Chapter 12 Small Guns and Ammunition

While the manufacture of heavy armaments was ultimately unsuccessful in Greenwich, the manufacture of small-scale explosive devices continued there for many years.

THOMAS ROBSON

remains of 1888 explosion
Picture from Illustrated London News

Thomas Robson had founded an ordnance works in Greenwich in 1845.  (Greenwich
Rate Books and map information.)  This fronted onto the Woolwich Road with a path stretching back to a large area of land intersected by ditches and dykes. In this area were a number of huts in which work on the explosives was undertaken. In all probability some farming activities continued to be carried on – the only picture of Robson’s works drawn in the 1880s shows a large and flourishing cabbage patch in front of one of the huts.

There were a number of other cartridge and small-scale explosive factories in the area from the 1870s. One of these was the Gladstone Cartridge Co. which shared the site with Henry Bessemer and the Ransome Stone Co. In the 1860s Billingsley and Munyard had a works – perhaps connected with Frederick Billingsley’s ammunition works near the slaughterhouse. (Greenwich rate books)

ROCKETS AND SIGNALS

Robson held patents for ‘firing signals and other lights’.The factory turned out a variety of signalling devices for ships and railways, many of which were closely akin to fireworks. He also made ‘proper’ fireworks for displays and some other small scale explosive devices. After 1880 the works continued to carry Robson’s name but was managed by James Dyer who lived with his wife and baby daughter in Wick Cottage (on the site of the fish and chip shop in Woolwich Road) adjacent to the works. (Census information) .Although the works covered a large area it employed relatively few people – eleven men, four women, and four boys.

A great deal of the information which is available on the industries on the Greenwich Peninsula comes from accident reports. In the 1880s there were two accidents at Robson’s.  (This saga is taken from reports in Kentish Mercury for the relevant dates. They are complimented by the accident report of Vivian Majendie (PRO).  I wrote the story in
more detail in Gunpowder. Inspection and Death, Bygone Kent. V.19. No.1. pp.25-29)  One item made was a railway fog signal, which consisted of two small iron saucers, enclosing a small amount of gunpowder. A large outer cup went over these with its edge ‘crimped’ to hold it closely together and the cups were then cemented and varnished. The ‘crimping’ was done by hand, using screw fly presses – an operation which carried ‘some risk’. In fact there was at least one accidental explosion a month but owing to a ‘misunderstanding’ Mr. Dyer had not reported these accidents to the Explosives Inspectorate, as he was required to do by law.

Such operations were very carefully monitored and there was an iron shield, which moved between the worker and the explosives at the moment at which the pressing movement took place. There was also an arrangement to divert the flash outside the building should an explosion take place. Employees had to wear special shoes and fireproof clothes with no pockets in them.

20th November 1882 was Mary Mahoney’s first day at work on the presses. Emily Gilder supervised her in one of the isolated huts. There was a space of six feet by five for the two women to sit with about 800 explosive signals. Unknown to Emily, Mary was putting the cups into the press in the wrong way. The foreman, Mr. Law, was standing about three yards outside the shed when he was knocked over by a series of explosions. He forced his way through the smoke to where Mary was lying on the floor among exploding powder, with molten lead falling on her. Despite his burns he managed to get her out and she said ‘Oh, Mr.Law’ as he tried to pull off her burning dress – until he too collapsed.

MARTINI HENRY

After 1900 the Robson site is marked on some maps as ‘Martini Henry … Managing Director Watson Fogge’. Alexander Henry was a Scottish gunsmith whose rifling design had been combined with the Martini loading system and manufactured for military use at Enfield. Henry himself had died in 1900 so it is unlikely that he himself would have been in Greenwich – perhaps the works was used to make ammunition for non-military rifles made to his designs. (Martini Henry.  I have been unable to find out what this important company was doing on this site and have rather concluded that it must have been a small retail outlet of some sort.  I have had some correspondence on this with the REME Museum of  Technology and with some ammunition enthusiasts – all with little result).

After 1900 The Blenheim Engineering company took over part of the Robson site which bordered on to the South Metropolitan Gas Works land. They also made fireworks and an accident there in 1902 was reported to the Explosives Inspectorate.  (Accident Inspectorate
Reports)

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