Friday, 21 February 2020

Pluto references


For our May meeting we were pleased to welcome Allan Green, Research Fellow at Porthcurno Telegraph Museum who spoke to us about the manufacture of PLUTO in local factories.

Allan has been kind enough to send us a copy of some references, which are reproduced here:

1. Searle, Adrian. PLUTO. Pipeline Under the Ocean. Excellent little book published by Shanklin Chine on the Isle of Wight, 1995 (it also contains many other references to published work).

2. National Archives at Kew. All the major files relating to all aspects of Operation PLUTO are held here. It is a great deal of paperwork, much of it relating to Departmental and inter-departmental meetings. Very good photographs and other information is included all held in ref: POWE 45/-

3. Imperial War Museum. Very interesting films which can be viewed at the museum. In particular, their film Ref: WOY314.

4. British Telecom Archives. The Post Office with its expertise in cables and submarine cable laying were an important contributor to the PLUTO programme. The archives contain papers relating to testing work on HAIS cables and these are held under Ref: POST 56/119

5. BICC Archive. This is housed at the Liverpool Maritime Museum and is in a reserve store. Access is by appointment only and at present it is closed for re-furbishment. There is however an excellent little booklet published by Bexley Council, PLUTO World War II's best-kept Secret which gives an account of the project, mainly from a Callender's Erith (later BICC) perspective. It pays particular tribute to the lead-burning skills and major contribution made by the firm of J P Stone.

6. Morgan. R. M.. Callender's 1882 - 1945. A book giving a comprehensive history of the Company and the founding family.

7. Telcon Archive. There are two significant collections; one at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich (ref: TCM) and the other at the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum (not yet fully catalogued) but neither contains anything particularly interesting about PLUTO.

8. The Telcon Story. The history of the Company from 1850 to 1950.

9. W T Henley Archive. This collection is now housed at the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in Cornwall and is currently being catalogued. Only a few indirect references to PLUTO.

10. Brooks, Colin, The History of Johnson & Philips. (“A romance of 75 years") published 1950.

11. Banks, Sir Donald, Flame Over Britain. A personal narrative of Petroleum Warfare.

12. Combined Operations is a website which also gives a lot of interesting info provided by a Royal Navy Capt. Roughton who was involved in the laying of the pipeline.

13. Clements A. J.. Operation PLUTO. An interesting short paper (unpublished?) by a researcher in South Wales. A copy of the paper is filed at the Porthcurno Museum.

14. Siemens Archives. Some information is housed at the Greenwich Heritage Centre. In particular Engineering Supplement No. 224 (Jan 1946) to the Siemens Brothers Magazine. I would expect that the main archive in Munich might also contain information.

15. Scott J. D.. Siemens Brothers 1858-1958. A book giving 100 years of Siemens history.

16. Engineering. A series of articles published in this magazine June 1, 8, 15, 22, and 29th 1945

17. Yergin, Daniel. The Prize published by Simon & Schuster 1991. A different angle on the project... don't buy the book it has only a few lines about PLUTO

18. Krammer, Arnold. Operation PLUTO: A Wartime Partnership for Petroleum. Article in the proceedings of the Society for the History of Technology 1992.

19. Reekie, Douglas, These were the Nerves. 1946. The story of the electric cable and wire industry of Great Britain during the years of war.

20. Hartley, A. C. Operation PLUTO - in The Engineer at War - A paper presented at a symposium at the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1948.

My research work on PLUTO is no longer a priority but I would be interested to hear from anyone who has additional information about the project. Any relevant information will then be added to the Porthcurno library / archive.

Allan Green, Research Fellow, Porthcurno Telegraph Museum

Reviews and snippets June 2005

Reviews and snippets June 2005


Recently Mary Mills collected from Fay Gould a huge bundle of photographs of the South Met Gas Company’s Ordnance Tar Works - where the Dome is now sited. She showed them to Lewisham-based historic gas-guru Brian Sturt who sent the following article to Historic Gas Times:

These photographs show the calibration and testing of road tar sprayers when tar from the larger gaswork's own tar-plants was a major source of the raw material needed to improve roads and fix the limestone or granite chippings to the surface. The South Met Gas Co. tanker shown has been fitted at the rear with a dozen or more channels to collect the spray from the vehicle. The aim was to obtain an even spread of tar and the channels have been fitted for test purposes in order to measure this by directing the run-off into collecting cans. The test equipment appears to be homemade, but no doubt quite adequate for the needs of the day. The channels feed the spray into the cans and the contents are then measured and assessed by the lab. technician, on the right, using the weighing scale. He also has a clock to record the time taken to discharge a particular volume of tar and check and adjust the essential even dispersal to the road surface. Gas works coal tar was also sold to the public who came to the works gate, with perhaps a gallon can and this could be filled for about 2/- in the 1950's. It was used for treating fences and timber garden sheds. However, it was an impure product and as demand for tar increased for the roads, local tar distillers were established and they refined the product collected from perhaps thirty or forty small gasworks, which were too small to have their own distillation facilities. The price paid to the gas companies was about one penny a gallon!

