The Royal Gunpowder Mills, Waltham Abbey, an Anchor Point of the European Route of Industrial Heritage, (ERIH), set in 175 acres of parkland and containing 21 buildings of major historical importance, mixes history, science, and attractive surroundings. It was one of three Royal Gunpowder Mills in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the other mills were at Ballincollig and Faversham, but is the only site to have survived virtually intact. The story of gunpowder production at Waltham Abbey begins 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 River 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.
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 additional 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.' In the 1780s there was fresh concern over security, quality and economy of supply. The deputy comptroller of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich, Major, later Lieutenant 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 the application of the scientific method. Under his regime manufacture moved from what had been a black art to, in the context of its day, an advanced technology. The distinguished engineer John Rennie coined the phrase ‘The Old Establishment’ in his 1806 report on the Royal Gun Powder Factory. The term refers to the gunpowder mills when they were still privately owned, before they were acquired by The Crown in 1787.
In the 1780s there was fresh concern over security, quality and economy of supply. The deputy comptroller of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich, Major, later Lieutenant 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 the application of the scientific method. Under his regime manufacture moved from what had been a black art to, in the context of its day, an advanced technology. The distinguished engineer John Rennie coined the phrase ‘The Old Establishment’ in his 1806 report on the Royal Gun Powder Factory. The term refers to the gunpowder mills when they were still privately owned, before they were acquired by The Crown in 1787.
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 Revolution 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.
World War I from 1914 to 1918 brought a huge upsurge in demand. Staff numbers increased by around 3,000 to a total of 6,230. The 3,000 additional workers were largely female, recruited from the surrounding area, and this was a significant social phenomenon. After WWI there was another period of quiet before anxieties about the future surfaced again. It was decided that production at Waltham Abbey would be gradually transferred to the west of the country, more distant and thus 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. During WWII, Waltham Abbey remained an important cordite production unit and for the first two years of the war was the sole producer of RDX. RDX is one component of torpex, the explosive that was used in the Bouncing Bomb. Total transfer of RDX production to the west of England, to ROF Bridgwater; and dispersal of cordite production to new propellant factories located: in the west of Scotland, three co-located factories at ROF Bishopton, to Wales, ROF Wrexham, and to the North East, ROF Ranskill, was achieved by 1943. Many Waltham Abbey staff played a vital role in developing the new Explosive Royal Ordnance Factories, training staff and superintending production. The Royal Gunpowder Mills finally closed on 28 July 1945.
There are a host of attractions to entertain and educate visitors. These include: The Mad Lab, home to the eccentric Professor Nitrate and his loyal team of lab-rats. The mad lab is filled with curious contraptions, extra-ordinary experiments and mysterious machines! The professor is always on the look out for willing volunteers to test his latest theories so be prepared for fun-filled and occasionally smoke-filled adventures in the mad lab! The Rocket Vault - From tank busters to rocket motors used to launch satellites into space – see some of the secret rockets worked on at Waltham Abbey in the brand new exhibit. The exhibition shows the development of rocket motors and propellants from Congreve's gunpowder rocket of the early 19th century through to the guided missiles used in the cold war and Falklands war. Former employees are on hand most weekends to give guided tours and answer any technical questions concerning rockets and propellants. Twelve new rockets were added to the display in June 2007. Among the exhibits on show are a rocket engine from a V2 that broke up in mid air over Waltham Abbey in 1945, a Gosling motor from a Thunderbird anti aircraft rocket of the cold war era, a Blowpipe ground to air missile from the Falklands war and a model of the Skylark research rocket that provided valuable scientific information over a period of some fifty years. Also on show are examples of the various propellants used in rocket motors - gunpowder, cordite, plastic and rubber, along with a display showing the preparation of the main constituents of cordite - nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose. Recently arrived is a Petrel launcher and rocket used for research purposes and later as targets for the Navy, plus a Raven motor used to power the Skylark rocket. Due to space limitations they can only show a small part of the collection at any one time and currently they are replacing the scientific instrument display with a new selection of rocket motors, these include a 36 inch diameter Stonechat, the largest motor they produced, and an Exocet missile.
The Armoury is one of the most popular attractions. The Armoury is a comprehensive collection of small arms and militaria recently acquired, catalogued and redesigned by The Royal Gunpowder Mills with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund. The exhibition displays over 200 historic firearms covering the periods from the English Civil War to present day conflicts. The volunteer staff are happy to explain the science, technology and history of the various types of weapons on display which include heavy medium and light machine guns, sub machine guns, manual and self-loading rifles, revolvers and pistols, mortars, rocket launchers and grenades. Visitors are encouraged to handle and explore a variety of historic weapons - this "hands on" experience is very interesting and informative. The weapons come from all over the world and represent the small arms used by the major combatants from the English Civil War to present day conflicts. The exhibition includes most of the weapons produced by the nearby Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield, these include Bren guns including a rare 1938 dated MK1, .455 and .38 revolvers, Sten guns and rifles.Helmets, hats, uniforms, badges, leather and webbing equipment, flags, swords, bayonets and spears complete the display.
