The Royal Gunpowder Mills (RGM) cover an area of 170 acres, including a nature reserve, and is a site on the European Route of Industrial Heritage and an important part of the SSSI within the RGM site.
Gunpowder production began at Waltham Abbey in the mid-1660s on the site of a Late Medieval fulling mill; the Crown acquired the gunpowder mills from private hands in 1787. From then on, RGM developed into the pre-eminent powder works in Britain and one of the most important in Europe. Under Crown ownership the site expanded and developed along the waterways at the south-west of the site. These waterways totalled over five miles in length over the whole site and linked to the River Lea, which was strategically important, as barges could reach the Thames and Woolwich Arsenal. This expansion in the mid-1850s was due to the demands of the Crimean War and the need to 'rule the waves' and territories of the British Empire. Steam power became available and incorporating mills were built. By the end of the nineteenth century chemical explosives were replacing gunpowder and these mills were converted to produce cordite; new buildings were constructed. After the Second World War the site changed again, to a research establishment for non-nuclear explosives and propellants (top secret and still so after its closure); some of the buildings were converted into laboratories.
I visited the main exhibition building: the short introductory film chronicled the discovery of gunpowder by the Chinese in c.800AD and its eventual usage in the west (as early as the Battle of Crecy, I believe). Footage of the two World Wars brought home the violence, horror, carnage and the sheer noise of shell warfare. Our party of 40+ was split into two groups for the guided tour. There are many buildings of various ages; a team of volunteers is slowly renovating them but it will take a long time to complete. Many of the buildings are in the nature reserve which is rich in wildlife, has a conservation team to look after it and had the largest heronry in Essex. We saw a remarkable and unique relic of the old days: a Victorian gunpowder press house with a cast iron waterwheel, probably the only surviving one in England. We passed plantations of common alder - the best trees for the production of charcoal, one of gunpowder's ingredients, the others being saltpetre and sulphur.
The 1940s Gallery features a post office, a kitchen and an air-raid shelter complete with the sound of a siren. A brisk walk past the incorporating mills to the Wildlife Tower with its views over the Reserve. I strolled beside a water-less canal; there was a feeling of melancholic decay, but the narrow-gauge railway lines reminded me that small engines and wagons were once noisy and busy here. Women made up a large part of the work-force, a fact that was emphasised in the exhibition. I went round the Rocket Vault - RGM expertise lay behind many rockets, including the Waxwing Project - and the Mad Lab where 'Prof. Nitrate' enthralled the children.
Gunpowder continued to be produced at RGM up to the end of the First World War. The last mill was demolished in 1956 and the Ministry of Defence closed the site in 1991. A charitable foundation was set up to safeguard the site in perpetuity, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the MoD. People of all ages will be fascinated by a visit; even a non-scientist like me found much of historic interest. Our thanks to June Peck for her cheerful organisation.