Mary has now deposited the photographs in the Greenwich Heritage Centre at Woolwich – and any more such comments on them are very welcome.


The following is extracted from The Newsletter of the British Postal Museum and Archive. Thanks to Judith Deschamps for this info.

Our new home: the latest developments
As many of our friends will be aware, the major task for The British Postal Museum & Archive is to find a new home that allows us to be a combined museum and archive service, on one site. At present the collections are divided between The Royal Mail Archive in central London, and our Museum Store on the outskirts of the capital, in Debden, Essex. 

Our future development plans are very much based on the archive and museum collections being equally accessible to as many people as possible. Ideally, we want a unified base from which we can branch out around the country - in partnership with other museums - to ensure our collections are truly a national resource. Following an exhaustive search, we have identified a building in the Royal Woolwich Arsenal redevelopment area, which could suit our needs. Many factors steered us towards Woolwich, but this building has the potential to be a remarkable heritage centre. The building in question is Number 19 in the Royal Arsenal complex. It is nearby to Firepower, the Royal Artillery Museum, and the London Borough of Greenwich Heritage Centre. Building 19 is a terrific space, but it needs a great deal of work before it could be used to house our collections. 

We have come to an agreement on cost and reconstruction with Berkeley, the Royal Arsenal developers. This gives us the information we need to make an initial bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). It must be stressed that this first bid is for funds to fully explore the practicalities of the project, by hiring architects and heritage centre designers to bring to life our plans for the building. We would then need to use these plans in applying for a far larger grant from the HLF to carry out the physical work, alongside outreach activities in the Woolwich community. As you will appreciate, developing bids of this complexity is no easy task. 

There is also no guarantee that our project will be preferred by the HLF over other worthy proposals. We are therefore looking at other options in order to keep our eyes on the main goal: to let more people than ever before enjoy the wealth of our collections. We hope this will be in Woolwich; outside forces may send us elsewhere! We will keep you informed of the latest news in the Newsletter and online at We will endeavour to keep the news limited to definitive steps forward. Your encouragement is very welcome.


We have been sent some information about Royal Iris - berthed just down from the Barrier for a couple of years.

She was built in 1950 by the famous William Denny Bros, Dumbarton as a twin screw, 
diesel electric ship for Wallasey Corporation. She was the largest and most commodious vessel ever built for the all year round service from Liverpool to Seacombe and the summer service to New Brighton. Her gross tonnage was 1,234 tons and she was 160 ft overall in length and 48 ft in breadth. Outwardly she differed from any other ship and carried the Borough coat of arms proudly on the front of her streamlined, unusual and futuristic looking superstructure. Her hull underwater was designed to facilitate instant manoeuvring and control in the often-crowded shipping lanes of the River Mersey. She was also capable of withstanding gales, which regularly sweep the Mersey Estuary, especially during the winter months. 

She had a large area for dining and drinking and a spacious dance floor. A fish and chip cafe was an integral part of original design. Her passenger accommodation had room for over 2000 under cover. The Royal Iris's most distant seaward destination from Liverpool was to the Bar Lightship, 14 miles northwest and she also traversed the Manchester Ship Canal, carrying cruise passengers. In November 1991 she was sold for use as a floating nightclub in Liverpool, and later to the Thames. Today she is laid up in a neglected and derelict condition


Earlier this year Greenwich Council turned down a planning application on the site of what is now known as the Federation Day Centre. Now we understand that, if the developer gets his way, not only will flats be built on the site, but the mines below are to be filled in.

In 1968 these mines were noted by the Chelsea Spelaeological Society (I guess that was Harry Pearman). The author described how he entered the mines in 1960 ‘by crawling down a silted up adit close the road. There was a long slide down a broken down passage lying some 20ft above its original level'. Once in he found passages ‘average 15ft high and 10ft wide. The cross section is a well-formed Norman arch. Much of the floor was covered by several inches of scummy water’. Eight years later it was said that this entrance ‘lies under a transformer chamber’ and the grating to a 60ft shaft ‘is in the grounds of Federation Hall, owned by the London Borough of Greenwich’.

In 1987 Rod LeGear undertook a proper study of the Mine which appeared in the Kent Underground Research Newsletter.

What were the mines for? In Kent and East Sussex Underground Rod LeGear explains that in 1899 RACS began to build the Abbey Wood Housing estate. The mine was excavated to provide chalk for roads and lime for plasterwork. It was known as Bostall Estate Chalk Mine or Suffolk Place Mine. The 60ft shaft was sunk in January 1900 and the floor of the mine was at the water table, deliberately, so that mortar could be mixed with pumped-out water. The mine was abandoned in 1906 and building work ended in 1914.

On 1st February 2004 the Kent Underground Research Group (KURG) entered the Bostall Estates chalk mine to survey the condition of the mine. At the same time four surveyors from the London Bat Group (LBG) surveyed the mine for hibernating bats.

Crossness Record

The Spring 2005 edition of Crossness Record contains to two articles, which add further to our knowledge of the site.

