THE EXPLOSIVE MAGAZINE AT GREENWICH
In 1694 two government officials thought that it might be a good idea to use the Greenwich peninsula for a gunpowder store. This was, in effect, the first industrial site on the marsh. They were concerned about the affects of keeping a vast amount of gunpowder in the Tower of London and they thought that it might be safer in Greenwich. Greenwich residents, as we will see, thought it might be safer somewhere else – – preferably a long way from them
At that time the storage and distribution of gunpowder was managed by what was called the Ordnance Office. Along with much other military equipment they had kept it in the Tower of London but by the seventeenth century it was seen that this practice was both dangerous and inefficient. Powder was received from the manufacturers by water transport, tested and then distributed – so what was needed was a remote riverside site near London. Greenwich must have seemed ideal. There was a large and nasty marsh with nothing on it, which was conveniently near a large complex of government buildings.
In making their recommendations to the Government in October 1694 Thomas Littleton and his colleague stressed that the decision had to be made quickly. It was important, they said, that the money for the project should be allocated before ‘Admiral Russell’ returns from the Straights’. Edward Russell was the newly appointed First Lord of the Admiralty and perhaps someone who understands the seventeenth century naval mind better than I do could explain why the decision had to be made so quickly in his absence.
The site chosen for the gunpowder depot was on the west bank of the Greenwich peninsula. It was well within sight of the complex of buildings connected with Government – the Royal Naval College was currently under construction – but comfortably far away. The land was acquired from Francis Peyton and was sited alongside Bendish sluice – one of the many drainage ditches, which intersect the marsh. It would need 68,756 yards of digging – presumably for foundations in the marsh – or was there to be a moat? – and 1,733 yards of ‘filling up’
The depot was built to the highest standards. The main building was a ‘proof house’ where the work was done and the gunpowder was tested for quality. This was a large featureless square building around a central quadrangle. For this was originally specified ‘401 roods of brickwork’ which would cost £2,306 15s. The floors would be laid on ‘oake joysts’ with the two middle floors of ‘good yellow dram timber’ – that is timber from Drammem in Norway. There were to be ten doors and fifty windows all with shutters. The location of all these windows is puzzling because the only drawing shows a large, almost windowless structure with a smaller building to the side with only three windows. Did the other 40 or so all face into the internal space?
The gunpowder was to be protected from damp by special arrangements, which appear to be referring to an internal false wall – ‘whole doals at a distance from the walls’. It does however seem to be a remarkably substantial building to house explosives. There is no apparent mention of a roof and the drawing only shows a parapet. The original specification was for three courses of tiles ‘laid in loome” on the upper floors and perhaps this means the roof or the parapet. Was there perhaps some arrangement with the roof to allow for possible accidents? Readers of By-gone Kent may remember an account (February 1985) of an explosion on a barge near the powder magazine at Erith. It recorded a terrible scene of devastation with windows broken ten miles away – and, most importantly, a huge breach in the sea wall The site at Greenwich seems to have been remarkably lucky.
Plans show that the central building had with two wings at each side – one of which is shown in the drawing. It has an end chimney and a strange looking spire on the roof. Were there two buildings like this – one on each side? An ‘ayry’ is mentioned – this means a high nest – with ‘120 feet of molding’. Does this describe the spire?
Perhaps, more realistically, it is impossible to reconcile estimates for a building – drawn up to get agreement from a government department – with a drawing done a hundred years later when it was out of use for its original purpose and had, no doubt, undergone many changes.
The gunpowder itself was made at mills throughout the south east of England. Some of these mills – like, for instance, those at Faversham – and to a certain extent those at Chilworth and at Dartford – have been excavated and restored with exhibitions mounted so that visitors can see how the old mills worked. However romantic they may look today they were once dangerous armaments factories where weapons were made, sometimes in very secretive conditions. The powder they made was bought by the Government +and transported to the magazine at Greenwich by only water transport – as far as possible.. Once there it was tested and then distributed to the ships, which would supply the navy. Any powder, which failed the testing process, had to be removed by the makers. In addition any powder damaged in store – perhaps it had become wet while it was at sea – was returned to Greenwich and passed back to the manufacturers to be reworked.
