A timeline of gunpowder development and related activities at the Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills

Compiled by Richard Thomas

Pre 800s China, fire mixtures for warlike purposes with no saltpetre in mixture    
By 800s Chinese aware of saltpetre - "hsiao", which appears in Taoist writings    
900s Chinese employ "hsiao" in fire mixtures with other materials    
1044 Wu Ching Tsung Yao written record of fire mixtures for war which, included with other materials a mixture of saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur - "huo yao" fire drug or proto gunpowder    
12th C Arabs add saltpetre to incendiary mix    
1249 Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon sets out the secret of gunpowder in his "Letter on the Secret Workings of Art and Nature, and on the Nullity of Magic" or "De Secretis" and "Opus tertium" giving an account, in code, of saltpetre and gunpowder    
1260s First report in Britain of gunpowder used to propel a projectile.    
Early 1300s Gunpowder made in the Tower of London by hand methods using imported materials    
1327 Cannon used by Edward III in his invasion of Scotland "Crackys of War"    
1346 Bombard used at the Battle of Crecy by the English    
1543 First gunpowder mill in England (?) erected by the Lee family at Rotherhithe.    
1548 Gunpowder first used in civil engineering - dredging of the River Niemen    
1561 First references to gunpowder at Waltham Abbey. Contract in Calendar of State Papers with correspondence from Marc Antonio Erizzo to John Thomworth (Tamworth), merchant of Waltham Abbey, who bought saltpetre and sulphur. Probably as a merchant, not a maker.    
mid 1560s Evelyn Family - gunpowder manufacture at Tolworth Surrey    
1570 Thos Gill and Wm Byrd making gunpowder at Faversham, Kent    
1588     Armada
1590 Map of Waltham Abbey (WASC 900/0) showing the Millhead Stream already in existence and the location of a Fulling Mill (later converted to an Oyle Mill)    
1605     GP Plot
1627 Gunpowder first used for blasting in mining for ore, in Hungary    
1638 Gunpowder first used in Britain for blasting in mining for ore at Ecton copper mine    
1640 Production of Gunpowder at Sewardstone started, probably until 1715. Start of gunpowder industry in Lea Valley.   English Civil War 1642-46
1643 Samuel Hudson as tenant of the Oyle Mill (converted from the Fulling Mill)    
1652 Saltpetre Act   1st Dutch War 1652-4
1662 Thomas Fuller, curate of Waltham Abbey, claims in "History of the Worthies of Great Britain" that more gunpowder was "made by mills of late erected on the River Lea...than in all England besides". (Possibly referring to the Sewardstone Mills.) Also that "the mills in my parish have blown up 5 times in 7 years but blessed be God, without loss of any man's life."    
1665 First recorded deaths at WA.Thomas Guttridge and Edward Simons - killed by a powder mill. Also Ralph Hudson (brother of Samuel) signed ordnance contract to supply gp to the government. The Oyle Mill converted to a Gunpowder Mill.   2nd Dutch War 1664-7
1669 "an Oyle Mill, lately converted into two powder mills... in the tenure of Samuel Hudson"    
1672 Ralph Hudson secured new contract; new mills built at Hooks Marsh Bridge, near present Grand Magazine, which lasted until after 1676   3rd Dutch War 1672-4
1673 Hudson fined    
1676 Ralph Hudson died, succeeded by son Peter who continued with contract until 1693, when he was accused of supplying bad powder. No further contracts awarded    
      War with France 1689-98
1702 William Walton took over the mills. First contract awarded   War of the Spanish Succession 1702-13
1711 William Walton died. His widow Philippa took over with son John.    
1719 Act regulating the storage and transportation of gunpowder    
1724 Further Act regulating the storage and transportation of gunpowder    
1732 Lawsuit against Philippa Walton, widow of William Walton    
1735 John Farmer's plan of the mills. Powder mills worked by horses but corning and glazing was water powered. Mills owned by John Walton, son of Philippa.    