The Crossness Wells by D.I. Dawson describes the water requirement for Crossness in the 1860's and 70's for boiler and domestic use for which the Kent Water Works Company charged £27 per day. Sources of water existed in the Crossness area - in the Arsenal, at the Manure Manufactory to the east of the site. A report in February 1865 recommended, "the sinking of a well” at an estimated cost of £1,500. 

At least two wells were sunk at Crossness. One known as the Old Well eventually did produce water, but was fraught with difficulties. Suffice to say that the cost rocketed to £6,480 by 1869. Then Joseph Bazalgette reported to the Board. He said that to carry on taking water from the Thames into the settling pond would mean that the boilers would continue to suffer "on account of the salt content” and made a number of suggestions to deal with this. In February 1877 it was decided to contract with Messrs Docwra and Son to sink a new well for a sum of £5,252 15s. A year later the contract depth had been reached "without satisfactory result." but by mid-1879 a contract was issued for the "Construction of Reservoirs, Tanks, Engine and Boiler House in connection with a Water Supply". 

By 1879 the Old Well was also producing water. After some fourteen years of struggle and expense, water had at last been found and in quantities that were going to be useful.

A second article by Ann Fairthorne describes the Ransome and Rapier Super Mobile Mk 3 Crane owned by the Trust. This Came from Turners Asbestos Cement Limited at Erith. Despite extensive searching the trust has been unable to locate any other such cranes and so assume it is a rare example. 

The motors and generator are post-1936 design and from conversations with Laurence Scott & Electromotors Limited they know it was made in Manchester pre-1955 and because of the design of the tyres assume it was built post-1938/9. The quality of the castings are not up to the standard shown on other Ransomes & Rapier mobile cranes seen nor does the crane carry the traditional Ransomes & Rapier markings at the back. It carries a mixture of Bull Motor and Laurence Scott & Electromotors motors which is unusual. So why is it different? Could it have been built during World War 2, when supplies were not always easily available? 

Research in Ransomes & Rapier records have unearthed an order from Turners Asbestos Cement Co for a 2 ton super mobile crane in November 1940. This crane had a special jib designed for it although, there are no details. We do know that Turners Asbestos Cement Co at Erith was bombed on the night of 6th October 1940 and that three buildings and some cutting machines were destroyed. Could they also have had a crane that was destroyed? However the crane has a machine number different to the one ordered in 1940 and one which would make it much later. Did it go back to Ransomes & Rapier for modification or repair and was re-numbered at this point in time?

Bygone Kent

The April 2005 Edition carries an article by GIHS member, Patricia O'Driscoll on Norton's Barge Yard at East Greenwich.

The site is now near the Ecology Park by the Millennium Village on the Peninsula. Pat says that three sizeable sailing barges were built at Norton's: the 50-ton Scout in 1905, later owned by Cory's; the 64-ton Scud of 1907, which went to Burley's and the much larger Serb, 75 registered tons, built in 1916. When she discovered the yard in 1954-5 the work was mostly repairs and the workforce shrank to Fred, who lived on-site. His quarters had a locker seat from a barge's foc'sle, a pipe cot from another. A coal range for heating and cooking (next door was a coal heap and a water tap, placed there for a steam crane). He had a kitchen table with a white enamelled top, on which stood an oil lamp. There was a 'phone - the one modern feature of the yard. Everything was done with hand tools. Fred was a character straight out of W.W. Jacobs. He had an old barrow, a kind of Super 
Soapbox on small iron wheels, which he used when sent to get paint, tar, galvanised spikes and other small items.

A barge coming on to Norton's for repairs would first lie alongside the end of Dorman Long's Jetty to wait for enough water to put her 'on the blocks'. When the tide ebbed, men could get at her bottom. The yard operated on the foreshore between Dorman Long's Jetty and Pear Tree Wharf. Pat was told how, before the war, craft were also berthed between Greenwich Yacht Club and Redpath Brown's Jetty where there was a steam crane. Dorman's had a steam crane, which moved out to the jetty along rails when needed. 

Dick Norton retired in 1966 but he still went down regularly to bring Fred a newspaper. It was good luck for Fred that he did; otherwise he would have been completely alone at the deserted yard. One day he had a fall, breaking a leg and had to be taken to hospital. He never returned to the riverside as, with nowhere else to go to, he was admitted to an old people's home. Now, walking along the riverbank, there is no sign that the yard ever existed.

In our last edition we highlighted an article in the Rambler’s Association Newsletter of a riverside walk from the Barrier to Erith. This has now been published jointly by Greenwich and Bexley Councils. Copies from the Tourist Information Centre, Cutty Sark Gardens, SE10

Several members have drawn attention to a local press story about a project at EastSide in Newham, to record lost industries throughout lower Thameside. This is managed by Dr. John Marriott at the University of East London and we hope John will contribute to future Newsletter and, also, attend a meeting to tell us about the Project.

In May a meeting was held at the National Maritime Museum between some of their community staff and representatives of the various local history societies – and the membership of GIHS was very well represented. Museum staff wanted to know who we saw as ‘local heroes’ and how we should be working to promote them through walks around the area. Inevitably everyone had their list – which included far more than (non-local) Nelson and Napoleon. All sorts of men and women were mentioned – including politicians like Will Crooks - the hero of Greenwich’s Mayor, Paul Tyler – as well as many inventors, community leaders and others who had contributed in many ways. The museum staff seemed totally amazed – and clearly this is not a subject which will go away. Watch this space!


