Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment – Portland Down

An aerial view of the Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment (CDEE) at Porton Down, Wiltshire, c.1950s-60s

Facility Type & Function:

Chemical Warfare Research & Development Facility – Development and testing of chemical warfare technologies plus nerve and riot control agents.

Brief History:

On 22nd April 1915, on a First World War battlefield in France, the German Army first deployed chemical warfare. Five months later, on 25th September 1915, the British responded in kind. The following year land at Porton Down was acquired to act as the War Department’s experimental chemical warfare testing ground. Over the decades that followed the site went through several name changes, as indicated below;


1916 to 1929 – Royal Engineers Experimental Station

1929 to 1930 – Chemical Warfare Experimental Station (CWES)

1930 to 1948 – Chemical Defence Experimental Station (CDES)

1948 to 1970 – Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment (CDEE)

1970 to 1911 – Chemical Defence Establishment (CDE)

1991 to 1995 – Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment (CBDE)


On 1st April 1995 the CBDE was amalgamated into the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) which in 1998 was split into two organisations, one which remained in the Ministry of Defense whilst the other became a UK public limited company in July 2001.


Porton Down was originally set-up under the control of the War Office. In 1939 it passed to the Ministry of Supply (MOS) and later, in 1959, it came under jurisdiction of the War Department (WD) before passing again to the new Ministry of Defence (MOD) in 1964.


Whilst Porton Down’s original purpose had been to trial chemical warfare technologies, by the end of the Great War it had expanded to include applied research in meteorology, medicine, physiology, chemistry, physics and engineering, and to encompass both offence and defence. The role of Porton Down became solely defensive in 1956, when the UK abandoned its offensive chemical warfare capability.


The Second World War saw an upsurge of activity at Porton Down and for decades afterwards much of the facility’s efforts were devoted to developing nerve agents. Later it under took considerable work in developing riot control agents in response to the troubles in Northern Ireland.


In 1940 biological warfare research and development commenced at Porton Down. This work was undertaken by a new department based which was based in purpose build laboratories on the existing site. The site currently occupies 7,000 acres and operates under the  site Porton Down now operates under the titles of the MoD’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl).

Location Details:

Porton Down, North East of Salisbury, Wiltshire, England

Associated Token, Check & Pass Issues:

Type I

Function: Building Access Control Pass/Tally  or Key Fob (Note 1)

Material: Brass

Design: Uniface with a plain edge and pierced for suspension

Shape & Size: Circular,  31.8 mm

Obverse:  Incuse die stamped legend in two lines in centre field reads BCDEE  and W /I\ D .

Reverse: Incuse die stamped identification number “28″ in centre field.

Date: 1959 to 1964 (Note 2)

Maker: Unknown

Published References: None


  1. While the exact function of this check remains unknown it is possible that it could have been used as building access control pass or tally to record which workers were within a certain area of the facility at any one time. Similar tally are recorded to have been used in other high risk weapons technology research establishments where workers individually numbered identification tallies were handed into and collected back from a supervisor or time keeper at the start and end of each working.  After being handed over by the workers at the start of each shift their tallies would be hung on pegs arranged on a central works deployment board. In the event of an emergency, explosion or chemical release a review of the tally board would indicate which workers were deployed in which areas of the works.
  2. The initials W D on the obverse of this check refer to the War Department who operated the CDEE between 1959 and 1964.


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