In The Beginning

Gunpowder is a mixture of the natural products saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal. Its beginnings are obscure, but it most probably originated in China after saltpetre was discovered. Initially saltpetre was used as a common salt in food, then in alchemy and when its fire effects were discovered for religious purposes to ward off malevolent spirits. Gradually by the 9th century AD it became linked to the other two ingredients to produce incendiary materials for warfare. At this time the explosive effects were not discovered.

Roger Bacon

In the west, knowledge of the new material was first acquired by the Arabs in the 11th century. By the 13th century AD an English monk and experimenter Roger Bacon was writing a description of the formulation of gunpowder and its explosive properties, but he was so fearful of the implications that he wrote in code.

Crude guns were developed to use gunpowder as a propellant, i.e. to fire projectiles. The first known picture of a gun dates from 1327. English soldiers first employed gunpowder in the artillery role at the Battle of Crecy in 1346. An earlier expedition to invade Scotland in 1327 had taken guns but it is not thought that they were used. 

Early supplies of gunpowder in England were hand produced from imported materials in the Tower of London, which acted as a main store and distribution centre and was known as the 'powder house'. The first gunpowder produced in England in privately owned mills was at Rotherhithe on the Thames in 1544.

The story of gunpowder produced at Waltham Abbey starts 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 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.

Royal Gunpowder Mills 1735

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 fresh 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" and in the 1860s by Colonel George Rains as the "best existing steam powered mills in any country". The Royal Gunpowder Mills certainly boast an illustrious past.In operation for over 300 years, there was never a challenge the Royal Gunpowder Mills could not rise to in the development of gunpowder and explosives. 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. 

Sir William Congreve

In the 1780s there was fresh concern over security, quality and economy of supply and 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 scientific method and under his regime manufacture moved from what had been a black art to, in the context of its day, an advanced technology.

Range performance trials on Marlborough Downs 1809-1810 showing superiority of Waltham Abbey material

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 Revolutionary 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.

Sir Frederick Abel

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.

WWI 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. 

WW1 Women Workers at the Royal Gunpowder Mills

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.

In WWII Waltham Abbey remained an important cordite production unit and for the first two years of the war was the sole producer of RDX. Total transfer to the west was achieved by 1943, with many Waltham Abbey staff playing a vital role in developing the new factories, training staff and superintending production and the Mills finally closed in 1943.

Research at the Royal Gunpowder Mills

In 1945 the establishment re-opened as a research centre 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 Ejection 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.

After various reorganisations of Governmental research, the research centre finally closed in 1991, bringing to an end 300 years of explosives production and research. Echoes of this great heritage can still be experienced at the site today. In addition to the many historic buildings, some dating as far back as the 1790s, there is a network of canals which transported the explosives around the site, and a number of historic exhibitions on display.