Hidden Centres of Explosives Technology in the Essex countryside
Not far from London, and yet seemingly lost amongst the waterways of the River Lea lies the hidden world of the Royal Gunpowder Mills Waltham Abbey. For two centuries until 1996, this was a world of secret enterprise where explosives were made, first gunpowder and later Cordite and RDX explosives during World War 2.
The site of the Royal Gunpowder Mills is over two miles long, and its first mills were constructed by monks from the nearby Waltham Abbey, who recognised the potential of the river and its long leats or mill streams. By the sixteenth century small gunpowder mills were already in existence there. By the eighteenth century it had become an important Government establishment, grinding and mixing gunpowder. The first Superindendent was Sir William Congreve, who developed at Waltham Abbey the infamous rockets used against America in the War of 1812. They appear in the “Star Spangled Banner” too, that sings of the “rockets red glow”.
After the Napoleonic Wars, advances in chemistry moved forward the technology and the Royal Gunpowder Mills were at the leading edge. Tucked away in the woodlands here is the evidence of these changing technologies. With so much space available, the old structures were simply left and new ones built alongside. It’s a Mecca for industrial archaeologists who struggle to understand the importance and uses of the ruined structures. The War Department left few records. Much dates from the Crimean War and especially from the 1860’s when a massive explosion killed many and wrecked the mills. By that time the grinding of the ingredients was carried out in incorporating mills powered by steam engines, whose spark had ignited the explosion. But the mills were rebuilt and carried on producing right through the Two World Wars and into the Cold War Era. By that time it was PERME, the Propellants, Explosives and Rocket Motor Establishment
The site remained operational right up until 1979, when the Ministry of Defence began the disposal of its properties. Much of the south site, containing nineteenth century guncotton, cordite and nitro-glycerine factories, disappeared under the M25 and a new country park. The north part of the site remained intact, being full of historic interest and including over 240 Scheduled Monuments. Part of the site was sold for housing. After great individual efforts to win funding and support from the Government and the Heritage Lottery Fund, the site reopened as a Museum, The Royal Gunpowder Mills, in 1996. The story can now be explored in the superb visitor centre, open to October 31st each year. Allow at least half a day here, there is so much to see.
Also in the south Essex, this time on the outskirts of Basildon, lies the extraordinary Wat Tyler Country Park, where the famous Alfred Nobel once made explosives. It is safe now of course, but contains a wealth of industrial remains including buildings and tiny blast mounds. In these south-facing former weapons filling areas microclimates now encourage a wealth of plant and invertebrate species. Industrial nature is a special feature of both the Royal Gunpowder Mills and Wat Tyler Country Park which once housed widely dispersed chemical processing buildings.
At the Royal Gunpowder Mills, You can explore the natural environment surrounding the Museum on “quiet days”, although not all parts of the site are accessible. There are herds of deer in the woods and meads and rare fungi too. It remains much as it was 12 years ago when an architect came to see the site.‘…the sense of enclosure is strong. You feel you are trespassing in a private domain, a sensation doubtless more intense because of the secrecy that so long surrounded all activity here; the site has a powerful hold on the imagination…a world of derelict industry, narrow-gauged railways, choked pathways and malign woods…you remember stories of ruined cities discovered in Central American jungles.’
Explosives were produced at these sites for peaceful purposes too, as hard rock mining in particular used explosives to break open the rich metal ore seams. The Nobel Factory at Wat Tyler Country Parks once exported mining explosives to Britain's former African colonies, Australia and Canada.