Discover the science and history surrounding the manufacture of gunpowder and other explosives by taking our 23 point Online Audio Tour which can be listened to by clicking the speaker icons below.

When you visit our site in person, you may also take our Self Guided Audio Tour by scanning the QR Codes on each Information Panel with your Mobile phone.

The Historical Walk Audio Tour includes 23 points of interest, each with an interpretative sign and audio commentary, and concentrates on the areas concerned with gunpowder and cordite manufacture. Other chemical explosives, nitroglycerine, guncotton and tetryl were manufactured in the northern part of the site which is now the nature reserve.

Royal Gunpowder Mills Waltham Abbey - An Illustrated Tour

We also have a guide book to accompany the audio tour, available at the ticket office or online here...

Self Guided Mobile Phone Audio Tour

If you have an internet enabled Mobile Phone with a QR Code scanner app, you will be able to scan the QR Code on each Information Panel and listen to the more detailed commentary for each way-point of the tour.

Note: You must have your own internet enabled Mobile Phone with a QR Code scanner app.


Online Audio Tour

THE ROYAL GUNPOWDER MILLS TODAY

Following closure of the site by the Ministry of Defence in 1991, a charitable foundation was set up to safeguard the site in perpetuity. With the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Ministry of Defence, the first stage of the works to restore some of the buildings and waterways and open the site to visitors has taken place. With such a large site and many more buildings, the Trustees will be raising funds to begin the next stage of the process, so that visitors can experience more of this internationally important site.


CORDITE DRYING STOVE

Cordite propelled the millions of shells fired by the British Army during World War I. Vast quantities were needed and in 1914 the national product jumped from 3,600 to 16,000 tons. The Royal Gunpowder Mills entrance building (H7), situated on the Great Hoppit, was built in 1904. It was a ‘cordite drying stove’. Steam pipes ran through the whole building to supply the heat to dry the cordite. The earth traverses which surround the building were built to contain the blast in the event of an accidental explosion.


BETWEEN THE OLD AND THE NEW

At this part of the site is the junction between two important areas of the site. The 18th century old establishment ran along Mill Head stream, whilst the newer part of the site built between 1908 and 1915 include the Incorporating Mill and Power House.







THE OLD ESTABLISHMENT

The distinguished engineer John Rennie (1761-1821) coined the phrase ‘The Old Establishment’ in his 1806 report on the Royal Gunpowder Factory.

This term refers to the gunpowder mills when they were still privately owned, before they were acquired by the Crown to become the Royal Gun Powder Factory in 1787. Foundations remain on this part of the site belonging to a large waterwheel which drove two water-powered stamp mills. These giant, noisy, mortar and pestle mills were used to mix thoroughly the gunpowder ingredients. In the 1760s they were replaced by a pair of edge-runner mills known as Head Mills. Stone edge runners from these mills were left around the site, and can now be used as seats.


THE ISLAND

This is the oldest group of buildings on site. Walton’s House, the mixing house and saltpetre melting house were constructed soon after the government’s purchase of the works in the 1787. Walton’s House was named after the last private owner of the works. Despite its domestic appearance it seems to have been constructed as a purpose-built office building. Various additions were made to the original two-storied structure.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, it was used as an office. It now houses the Archive and Study Centre. The mixing house was where the gunpowder ingredients - sulphur, saltpetre and charcoal - were mixed ready for the lengthy process of incorporation. The building alongside it was for a melting house where saltpetre was melted for use in gunpowder manufacture. From the 1780s it was prepared concentrated and crystallised in a refinery whose remains lie beneath the junction of Highbridge Street and Beaulieu Drive.


THE FIRST STEAM-POWERED MILLS

The Group A incorporating mills were destroyed in one of the most spectacular explosions in the history of Waltham Abbey on 27 May 1861, only 4 years after they were built. Men were clearing the mills when "one of them, using a wooden handspike saw the powder flash". He threw himself into the water to extinguish his burning clothes. Another was not so lucky: "he was found lying on the long grass in front of the mill, his clothes in a mass of flame" and later died in hospital.

These mills were the first and the last to adopt an arrangement of interlocking trapezoidal bays as shown in the picture; all the other groups of mills were built with rectangular bays. The engine house and mechanics shop (L168), still exist, along with the boiler house which supplied them with steam (L176), although the chimney has been demolished. Behind these buildings stands the Power House, built between 1908 and 1915. It comprised a boiler room and an engine house.


