Friday 29 August 2014

The Chemical Laboratories in the Royal Arsenal

The following is a scan of the synopsis of a series of papers from a Conference held in 2002 between the Royal Society of Chemistry and the (now defunct) Gunpowder and Explosives History Group.   The synopsis below are those given which are relevant to Woolwich - although the first paper, by Wayne Cocroft describes work at the Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills, but includes some information on the role of the  Royal Arsenal.

It should be noted - for those who visit Woolwich - that one of the pavilions of the Royal Chemical Laboratories has now been repaired and done up - it would be interesting to know exactly how this has been done, what relevance remains to its earlier role, what is to happen to it now, what will it be used for, and will there be any interpretation of its earlier importance - and who will write that???    Information would be wonderful  - it has been claimed that they are the earliest purpose built industrial buildings remaining in Britain.

Everyone is urged to visit the very excellent gunpowder mills exhibition site at Waltham Abbey and to learn more about this important national industry and have a great day out.

 I am publishing these here in order to further local, Borough of Greenwich, knowledge about the importance of work at the Arsenal and that it was not only a place where guns were made.  If these synopses are seen as someone's copyright please email and they will be removed.

Sir Frederick Abel (1827-1902)
The autumn meeting of the Historical Group was held at Waltham Abbey, Royal Gunpowder Mills on Friday 8 November 2002 to commemorate the centenary of the death of Sir Frederick Abel. The meeting started with the first Wheeler Lecture by Professor Sy Mauskopf (Duke University) on Long Delayed Dream: Sir Frederick Abel and the Development of Cordite. This is reproduced in full in Occasional Paper No 3 produced by the Royal Society of Chemistry.
Chemical Archaeology of Explosives
Wayne Cocroft from English Heritage talked on the history of the Royal Gunpowder Mill and the surviving buildings and artefacts. He explained that archaeologically it is a complex site with buildings from many phases. Apart from redevelopment and adaption to changing requirements others were lost from explosions. The first production of gunpowder probably dates to about 1665. The site is well documented from 1787 when the government took over the site. Major William Congreve was the Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory and was largely responsible for the success of this government enterprise. He greatly improved the quality and reliability of the black powder produced by rigorous control of the consistency and purity of the ingredients. Many innovations in production methods were introduced; ideas which then filtered down to the private gunpowder industry. The gunpowder mills were worked by waterwheels until 1857 when steam powdered incorporation mills were introduced...
Guncotton was first prepared in about 1846. In 1863 Frederick Abel developed a process for its production using cotton waste that was used at Waltham Abbey. Later nitro-glycerine was developed which, when combined with guncotton and a mineral jelly, were blended to form the propellant cordite; patented by Abel in 1889. Some buildings involved in these processes survive although the nitrating plant was demolished in the 1990s. After an explosion in 1894 a new nitro-glycerine plant was built. By the early 20th century a third of the cordite produced in this country was made at the Royal Gunpowder Mills. Later most of this production moved to Gretna. Cordite needs a solvent in its production. During the First World War supplies of acetone were lost so Woolwich developed cordite production using ether. Later Chaim Weizmann developed a fermentation method for the production of acetone at Holton Heath. The Quinan stove built in 1935 for drying guncotton used an innovative form of concrete construction.
The Royal Gunpowder Mills were also involved in the production of other explosives; tetryl (N-mthyl-N, 2, 4, 6-tetranitroaniline) from 1910, picrite (Nitroguanidine) in the 1920s and RDX (cyclonite, hexahydro-1, 3, 5-trinitro- 1, 3, 5-triazine) in the 1930s. RDX was used in the bouncing bomb of the Dam buster’s raid. Gunpowder production at Waltham Abbey finally ceased in 1940-41 and the whole factory closed in 1945. The site then became a Research and Development Establishment, finally closing in 1991. The site was opened to the public in 2001.
Sir Charles Frederick (1709-1785), FRS FSA, Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich, 1746-1782
