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

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