1739 "Only his clothes were found on Galley Hill" - 1 man killed   War of Austrian Succession 1739-48
1741 Act regulating the storage and transportation of gunpowder    
1747 Board of Ordnance first purchase proof mortars    
1748 Act regulating the storage and transportation of gunpowder    
1755 Act regulating the storage and transportation of gunpowder    
1757 John Walton dies; brothers Thomas & Bouchier Walton inherit   7 Years War 1756-63
1759 Government purchased the Faversham Mills    
1767 John Smeaton engaged to design improved mills by Bouchier Walton    
1770 Factory had "several curious gunpowder mills...worked by water" Making 100 x 1cwt barrels per week. Cutting of the Lee Navigation.    
1771 Act regulating the storage and transportation of gunpowder    
1772 Stamp mills outlawed. First Act regulating manufacture of gunpowder    
1779 Capt Congreve inspected Royal Navy's gunpowder at Plymouth - reported that only 4 barrels were serviceable. Sir William Congreve 1st Baronet American War of Indepen- dence 1776-83
1781 Explosion of the Corning & Glazing Engine "3 killed and much damage done in the town"    
1783 First detailed plan of the works WASC 900/1    
11.10.1787 Government became involved with the Mills and started negotiations with Walton for the purchase. Mills producing about 600 barrels p.a. Mr James Wright (1) appointed Storekeeper James Wright (1)  
9.2.1789 Production resumed after refurbishment costing £35,000 under control of Major William Congreve.    
12.2.1789 First explosion at WARGM    
1789 First set of "Gunpowder Rules" issued from Faversham    
1791 Congreve said "not piece work"    
1793 Sunday working introduced.   French Revo- lutionary and Napoleonic Wars 1792-1815 Anglo-American War 1813-15
1793 Steps taken to tighten security.23.2 No beer admitted. 27.2.Gravel found on shoe.- Instructions given to inspect footwear. Many references made to a days pay being stopped for safety transgressions 28.5 Flint found in seive.29.5 First references to traverses being set out.    
1794 Cylinder charcoal introduced, brought in from Faversham    
1795 Final settlement of the purchase. £10,000    
April 1795 First Steam stove    
18.4.1801 Explosion at new Corning House on Horse Mill Island - 9 men and 4 horses killed. (400 barrels removed by boat just before explosion)    
15.7.1801 "No (electrical ?)excitation in rolling barrels on leather covered floors"    
1801 Detailed plan of the works (WASC 900/2)    
1804 Shortage of powder. 9 more horsemills built. Grand Magazine built for 1500 barrels. 20,000 barrels a year forecast. Ballincollig bought by the Crown.  
1805 Cheshunt Cornmill bought and shut down to conserve water for the Gunpowder Mills.  
6.4.1805 Mr H S Matthews appointed Storekeeper H S Matthews
1806 Report by John Rennie. (Archives at Inst of Civil Engineers) Also detailed plan MR 580 (WASC 900/3)  
1809 Waltham Abbey Cornmill bought  
1809 20050 barrels  
1810 20688 barrels  
27.11.1811 Explosion in No 4 Press House on Lower Island. Ensuing fire spread to Corning House and Reel House. - 8 men killed  
1811 21252 barrels  
1811/12 Bramahs Hydraulic Presses introduced instead of screw presses  
1812 21033 barrels. General Congreve created Baronet.  
1813 22398 barrels. 250 men employed  
1814 10161 barrels. William Congreve succeeded his father. There were 5 barges, nine powder boats, two ballast barges and six punts. Sir William Congreve 2nd Baronet
1815 17331 barrels. 1027 barrels regenerated. Battle of Waterloo  
1816 9551 barrels  
1817 2270 barrels  
20.1.1818 Mr E Middleton appointed Storekeeper (died 17.6.1825) E Middleton
1818 1127 barrels  
1819 988 barrels  
1821 1012 barrels  
1822 365 barrels. 307 barrels regenerated. 34 men employed  
1823 208 barrels. 1589 barrels regenerated  
1824 217 barrels. 1602 barrels regenerated  
1825 500 barrels. 2021 barrels regenerated  
29.6.1825 Mr C Wilks appointed Storekeeper C Wilks
1825 Faversham Home Works sold (after leasing to private sector from 1816)  
1826 519 barrels. 3035 barrels regenerated  
1827 505 1/2 barrels. 3396 barrels regenerated  
1829 985 barrels. 1244 barrels regenerated  
1830 2070 barrels. 1988 barrels regenerated  
c1830 Charcoal manufacture transferred to Waltham Abbey  
1831 3294 barrels  
15.10.1831 Mr James Wright (2) appointed Deputy Storekeeper James Wright (2)
1832 2733 barrels.  