In the rooms next to the Greenwich Tourist Information Shop is a small museum and cafĂ©. These are not part of the Greenwich TIC but are owned and managed by the landlord, The Greenwich Foundation for the Royal Naval College. The Foundation would like to expand this section to tell the story of the World Heritage Site and the area around it. The idea is to offer something about the area, which is more detailed and aimed to encourage local people to attend – not just tourists. They intend to consult groups and societies as widely as possible to ascertain what they would like to see there.


The Oxleas NHS Trust now has the Greenwich Memorial Hospital (originally the Woolwich & District War Memorial Hospital) within its remit. After many years of minimal maintenance, money is now being spent to refurbish it, restoring many of its original features, and sympathetically inserting modern facilities. 

GIHS Chair, Susan Bullivant, with members Andrew Bullivant and Richard Buchanan were invited to see the Hospital on 7th April 2005 by Martin Lee, the man entrusted with the refurbishment. He showed us around the main building, pointing out many original surviving details: handsome doorways; fenestration (though some woodwork is rotting and away from the frontage there is u-PVC double glazing); good quality flooring, now under carpeting. Some 1930s features, such as asbestos lagging, are going; the plumbing needs updating; more electric sockets are wanted - for which hidden wiring is not always possible; Fire Regulations are tighter now. Lighting improvements saw the universal introduction of fluorescent tubes - though modern lamps make it possible to revert to art deco fittings more in keeping with the building. He also showed us the strong room where artifacts relating to the Hospital are stored, and spoke of the need to make an inventory of them - Susan Bullivant thought Woolwich Antiquarians. There we saw records showing that the War Memorial Hospital was often abbreviated to Memorial Hospital from its inception. The original Laundry, and many of the wards added in the grounds since its foundation, are being demolished, and two new H-shaped ward blocks are being built at the rear.

Deptford Dockyard (Convoys) goes to Lewisham Planning Committee

Lewisham Strategic Planning Committee resolved in late May to approve the current application for the site of the Royal Naval Dockyard at Deptford by 7 votes to 2. They did so despite eloquent representations by William Richards, Julian Kingston and Bill Ellson - local activists concerned at the fate of this most important of local historic sites.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone has 14 days from the date of the Committee meeting in which to direct refusal of the proposal. It is unlikely he will do this. He has already indicated he will not oppose the scheme, even though breaches his own London Plan by eliminating most of the safeguarded wharf.

The ultimate guardian of the wharf's protected status is Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. His approval is required for any "reconfiguration" (to use the planners' euphemism). Given his recent support for a new publicly-funded cruise liner terminal in Liverpool we are hopeful we can persuade him to "call in" the Convoys application. It will then be the subject of a public planning enquiry.
Meanwhile the sale of Convoys to a joint venture between two Hong Kong companies, Cheung Kong (Holdings) and Hutchison Whampoa, is presumably going ahead, though it's not clear at what point the sale will be finalised. Both companies are owned by billionaire Li Ka-shing.

Last night's vote was not the end of the matter, just the end of the beginning. With thanks for your interest and support.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Royal Arsenal - English Heritage Archaeological Assessments

English Heritage Archaeological Assessments

The Royal Arsenal, Woolwich Building 46 undertaken by Oxford Archaeology

The Grand Store complex at the Royal Arsenal is of national importance comprising a set of Grade II* listed buildings and it is among the architectural highlights of the historic military site. The complex was constructed between 1806 and 1813 due to the high on-going military demands of the Napoleonic Wars and formed part of a wider development at the Arsenal during this period which expanded the site's productive capacity. The Grand Store was constructed to meet the greater storage capacity required and although it was slightly scaled down from the original grandiose designs, the complex was still a magnificent architectural composition facing onto the river. It originally comprised three quadrangles but only the main (central) one survives in anything like its original form. It was designed by James and Lewis Wyatt with a plain Georgian classicism and is described by the list description as 'architecturally one of the most distinguished of the large late 18th and early 19th century warehouses erected in both naval and civil docks'. However, the external grandeur of the complex masked fundamental flaws in the construction of its foundations and in the decades after its completion parts of it suffered greatly from subsidence and much patching and rebuilding work was undertaken to counteract this. The southern range (Building 36) and the east quadrangle were particularly affected by subsidence but Building 46, the subject of the current study, appears to have suffered little.

Building 46 foils the west range of the central quadrangle and although from the exterior it broadly retains its original form and elegant design, the inside has been much more altered the other two main surviving ranges and it retains fewer historic features. The internal structural name of the south half has been substantially rebuilt in the mid 20th century (possibly due to wartime bomb damage) and the surviving primary timber came in the central section has been substantially damaged by a fire, presumably related to rebuilding of the south range. The primary timber frame survives in the north range and it is very similar to the construction throughout the rest of the main Grand Store ranges.

