If you put saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur together the result is an explosive mixture. Gunpowder changed the face of the world. One of the main contributors was the Royal Gunpowder Mills in Essex. For 300 years the works near Waltham Abbey researched and produced almost everything to do ammunition under the most stringent conditions of secrecy. This is what makes a visit to the museum, which lies hidden away in an area of natural beauty, so exciting. The first thing which visitors encounter is a multi-media installation where they can get their bearings. After this they can find out about the history of the site and all the things which were invented here. Those who wish to do so can don a white overcoat and create their own explosions on an interactive computer. The rest of the huge site which includes a lengthy network of waterways and railways and a twelve metre reservoir for testing water bombs, can be best visited by taking a tour in a land train. The museum also contains a collection of guns and rifles. Things here are not as idyllic as they might seem. For there is no effort made to disguise the fact that the majority of the products went into the weapons and arms industry.
A deafening detonation occurred on 27th May 1861. After the smoke had cleared the powder mills of the Royal Gunpowder Mills lay in ruins. The first steam-driven mills had only existed for four years, although the works at Waltham Abbey had been producing gunpowder since 1660. Saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur were ground, pressed, dried and granulated in a series of processes and it was only a question of time until the government expressed its interest. In 1787 the privately-owned works were purchased by the Crown and turned into the most important gunpowder factory in Britain. The timing could not have been better. For very soon after this Napoleon was to cast his shadow over Europe. The history of the Royal Gunpowder Mills has been shaped for ever by wars. Most of the surviving buildings date back to the mid 19th century when the Crimean War was at its height. This is generally acknowledged as the first industrial war because it resulted in a huge loss of men and equipment. At Waltham Abbey gunpowder production soared to record levels. Alongside gunpowder, experiments were also conducted into guncotton and nitro-glycerine. In the 1880s local scientists developed a chemical explosive named cordite which the British army later used in the First World War. During the Second World War production was moved to another site to avoid the threat of air-raids. After 1945 a series of different laboratories were set up to conduct further research, including that into rocket propellants. But the site itself remained almost unchanged. One of the central features is the large distance between the individual buildings. This was so arranged in order to keep potential damage from explosions to a minimum In 1991 the British Ministry of Defence gave up the site. Now it contains a huge variety of flora and fauna – not to speak of a unique museum.
|Recommended duration of visit:||2-3 Hours|
|Access for persons with disabilities:||For details see website|
|Infrastructure for Children:|
|Visitor centre on site:||yes|
|Gift and book shop on Site:||yes|
May to October:
for weekends and bank holidays 11am-5pm (last entry 3.30pm)