Gunpowder Plot Display. Using archive materials and an animated 3D fly-through animation of the Parliament Buildings, the exhibition unfolds the turbulent times and events leading up to this infamous assassination attempt on James I. It was at the opening of Parliament on 5th November 1605 that Guy Fawkes and his fellow Catholic accomplices attempted to blow up James I, the first Stuart king of England, as well as members of both Houses of Parliament. The seeds of discontent at the treatment of Catholics in England, which ultimately led to the Gunpowder Plot, were first sown in the reign of Henry VIII in the late 1520s and the persecution continued until James VI of Scotland became James I of England. He was no more tolerant of their faith and so thirteen disaffected Catholics decided to throw the country into turmoil, out of which they hoped to gain a new monarch who would be sympathetic to their cause and return England to its Catholic past. Having placed 36 barrels of gunpowder in the cellars directly below the House of Lords, Guy Fawkes was left to light the fuse. However, he was found by the guards and arrested and the conspirators were brought to trial. To the current day the story is remembered each November 5th when ‘Guys’ are burned in a celebration known as "Bonfire Night".
The first ballistic pendulum was invented in 1742 by Benjamin Robbins to measure the explosive energy of gunpowder. There are 2 pendula (or pendulums) on display, which were donated by the Health & Safety Establishment at Buxton, where they were used for testing mining explosives. They were erected at the Royal Gunpowder Mills in May 2007. The large pendulum uses a prototype mortar of 5 tons, which was made in 1856, probably for naval use. The actual pendulum is modern. How It Works - The barrel, which has a 45mm bore and is mounted on rails, has a known weight of charge of propellant or explosive inserted into it. The barrel is then sealed with clay and rolled forward until it is 2 inches from the muzzle of the mortar. The charge is fired by an electrical detonator from a remote location and the amount of swing on the mortar pendulum is measured and by calculation gives the power of the charge. As the charge fires, the barrel recoils backwards on its track, away from the swinging mortar, ready for the next test. In addition there are the Powder Boat, the Burning Ground, the 1940's Exhibition, The Incorporating Mill, The Wildlife Tower, Women at War and Dangerous Days ( A crime scene investigation-style feature utilising archive material to shed new light on the Gunpowder Mills deadly past).
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. These buildings have not been restored in this phase and cannot yet be visited. Various systems were used to identify the buildings on site over the years. Many buildings are still identified using the final system and these letter and number codes are used in the text, in brackets, to aid identification. 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. To listen to these audio descriptions click here.
There are 174 free car parking spaces. Four coach spaces are available at the site. Coach set down and pick up is right by the entrance. Seven designated wider spaces with a surfaced finish are 30-70 metres from the main entrance. Only guide and assistance dogs will be allowed on the site. They must remain in harness during the visit. A Lift is available to reach the Film in the Lecture Theatre on the first floor of the Main Exhibition building. The Lecture Theatre is equipped with an Induction Loop System for use with Hearing Aids. Please note that the film is noisy and has flashing lights. A transcript of the Film is also available on request. Wheelchairs are available for loan from the ticket office. There are a number of long walks around the site, but most are accessible to wheelchair users or accessible for push-cars, although some paths may be uneven. Stairs provide the only access to the top floor of the Wildlife Tower. There are a number of bench style seats and picnic tables around the site. Baby Changing Facilities are provided in the unisex toilet cubicle adjacent to the Cafe building. Adapted unisex toilet cubicles are located on the ground floor of the Main Exhibition building and adjacent to the Cafe building. Visitor toilets can be found on the first floor of the Main Exhibition building and adjacent to the Cafe building. There are a number of other events including science demonstrations and battle re-enactments. Click here for details.
Location : Royal Gunpowder Mills, Beaulieu Drive, Waltham Abbey, Essex, EN9 1JY
Transport: Waltham Cross (National Rail) then bus. Bus Routes : 21, 212, 213, 240, 250, 251, 255, 505 and 517 stop nearby.
Opening Times : Daily (through August) 10:00 to 17:00
Tickets: Adults £9.75; Concessions £8.75; Children (3 - 15) £7.75
Tel: 01992 707370