Saturday, 2 November 2019

Woolwich at the Royal Arsenal Woolwich


by Jack Vaughan

Some members may have visited Bicton Gardens, near Exeter - one attraction of which is a narrow gauge railway system operated in the main by locomotives and rolling stock which for many years worked on the Royal Arsenal Railway.  Of special interest are the diesel locos ‘Carnegie’ named after the C.O.S.F. at the Arsenal in the 1930s, and the ‘Woolwich’, a 1916 0-4-0 oil fired steam loco.
I have a soft spot for the ‘Woolwich’ having had the privilege of working on its maintenance during my own apprenticeship in the 1930s. Sadly the whole system is to be auctioned off, if possible as a whole. In the event of this failing individual items will become available.

The preliminary valuation is £45,000 for the whole system. Unfortunately if a system sale fails the ‘Woolwich’ considered the jewel in the crown, is valued at around £25,000 as a single item.

It goes without saying that the proper final resting place for ‘Woolwich’ is where it was born, in the re-vamped Arsenal.  It would, even as a static exhibit, give some character to the site - which it will never under the present owners, obsessed as they are with tourism and recreation.

The finding of £25,000 plus cost of transporting the loco to the Arsenal would be a formidable task and would need professional guidance in ‘raising the wind’, but not to at least make the attempt will bring shame on Council, English Partnerships, and, indeed, the people of Woolwich.

This piece appeared in the May 2000 GIHS Newsletter

- that newsletter also contained this piece about some of the Woolwich buildings


Of the many important buildings inside the Arsenal site two of the most important can be easily seen from the Arsenal entrance in Warren Lane. These are the east and west Pavilions of the Royal Laboratory.

They were built in 1694-6 when the Royal Laboratory moved to Woolwich from Greenwich.  They were once the centre pieces of the two long sides of a quadrangle of buildings, all used for the manufacture of shot. They are of two storeys, five bays in width and built of brick. The main elevations face inwards and have stone quoins and dressings.  The western building still has the Royal Cypher of William III on its pediment -although this has been rebuilt.

The two buildings were changed a great deal in the 19th century when the quadrangle was roofed over as an ammunition factory in 1853-4 - using an iron framed roof.  It is still possible to see evidence of this on the western front of the eastern building, where the console brackets of the doorcase have been replaced in cast iron but with eyes to allow for the passage of line shafting..    At the time the main laboratory workshop was said to be the largest  machine shop in the world -  under one roof it contained more than 500 lathes. 

Both buildings have modern roofs. The eastern one is flat but the western one is whipped and carried on light weight steel trusses.  In side the western pavilion there is no first floor and it appears that there never was one -although he large scale OS map of 1866 appears to show a stair.

The Main Guard House - which is the main foot entrance building from Warren Lane - was built in 1788 by Isaac Ashton at a time when James Wyatt was Architect to the Board of Ordnance (although Wyatt does not appear to have been involved).  It was built for the army whose responsibility was to guard the Arsenal until the 1880s.  It is built of stock brick with stone bands, a cornice and a tetrastyle Doric portico on its principal  front, which faces onto Dial Square (inside the Arsenal complex).  This portico is an early example of the correct use of the Grecian order, without base.
Inside the building is very much altered and is used by English Partnerships.

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