Woolwich Royal Arsenal gatehouse. (February 2007)
The Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, originally known as the Woolwich Warren, carried out armaments manufacture, ammunition proofing and explosives research for the British armed forces. It was sited on the south bank of the River Thames in Woolwich in south-east London, England.
The Warren in Tower Place was established as an Ordnance Storage Depot in 1671 on a site. An ammunition laboratory (the Royal Laboratory) was added in 1695, and a gun foundry (the Royal Brass Foundry) was established in 1717. By 1777 it had expanded to 104 acres (0.4 km ). Shortly afterwards, convict labour was used to construct a (approximately) brick boundary wall, generally high. In 1804 this wall was raised to near the Plumstead road, and to in other parts. In 1814 16, convict labour was also used to dig a canal (the Ordnance Canal), which formed the eastern boundary.
In 1805, during the reign of King George III, at the King's suggestion, it became known as the Royal Arsenal. By this time, Woolwich was already a busy military centre, with the Woolwich Dockyard to the west of the Arsenal, the Royal Military Academy and the headquarters of the Royal Artillery next to each other to the south. The Royal Military Academy had been originally based at the Royal Arsenal but it was moved to Woolwich Common in 1806, although some of the Cadets did not finally vacate the Arsenal until as late as 1882. The old Military Academy building then became part of the Royal Laboratory. Several buildings within the Arsenal are attributed to architect Sir John Vanbrugh.
The Arsenal was a renowned centre of excellence in mechanical engineering, with notable engineers including Samuel Bentham, Marc Isambard Brunel and Henry Maudslay employed there. Brunel was responsible for erecting the steam sawmills, part of the Royal Carriage Department, Maudslay later expanded this buying more steam machinery. It also became a noted research facility, developing several key advances in armament design and manufacture.
Crimean War build-up
The Royal Arsenal in the 19th century As part of the preparations for the Crimean War (1854 56), Frederick Abel (later Sir Frederick Abel) was appointed the first War Department Chemist with the aim of investigating the new chemical explosives which were then being developed. He was mostly responsible for bringing Guncotton into safe use and for winning a patent dispute brought by Alfred Nobel against the British Government over the patent rights to Cordite which Abel had jointly developed with Professor James Dewar. A new Chemical Laboratory was built to Abel's requirements; this was numbered Building 20. Abel was also responsible for the technical management of the Royal Gunpowder Factory. He retired from the Royal Arsenal in 1888. 1854 also saw the installation of a Retort house for the Royal Arsenal's Gas Works.
By the time of the Crimean War the Royal Arsenal was one of three Royal munitions Factories; the other two being the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield Lock, and the Royal Gun Powder Factory, Waltham Abbey, Essex. The Royal Arsenal greatly expanded its area eastwards outside its brick boundary wall onto the Plumstead Marshes.
In 1868 twenty workers at the Arsenal formed a food-buying association operating from a house in Plumstead and named it the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society. Over the next 115 years the enterprise grew to half a million members across London & beyond, providing services from funerals & housing to libraries & insurance.
In 1886 workers at the Arsenal formed a football club initially known as Dial Square after the workshops in the heart of the complex, playing their first game on 11 December (a 6-0 victory over Eastern Wanderers) in the Isle of Dogs. Renamed Royal Arsenal two weeks later (and also known as the 'Woolwich Reds'), the club entered the professional football league as Woolwich Arsenal in 1893 and later became known as Arsenal F.C., having moved to north London in 1913. Royal Ordnance Factories F.C. were another successful team set up by the Royal Arsenal but only lasted until 1896.
World War I
At its peak, during World War I, the Royal Arsenal extended over some 1300 acres (5.3 km ) and employed around 80,000 people. The Royal Arsenal by then had the Royal Gun Factory, the Royal Shell Filling Factory (which closed in 1940), the Research and Development Department and the Chief Chemical Inspector, Woolwich (the successor to the War Department Chemist). The expansion was such that in 1915 the Government built the 1300-home 'Well Hall Estate' at Eltham to help accommodate the workforce.
In addition to both the massive expansion of the Royal Arsenal and private munitions companies, other UK Government-owned National Explosives Factories and National Filling Factories were built during World War I. All the National Factories closed at the end of the War; with only the three Royal (munitions) Factories (at Woolwich, Enfield and Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills) remaining open through to World War II.
It appears likely that up to the end of World War I, the Royal Arsenal would have been guarded by the Metropolitan Police Force, as they also guarded the Royal Navy Cordite Factory, Holton Heath, in Dorset and the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Priddy's Hard, Gosport up to that time. Since then the Royal Arsenal would have been guarded, until its closure, by the War Office Police Force, who became in 1971 the Ministry of Defence Police Force.
During the quiet period after the end of World War I, the Royal Arsenal built steam railway locomotives. The Royal Arsenal had an extensive standard gauge internal railway system and this was connected to the North Kent Line just beyond Plumstead railway station. The Royal Arsenal also cast the Memorial Plaques given to the next-of-kin of deceased servicemen and servicewomen.
World War II
The build-up to World War II started in the late 1930s / early 1940s. Abel's old Chemical Laboratory was by now too small and new Chemical Laboratories were built in 1937 on Frog Island, on a former loop in the Ordnance Canal.
