Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Locomotive Woolwich at Waltham Abbey




Earlier this year questions were raised about the 'Woolwich' – a locomotive once in the Arsenal and until recently part of a preserved railway in Devon.  When plans were announced for the sale of this railway some of our members raised questions about the fate of the locomotive – it was eventually sold to the heritage project at Waltham Abbey.  Since then it has turned out that that some local Greenwich and Lewisham people are closely involved with development of the heritage site on the old Royal Gunpowder Mills at Waltham Abbey - thanks in particular to John Bowles, of Blackheath,  who has given us a great deal of useful information about events at Waltham Abbey.  We hope to have a speaker and a visit to the project within the next year.

Another activist from Waltham Abbey,  Robin Parkinson of Lewisham, has written to us to say: 
"I am pleased to pass on news of the ex RAR equipment which has been purchased by the Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills Company.  Dating back to the 1870s the railways or tramways as they were then, were used to transfer material between the process areas and also from the south site (now built on) to the northern site (remaining). Records show an 18" gauge railway was built to replace previous systems around 1916 as a number of paraffin fuel and electric vehicles were used.  Steam was never a motive power at Waltham Abbey – so 'Woolwich' will be a first. The initial plan is to rebuild the line at the original 18" gauge, which was the same as RAR Woolwich and other MOD sites. The layout will try to follow the path of the original from Cordite store across the bottom of Long Walk and down past the Gunpowder mills at the end of Queen's Meadow. The good news is that on October 16th 2000 locomotive Avonside 'Woolwich' (No. 1748 of 1916) plus six coaches arrived safely on site from Bicton Woodlands Railway in Devon. The company has also purchased Hunslet 'Carnegie' 0-4-4-0 diesel (no. 4524 of 1954) also ex RAR Woolwich. This needs some attention to one of the drive bogies and is at present awaiting inspection at a railway engineering company in the southwest.
There are two ways in which you might be able to help. I have yet to find any photographs of 'Woolwich' taken whilst operating at RAR, copies of these might confirm the original chimney design and shed number whilst at the Arsenal.  Also I would like confirmation of the livery and lining out. Track laying is going to be a major project and we will certainly be looking for volunteers for both this and carriage restoration. This is an area where your members would be very welcome. It is going to involve a lot of hard work. Whilst no formal group as yet been formed I would appreciate hearing from anybody interested. Please feel free to contact me (daytime) 0797 982605 or evenings 0208 297 0928.

Gunpowder production began in Waltham Abbey in the mid-1660s and the mills were purchased by the Crown in 1787 – at around the time when the Greenwich gunpowder depot was closed.  Production ceased during the Second World War because of a perceived risk from bombers and the site was eventually decommissioned in 1991. There are 300 structures, 21 listed buildings, and 34 acres of 'Special Scientific Interest'. The Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills Charitable Foundation was set up to protect the site and administer and endowment fund.  The site is described as one of Britain's best kept secrets. They hope to open to the public in April of this year.

The Waltham Abbey site must be of particular interest to historians in Woolwich and Greenwich because of its close relationship with the Arsenal and some of the earlier military establishments in Greenwich.  For instance their web site tells us of the work at Waltham of both William Congreve and Frederick Abel – both names strongly associated with research in Woolwich.  Waltham Abbey is of course a close neighbour of the other large military site in North London – the Enfield Lock Small Arms Factory – an organisation which grew up in Greenwich and Lewisham before moving to Enfield.   News is a bit scarce about what is happening on the Enfield site – beyond a mass of new housing – has anyone any news

This article appeared in the January 2001 GIHS Newsletter

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