The first floor was converted to offices, possibly in stages from the late 19th century, and most of the ground floor was similarly converted to offices in the 20th century. The ground floor of the north range is the least altered part of the building but even here it retains far fewer historic features than the other ranges of the complex. It does contain some evidence of the former use and layout of the building, particularly in the form of mortices against each post which indicate that there would have been a pair of mezzanines within the current tall ground floor area, either side of a double height central aisle. Similar mezzanines survive in the other Grand Store ranges and mortices show that in Building 46 these would have extended into the central block. 

Evidence within the building suggests that there would have been small stoves at ground and first floor, again similar to evidence in the other ranges, and there are various other minor features of interest. However, there is no surviving evidence of former hydraulic lifts in Building 46 whereas three such hoists survive in-situ in the other ranges and only one of the very impressive primary double doors survives, whereas again many more of these survive in the other ranges. In addition far fewer primary windows survive in Building 46 than in the other ranges. 

Fortunately, as the Grand Store complex is known to have been of such consistent layout and construction, the surviving features and layout in various parts of the other ranges provides a good indication of the historic form of Building 46. In return, there are clues relating to Building 46 which also add to our understanding of the other ranges and among these is a surviving plan and section through part of the building dating to 1856. This details the insertion of the mezzanine through the building (including the now reconstructed South Range) and provides the only concrete date for these features which were also added throughout the other Grand Store ranges and some of which survive in-situ. The insertion of the mezzanines can therefore be seen as part of the massive Crimean-period expansion at the Arsenal when there was a flood of investment at the site due to the chaotic response of the military establishment to the crisis. 

Although the surviving primary structure of Building 46 and the other Grand Store ranges has a monumental grandeur and is still impressive in scale today, it was structurally relatively conservative when compared to other contemporary buildings and can now be seen to represent the end of the building tradition. It was constructed a decade after the first iron-framed, fire-proof textile mills were constructed and although this type of construction was yet to be widely adopted it did spread and develop in the early decades of the 19th century, particularly for large structures such as the Grand Store. In a historical context there is no doubt that the construction of the complex has much more in common with storehouses of the second half of the 18th century (particularly naval storehouses) rather than the commercial warehouses of the first half of the 19" century  which comprised cast iron columns, iron beams and brick jack arches. The contrast is even greater with the light-weight iron roof trusses and open floor spaces of various buildings at the Arsenal dating to the second half of the 19th century.

The Royal Arsenal, Woolwich undertaken by Pre- Construct Archaeology

The remains of walls relating to the Cartridge Establishment of The Royal Arsenal were found. Evidence was seen for the Pilkington Canal within the excavated trenches.

Royal Arsenal, Woolwich (Zones 17, 21 & 23). Undertaken by Pre-Construct Archaeology 

A watching brief over Zones 21 and 23 revealed substantial industrial remains of the Royal Arsenal. The natural and made ground sequence was recorded. The remains of the Boiler House and Rolling Mill, and its successors Buildings D71, D72 and D74, were found in the north of the site. In the centre and south of the site expansive remains of the South Boring Mill were recorded including superstructure and machinery. External features associated with the building were found. Other structures included Buildings C33, C47 and D80, and peripheral buildings. The route of Street No 10 was visible across the site, as was the remediated Pilkington Canal.

The Royal Arsenal, Woolwich: Greenwich Heritage Centre (Building'41) undertaken by Oxford Archaeology 

Made ground comprised of building rubble associated with the military history of the site. Two iron cannons were recovered from within these deposits. They had iron rings set in their muzzled 6or reuse as mooring points along the Thames.

Docklands Light Railway, Woolwich undertaken by AOC Archaeology (London).  
The extension of the Docklands Light Railway to link with Woolwich Arsenal overland station requires the demolition of two blocks of buildings that largely date from the 19th century. None of the buildings predate 1790. The majority seems to be early or mid 19th century structures which have been modified by the addition of facades. 

Some of these facades are very decorative, notably Lloyds Bank and 21-24a Greens End. There are two buildings which merit no recording i.e. 6 Woolwich New Road and 2-4 Spray Street. Both of these are modern buildings of low architectural and artistic merit. These do not require further recording, but there may be basements of previous properties below. The potential earliest buildings at 4, Woolwich New Road, 8 Woolwich New Road and 21 Greens End all merit further examination to determine their age

Monday, 17 February 2020

Sir Frederick Abel - Woolwich based chemist


The Gunpowder and Explosives Study Group recently looked at the hitherto unknown family papers of Sir Frederick Abel. This nineteenth-century chemist has been unduly neglected, in part because of a dearth of original manuscript material on him.

The career of Frederick Augustus Abel has a three-fold significance for the development of modem British science. As a charter student in the Royal College of Chemistry, Abel was one of the first professionally-trained chemists in England. The Royal College of Chemistry, founded in 1845, was based on the model of research training in chemistry that had recently been developed in German universities. Secondly, Abel was one of the earliest scientists in Britain to spend virtually his entire career in government service, working for the military arm as 'Chemist to the War Department '. And thirdly, he carried out investigations in areas that became particularly prominent in the late nineteenth and twentieth century, such as metallurgy, petroleum chemistry, and electricity. But the focus of his research was unquestionably in military chemistry, particularly explosives and munitions.

