Saturday, 8 May 2010

Gunpowder Alley

A lot is said about canal restorations, but did you know that there is a canal, still partly in water, which was exclusively used for carrying gunpowder and munitions ??

As I'm about to go overseas again for work, we had to leave the boat in the wildlands and travel back to Essex for the weekend.

To pass the time, I visited the Royal Gunpowder Mills at Waltham Abbey.

A stone's throw from the River Lee Navigation, the museum, a shadow of its former self, still covers around 170 acres.

The Mills closed in 1945 after 300 years use and were then used as a secret research establishment. The area was finally opened to the public in 2001.

This closely guarded secret garden was a world leader in nitro-based explosives. It developed guncotton in 1865 and patented cordite in 1889.

Although in essence a gunpowder, explosive and propellant factory, the nature of the product and its inherrent instability meant that each stage of the process needed to be kept far apart from the next, often with blast shields in place.

The result is a decaying, industrial wildlife park, covering an area half the size of Hyde Park and full of otters, badgers, deer, etc.

Due to the physical spread of the site, they found it safest to move goods around using their own private canal network.

Both raw and finished products were transported on wooden barges like this, which were propelled by punting or hauling.

Some barges have been scuttled in the remaining, watered canals and can be seen like ghosts from the past, shimmering beneath the surface.

The waterways are at different levels and there are locks to move between the levels and out on to the River Lee, where the finished product could be transported by larger barges like the "Lady of the Lea" to the Royal Small Arms factory at Enfield or the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich.

This lock was built in 1878 (9 years after the Cutty Sark was built).

Note the unusual paddle gear using horizontal wheels.

As part of the decontamination process, about 2 feet of topsoil was removed, so the canal bed is shown lower than it actually was. You can see the real depth, indicated by the white mark on the lock walls.

The canal ran between the towpath on the left and the various outbuildings on the right - note the loading docks, which were waterside when the canal was in water.

This canal bridge (which now has a visitors walkway through the arch where the water originally ran) bears the emblem V.R - RGPF - 1878 (Victoria Regina - Royal Gunpowder factory)

This cast iron aqueduct (1878) took the canal across a stream, of which there are many on the site.
This is one of three aqueducts at the RGPF - there are only 26 in total on the whole English canal network.
One of the aqueducts had its bottom fractured and blown away by the force of two nearby nitro-glycerine explosions in 1940 - I believe 7 men were killed.

A model of a powder barge made by an apprentice.

Another outhouse served by the old canal. Note the covered loading area so they kept their powder dry.

At one point in time and if laid end to end, the waterways of the canal system at the RGPF were ten miles long.

This is a rather ornate fire alarm stand from the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield dating from 1904.

Gallery photos from the RSAF, Enfield (including some of the navigation) can be seen here:
The RSAF was privatised and sold to British Aerospace in the late 1980's.
It is now a housing development.
This link shows how the powder mill area looked in its heyday:


  1. It is nice when you come across little gems like that. We were fascinated by the munitions stores at Weedon on the Grand Union Canal which had a connection running into the barracks. Although the line from the canal to the entrance has long disappeared, the entrance gate and waterways inside the site are still there.

  2. So what happens to the water when canals are no longer used and why are they drained if they are actually drained?


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