Tuesday 5 November 2019

New Heritage Centre

by Jack Vaughan

this account dates from November 2000 before the centre has closed. Now, in November 2019, it has been closed and not replaced  - Greenwich now, scandalously, has no museum or archive

A visit was arranged, attended by a good number of members, to the Royal Arsenal (West), its purpose being to show the Society the first stage of the Council's share of what will be a Museum/Heritage Centre.

The Party assembled at the Beresford Square end of Warren Lane (in former days the 'Arsenal' area was known as the Warren).  There it was met by Mike Neill of Greenwich Borough at the entrance to the Main Guard House (1788 Grade II) now occupied by English Partnerships. Kitted out with compulsory fancy dress now obligatory on construction sites – yellow waist coast with decorations and 'Snowdrop' helmets (as worn by the American Military Police in the last war) the party moved across Dial Square to the front block.  There were three of these blocks forming the Great Pile of Buildings (1716). The Sundial was added because of the unreliability of the first 'Arsenal' clock on the adjacent Royal Laboratories of which two 'partitions' remain.

The contents of the 'room' (30ft by 15ft, my guess) were mainly photographic and pictorial, illustrative of Arsenal scenes and activities – and extremely interesting display.

A television was running a video which was quite rivetting and there was a cabinet containing small artefacts which I am sure will form the nucleus of an expanding display of such items.  At this point, the great number of 'finds' uncovered by the Oxford Archaeological Grouo will be ensconced and catalogued.  The Society, Council and Borough Museum must ensure that they eventually return to a final resting place on the Arsenal site or in the Heritage Centre.

Leaving Dial Square the party walked to a building which Mike said had been a bullet factory.  I admit to some confusion here: the bullet factory was on the adjacent site of the Royal Laboratories which was roofed over and packed out with bullet presses, trimmers, etc. Also the building which we were exploring was next to No.17 building which was the paper cartridge factory in the mid 1800s.

Anyway, 'our' building had plenty of interesting construction features including fine cast iron roof supporting pillars which, ingeniously, served as part of the roof drainage arrangements.  The third and last part of the tour was a walk towards the eastern end of the site which gave the members sight of several listed buildings including the Grand Storehouses, Armstrong Gun Factory, the two pretty Riverside Guardhouses and the spectacular entrance to the Shell Factory (1850). A notable absentee was His Grace the Duke of Wellington MGO (statue) banished to some obscure corner. Mike could not say just where, but avowed that it would not be lost from the Arsenal site. We must all cross our fingers as other important items have disappeared.

The highlight of the visit for myself was to see three enormous cast iron (or steel) bases which were part of steam hammers housed in the forges near the Armstrong factory.  They are to remain on site, presumably as 'ornaments' in the small 'park' behind the Shell Factory – already mentioned. The 40 ton Nasmyth hammer was not recovered and presumably was removed around 1950. The 30' deep foundations are still underground.

Altogether a worthwhile tour – hopefully the first of a coming series so that the growth of the whole Heritage Centre can be followed as it happens.


41 & 41A New Laboratory Square

Built as part of the Royal Laboratory, the ammunition manufacturing branch of the Arsenal.

The West Range, of 1805, was the first, followed c. 1808-10 by the very similar east range; the yard being enclosed to the north about the same time.  All three ranges are of two storeys, of stock brick, with minimal stone dressings. The east and west ranges have their five central bays pedimented. It is not known whether the north range did also.  The 1850s saw a major refitting programme. Steam power was introduced. New engine and boiler houses were added at either end of the east range, into which cast iron columns were inserted. These columns survive, together with evidence for drive shafting. The northern engine and boiler houses survive. Those to the south do not.

Subsequently the quadrangle became a factory for making ammunition boxes and barrels; the east range being a sawmill and cooperage, the west range carpenters' shops.

In 1878 the previously open south side was enclosed with a carpenters' workshop, a tall single storey iron-framed structure of two parallel ranges with saw-tooth profiled north light roofs.  The ironwork is similar to that used to in-fill the Royal Laboratory courtyard in 1854 but is dated 1878.  Two further, similar ranges were added to the north in 1890 in matching ironwork.

In this century a plain brick bay was added on the south side of the 1878 range and a bizarre half timbered additional storey was erected on top of the north range. Both of these have recently been removed.

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