The dramatic buildings of the ‘World Heritage’ site area in Greenwich are very well known – the Queens House, the Royal Observatory and the riverside buildings of the old Royal Hospital, now Greenwich University. Very few people know that there was once another grand government building further down river – on the way to where the Millennium Dome has recently been built.
A drawing of the building was published in 1794 – although the scene it shows was probably about fifty years old. It was a very plain, very austere, building, with no windows on the outside and it faced the river. It had a flat roof and inside was a courtyard – what windows there were looked on to it. At the back of the main building were some houses and a low square building with a strange twisted spire. On the riverside stood huge ornamental gates leading onto two large jetties. What would we think of this grim seventeenth century building if it had survived to today? No doubt we would be very proud of it, but would we like it?
The whole complex was of great national importance because it handled all the gunpowder used by the navy. Many ships, and even more supply ship, had to call at the jetty to pick up barrels of explosives to be used in times of war. Before around 1700 all the gunpowder used in naval guns was stored in the Tower of London. Civil Servants of the day began to think that this was rather dangerous and so they hit upon the idea of building a special depot at Greenwich where – out on the marshes – it would be away from other buildings and where the powder could easily be transported safely on the river. The Greenwich building was very carefully constructed so to minimse any damage should an explosion take place.
Gunpowder was made by private contractors in special mills located all round the south of England. Anyone interested today can visit the Great Chart Water Mill at Faversham and see how gunpowder was made there by traditional means until the early part of the twentieth century. All of the powder made and bought by the Government was taken to Greenwich, by boat, where it was tested – the twisted spire at the back of the building was part of the safety arrangements to contain the blast should there be an accident. The was then distributed to supply ships – as time went on Greenwich powder found its way all over the world.
The men who tested the powder at Greenwich were all specially skilled and trained workmen. They had ‘proper’ jobs in the Government service with pensions when they were too old to continue. They were provided with special safety clothing – with nothing which could make a spark or pockets where matches could be hidden.
The double jetty and riverside wharf was very busy with a continuous stream of ships delivering and collecting powder. Careful records were kept by the clerks at the depot which show that Greenwich powder went to places like Nova Scotia and Antiqua as well as to all the naval garrisons around the English coast – Chatham, Portsmouth, Sheerness and so on. The gunpowder laden ships leaving Greenwich were supposed to have a special escort as they travelled down river but the need for economy meant that these escort vessels were soon abandoned. Lookouts were stationed at Erith and Gravesend and they were supposed to watch out and see when the powder boats went past – if they didn’t turn up then there must have been an explosion upstream! Happily this never seems to have happened and it would have been a major disaster had it done so. In the nineteenth century a gunpowder explosion at Erith breached the sea wall and led to a terrible race by hundreds if soldiers and workmen to rebuild it against the incoming tide.
The trouble with the Greenwich gunpowder depot was that local people were not impressed by all the safety arrangements. Although there is no record of any accident locals, understandably, didn’t want to wait for one to happen.! Over the years they sent a number of petitions to the government about it –and they pointed out that ‘the superb building the Royal Hospital for Seamen’ would not benefit from blown up by gunpowder! Eventually the government agreed and the depot was closed in the 1770s. It was rebuilt down river at Purfleet – where a great many of the original buildings can still be seen as features on a new housing estate.
The Greenwich depot was pulled down and the site sold off. In due course a rope works and then a cable factory was built there – it is now under part of the Alcatel factory in Blackwall Lane. We are so careless of our past that there is no sign or information on the Greenwich riverside to show where the great gunpowder depot once stood. You can find the site by walking down river from the Cutty Sark Pub until you get to the rather grand ‘Enderby House’ which stands behind security fencing on the riverside. On the right just a gateway in the fence starts is some sluice gear beside the path. This marks the line of the mediaeval drainage ditch –‘Bendish sluice’ which once ran along the side of the powder depot. From here you can see a great sweep of river, between Deptford and Blackwall. Imagine it two hundred and fifty years ago – busy with boats and everyone one of them laden with potential danger and death.
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