Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Royal Gunpowder Factory

Royal Gunpowder Factory
Lee and Stort Navigation

One of the unexpected benefits of my ongoing search for aqueducts is the habit of finding out about little known sites full of local history.

I recently stumbled upon references to the Royal Gunpowder Factory in Waltham Abbey, sometimes referred to as the Royal Gunpowder Mills. The site was home to one one of the largest producers of explosives right up to the second world war but is now largely forgotten.

This strange place was first used to manufacture explosives in the very early 1800's and needed a transport infrastructure to move its highly unstable raw materials and finished products from place to place. Speed was not of the essence in this industry. They needed something that was as stable as possible and naturally fire resistant. They ended up constructing an in house canal system which eventually expanded to include 10 miles of navigation on two levels, featuring no less than four aqueducts, three of which were made of cast iron representing more than 10% of the total cast iron aqueduct stock in the entire country.

RGPF Powder Boat

I couldn't possibly do this place justice in a single blog post but a visit to Richard Thomas' encyclopedic website is to be recommended.

RBPF footbridge

This was clearly a dangerous place to work, with employees banned from crossing the unusual domed bridges for fear that sparks from their clogs would trigger an explosion. Of the four aqueducts built, two still remain - one with its base plate blasted out by a massive nitro glycerene explosion in 1940! Lets hope that this wasn't due to an over enthusiastic clog dancing munitions boatman....
Mind you, if you have a look at a photo of the boat captains they look like a pretty serious bunch to me - with just cause!

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