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The Royal Arsenal (1546-1994)

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A government munitions factory
Known for

Royal Arsenal, Woolwich.
View full size imageRoyal Arsenal, Woolwich. © NMM
The Royal Arsenal began storing guns from the 16th century, including those captured by Sir Francis Drake. The site established a laboratory for manufacturing ammunition, fuses and gunpowder in 1695. By 1777 it occupied 104 acres and employed 500 people. 

Fuse factory, Woolwich Arsenal.
View full size imageFuse factory, Woolwich Arsenal. © NMM
The Great Storehouse was developed between 1805 and 1814. The Crimean War increased the need for guns and ammunition and by 1856 the Royal Arsenal was a major industrial centre.

It reached a peak of activity during the First World War, employing 80,000 people, including many thousands of women. After the war it continued to employ 10,000 but turned to other manufacturing, like milk churns and railway locomotives, as well as armaments.

Port Connection

Woolwich Arsenal.
View full size imageWoolwich Arsenal. © NMM
The Royal Arsenal occupied a large area on the river bank including the Royal Gun Factory, Royal Carriage Department, Royal Laboratory and Building Works Department. The former Royal Dockyard was made over to the War Office in 1872 and converted into stores and wharves for the loading of troopships.

The Royal Arsenal was a hugely important local employer.

Interesting Facts

Woolwich Arsenal: Moulding the powder pellets
View full size imageWoolwich Arsenal: Moulding the powder pellets. © NMM
Arsenal football club originated at the Royal Arsenal. The factory employed a large number of men in the area. In 1886 a group of these workers decided they would get together and set up their own football team.

The first game that they played was against a team from the Isle of Dogs, called Eastern Wanderers. The men won this game 6-0 and realised they were good enough to start a proper club.

The area was formerly known as Woolwich Warren, so named due to the abundance of rabbits that occupied the site. George III renamed it the Royal Arsenal in 1805.

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Life Story
1546A gun wharf is constructed in the area known as The Warren. The testing of guns also takes place here.
1667For defence against a Dutch invasion, Charles II installs 60 guns by the riverside.
1671The Crown purchases 31 acres of land for ordnance storage, and Tower Place, an extensive Tudor Mansion.
1694A change of use occurs from storage depot to one of manufacturing guns, ammunition and fuses. The Royal Laboratory is constructed to invent new weapons.
1716The Royal Regiment of Artillery is founded and is based on the site.
1741The Royal Military Academy is founded, and their quarters are in the re-built Tower Place.
1873The site has now become so extensive, that an 18" narrow gauge railway is installed for the movement of equipment and the transportation of employees.
1914-18With the outbreak of World War I, the Arsenal increases its workforce to approximately 80,000.
1939-45During World War II, the emphasis is more on the protection of the Arsenal and its workforce. During the first day of the Blitz (7th September, 1940), 53 people are killed on the site, and fires rage uncontrollably.
Post 1945The development of new technology results in the slow decline of the Arsenal. In 1967, the Royal Ordnance Factory closes.
1994The Royal Arsenal is decommissioned as a military establishment, and two years later the Ministry of Defence transfers ownership to English Partnerships for redevelopment.
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Find out more
StoriesPrison hulks on the River Thames
Find out more about the notorious floating prisons that housed London's convicts
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StoriesDeptford and Woolwich: London's Royal Dockyards
The rise and decline of Henry VIII's Dockyards
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GalleriesWoolwich Royal Dockyard collection
Further images of Woolwich Dockyard
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National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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