Royal Laboratory – Woolwich

The Gate House of the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, London

Facility Type & Function:

Royal Laboratory (R.L.) –  This was part of the Royal Ordnance Factory, Woolwich. It produced and filled small arms ammunition .

Brief History:

An ammunition laboratory (i.e. workshop) was set up at Woolwich in 1695, overseen by the Comptroller of Fireworks. Manufacture of ammunition had previously taken place within a Great Barn on the tilt-yard at Greenwich Palace (an offshoot of the royal armoury) however in 1695 construction of Greenwich Hospital began on the palace site, so the laboratory was relocated downstream at Woolwich. The new site included facilities for the manufacture of gunpowder, shell cases, fuses, paper gun cartridges and fireworks. The Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory also oversaw operations of the Royal Gunpowder Mills.

Over successive decades the site expanded with facilities for gun founding (the Royal Gun Factory) and for carriage making (the Royal Carriage Factory) being added onto the site. The combined works became known as the Royal Ordnance Factory (R.O.F.) or Royal Arsenal.

The distinctive “R / | \ L” head marks on  a blank .303 cartridge made by The Royal Laboratory, Woolwich Arsenal between 1893 and 1904.

By 1914 the site was utilised for the manufacture of both small arms and gun ammunition, guns and their carriages, limbers and wagons and ammunition boxes. It also produced large calibre pieces for the Navy and for shore defense.

The site was greatly expanded during the Great War and at its peak cover 1,300 acres and employed approximately 65,000 workers. At that time the R.O.F. comprised;

• The Royal Gun and Carriage Factories (which had amalgamated in 1907)
• The Royal Laboratory. This included a small arms ammunition factory (Government Cartridge Factory (G.C.F.) No.3), a fuse factory and a plant for filling Quick Firing (Q.F.) ammunition.
• The Naval Ordnance and Army Ordnance Store Departments.
• The Ordnance Research and Development Department along with various Inspection departments.

Workers finishing small arms ammunition at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, May 1918

The site’s expansion was such that in 1915 the Government built a housing estate of 1,298 homes (the Progress Estate) at Eltham to help accommodate the site’s workforce.

After 1918 the site contracted considerably but continued to carry out its traditional roles. In 1922 the Royal Laboratory was split to form the Royal Ammunition Factory and the Royal Filling Factory.

Production increased again on the site during the Second World War and workforce numbers grew to 32,500 by September 1940. However, during the “blitz” the site took several hits destroying the fuse factory and the filling factory. The light gun factory was also badly damaged. After this the site’s operations and workforce was scaled down and production moved to safer locations outside of London. While explosive filling work ceased on the site, production of guns, shells, cartridge cases and bombs continued. Over the period of World War II 103 of the site’s workforce were killed and 770 injured, during 25 raids, by bombs, V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets.

The Royal Arsenal continued to serve the nation until 1994 when it was de-commissioned and sold by the Ministry of Defence. Many of the site’s original buildings still remain.

Location Details:

Woolwich, Greater London (formerly Kent)  – National Factory Area No.7

Associated Token, Check & Pass Issues:

Type I (Variety A)

Function:  Unknown (Note 1)

Material: Brass

Design: Uniface with a plain edge

Shape & Size: Circular,   32.6 mm

Obverse: Incuse die stamped legend around outer upper edge reads  R /|\ L and in lower part two crowns in a horizontal cartouche. Stamped identification number 34310 in centre field.

Reverse:  Blank

Date: 1914 to 1918 (Note 1)

Maker: Unknown

Published References:  


Type I (Variety B)

(Image courtesy of Malcolm Johnson Collection)

Function:  Unknown (Note 1)

Material: Brass

Design: Uniface with a plain edge

Shape & Size: Circular,   31 mm

Obverse: Incuse die stamped legend around outer upper edge reads  R /|\ L . Stamped identification number 2098 in centre field (Note 2).

Reverse:  Blank

Date: 1914 to 1918 (Note 1)

Maker: Unknown

Published References:  


Notes:

  1. The high number stamped on this token is suggestive of it being a workers time check or works pass dating from the Great War. Only during this period in R.L.’s history were such high workforce numbers operating at the Royal Arsenal.
  2. As Variety “A” but without cartouche. The meaning of this cartouche remains unknown.

 

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