Staff from the Royal Arsenal helped design, and in some cases managed the construction of, many of the new second World War Royal Ordnance Factories (ROFs) and ROF Filling Factories. Much of its former ordnance production was moved to these new sites as the Royal Arsenal was considered vulnerable to aerial bombing from mainland Europe. The original plan was to replace the Royal Arsenal's Filling Factory with one at ROF Chorley and one at ROF Bridgend. It was then realised that many more ROFs would be needed. Just over 40 ROFs were opened by the end of World War II, nearly half of them Filling Factories, together with a similar number of factories built and run by private companies, such as ICI's Nobels Explosives (although these explosive factories were not called ROFs). Even so, some 30,000 people worked at the Royal Arsenal during World War II.
The Royal Arsenal was caught up in The Blitz; the staff of the Chemical Inspectorate, working with explosives, were evacuated in early September 1940. Shortly afterwards one of the Frog Island buildings was destroyed by bombing and another damaged. The laboratories were partially re-occupied in 1945 and fully re-occupied by 1949. Masters (1995) reports 103 people killed and 770 injured, during many raids, by bombs, V1 flying bombs and V2 rockets.
During the quiet period after the end of World War II, the Royal Arsenal built railway wagons for export. Armament production then increased during the Korean War.
The final run-down
The Woolwich Royal Ordnance Factories closed in 1967 and a large part of the eastern end was sold to the Greater London Council. Much of it was used to build the new town; Thamesmead. A part, around what is now Griffin Manor Way, was used for an industrial estate; the Ford Motor Company being its first tenant in 1955. Two of the roads on this estate Nathan Way and Kellner Road appear to have links with people connected with the Royal Arsenal: a Col. Nathan, at the Royal Gunpowder Factory; and, W. Kellner being the second War Office Chemist.
Shortly after the closure of the Woolwich Royal Ordnance Factories the Frog Island chemical laboratories were moved into a new building erected in 1971, in what was to become the Royal Arsenal East. The old Frog Island area was then sold off and a relocated Plumstead Bus Garage was built on part of this site. This action separated what remained of the Royal Arsenal, some , into two sites: Royal Arsenal West, at Woolwich; and, Royal Arsenal East, at Plumstead, approached via Griffin Manor Way. It also led to breaking down of parts of the 1804 brick boundary wall. Part of it near Plumstead Bus station was replaced by iron railings and chain link fencing; later the public roadway (now the A206) was also changed at the Woolwich market area and the Royal Arsenal's boundary was moved inwards so that the Beresford Gate became detached from the site by the A206.
The Royal Arsenal site retained its links to ordnance production for almost another thirty years as a number of the Ministry of Defence Procurement Executive's, Quality Assurance Directorates had their headquarters offices located there. These included the Materials Quality Assurance Directorate (MQAD), which looked after materiel, including explosives and pyrotechnics; and the Quality Assurance Directorate (Ordnance), (QAD (Ord)), which looked after ordnance for the Army. MQAD being the successor of the old War Department Chemist and the Chemical Inspectorate. There was a separate Royal Navy Ordnance Inspection Department that looked after the Royal Navy's interests.
QAD (Ord) was based at Royal Arsenal West together with a Ministry of Defence Publications section and part of the British Library's secure storage accommodation.
MQAD was based, until closure of the site at Royal Arsenal East; and all the buildings on this site were given E numbers, such as E135. Belmarsh high-security prison was built on part of Royal Arsenal East, becoming operational in 1991.
The Royal Arsenal ceased to be a military establishment in 1994. The sprawling Arsenal site is now one of the focal points for redevelopment in the Thames Gateway zone, but the links to its historic past are not lost. Many notable buildings in the historic original (West) site are being retained in the redevelopment; the site includes Firepower - The Royal Artillery Museum telling the story of the Royal Artillery, and Greenwich Heritage Centre which tells the story of Woolwich, including the Royal Arsenal.
Parts of the Royal Arsenal have been used to build residential and commercial buildings. One of the earliest developments was Royal Artillery Quays, a series of glass towers rising along the riverside built by Barratt Homes in 2003.
The western part of the Royal Arsenal has now been transformed into a mixed-use development by Berkeley Homes. It comprises one of the biggest concentrations of Grade I and Grade II listed buildings converted for residential use, with more than 3,000 residents already living on site. The first phase of homes current for sale at Royal Arsenal is called "The Armouries" consisting 455 new-build apartments set in a six-storey building. The latest phase of homes is called "The Warehouse, No.1 Street". The development has a residents' gym, a Thames Clipper-stop on site, a Streetcar-run car club and a 24-hour concierge facility for residents. Wellington Park provides open space and there is a Young's public house, the Dial Arch, which opened in June 2010.
Plans have now been submitted for a new masterplan encompassing further land along the river. More than 1,700 homes already exist at Royal Arsenal Riverside, with an additional 3,700 new homes planned, along with of commercial, retail, leisure space and a 120-bedroom hotel by Holiday-Inn Express. Also included in the plans is the new Woolwich Crossrail station, which has been part-funded by Berkeley Homes.
- Hogg, Brigadier O.F.G., (1963). The Royal Arsenal Woolwich (Vol 1 & 2). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Masters, Roy, (1995). Britain in Old Photographs: The Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. Strood: Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0-7509-0894-7.
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