Gunpowder and Roses

By Cleveland-Peck, Patricia | History Today, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Gunpowder and Roses


Cleveland-Peck, Patricia, History Today


Heritage Open Days, celebrated this year on September 12th and 13th, will once again present us with a dilemma -- how to be in several places at the same time. As this is clearly insoluble my advice is to go for the places which are rarely, if ever, open and this year thereare opportunities not only to see architectural jewels but to gain insight into unusual aspects of social history.

Williamson's Follies which have lain forgotten beneath Liverpool, for example, are an odd expression of philanthropy -- a labyrinth of secret tunnels created by a tobacco millionaire in order to give employment to the poor. The Victoria Baths, Manchester and Smedley's Hydro, Matlock give us a glimpse of the leisure activities of yesteryear -- but the gem of this year's list must surely be the Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills in Hertford-shire where we are offered the opportunity to visit a hitherto entirely secret world.

No member of the public has had the right to enter this 175-acre site for 200 years and even for Heritage Day it is necessary to apply in writing (see below). The manufacture of gunpowder has always been shrouded in mystery and there is even a suggestion that it was from these Mills that the conspirators of the famous Gunpowder Plot of 1605 obtained their material. This is unsubstantiated, but not impossible: the owners of a hunting lodge in nearby Epping Forest -- which links conveniently via the Lee Navigation with the Thames -- had Catholic connections.

The official archive runs from 1660 and shows that a woman, Phillipa Walton, ancestor of Izaak Walton of The Compleat Angler fame, ran the Mill in the eighteenth century. It was soon the biggest gunpowder works in the country and in 1787 was nationalised in an effort to standardise quality.

English powder was considered poor during the American War of Independence, but under the Comptroller William Congreve it improved and by the Napoleonic Wars was second to none. By 1815, 250 people were employed at Waltham, producing over 22,000 barrels of gunpowder.

Congreve's son, (also William) invented the Congreve Rocket, which inspired the line `the rocket's red glare', in the American anthem. The Crimean War saw new developments and throughout the nineteenth century the manufacture of propellants and high explosives increased until by the end of the century many buildings were adapted to produce cordite and nitro-glycerine. This, of course, was dangerous stuff and occasioned a proliferation of buildings, well spaced apart to minimise damage if any blew up.

By the Great War, Waltham Abbey was the only government-owned explosives factory. …

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