His research in these areas falls rather neatly into the three principal decades of his career. In the 1860s, he worked at purifying and stabilising 'gun cotton ' (frinitrocellulose), initially as a military propellant but then for other military uses (mines and torpedoes) and as a blasting agent in civilian mining and construction activities. In the 1870s, Abel carried out the most comprehensive scientific study of gunpowder undertaken up to this time. In the late 1880s, he was appointed president of an Explosives Committee to develop a smokeless propellant. The committee succeeded in developing a double-base powder (nitrocellulose, nitro-glycerine), based on a similar powder of Nobel ('ballistite'), which they patented under the name of 'cordite '. 

Although Abel was never an academic chemist he possessed the prestige of a fully professional scientist, as shown by the numerous offices he held in scientific societies and his publications in the most prestigious scientific journals and he took out patents for a number of results of his scientific investigations. But his attempts to develop some of these patents commercially raised serious issues of conflict of interest since he was a government-employed scientific expert and advisor. These issues were highlighted in two conflicts with Alfred Nobel over dynamite versus gun cotton around 1870, and then, twenty years later, OVCF ballistite versus Cordite. This latter resulted in a patent-infringement suit brought by Nobel's Explosive Company over cordite. 

One of the problems in studying the life of any scientist is establishing the details of his career, especially the early years, which are often poorly documented. In the case of Abel, there has been uncertainty about the precise details of his career before he became Chemist to the War Department in 1855. Documents in the newly discovered archive provide complete clarification and are complemented for the early years by a copy of Abel's letter of 9 February 1852, in which he applied for the position of Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. It also provides an invaluable account of how Abel created a niche for himself as a government military chemist. 

When the chemical establishment of the War Dept (Ordnance) was created in 1854, no special duties were assigned to the chemist, on whom depended the development of the Department. During the first few years they were chiefly connected with the purchase and inspection of stores for the Manufacturing Establishments. Abel went on to delineate in great detail the very complex functions that he and his staff took on. Although space constraints preclude illustrations of them, this and similar documents will afford the researcher information on Abel and, more generally, on the development of government scientific activities in nineteenth century Britain.

As a sign of the success with which Abel established his position as a government scientist, he came to move in the very highest social circles. This was recognised by his quondam opponent, Alfred Nobel. In a letter of Nobel to the General Manager of Nobel's Explosives Company of 19 January 1892, over the impending patent- infringement lawsuit over cordite, Nobel cautioned that 'one of the opponents is on very friendly terms with a powerful Prince '. Nobel was undoubtedly referring to Abel and the Prince of Wales, and this royal friendship is borne out in correspondence.

By Wayne Cocroft

Sir Frederick Abel as the War Office chemist was usually based at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. In the early 1860s, while he was carrying out his important work on the manufacture of gun cotton he designed a new chemical laboratory, one of the earliest Purpose-built chemical laboratories in the country. The building comprised offices and a double storey laboratory with a galley walkway at first floor level, such an arrangement both provided a light and airy environment, and a platform that allowed Abel to observe the work going on below. The building is Listed Grade II and has recently been converted into flats.

This piece first appeared in the November 2005 GIHS Newsletter

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Letters November 2005

Letters November 2005


From Peter Witts
I am trying to trace information on a company supposedly called Roberts and Merryweather of Greenwich. This relates to a mystery locomotive that was photographed in Mackay Queensland Australia, in the early 1920s. I have identified the maker: Hunslets of Leeds but at some time it was noted as having been rebuilt by Roberts & Merryweather, Greenwich, England.  I am aware of famous firm of Merryweather Greenwich but a search of the directories did not mention the name of Roberts. I presume that Roberts was connected with the firm and if so information could point to a date when this locomotive was in England and perhaps its identity. I would be most grateful for any help that I can pass on to my colleagues in .Australia.

From Carole Lyons
I am responding to a letter published by the Society in 2002 written by Len Chapman then living at Locke's Wharf on the Isle of Dogs. He had been told that the propellers for the Queen Mary had been made there. In 1936 my great grandfather was a foreman working at the Manganese Bronze and Brass Company at their works at St David’s Wharf, adjacent to Locke's Wharf which was the site of the Millwall Lead Works. This Manganese Bronze site was concerned solely with propellers. My family have a commemorative ashtray cast by Manganese Bronze, inscribed around the top edge: RMS Queen Mary Maiden Voyage 27th May 1936. It has, as a centre, a 3 inch high silver propeller. On the underside of the base is the following inscription: This is a Model of one of the propellers made by the Manganese Bronze and Brass Co. Ltd. London, England.

From Steph Grieves
Do you have any suggestions as to the origin of the following? My garden backs onto the chapel halfway down Charlton Church Lane. It consists of a steep slope at the bottom of which is material I can best describe as slag/clinker and would appear to be the residue of some industrial process. Many pieces are more than a foot across. Could there have been a limekiln here? Is it dumped industrial waste like that tipped by Harvey's where Coutts House used to stand? The concrete arches which partially contain the 'slag ' were there in 1910 as seen in the background of a family photograph. The house itself was built in 1898. If you have time I would welcome your opinion on what, to me, is a mystery.

