History of the Royal Artillery Museum
The Royal Military Repository was the forerunner to the Royal Artillery Museum. It was established on the Royal Arsenal site in May 1778 by a Royal Warrant issued to Captain William Congreve RA by King George III. We believe this makes The Royal Artillery Museum, the world’s oldest military museum.
Following a fire in the Royal Military Repository in 1802, the surviving artefacts were housed in the Old Royal Military Academy. The Academy still stands today next to the Greenwich Heritage Centre.
In 1820 the main collection was moved to the famous Rotunda on Woolwich Common. In 2001, the collection moved to the listed buildings that formed part Royal Arsenal complex. These buildings were once part of the Royal Laboratory Department. This Department controlled the manufacture of ammunition from design to manufacture, testing and administration.
Early History of the Royal Arsenal
The military history of the Royal Arsenal area dates as far back as Roman times. Hidden under the ground in what is now Riverside Park, adjacent to the Royal Arsenal, are the remains of a Roman fort. The remains of many Roman cremations and burials, presumably associated with the fort, have been discovered on the site. Intriguingly, inside the Roman fort, traces of an Iron Age settlement were found, taking the story back even further.
The Royal Arsenal itself dates back to the 16th Century. Ordnance stores were first set up at Woolwich Dockyard in the 16th Century under a directive of Henry VIII. The first recorded building on the present Royal Arsenal site was a mansion called Tower House, built in 1545, within an area known as the Warren. In 1586 guns captured by Drake are recorded as being in storage at Woolwich.
Gun manufacturing and proofing had taken place within the City of London. A more isolated area was desirable and from the 1650s, guns were tested at the Warren. This was also the site of a 60-gun stockaded fort, built by Prince Rupert to deter attacks from the Dutch in the mid-17th Century. Parapets were installed at Woolwich Warren with the guns deployed facing across the Thames.
In 1671 Tower Place and 31 acres were bought by the Crown for use as ordnance stores. Manufacture of ammunition had previously taken place within the royal armoury at Greenwich Palace. In 1695 construction of Greenwich Hospital began on the palace site. So the laboratory was relocated downstream to Woolwich. Laboratory Square was built in 1696. The new Royal Laboratories manufactured gunpowder, shell cases, fuses and paper gun cartridges.
The Royal Brass Foundry was established in 1715-17. An explosion at the private foundry in Moorfields prompted a move away from the centre of London to the Warren. By that time the Warren was the largest gun repository in the country. By the 1750s manufacture of gun carriages was also taking place on site. In 1803 this activity was formalized as the Royal Carriage Department.
George III visited the Warren in 1805 and gave it the title of the Royal Arsenal, marking its prime significance in ordnance manufacturing.
The Old Royal Military Academy
On 26 May 1716 the first two permanent companies of Royal Artillery were formed by Royal Warrant. Tower Place became their headquarters. The military academy was established there in 1720, obtaining its Royal Warrant in 1741. The building is now known as the Old Royal Military Academy.
Two common expressions are said to have come from the Old Royal Military Academy:
“Talking Shop”, meaning “to discuss subjects not understood by others”, derives from the academy being commonly known as “The Shop”, as the academy’s first building was a converted workshop.
The game of Snooker get its name from members of the junior intake of officers to the Academy. They were known as “snookers”, from a corruption of “les neux” (the new guys).
Read more about the Royal Regiment of Artillery >
The Royal Arsenal and First and Second World Wars
By 1907 the Royal Arsenal covered almost 1,300 acres, was a mile wide and stretched for three miles.
The Royal Arsenal played a central role in the First World War (1914–1918). It employed many thousands of local men and women manufacturing the ammunition needed by the Royal Artillery. At its height it is estimated that this military-industrial complex employed 80,000 people. This increase in the workforce meant that much more housing was needed locally. So the Progress Estate was built in record time to house the workers.
Traditional gunpowder had been replaced by materials such as cordite and sulphur. There materials and others were mixed or loaded into shells by hand despite being dangerous to human health.
The famous ‘Canary Girls were the trinitrotoluene (TNT) shell makers of First World War. Their nickname arose because exposure to TNT is toxic. Repeated exposure can turn the skin an orange-yellow colour reminiscent of the plumage of a canary. The Canary Girls were also referred to by the nickname “munitionettes”.
After the First World War, The Royal Ordnance Factory continued as a munitions factory. It played a central role again in supplying munitions for the Second World War.
Much top secret work was carried out here behind the high walls of the Arsenal. The site was so secret it did not even appear on the London A-Z. This factory closed in 1967.
Timeline of Artillery
AD 1000 – An early form of gunpowder is already known in China. Gunpowder was re-discovered by an English monk in about 1250, and warfare began to change dramatically.
1578 – The period’s most important and much copied book about artillery is written by Master Gunner William Bourne. See Bourne’s original print in the gallery.
1500 – Bodiam Mortar, used to hurl stones and incendiaries. See this rare example of an early siege weapon in the gallery. It was found in the moat at Bodiam Castle.
1716 – Birth of the Royal Artillery. A famous general, the Duke of Marlborough persuades King George I to establish two permanent companies of artillerymen. These two companies of 100 men each were formed at Woolwich.
1850s – Crimean War. Lieutenant Miller (who won the VC) whiled away the tedium of the Siege of Sevastapol painting watercolours of the military camp. Officer Cadets were taught drawing so that they could make their own illustrated manuals. See Miller’s surviving drawings in the gallery.
1879 – South Africa. Poor British tactics lead to an overwhelming Zulu attack and disastrous British defeat at Isandlwhana, despite British modern weaponry. See the kind of gun used in this battle, the 7-pounder RML (rifled muzzle loader).
1914 – The Great War. See the 18-pounder field gun, the main equipment of the field artillery. This gun fired over 100 million rounds during that War!