13.10.1832 Lt Col. C T Moody C.R.E. appointed in charge of the Royal Gunpowder Manufactory Lt Col C T Moody
1833 Ballincollig sold. WA now only government factory  
1833 1435 barrels. 1139 barrels regenerated  
1834 1077 barrels. 254 barrels regenerated  
1838 Pelouze discovered that treating cotton with nitric acid produced a highly inflammable material  
2.7.1840 Lt Col C T Moody C.R.E. appointed Inspector of Gunpowder  
13.4.1843 Explosion at Corning House and Press House. Very violent - timber found one mile away at Enfield Lock - 7/10 men killed  
1845 Order received for closure, never carried out.  
27.11.1845 Capt Alexr. T Tulloh R.A. appointed Inspector of Gunpowder Capt A T Tulloh
1846 Guncotton (a dangerous rival to gunpowder),discovered by Schönbein following thoughts suggested by his discovery of ozone in 1844. A mixture of sulphuric and nitric acids' nitration on cotton. Bottger discovers guncotton, independently of Schonbein  
1846 Ascanio Sobrero discovered Nitroglycerine involving the nitration of glycerine  
1847 Maynard discovers nitrocellulose soluble in a mixture of ether and alcohol - collodion cotton  
1847 John Hall & Sons(English Patentees) announced production of GC and supply in various packings. 4oz of GC =28oz of GP  
14.7.1847 Hall's factory exploded killing 21 men  
1847/8 3 other explosions in France at Vincennes and Bouchet    
1.7.1852 Major C C Dickson R.A. appointed Inspector of Gunpowder Major C C Dickson  
1852 Austria (Von Lenk) purchases rights to Schonbein GC process    
1853 Capable of producing 20,000 barrels pa    
2.1854 -3.1854 Capt W Henderson appointed Acting Inspector of Gunpowder Capt W Henderson  
4.1854 Col W H Askwith R.A. appointed Acting Inspector of Gunpowder Col W H Askwith Crimean War 1854-6
1854 Faversham Marsh Works sold (after leasing to private sector from 1832)    
18.8.1855 Col W H Askwith R.A. appointed Superintendent    
1856 Water driven hydraulic presses introduced. Demand starts to grow.    
3.1856 Lord Panmure Lea sailing barge built    
1857 First steam driven gunpowder mills (Group A). Also raised tramway system, with trucks propelled by men or boys.   Indian Mutiny 1857-8
29.10.1858 Report on "Government gunpowder works at WA" published in The Engineer    
1860 Explosives Act passed to include new types of explosives - proves inadequate    
27.5.1861 Explosion at Group A Mills   American Civil war 1861-5
Feb 1862 Details of improvement sent to British Government    
July 1862 Another explosion in Austria. GC production banned there    
1862 Alfred Nobel added 10% NG to gunpowder and developed NG as a commercial blasting explosive  
1863 Further experiments on guncotton under Mr (Sir) Frederick Abel, War Office Chemist. Made 1000-2000lbs of GC at WA over next 5 years in adapted saltpetre refinery buildings in Highbridge Street.  
1859 -1863 Nobels discover that NG can be exploded by a mercury fulminate detonator. Immediate significant success as a civil blasting material - blasting oil.  
1864 Lasting cloth adopted as fire prevention measure  
1864 Explosion killed Emil Nobel and 4 others  
1864 Earl de Grey and Ripon Lee sailing barge built  
1865 Abel took out patent after solving difficulties of GC manufacture by pulping. GC became widely used in military mines and torpedoes and as a military & civil blasting agent. Its rate of combustion was too rapid for use as a military propellant and it was too sensitive for shell filling. manufacturing development continued at Highbridge Street.  