This reliance on water transport meant that the wharfage arrangements at the riverside were most important – it would be a very busy area with some large vessels calling. There was a ‘wharf for the ships to call at – they referred to it as ‘the bridge. To get to it there were two pairs of gates to the waterside. A plan shows an extensive double jetty leading out from the depot itself. The jetty had a widened end and a series of structures in the river down the length of it – are these the ’30 fenders of ironworks’ mentioned in the estimates?
It is possible of course that there was already a jetty in place on this part of the riverside. Had there been anyone structure on the site before? It seems unlikely that anything had previously been built there although a waterman had to be evicted from the site before work could start – so perhaps there was something already in place.
Where exactly was the gunpowder depot along the Greenwich waterside Oliver Hogg, who wrote the history of the Woolwich armaments complex in 1963 thought it was sited on Piper’s Wharf. This is unlikely since Piper’s, now as in the eighteenth century, is owned by the major local landholder, Morden College – surely an ex-Government site would be in other hands.
The site of the depot can be identified from records in the Kent County Archive as that now owned by Alcatel – formerly Enderby’s Wharf. In the 1840s the Enderby family built a riverside house there and this still stands. On the river bank, opposite the house, are some steps, which lead to a concrete ramp which seems to cover the exit of a sluice. Inland, behind the riverside path, is more evidence in the shape of what seem to be the penstock controls. Is this drainage outlet the old Bendish Sluice that once formed the southern boundary of the gunpowder depot? A sluice is shown here on old maps, but not on the modern OS – yet it is clearly still there. Plans of the depot show the sluice emerging in the river under something described as ‘landing place’ – was this another jetty alongside the main ‘bridge’. Does it have anything to do with the ‘causeway’ marked here on some maps? Standing on the riverside alongside the sluice it is very tempting to turn to your right and imagine that Enderby House is the gunpowder depot and Alcatel’s truncated jetty the site of the ‘magazine bridge’. This is pure guesswork – yet it would be interesting to know if any proposed archaeological work on the foreshore here might throw up remains of a seventeenth century jetty.
The ships that called at the jetty to be engaged in the gunpowder trade were recruited as the result of advertisements in the press. Someone from the Office of Ordnance would inspect each ship to see that it was suitable and had means to keep the powder dry while in transit. Such vessels were supposed to travel downriver in convoy – although it appears that often garrisons down river at Woolwich and Gravesend were simply asked to watch out for the powder-laden boats as they passed. There are records which show, for instance, details of the sloop Faversham or the Charming Betsey which carried cargoes perhaps to Plymouth or as far as the Channel Islands.
By the 1750s there were increased calls for powder as conflicts around the world began to escalate. Supplies were sent to the outport magazines at Portsmouth, Chatham, Plymouth, Sheerness, Upnor, Woolwich, Gravesend and Tilbury and to garrisons at Berwick, Edinburgh, Stirling, Fort William, Carlisle, Pendennis, Hull, Chester, Jersey and Guernsey, as well as to bases at far away places like Minorca, Antigua, Jamaica and Nova Scotia. More powder went to Woolwich and the Tower of London for official purposes like training and fireworks.
All of this means that thousands of barrels of explosives were passing through Greenwich depot every year. It has been suggested that in the 1750s, for instance, apart from some imported Dutch powder (estimated at about a third issued to each ship) all powder for both Army and Navy passed through Greenwich. It all had to be issued with the Board of Ordnance’s written permission.
Such orders must have meant that many clerks were engaged in administration at Greenwich in addition to the many skilled workers who undertook the testing of the powder. Labourers on site were ‘settled labourers’ – that is men with a permanent job in the government service and were no doubt trusted to undertake such dangerous and specialised work. They had to wear special clothing on site and there are records for such items as ‘calfskin leather aprons’ and ‘worn pumps’. In charge were two ‘proof masters’ and a storekeeper who seems to have lived on site. His house was slightly to the north of the main depot and is clearly shown as a single storey building with a porch and what seem to be double doors – or perhaps it is the outhouse. In 1754 the storekeeper was a Robert Furnis who had been replaced by 1770 with Charles Newton.
