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 both shells and 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 defence.

The site was greatly expanded during the Great War and at its peak was 3.5 miles long, 1 mile wide (covering an area of 1,300 acres) and employed approximately 100,000 people. It was served by its own private railway system for both goods and staff movements around the sprawling complex. This comprised 147 miles of track making it the most complex and densest railway network in Britain.

At that time of the Great War 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 the workforce were 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 decommissioned and sold by the Ministry of Defence. Many of the site’s original buildings still remain while other parts of the site have been totally re-developed or landscaped.

Further historic background relating to the Royal Ordnance Factory, Woolwich can be found in the video presentation below.

Location Details:

Woolwich, Greater London (formerly Kent)

Associated Token, Check & Pass Issues:

Type I (Variety A)

Function:  Employee Identification and/or Time Registration Check (Note 1)

Material: Brass

Design: Uniface with a plain edge

Shape & Size: Circular,   32.6 mm

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

Reverse:  Blank

Date: 1914 to 1918 (Note 1)

Maker: Unknown

Published References:  Yarwood, J.F. Military Tokens of the British Commonwealth. Revised and Expanded 2011 Edition.  Page 154. MMT067.


Type I (Variety B)

(Image courtesy of Malcolm Johnson Collection)

Function:  Employee Identification and/or Time Registration Check (Note 1)

Material: Brass

Design: Uniface with a plain edge

Shape & Size: Circular,   31 mm

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

Reverse:  Blank

Date: 1914 to 1918 (Note 1)

Maker: Unknown

Published References:  Unpublished


Type II

(Image courtesy of Malcolm Johnson Collection)

Function:  Employee Identification and/or Time Registration Check (Note 1)

Material: Brass (?)

Design: Uniface with a plain edge

Shape & Size: Circular,   31 mm with an inverted triangular hole cut out of the centre field.

Obverse: Incuse die-stamped legend in two lines in the lower half of field /|\  / RL plus a  stamped identification number O 904 in the upper field.

Reverse:  Blank

Date: 1914 to 1918 (Note 1)

Maker: Unknown

Published References:  Unpublished


Notes:

  1. The high number stamped on this token is suggestive of it being a worker’s identification pass or time check dating from the Great War. The following account is understood to have been written by the Royal Arsenal’s last Paymaster. It describes the method by which weekly paid workers received their wages prior to 1921. This account is interesting in that it describes how the worker’s used a single “metal check” as both a works identification pass and a form of time registration check. It is noted from this account that wages collection at the Royal Arsenal was done via the presentation of paper pay tickets (or pay advice notes). These eliminated the need for the workers to have separate pay identification checks, as were common in other places of work at this time. At the Royal Laboratory, the “metal checks” referred to in the account below are likely to have been examples of one of the check types described above. It is interesting to note that several known examples of check Type II exist bearing a stamped letter followed by an identification number. From the account below it appears that this letter is likely to signify the section of the works to which each employee was assigned (e.g., stores, bullet casing manufacture etc. etc.).“The staff of the Chief Wages Officer (CWO) prepared the payrolls for each production centre using basic data provided by the Worktakers and/or shop management. The payrolls were sent to the Pay Office where the make-up of the pay for each pay centre was carried out, but quite separately individual pay tickets for each worker were sent to shop management for distribution. The pay tickets advised each employee of the amount of pay to be received. As each pay ticket was handed out the recipient was required to produce his ‘metal check’ for identification purposes. The metal check was stamped with the pay number and the worker’s deployment section identification letter. The check was collected as the person passed through the ‘ticket station’ at the start of work and handed back to the timekeeper at the close of work. On receipt of the payrolls, the Paymaster or his deputy would take the appropriate amount of notes and coins from the Bulk Cash and place them with each payroll. A small team of clerks would then lay out the cash in the amounts for each person on the payroll. One clerk would then take the note(s) — which had to be new – for each person and put them through a manually powered folding machine. The machine folded the notes so that they would readily fit into the numbered compartments in the Pay Centre tray, but before being placed in each compartment the coin and the folded notes had to be secured together with a rubber band. The accuracy of the laying out of pay was secured by the initial allocation to individual amounts being then subject to a second check as the notes and coins were re-counted as part of the note folding and banding process. Pay parades were held in the workers’ own time. A deputed pay clerk collected the made up pay from the Pay Office and had the services of a bearer to carry the Pay Centre tray to the production or services shop. There the staff would be required to line up in pay number order and then present themselves one at a time for recognition/identification by a member of the shop management. The pay clerk would then take the banded pay from the appropriate compartment and issue it to the individual in return for a pay ticket. Any unclaimed pay would be noted and verified by both the pay clerk and the shop management representative. In 1921, time clocks and clock cards were introduced for all non-management grades in the Royal Ordnance Factories. Evaluated clock cards replaced pay tickets as the medium for advising staff of their pay. From this time the signed clock card was used to acknowledge receipt of the pay.”

A plan (c.1918) of part of Quick Firing Cartridge Factory No.4 within the Royal Ordnance Factory Complex, Woolwich. The highlighted booths marked “TS” are the Ticket stations where workers were required to hand over and later collect their individual identification checks at the start and end of each working shift. – Image courtesy of Royal-Arsenal-History.com (RAH)  


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