1866/1867 Abel publishes "Researches on Guncotton"  
1867 Nobel patented NG with a silica absorbent  
1867 Alfred Nobel greatly increases safety of NG by absorbing in Kieselguhr, an inert porous silica, to produce material in conjunction with a fulminate detonator, named Dynamite  
27.2.1868 Col C W Younghusband R.A. appointed Superintendent Col. C W Younghusband
1868 E. O. Brown discovers that Nobel method of dynamite detonation by mercury fulminate can be applied to compressed GC  
1869 E. O. Brown discovers that wet GC can be exploded by a small primer of dry GC - made handling much safer since GC could now be stored and transported in safer wet state.  
1869 15 boats in use at WA. 21'-30' in length 5'11'' - 8'6'' in width. Also 16 open boats and 2 barges built for the Lee  
16.6.1870 Explosion of Press House on Lower Island. Magazine next door containing 5000 lbs of GP emptied into river. - 5 men killed  
1870 32 pairs of mills 27,000 barrels. 150 men employed  
1871 M Berthelot publishes first treatise on explosives  
1872 Factory at WA to produce 250 tons of guncotton a year in old Saltpetre factory by Highbridge St using Abel process.  
2.10.1874 5 am Macclesfield Bridge, Regents Canal - 2 or 3 barrels of petroleum and 5 tons of GP on narrow boat Tilbury en route for Chilwell near Nottingham exploded. 3 died. This explosion was a contributory factor in bringing about the 1875 Explosives Act  
1.4.1875 Lt Col Young R.A. appointed Superintendent (died 25.5.1875) Young
26.5.1875 Capt Morgan R.A. appointed Acting Superintendent Morgan
29.6.1875 Col R J Hay appointed Superintendent Col R J Hay
1875 Explosives Act. Introduced an effective and longlasting system of licensing and inspection. Col Sir V D Majendie appointed first permanent Inspector of Explosives  
1875 Nobel gelatinised collodion cotton with NG as blasting gelatine - 25% more powerful than Dynamite  
2.8.1877 Explosion of GC in press. Rope Mantlets introduced after this.  
1.7.1880 Col C B Brackenbury R.A. appointed Superintendent Col C.B Brackenbury
1881 Electric lighting installed at WA  
1884 Factory Rule book introduced  
1884 P Vielle produced a rifle powder consisting of a mixture of GC and collodion cotton gelatinised by ether-alcohol called Poudre B (B=Blanche, white) as opposed to Poudre N (N=Noir, black) which was gunpowder.  
1.7.1885 Maj Gen W H Noble appointed Superintendent (died 17.5.1892) Maj Gen W H Noble
1885 South Site (Quinton Hill) purchased  
1885 Turpin in France demonstrated advantages of Picric Acid as shell filling. Adopted by French government under name of "Melinite"  
1888 Nobel produced a military propellant "Ballistite" a mixture of collodion cotton (45%) and NG with camphor as a gelatiniser/moderator  
