my garden’, wrote Michihiko Hachiya, a resident who survived.

The B-29, nicknamed ‘Enola Gay’ by one of the pilots (after his mother's name), took off from Tinian. The ‘Little Boy’ bomb inside the plane looked to one of the crew members like ‘an elongated trash can with fins’. It was a gun-type fission weapon, whereby a quantity of uranium-235 was divided into two parts, and an explosive device fired one part into the other, triggering the nuclear chain reaction. Such was the potential volatility of the bomb that the explosives were only inserted into it after the plane had taken off on its fateful flight. A timer would enable just enough time for the plane to escape the force of the blast.  

The bomb was dropped just after 8.15am and fell for 44 seconds from the B-29, exploding 500 metres above the city, at the time of 8.16am. In an instant, the entire world had changed.

Surviving eye witnesses (from just outside of the city centre) recorded experiencing at first a blinding light, seemingly from nowhere but illuminating everything (in Japanese, a pika). It had a photographic effect, leaving shadows forever inscribed on surfaces, such as the famous shadow left by the unknown person captured sitting on the granite steps of one of Hiroshima’s banks.

Then came an intense heat, reaching 10,000 oF at its core. All animal and insect life in the vicinity disintegrated at a stroke: birds, insects, pets, mammals – all were instantly cremated. Human life within the hypocentre of the explosion suffered similarly, perishing in an instant from a 370m-diameter fireball. Many beyond the immediate radius did not die but instead suffered atrocious burns. ‘In my mind’s eye, like a waking dream, I could still see the tongues of fire at work on the bodies of men’

After the heat came the radiation, as the dust and ash swept up in the fireball – the famous mushroom cloud – fell to ground. Eyewitnesses recorded that the world suddenly went from blinding white light to dark grey and brown colours. The falling debris was referred to as ‘black rain’, and anyone caught up in it was at risk of a fatal dose of radiation. ‘There was a fearful silence which made one feel that all people and all trees and vegetation were dead’ said Yoko Ota.

The effect on human life was devastating. 70,000 died as a direct result of the bomb, and a further 70,000 would die in the weeks and months ahead from its poisonous effects. The after-effects meant that as many as 200,000 people in total were killed as a result of the bomb over a five-year period.

The effect on the city itself was equally destructive. Of Hiroshima’s 76,000 buildings, 48,000 were obliterated, and 70,000 were ruined.  Traditional Japanese buildings, many of them made from wood and paper, fell ‘as if they had been scythed’ (Robert Rhodes). The bomb levelled the city entirely, leaving behind just a few skeletons of buildings.

On a visit to Hiroshima earlier this year, I saw for myself how a modern city has been rebuilt out of this apocalyptic event. But at the heart of this city, near the hypocentre of the explosion, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum stands as a testament to the devastating effect of the Little Boy bomb. The experience is gruelling. But the overriding emotion at the end of it is one of hope and determination. The Peace flame outside the museum in the Memorial Park burns day and night, and won’t be extinguished until the last nuclear bomb has been decommissioned.

Also part of the Memorial Park is the ‘A-Bomb Dome’, the former Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall of 1915. This was one of the few buildings to survive the blast, but in a ruinated state, with the green-domed roof now a skeleton. Whereas other ruins have been supplanted by modern high-rise developments, this one has been deliberately left to stand as a reminder of the effects of the bomb. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Conservation work has been carried out to ensure the building always looks as it did just after 8.16am on 6 August 1945. Only the greenness of the grass speaks to the eventual triumph of nature over human catastrophe. 

Quotes are taken from Robert Rhodes, The Making of the Atom Bomb (1988).

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Hampstead in Hertfordshire: A trip to Stansteadbury

My local history group recently went on a trip to Stansteadbury in Hertfordshire, organised through the excellent Invitation to View scheme.

Stansteadbury is a rambling manor house with multiple alterations from many different ages. It could almost be a different place each time you look, depending on which front you are facing, a concoction of Tudor, 19th and 20th century on one side, and classical Georgian box on the other. It truly has a bit of everything, but resolves into a pleasing amalgam of five centuries of organic growth and development.

Pevsner in his Hertfordshire volume likened Stansteadbury to a Hampstead villa relocated to the rolling Hertfordshire countryside. Perhaps he was suggesting that a house susceptible to so much fashionable alteration over time might be more suited to a smart London address than a place in the country. Nevertheless, Stansteadbury fits comfortably in its rural setting, just a few miles from Harlow but hidden alongside the A414 (which was laid out across part of the park).

Many houses in Hertfordshire and the surrounding counties were the creations of wealthy Londoners - lawyers, politicians, bankers - who wanted to establish themselves in country seats not too far from the capital. Stansteadbury was definitely one of these, being a monastic estate granted by Queen Elizabeth I to Edward Baeshe, politician and naval administrator. (Baeshe’s second wife was the daughter of Sir Ralph Sadler of Sutton House in Hackney.) Queen Elizabeth visited at least three times in the 1570s.

By 1678 the house had been sold to Paul Field, a London lawyer. In the 18th century the house was leased from the owners of nearby Briggens Hall, now a hotel.  By 1802 Stansteadbury was the home of Captain Robert Jocelyn. In the 19th century it came into the hands of the Trower family who remain there today.