It is fair to say however that local residents did not appreciate the presence of this large store of explosives on their doorsteps, Representations were, made to Parliament as early as 1718 and in 1750 petition was presented. This said – with a great deal of tactful concern for other Government buildings and the navy –
Reason for removing the Magazine of Gunpowder at Greenwich to some more convenient place and further Distance from the said Town and the Cities of London and Westminster.
The apparent Danger the said Magazine is exposed to, of being blown up by Treachery, lightning and other Accidents, arising from its present defenceless Situation and ruinous condition, and the extensive and scare repairable Damage with which the Explosion of perhaps 6 or 8,000 barrels of powder must be attended, cannot but cause terrible apprehensions to all who seriously consider it.
I. The Inhabitants of the Town of Greenwich, and the places adjacent must suffer inconceivably in their Lives and Properties, from the Destruction of the Royal Palace, and that superb building the Royal Hospital for Seamen, the much to be dreaded consequence of such an Explosion. And who will pretend To say how much his Majesty’s Dockyards and Storehouses both at Deptford and Woolwich, and even the Cities of London and Westminster, may be affected by it.
II .The Banks of the River, not only on the Kentish side, but also on the Essex shore, would be so demolished by the shock, as greatly to obstruct the Navigation if the River; and many ships sailing, or at anchor would in all probably be destroyed.
The Government sent four men to investigate the situation – William Skinner, John Peter Desmaretz, Justly Watson and Archibald Patoun. They thought that the Greenwich Depot did indeed present a risk and suggested the magazine be moved to Purfleet, A Bill to enable this work to be done and to pull down the Greenwich magazine then went through Parliament – the text of which implied that it was semi-derelict. It was ‘improperly and dangerously situated.’ and despite the care taken to support it that ‘the said magazine is utterly incapable of being effectually repaired’. It makes you wonder if that there had, in fact, been some sort of accident there.
The last powder was received at Greenwich in 1768 and the depot closed soon after. By then it had been decided to ignore Parliament’s instructions and it was thought uneconomic to pull it down. The workers were all sent to the new depot at Purfleet except Robert Dyer, who was to ill to attend the Ordnance Board meeting at which made this decision was made. He was superannuated, and was the last man to work on site.
What happened to the buildings next is not clear. Were they used for something else or did they just fall down? The drawing, dated 1794 seems to show it in good repair. There is a very neat looking fence all round it and the prominent drains look fine – nothing growing out of them!. The buildings are then said to have been sold, some thirty years later, to Henry Vansittart. This was most probably the Admiral and relation of Lord Bexley – there is probably something more to be uncovered here. What he did with the site is not known until, at some time before 1839, it was taken over by the Enderbys.
An echo of the public disquiet about the works was made in 1815 when another such magazine was planned – by an unspecified body – for Charlton. A petition was quickly put together pointing out the relief felt by local people that the old magazine had closed. They didn’t want another one!
One small reminder of the depot remained in Greenwich for the next fifty years. In 1846 a pub in East Street (today’s Eastney Street) was burnt to the ground. It was a dreadful fire – one bedridden old lady was only rescued through the ‘bold daring of a young sailor’. The pub’s name was the ‘Royal Magazine’. All you can say really, is that it’s a good job it was the pub that caught fire rather than the depot itself!
The number of references and thanks due for this article are almost too numerous to mention. It has been compiled from records in a large number of archives – LB Greenwich, KCC, PRO and Morden College. I would like to mention, in particular, Jenny West’s ‘Gunpowder, Government, and War in the Mid-Eighteenth Century’ (RHS Studies in History 63. 1991). I would also like to thank Peter Guillery, Professor Alan Crocker, Glynis Crocker and other members of the Gunpowder Mills Study Group
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