QUEEN MEADS

Here you can see the ambitious mid-19th century building programme which had started with the Group A mills. This expansion started shortly after the end of the Crimean War (1853-56) and was driven by two factors. The development and maintenance of Queen Victoria’s Empire led to a high demand for explosives. The introduction of steam power also meant that there was no longer a need to find sites near the water.

This whole area developed around Queen Meads like a village around its green. Group C mills (now L157) were built in 1861, followed by Group D in 1867, Group F and E in 1878. This group of Italianate mills formed the largest and most impressive steam gunpowder mills in Britain. This vast L-shaped mill formation contained at total of 30 mills each able to process 50lbs(22kg) of ‘green charge’ every 3 or 4 hours. A hand operated tramway system was introduced at the same time and was operational from 1857 or 1858.


GROUP C INCORPORATING MILLS

These mills (L157), built in 1861, were the prototype for the line of gunpowder incorporating mills that stretches along Queen Meads. Each unit was T-shaped with two and later three mills on either side of a central engine house. There was a boiler room at the back, a chimney (now demolished) and a coal yard. The engine house contained a steam powered beam engine which drove the edge runners in all six bays of each individual incorporating mill.

Shortly before World War I this gunpowder mill, and the others around it, were converted for manufacturing cordite. Cordite propelled the millions of shells fired by the British Army during World War I. Vast quantities were needed and there was intensive production at Waltham Abbey.

The Royal Gunpowder Mills entrance building (H7), situated on the Great Hoppit, was probably built between 1904 and 1916. It was originally used for drying reels of cordite and is surrounded by earth traverses to contain the blast in the event of an accidental explosion. Cordite reels were placed on racks and dried by the heat from steam pipes which passed through the building.


THE NEW ESTABLISHMENT

On 15 December 1902, a terrible explosion killed 3 men and severely damaged the Group G incorporating mills (L148). The risk of explosions was real throughout the site but with the great concentration of mills in this area the risks were higher. The Group E Mills (L149) have a distinctive Accumulator Tower which provided hydraulic power for the works, enabling gunpowder presses to be operated from a distance and so more safely.

They were originally constructed in the 1860s to produce a type of gunpowder called pellet powder. Manufacture of this type of powder soon ceased and they were converted into incorporating mills. The Accumulator tower contained water tank with a weight-loaded ram which was connected by water pipes to hydraulic presses and another remote tower. A steam engine pumped water into the accumulator to raise the ram, which provided the hydraulic pressure in the pipes to operate the presses. The cluster of small buildings on this side of the canal is a noticeable feature. They were late additions designed for a variety of uses: L150, the largest building, was built in 1941 as an air raid shelter later converted to a solvent store. Behind it is an oven room built in 1959 (L164). The small building alongside it (L144) dates from 1960 and is one of the many solvent and waste stores dotted around the site.


MAGAZINE LAND

A great number of magazines, or stores for explosives- are spread around the site but this early cluster, overlooking Middle Stream, is particularly picturesque. The nearest (L138) is also the oldest, built in 1870. Further along is an 1882 tray store and across the canal from it stands an 1879 magazine.

Behind these on the right stands Press House No2 (L134) built during World War I and associated with the cordite incorporating houses on the east of Middle Stream. The 3-storey Accumulator Tower built in 1878 worked with the main accumulator in the Group E Mills, to supply hydraulic power to buildings at the north and west. The semi-circular bridge, built around 1904, has the same as the roofs of the powder boats which carried explosives along the canal network.


CANAL WALK

On 5 February 1902, this idyllic spot was the scene of a terrible explosion. The Blank Cutting House which blew up was immediately rebuilt and the result is the building you can see across the canal. The traverse on one side, built to contain explosions, dates back to before 1880.






HIGH WATERS - IDYLLIC SETTING

The small building on the right is a magazine (1902). In the distance a proof stand and a firing chamber date from the 1950s.








STORAGE AND TRANSPORT

The magazine on this site was built between 1908 and 1914 as a cordite paste store. Its survival with surrounding features affords a glimpse into its past layout. A small section of narrow gauge railway track may still be seen at the back of the building. The front of the store overlooks the canal and confirms the role played by water for moving explosives around the site. A single steam pipe is inside the magazine.




SAFETY ON SITE

The early 20th century paste store magazine (L105) was built at the same time as the previous store overlooking the canal. Here, however, the building is surrounded by an earth traverse on all sides.







