MORE ABOUT THE ARMOURY MILLS AT LEWISHAM
BY BERYL WILLIAMS
(This article is reproduced from the Spring 2001 edition of 'Industrial Heritage' with their permission and appeared om the GIHS Newsletter May 2001)
The note from Peter Jenkins (GIHS Newsletter) was taken from Board of Ordnance records made at the time of the Napoleonic Wars [1793 to 1815]. By 1802, there had been a huge increase in the number of our fighting men and a subsequent increase in the number of muskets required to arm them. For hundreds of years the Board of Ordnance, from its HQ in the Tower of London, had been responsible for procuring high quality weapons for the Army, and a system had evolved whereby the muskets were usually obtained by contract from independent armourers. In both London and Birmingham, there were large numbers of small arms manufactories; some providing complete muskets hut many making individual components to be assembled elsewhere, as and when required. Rigorous inspection schedules maintained quality, but in times of shortage, extra muskets and other small arms had to be 'bought in' from merchants and, on occasions, the Board of Ordnance had had to send out Officers to procure large numbers from abroad.
The small arms situation became quite desperate. Not only was there a shortage of muskets, but there had been a steady decline in quality, due to the piecemeal nature of their procurement. The Board of Ordnance decided to take more control over both the quantity and quality, and took steps to set up its own manufacturing capabilities. In 1802, a suitable site, in Northamptonshire was found and land was purchased with the intention of building a small arms manufactory to provide 50,000 muskets annually this was not built but the plan was not abandoned until 1807. In the meantime, in 1804, the Tower of London workshops began assembling parts which had been manufactured elsewhere, some of this work being undertaken outside the walls on the premises of a Mr. Fullard, a gunsmith. In the same year, a new quality control department was created in Birmingham, consisting of eight civilian staff, headed by an Inspector of Small Arms (Major James Miller RA, salary £440 per annum).
Standing in an acre of land alongside the Ravensbourne River, in Lewisham, there was a recently vacated armoury mill, already under control of the Board of Ordnance. Records show it was an armoury mill, as early as 1371. When, in 1530 King Henry VIII gained possession of the Manor of Lewisham, this mill became Crown Property and did the grinding for the armoury workshops at nearby Greenwich Palace, where high quality suits of armour for Henry's famous Tilt Yard there, were made. By 1637, it had fallen into disrepair but was taken over by potters who used two sets of stones to grind colours for their earthenware. As a result of a reorganisation of responsibilities in 1671, the mill passed to the Office of Ordnance and by 1695, it was a working armoury mill again the lessee being an armourer called Bolden. During the next hundred years, it continued to be leased to a number of independent armourers who were contracted to the Board, including Robert Parker [1707 to 1712], Thomas Hollier [1716 to 1753], Richard Hornbuckle [1756 to 1784] and Jonathon Hennem [1784 to 1805]. These lessees adapted to making different patterns of muskets and other arms, as demand required, and also undertook some refurbishment work and repairs. The 21 year-lease of the last lessee Jonathon Hennem terminated in 1805.
In 1807, Capt. Mulcaster, a Royal Engineer based at the Royal Powder Mills at Faversham, was put in charge of converting this old Armoury Mill in Lewisham into the Board of Ordnance small arms manufactory which became known as the Royal Armoury Mills. He brought with him from Faversham a Clerk of Works (Mr. Borden), an Overseer (Mr. Creed), and a Foreman of Bricklayers (Mr. Barnes). As well as grinding-mills, workshops and storehouses, the building programme included a proof house, roads and a bridge, two houses for foremen and six cottages. Manufacturing started in March 1808, but the building work was not all completed until the following year, when Mr. Tull, the Principal Clerk of Works at the Tower of London, took over responsibility for the site and Capt. Mulcaster and his team returned to their duties at Faversham Powder Mills.
Grinding mills and machines to produce the parts for up to, 50,000 muskets a year were installed. Power to grind these 50,000 barrels and make the 50,000 locks, rammers and bayonets, was supplied by waterwheels set up in the Ravensbourne and by a steam engine bought from Messrs Lloyd & Ostell at a cost of £2,400. The civilian Superintendent of the works was a very experienced Ordnance Officer, Mr J Colegate, who had been one of the Officers sent into Europe to procure arms in 1779.
By 1810, besides salaried Civil Officers concerned with administration, there were 156 man working in the mill - 3 foremen viewers, 24 artificers, 82 lock filers, 4 barrel filers, 4 barrel borers, 7 barrel grinders, 10 barrel forgers, 13 others and 9 labourers. The daily rates were 7/- for foremen and viewers, from 3/- to 4/6 for artificers and from 2/-- to 2/6 for all the rest. In 1811, the capacity was increased when the Tower of London facility' [mainly assembling 'Brown Bess' muskets] was moved here and in the following year, additional lathes were installed to further increase output.
Post WaterlooFollowing Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo on June 18th 1815, the demand for muskets evaporated with an immediate effect on the Armoury Mills at Lewisham within a month the output was halved, and by the following year over 100 workers had been discharged. A barrel grinding department was transferred to the recently erected Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock on the River Lea and Mr Colegate was transferred there to become its first superintendent. The rest of the work soon followed and the Lewisham manufactory was reduced to a repair depot, soon to he abandoned as a Board of Ordnance establishment and sold in 1819
The Sell Off
On passing into private hands, there was a complete change of use. The complex became known as the 'Silk Mills', but this name belied the specialist nature of the textile work undertaken there. Behind the massive gates and high walls [built to provide security for the former Ordnance workshops], gold and silver lace for Officers' uniforms, and gold cloth and brocades were being manufactured. There were many changes over the ensuing years, but the production of textiles, of one sort or another, continued on the site, although the old mill buildings ceased to be used and were completely derelict when the whole area was flattened by bombs, during the Second World War,
Board of Ordnance Papers WO 46/2596, WO 47/44, WO 4712600, WO 47/2658.
O.F.G.Hogg. The Royal Arsenal. 1963.
De Witt Bailey. 1999. British Board of Ordnance Small Arms Contractors 1689 to 1840.
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