Tuesday 29 October 2019

The Chemical /Department at Woolwich Arsenal


The autumn meeting of the Historical Group of the Royal Society of Chemistry was held on Friday 8 November 2002 to commemorate the centenary of the death of Sir Frederick Abel. This was held jointly with the Gunpowder and Explosives History Group. 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.  The text of this lecture has been published copies can be got from Dr Gerry Moss, Department of Chemistry, Queen Mary.  We hope, in any case, to publish extracts (with permission) in future newsletters.

Four other papers given at the conference have an interest to historians in Greenwich and Woolwich – these were:

The Chemical Laboratories at the Royal Arsenal Woolwich by Wesley Harry, historian of the Royal Arsenal Woolwich.

Wesley talked about the Chemical Laboratories at the Royal Arsenal Woolwich. Some time 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.

The Chemical Archaeology of Explosives, Wayne Cocroft, English Heritage

Wayne’s talk mainly concerned production at the Royal Gunpowder Mills, Waltham Abbey, where guncotton was first prepared in about 1846. In 1863 Frederick Abel had developed a process for its production using cotton waste that was used at Waltham Abbey. Later nitroglycerine 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. Cordite needs a solvent in its production. During the First World War supplies of acetone were lost so Woolwich developed cordite production using ether.

Sir Charles Frederick (1709-1785), FRS FSA, Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich, 1746-1782, Brenda Buchanan

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 gram 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.

Oswald Silberrad, superintendent of research, Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, 1901-1906. Simon Coleman

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.

This article appeared in the GIHS Newsletter May 2003

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