From: Emir Roscoe
In the 1901 census for England and Wales my great great grandfather was captain of the SS Faraday. His name was William Roscoe. The ship was in Trafalgar Doc Liverpool and then at Princess Dock, Liverpool on the 1.4. 1901. I would very much like a photo of this vessel.  It states she was a steamer

From Neil Bennett
If you do another list of research interests you could put my name down for 'Merryweather ', seeking to forth enlarge my collection of information. In exchange for new pictures, information etc, I could offer similar, or since thanks/modest payment. Regarding the High Road building, I don't get to see it much but appreciate its history. If it cannot be preserved I think Watford's example might be relevant. When the Scammell Motors works was knocked down for a housing estate, the main access road was called Scammell Way with side-roads named after company products e.g. Crusader Way, Explorer Drive Pioneer Way, and Himalayan Way

In Vol I Issue 4 the 'Flexible Metallic Tubing Co ' mentioned. Around 1980 I worked for Ransome & Rapid Ltd, Ipswich. They made the NCK Rapier cranes which can still be seen working, mobile (wheeled) cranes, giant walking dragline excavators and among other things the turntable for the revolving restaurant in the Post Office Tower. While there my drawings included a piece of flexible exhaust pipe (3 or 4 inches diameter) for a diesel engined crawler-crane which came from the United Flexible Metallic Tubing Company. lts address was probably not given as Greenwich or I would have remembered it as a neighbour of MW&SL. If it is the same company the addition of the name 'United might suggest that it merged with another company at some point and may have moved. Later (1983) I looked them up and the) had become T.I. Flexible Tubes, but apparently I did not note their address. The Tube Investments group now has a web-site featuring T.I. Automotive. Their products don’t look at all similar,

From John Evans
Farrington's guide to East India Company ships refers to the Streatham, the 4th of that name, having been built at Dudman's Yard. Do you or any of your colleagues know anything about the family or shipyards

From Simon Ward
My Dad, who is 93 was  telling me recently about his war experiences. He was called into the army (Royal Army Ordnance Corps) sometime after 1939 and did his basic training at Cambridge Barracks, Woolwich. He remembers that it was surrounded by a large wall like a prison with big gates. He also remembered the large square in the middle of it. No-one was allowed on the square unless they were drilling. He (and I) was wondering what had become of the barracks. Are they still in situ? I would be grateful for any information you have on Cambridge Barracks so I can pass the information on to my Dad.

From Iris Bryce
I'd love to learn more about the East Greenwich History club and perhaps get along to a meeting. One of my great grumbles is the loss of east and west in Greenwich addresses. It was one of the first things we learnt when we went to school. I wonder what Miss Tills my first teacher would think of North Greenwich Station?

From Gerry
Noticed your comments about MV Royal Iris. Have you any information about who owns her and what plans there are for her future

Friday, 14 February 2020

Federation Road - Tthe Bostall Estate Chalk Mine


A recent planning application in Federation Road has highlighted one of Greenwich's most- difficult-to-see industrial sites. The following text is from an article by Rod LeGear (reproduced with his permission)

In 1899 the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society embarked on a large building project, a venture very different from that of its modern retail activities. A small town/settlement was to be built suitable for 'the industrial classes'. The Bostall Estate was constructed by the R.A.C.S. Works Department which moved from the Society's headquarters in Woolwich to the site, which was to the south-west of Abbey Wood station and north of Bostall Heath. A feature of the building works was the centralisation of the various construction trades in an area of workshops where much of the work could be pre-fabricated. Items such as doors, window names, etc., as well as bricks and other building materials, were transported from the workshops to all parts of the site on light tram lines radiating from the work area which was to the south of the construction site. A total of 4 miles of tram lines were put down and at least 50 tip wagons ran on them.

The temporary site for the works department was chosen for its position on the estate. As the site was uphill from the main building area gravity could be utilised when transporting materials on the tramways. It was also chosen for the natural resources available on site - sand, ballast, chalk, and water

This area of intense activity at the turn of the century is now occupied by the Co-operative Woods camp site on the south side of Federation Road. The only reminders of its industrial past is Federation Hall. which was the works dining hall and, hidden 60 feet below ground, nearly 2,000 ft of manmade caves - the Bostall Estate chalk mine.

The mine was dug to provide chalk for the building operations on the new estate. Most of the chalk was burnt in a kiln to give lime which was suitable for internal plasterwork. Unburnt, the chalk was used as a foundation for the estate roads.

The 8ft diameter shaft was sunk in January 1900 in a corner of the works area near to the mortar mill and lime kiln. Four main headings were driven from the base of the shaft to commence mining operations. The floor of the mine was on or just below the water table as the mine was also used to obtain water for the mixing of mortar in the manufacturing processes

The mine was drained by pumps driven by a 16 h.p. surface engine. This engine, made by Marshal & Sons of Gainsborough, also powered the mine's winding hoist as well as a dynamo which provided electric light in the mine. This was an unusual feature as most mines of this period were lit by candle or oil lamps. The hard worked engine also provided motive power to the workshop machines via a system of shaft drives.