In 1700 a view of Stansteadbury showed a double avenue approaching the house from the east, though that is now gone. The house is surrounded by outbuildings, walled gardens and parkland scenery (the licence to empark 300 acres was granted to Edward Baeshe in 1577).

The house is full of stories. The south side of the house was originally a forecourt, but this was replaced in the early 20th century by a terrace according to a design by Lutyens’ nephew, Derek Lutyens. On the west side is an entirely new wing, dated 1929, built  by William Trower for the domestic staff in the house - not realising of course that the era of houses such as this having extensive domestic staff was shortly to come to an end. During the Second World War Jeremy Bentham lived here - a consequence of Stansteadbury being the store for the UCL library collection which includes Bentham’s preserved body (his ‘auto icon’).

The lawyer Anthony Trower commuted daily from here to his London office, being in a line of London lawyers who made Stansteadbury their home. According to his obituarist,

Each morning he would walk across his fields to the railway station, and leave his gumboots in the signal box, where he kept his shoes for work. He always sat in the same seat on the same train, opposite the same man; half way through the journey they would swap newspapers - and not once, it was said, did they ever exchange a word.”

Afterwards we visited St James’ church, now owned by the Churches Conservation Trust and adjacent to the house. The church contains its original box pews, but no electricity (Christmas services are still by candlelight). A memorial brass of particular relevance to our local history group was that to William, son of Joyce Frankland. His early death in a horse-riding accident led to Joyce Frankland, another wealthy Londoner, establishing a school in our village to his memory.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

The Sisterhood of the Wheel

When I first moved to Newport, Essex, I was mystified as to what was making the strange sounds on Sunday morning. While the village could be beautifully still and quiet at this time, a regular swishing noise seemed to be emanating from somewhere. It didn’t take long to work out that the sound was being generated by the cyclists racing on the High Street outside, each of them with their own number marked in day-glo yellow on the backs of their racing jerseys.
Essex cyclist Alex Dowsett
We still get races taking place on the street outside our house. The long, straight-ish road, with its gentle climbs and declivities, seems perfectly suited to the sport. It was a revelation to hear that on-road racing of this kind had technically been illegal until the 1960s, though had been practised for at least half a century before then. Essex was particularly known for its cycling scene, with hundreds of clubs established, some of which remain very active. Police permission is now required before a race, or more correctly, a time trial, is held.
ERO D/Z 518/1 - the guest book of the Cock Tavern, Chipping Ongar, used by cyclists to record their stay
The occasion for this outbreak of reminiscences about the heyday of Essex cycling was a talk in our village by Dr Sheila Hanlon, an expert in women’s cycling history. Sheila traced the particular story of ‘ladies cycling clubs’, from the 1890s through to the present day. Ladies Cycling Clubs were a manifestation of the cycling craze of the 1890s, but as Sheila explained they had all sorts of other meanings too. Ultimately, they were a political movement, associated with the progressive idea (for the time) that women had independence, agency and autonomy. Sheila’s research has traced the connection between cycling and the campaign for women’s suffrage, for example, and it was timely to hear her paper in the year we mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act.
The ladies' cycling craze of the 1890s - from
Women’s cycling clubs emerged in London and in northern English cities in the early 1890s. One of the first, the Hammersmith Ladies Cycling Club had as its President the actress Ellen Terry. The Graphic teased that one of its club rules was that ‘No gentleman was to be spoken to during our runs under any pretext whatsoever’. Despite the somewhat predictable scorn they attracted from male journalists, there were soon a great many such clubs, and the Ladies Cyclists Association was formed as an umbrella representative body. The link between cycling and progressive politics was apparent in the number of political parties that established their own cycling clubs, in particular on the left (such as the Clarion socialist cycling clubs). The Countess of Warwick, of Easton Lodge, Dunmow, Essex, was a noted cyclist about whom the song ‘Daisy, Daisy’ is said to have been written. She was a friend and associate of the campaigner WT Stead, who established the Mowbray House Cycling Association.
LCA meeting, from
The early cycling craze had lost some momentum by the time of the First World War, not least as motoring increased in popularity as a leisure pursuit. But cycle races were now becoming a more popular pastime, and in 1922 the Essex-based Rosslyn Ladies Cycling Club was founded. The Rosslyn, typical of racing clubs at the time, made use of cycling huts that were established off the main road at Ugley, just down the road from Newport. Members would cycle out to the huts on a Saturday, often from homes in north London, spend the night in dormitories there before then devoting Sunday to race meetings. The huts were basic and lacked running water or electricity. Club members who came to the talk recalled having to pump up the Tilley lamps if they were first to arrive at the club, as well as the rules about male visitors being required to ring a bell to announce their arrival and leave by 930pm at the latest. Nonetheless, there was clearly much camaraderie between the men’s and ladies’ cycling clubs, as evidenced by the fact that so many of the women ended up marrying men from the other clubs.

Dr Sheila Hanlon and some of the Rosslyn Ladies Cycle Club members

Our talk was all the more interesting because a number of members of the Rosslyn Ladies Cycling Club were in the audience, including PatSeeger who won numerous prizes in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Pat explained that her interest in the club was first sparked by the fact that she regularly cycled between London and Nottingham in the early years of her marriage. We were thrilled Pat and the other members of the Rosslyn (and other cycling clubs) were able to join us for Sheila’s lecture and the discussion afterwards – it made for a fascinatingly rich account of the vibrant Essex cycling scene.