Sir Charles Frederick became Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich and Surveyor General to the Board of Ordnance in the mid- eighteenth century, at a time when gunpowder making was still a craft industry, and the government was reliant on private contractors. In the  theoretical vacuum that then existed he had to undertake a process of self-  education, serving what may be described as an apprenticeship with the  learned societies of London, and presenting a dramatic 'masterpiece' in the  form of the great firework display of 1749 in celebration of peace and  victory, before becoming an acknowledged master of his subject. Portraits of Sir Charles illustrate these three stages of his career. Plans and paintings of the Royal Laboratory also shown in the presentation of this paper raise questions about the work undertaken there. This is especially the case with  the production line of workmen filling round shot of varying diameter with  powder, and sealing the shell with a plug that was presumably to be replaced  by a fuse before firing. Proof testing was also carried out here, but this was notoriously unreliable and it seems likely that the standardization of formula and of grain size was used as a way of setting the minimum qualities required. The central pavilions of the old Royal Laboratory still survive at Woolwich, but these once fine buildings of the late seventeenth century have fallen into a sad state of dereliction.
When Sir Charles retired in the early 1780s he had nudged the industry towards the more consciously scientific approach of the last decades of the eighteenth century, through his close attention to the processes of manufacture and his encouragement of experimentation. But today he is not so much underrated as unknown, perhaps because the end of his career was marked by the political difficulties associated with the loss of the American colonies and the criticisms then being voiced of the powerful and independent Board of Ordnance, and because his successors were able to benefit from insights not available to him. Historians too have not served him well, being generally more interested in weapons and campaigns than in the critical matter of the supply of gunpowder. Sir Charles's contemporaries  however had no doubts about its significance, for as a distinguished military  man at the Board of Ordnance wrote to him in 1757, with campaigns  'underway in Europe, North America, India and at sea, 'all...Hope of  Success .. Is gone for nothing without this material'.
It is to Sir Charles's credit and a matter of historical record rather than triumphalism, that in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, despite difficulties of supply and a lack of understanding of the problems of internal ballistics, gunpowder was produced in Britain on a scale and of a quality that enabled the country to emerge on the world stage as a naval, colonial, and trading power.
Brenda J. Buchanan (Chairman Gunpowder and Explosives History Group)
Oswald Silberrad, superintendent of research, Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, 1901-1906
The paper resulted from the speaker's work at the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists, Bath, on the archive of this little-known industrial consulting chemist and the research laboratory that he founded. The paper highlighted some of Silberrad's important contributions to munitions research at the Royal Arsenal while he was still in his early twenties. An experimenter of rare ability, Silberrad discovered a new means of detonating high explosive shells by using a substance known as 'tetryl'.  He also demonstrated that TNT worked well as a high explosive shell filling, possessing advantages over the lyddite then in use, and successfully developed and tested a 'flameless' artillery propellant for small calibre guns.  The archive contains part of Silberrad's unpublished memoirs, which document this period of his career, in particular his difficult relations with the War Office which resulted in his resignation as Superintendent of  Research. The paper sought to show the value of an archival cataloguing project such as this in 'rescuing' a scientist and his work from relative obscurity. The Silberrad Papers are held by the Science Museum- Library".
Simon Coleman  National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists (University of Bath)
The Chemical Laboratories at the Royal Arsenal Woolwich
Wesley Harry, historian of the Royal Arsenal Woolwich, talked about the Chemical Laboratories at the Royal Arsenal Woolwich. Sometime after 1665 the proof of ordnance moved from Moorfields to Woolwich. By 1695 many new buildings had been erected including a laboratory originally attached to the Tilt Yard at Greenwich. Various aspects of the manufacture and testing of ordnance were concentrated onto the Woolwich site in the 18th century. Frederick Abel was a professor of chemistry at the Royal Military Academy and was appointed in 1854 Ordnance Chemist at the Royal Laboratories at Woolwich. Another notable name there was James Marsh who developed the Marsh test for arsenic. The chemical laboratories built in 1864 were the first custom built chemical laboratory at the Arsenal.  The room on the west side was the full height of the two storey building. It was designed like this to disperse fumes and gases produced at the benches.  From the gallery, off which were the offices, Frederick Abel would lower a wicker basket containing samples and instructions to the Assistant Chemist.  The east wing contained a photographic department and library. In addition to the ordnance work the laboratory was also concerned with forensic science.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As an aside, the owner of our house in Charlton in the 1911 census has been transcribed as an 'Engineer Overseas Steel Manufacture'.

In the census form itself, he is an 'Engineer "overseer" Shell manufacture', at the Arsenal.