In the first full year of operation four men worked underground cutting out the chalk with picks and wheeling the excavated material to the shaft bottom in barrows. Two men were employed on the surface to unload the chalk from the tub and barrow it to either the lime kiln or to a nearby dump for collection by the road building gangs. By 1902 the workforce had increased to six men underground and four on the surface. From 1903 until 1906 the figures were five below and two above ground. 

After 1906 the mine had ceased operation. For the first two years of its life the mine was recorded in the Inspector of Mines Reports as 'Suffolk Place Mine '. From 1902 it was shown as 'Bostall Estate Mine '. Originally the mine was named after the land on which it was situated - Suffolk Place Farm - one of the two parcels of land that made up the development. The committee of the _ Society however, decided to call the building venture after the original fame bought in 1887. This dual naming of the mine has led to some historians searching in vain for another mine which does exist.

In 1914 the mine was converted into an air raid shelter by the addition of a sloping entrance by the side of Co-operative Hall (now called Federation Hall). The underground tunnels remained accessible up to the 1960's when it was still possible to crawl into the rubbish filled entrance. Harry Pearman of the Chelsea Speleological Society entered by this method in 1960 and produced a quick survey. Some time after the entrance was completely filled following fears that children, who were known to 'explore ' and play in the caves, could become lost or injured.

The next visit to the mine was in 1967 when, with the kind permission of the R.A.C.S. and the local authority, a small group of mining archaeologists, led by the writer, made an examination of the underground galleries. The strong grill sealing the top of the shaft was removed by workmen from the London Borough of Greenwich (the principle lessee of the site) in order to gain access

In the early days of building work on the new estate an al-fresco concert was held each summer in the nearby woods. Visitors were shown around the new houses and workshops, and adventurous souls were lowered down the shaft in the cage/tub and taken on a conducted tour of the mine.  

In 1967 the shaft was descended using strong lightweight flexible wire 'caving ' ladders and associated safety equipment. When the mine was to be converted to a shelter a detailed plan of the underground galleries was made by Howard Humphreys & Sons of Westminster. During the 1967 visit the plan was checked and a new survey was plotted to the same scale. Very few differences were found, the most significant being that the sloping entrance was now filled and inaccessible. Another was the appearance of a small excavation at the end of a side passage off of the main southern gallery. This consisted of two poorly cut upwardly inclined tunnels which joined after a few feet. It is probable that this relatively modern piece of mining had been undertaken by adventurous youths at a time prior to the closure of the sloping entrance.

The mine was found to be in excellent condition with no roof falls or sign of stress in the wall observed. The galleries average 10ft  wide and 18 ft high with an arched roof which gave a mechanically strong cross section. Chalk is fairly easy to mine and is usually quite stable so it is not necessary to use props as long as care is taken on the roof sections. The junctions of galleries are also cut with great care to ensure that the loads are spread correctly. The highest galleries are to the south of the shaft where the main development of the mine took place. The adits are 20ft high in this section. Only three galleries were dug to the north of the shaft and they are only 11ft high. In this part of the mine the depth of the roof below the surface is only about 17ft. The excavators wisely did not extend the mine further in this direction as the surface slopes down to the north and cover would have been decreased to a point when the risk of subsidence would become acute.

The mine proceeded forward in a series of steps or benches, the miners cutting away their working platform as the adit was extended. A number of those benches could be seen in the Bostall Estate mine. Such working benches can be seen in any chalk mine. But their presence in the chalk workings at Chiselhurst have lead to the rather quaint theory that they are 'Druid's Altars' The final layout of the mine developed from the four original galleries radiating from the shaft. From these main driveways other adits were cut at right-angles to be joined by cross passages which created large pillars of chalk to support the ground above. From a careful study of the underground galleries and the pick marks left by the miners tools it is possible to re- construct the probable development sequence of the mine. 

The last section of the mine to be worked was an extension to the south when a farther 1 80ft of passages were excavated in 1906, the last year of operation.

The final addition to the mine was made in 1914 when the drift entrance was the side of Federation Hall so that underground tunnels could be used as an air-raid shelter. The sloping tunnel from the surface was intercepted by another dug from the main east driveway to create the shelter entrance. Although the water table had dropped since the mine was abandoned, it was found necessary to put boards and gravel on the floor as parts of the mine were wet. Harry Pearman noted several inches of scummy water, over much of floor during his visit in 1960. In 1967 no water was present although a long period of dry weather had proceeded the date of the investigation. By 1939 parts of the entrance drift had fallen in and it was declared unsafe. For this reason, despite vigorous protests from local residents, the mine was not used as a shelter in the Second World War.

Upon completion of the two day investigation of the mine in 1967 the shaft was re-sealed and made safe, the underground galleries once again quiet and dark, and a silent reminder of the busy industry that existed on the surface at the turn of the century.

This piece first appeared in GIHS Newsletter November 2005