GUNPOWDER MOULDING HOUSE

The massive ‘E’ shaped concrete traverse formed two compartments in which there were two press houses. These would have been timber-framed structures set on brick foundations. All that remains today is the mass concrete traverse - an early use of concrete - which aimed to contain the blast in the event of an explosion. It was built in two phases, with the first on the left in 1882. The less well-finished right hand bay was added in 1884 and the marks made by the timber shuttering are still visible.


THE BURNING GROUND

The Burning Ground dates from 1963 and is a relatively recent addition to the site. This is where various types of discarded explosives or unwanted materials were burned and destroyed. This piece of triangular ground also has much earlier structures. The nearby Gunpowder Moulding House was served by two magazines (L102 and 103), overlooking the canal and separated by a mass concrete traverse.




PRESS HOUSE

These are the unique remains of a Victorian hydraulic press house. The more gunpowder was pressed, the more effective it became. After it had been thoroughly incorporated, the ‘mill cake’ was crushed between rollers to form a powder. In the press house the powder was loaded between copper plates in a wooden box and pressed for 15 minutes.





DINING IN THE WOODS

The derelict building on the left dates back to 1861. It performed a variety of functions. It started life as a box house and it soon became a dining room for the workers. When in 1993 it was first recorded by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, the interior was still fitted with pigeon holes as well as a contraband box for such forbidden items as matches and cigarettes.




THE NATURE RESERVE

By 1907 there was around 5 miles of navigable waterways inside the factory. These waterways now attract a wide range of animals and birds, and we have Essex’s largest heronry. Herons feed on aquatic animal life and breed here every year. In 1994 a survey recorded 36 successful breeding pairs. It is an important part of the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) within the Royal Gunpowder Mills site.




ALDER PLANTATION

The woodland is Common alder (Altus glutinosa). After Alder buckthorn this wood makes the best charcoal. It was the species most commonly used to make charcoal for military powder. Charcoal is created by burning wood slowly and evenly with as little air present as possible. After a few days all that’s left is a black carbon residue-charcoal.





LABORATORIES & SECRET RESEARCH

These climactic cubicles were constructed in 1951 by which time the Royal Gunpowder Factory had ceased to produce explosives. On 28 July 1945 the factory had formally closed its doors but had re-opened a few months later as a Research Establishment. The building across the road was a manager’s office by 1912 but some time after World War I it had become a Heat Test Room.




THE LAST GUNPOWDER MILLS

When production at Waltham Abbey switched from gunpowder to cordite towards the end of the 19th century, the gunpowder mills around Queen Meads were all converted to make cordite. With the outbreak of World War I new cordite facilities were developed on the far side of the Middle Stream.






DUSTING HOUSE

Dusting House No.3 (Bldg. 159) was buiIt on the site of what was called a Running House.
It is particularly noteworthy for two reasons :
1. It is the sole instance of above ground remains of a water powered process building on the Millhead Stream – sluice machinery, wheel bay, floor area, some machinery bases and location of subsidiary wheels. Also mass concrete traverses survive, taken down to half height.
2. It is the only site remaining on the Millhead where its function remained
unchanged throughout its life. It is possible that the previous Running House also performed a dusting function, in which case the history stretches even further back.

Dust was an inevitable part of gunpowder manufacture. It was undesirable as it was hygroscopic, moisture absorbing, lessening storage stability and impeding performance. Perhaps dusting should have been called de-dusting. The dusting equipment consisted of a silk covered sloping reel. The powder grains were revolved in the reel and dust feel through the silk into the reel cases with the grains falling out of the end of the reel into a container, to be passed back for glazing.


CORDITE PRESS

Cordite replaced gunpowder as a propellant in ammunition from the 1890s onwards. Most of the buildings on the Gunpowder Mills site were converted for manufacture of this new material.

Cordite was manufactured as a paste, which was then extruded into long strands similar to spaghetti (or cords – hence the name ‘Cordite’). These strands were then cut to length and dried for use in cartridges.

The extrusion was done by hydraulic presses similar to this one. An example of this process during the First World War is show in the picture. This was a very dangerous job and accidents were common, so the press is surrounded by blast curtains. Strands of cordite are visible emerging at the bottom left. This particular press was manufactured in 1939 by Tangye Brothers of Birmingham, a company famous for producing hydraulic rams, presses and jacks, founded in 1857. You can find out more about the hazards of cordite manufacture in our ‘Dangerous Days’ Exhibition.