1888 GC Factory on South Site opened  
1889 Cordite patented by Abel and Dewar - 58% NG, 37% GC, 5% Vaseline using acetone as a solvent.  
22.8.1890 Explosion in No 1 Breaking down house prior to pressing - 2 men killed  
1891 Telephone system introduced  
1.1891 Quinton Hill NG plant completed  
16.3.1891 First charge of glycerine nitrated at Quinton Hill NG plant  
21.3.1891 First incorporation of NG and GC at WA. Sent to Woolwich by barge for further processing .  
17.6.1891 Full production of cordite commences at WA - 2 tons per week  
1.4.1892 Maj F W Barker R.A. appointed Acting Superintendent during Major Noble's illness Barker
1.10.1892 Lt Col W McLintock R.A. appointed Superintendent (until 13.7.1894) Lt Col W McLintock
13.12.1893 Explosion at Cam House on Lower Island. - 9 men killed  
24.4.1894 Beginning of real Safety Practice and Policy  
7.5.1894 Explosion at Quinton Hill NG plant - 4 killed  
31.5.1894 Maj F L Nathan R.A. appointed Acting Superintendent Nathan
27.7.1894 Col J B Ormsby appointed Superintendent Col J B Ormsby
1895 Picric Acid (Lyddite) adopted for British shell filling    
1895 Picric powder introduced as booster for Lyddite    
1895 Opening of Sandhurst Hospital    
1897 NG plant built at Edmonsey on North Site    
1898 Cordite Factory completed on North Site    
20.1.1900 Bt Col F L Nathan appointed Superintendent Bt Col F L Nathan Boer War 1899-1902
1901 Cordite MD introduced (GC 65% NG 30% Mineral jelly 5%)    
1901 Nathan Thomson Rintoul displacement method of NG manufacture patented    
1903 Booster tetryl (CE) entered British service use    
1903 Quinton Hill No 1 Nitrating House plant replaced by Nathan Thomson Rintoul NG displacement plant    
15.12.1903 Explosion of cordite incorporating M/c - 3 killed    
1904 Quinton Hill Guncotton Factory extended. Nathan Thomson displacement system for GC nitration introduced    
1904 Germany commences use of TNT (Tri Nitro Toluene)    
1904 Edmonsey Nitration Plant replaced by Nathan Thomson Rintoul NG displacement plant    
8.2.1909 Bt Col F L Nathan R.A. appointed Superintendent of SA and RG Factories    
6.8.1909 Maj F T Fisher R.A. appointed Superintendent of SA and RG Factories Maj F T Fisher  
1914 26 tons pw cordite   First World War 1914-18
3.1915 64 tons pw cordite    
1915 Cordite RDB introduced. 200 tons pw (52% Collodion Cotton 42% NG 6 % Mineral Jelly)    
1916 Quinton Hill enlarged. Building of Women's Hospital    
15.12.1917 Lt Col P H Evans R.A. appointed Superintendent of RG Factory Lt Col Evans  
1925 WA commenced production of RD 202 fuze powder, a mixture of ammonium perchlorate, charcoal and starch.    
1931 - 32 Total Cordite production at WA 207 tons    
1933 Cordite W introduced, including 6% carbamite in place of mineral jelly    
1933 TNT first made at WA    
12.7.1934 Dr R. C. Bowden appointed Superintendent - 1st civilian. Beginning of winding down. Dr R C Bowden  
1935 - 36 Total Cordite production at WA 662 tons    
1938 RDX Cyclo-trimethane-trinitramine invented. Small pilot plant at Quinton Hill producing 5 tons pw    
late 1930s Cordite RDN introduced including 55% picrite (nitroguanidine)    
1938 - 39 Total Cordite production at WA 3970 tons    
1939 Creation of Bishopton plant. Dr Bowden is transferred there 31.7.1939    
1.8.1939 Mr P G Knapman appointed Superintendent Mr P G Knapman 2nd World War 1939-45
18.1.1940 Explosion at NG Mixing House handling frozen NG - 5 men killed  
20.4.1940 Explosion of NG Mixing House - 5 men killed  
1940 Enemy land mine destroyed the last of the water powered mills  
1940 120 tons NG a week. 75 tons cordite a week  
1943 January - Cordite and RD 202 production stopped. August - GC production stopped. September - NG production stopped  
1.1.1944 Mr R F Smith appointed Managing Chemist Smith
28.7.1945 RGPF formally closed  
31.7.1945 Experimental station of Armament Research Dept. opened  
1.10.1946 Chemical Research and Development Dept.  
1948 Explosives Research and Development Establishment  
1977 Propellants, Explosives and Rocket Motor Establishment  
1984 Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment. North & South Sites split. North remained MOD. South went to Royal Ordnance  
1986 Royal Ordnance bought by BAE Systems  
1989 South Site closed  
7.1991 North Site closed  
1.1992 Remediation contract by S.W. Atkins on behalf of MOD (until 1996)  
1993 English Heritage starts on site (until 1996)
3.1997 Trust takes over.
5.4.2001 Opening scheduled but cancelled due to Foot & Mouth crisis
16.5.2001 Site opened by Duke of Gloucester
17.5.2001 Site opens to the public
  Abbreviations used: WA= Waltham Abbey. WASC = Waltham Abbey Special Collection. WARGM= Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills. GC= Guncotton. GP= Gunpowder. NG= Nitroglycerine. CE= Chemical Explosive. Barrels are 90lb.