Royal Gun Powder Factory – Waltham Abbey

Part of the  remaining explosives mill buildings on the site of the R.G.P.F. at Waltham Abbey

Facility Type & Function:

Royal Gun Powder Factory (R.G.P..F.) – Gunpowder, cordite, gun cotton, nitro-glycerine, tetryl and fuse powder.

Brief History:

Gunpowder had been manufactured at Waltham Abbey since the 16th and 17th centuries. The Royal Gunpowder Factory (R.G.P.F.) was established in 1787 and was one of the four state owned Royal Ordnance Factories which served the nation at the start of the Great War.

In the 1890s the site switched to the production of cordite, supplying about 70 tons per week by 1914. On the outbreak of war demand for cordite from Waltham was immediately doubled to 140 tons. This was later to rise to 250 tons by 1917. The site also produced tetryl for use in fuses, as well as small quantities of gunpowder.

Gun Cotton production at the R.G.P.F. (c.1914-1918)

 As at the R.S.A.F. at Enfield, much of the site’s increase in production was achieved by running multiple shifts on existing plant. However, significant new construction took place on the site between 1914 and 1918. Additional buildings included cordite mixing and pressing houses as well as drying stoves, and  an associated narrow gauge rail infrastructure. As at other factories, contemporary photographs show that these buildings were connected by a series of raised wooden platforms which served as clean walkways for staff, and incorporated tramways on which key materials could be moved on hand-pushed trolleys. The new buildings on the site were separated from the earlier ones by substantial concrete blast walls.

A plan of the R.G.P.F at Waltham Abbey – Buildings in red are pre-1914 while those in green date to the expansion of the site during the Great War (1914-1918).

In line with the increased number of shifts that were arranged from 1914 onwards the site’s workforce was significantly increased.  In March 1918 the R.G.P.F. employed 5,730 people, of whom 2,277 were women.  To cope with the huge increase in staff  during this period a  women’s hospital, canteens plus shift changing rooms were constructed.

Two female workers employed at the R.G.P.F. at Waltham Abbey during the Great War

After the Great War operations at the R.G.P.F. continued on a much reduced output although production of explosives was gradually transferred to other sites  across the country.  It was during this period that the site became involved in production development work related to TNT and on the new explosive RDX.

During the Second World War Waltham Abbey initially remained an important cordite production centre and for the first two years of the war was the sole producer of RDX.  Despite this its manufacturing output continued to be moved to alternative sites in Britain and by 1943 the  site was finally closed.

In 1945  the site re-opened as a research centre for military propellants and high explosives and expanded into rocket propellants and a range of specialist applications for explosives.  It continued in this role under the successive control of various government departments.

In 1984 the southern part of the site transferred to  the Royal Ordnance Department which in 1986 was sold to British Aerospace (BAE) under whose ownership this part of the site was finally closed and subsequently redeveloped.

The north part of the site remained part of the Ministry of Defence becoming part of the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment. This facility finally closed in 1991, bringing to an end 300 years of explosives production and research on the site.  A large part of this area of the works subsequently became scheduled as an ancient monument and has been converted into an open air museum where visitors can see exhibits related to gunpowder manufacture over the ages and learn of the site’s history.

Location Details:

Waltham Abbey, Waltham, Essex  – National Factory Area No.7

Associated Token, Check & Pass Issues:

Type I

(Image courtesy of Stuart Adams)

Function:  Unknown (Note 1)

Material: Brass

Design: Uniface with a plain edge and pierced for suspension

Shape & Size: Circular,  34.7 mm

Obverse: Incuse die stamped legend around outer upper edge reads  R.G.P.F. and around bottom, WALTHAM . In two lines in the centre field are the stamped identification letters and number A.F.  and 654

Reverse:  Blank

Date: 1915 to c.1918 (Note 2)

Maker: Unknown (Note 3)

Published References:  Adams, S.J. – The Essex Collection – Post 1820 tokens, tallies & medallions. Page 625 – No. A2745. Private Publication. 2014.


Notes:

  1. Probably a time check or works pass dating from the Great War after the works was taken over by the Ministry of Munitions.
  2. The site was re-titled the Royal Ordnance Factory – Waltham Abbey in 1915 so it is possible that the issuing period of these checks /tokens may date to the period 1914 to 1915.
  3. The design style of this check is very similar to those issued for the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield, Middlesex. Presumably the same maker was responsible for the production of both sets of issues.

 

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