Lee navigation and streams - Waltham Abbey Works

Lee Navigation, Cornmill Stream, Powder Mill Stream, Old River Lea and waterways within the Government Research site.
The various streams all flow southwards

Post to the north Hooks Marsh
Post to the west Bowyers Lake
Post to the east Waltham Abbey
Post to the south Waltham Abbey
Beaulieu Drive
Royal Ordnance Factory – Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment.  This site is now partly open as a museum. The site was sold to the Crown and became the ‘Royal Gunpowder Factory’.   William Congreve, father and son, built it up with high standards of product quality based on scientific method and with close links to the Research Laboratory at the Woolwich Royal Arsenal. Gunpowder here was made exclusively for the military The Crimean War led to a massive expansion and the used of steam power. There was a dual level canal system for transportation. Gunpowder production was eventually supplanted by chemically based material and in 1890 guncotton was made. Then cordite was developed and nitroglycerine production and later picric powder and tetryl.  The First World War led to an expansion of a female labour force. In the 1930s there was research into TNT and RDX. In 1945 the site closed as a factory became a government research establishment into rocket fuel as well as explosives. In 1991 it was decommissioned.
Building expansion took place from the early 19th when process works and horse mills were erected along the Millhead and Horsemill streams. Process buildings were also erected to the east of the site linked to Millhead stream by two new barge cuts and a turning area for barges with timber walkways alongside. These cuts represented a considerable undertaking since they needed to be embanked. A steam drying stove was built near Millhead stream, in the first such use in government factories and surrounded by a canal connected to Millhead. Expansion continued under the younger Congreve but from the 1850s the growth was ‘exceptional’ and it became ‘one of the great powder factories of Europe’. At the outbreak of the Crimean war the factory was the same as that which had served the Napoleonic War but change thereafter was ‘radical’. Changes also depended on the type of powder made – in which developments were international. As changes were made in the type of explosives used and chemically based explosives came into use, so more and more process buildings were built including many buildings for support functions, including two acid factories.  Two World Wars led to vastly increased production and research into new and ever more dangerous explosives on a site so crowded that rational layouts were ever more difficult.  There were also, of course, many facilities for the workers – canteens, etc and even a women’s hospital.
The North Site. This is the area now run by the Waltham Abbey Trust.  It is a scheduled ancient monument, and includes the site of the original gunpowder works. It contains about 300 structures, 21 of which are Grade I or Grade II listed.
Railway layout. This is part of the exhibition area but is in a part of the site which is heavily wooded to prevent damage in case of blast on the gunpowder an 18 inch gauge railway once ran from here to the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield.

Cornmill Stream
Site of horse powered corning house demolished 1814.  Later process buildings in this area were linked by tramways to the canal network.  In the Second World War it was the site of a nitro glycerine factory.

Edmondsey Mead
Site of horse powered corning house demolished 1814. The area became the site of the second nitro glycerine factory at Waltham Abbey following an explosion at Quinton Hill in 1894.  It has disadvantages as a flat site being the necessary gravity flow difficult. The process can now be followed through the foundations of buildings.  In the Second World War a TNT factory was located here.
Bridge – high curved footbridge over canal in this area

Hoppit Road.
Great Hoppit. Reel Drying Stove. Building H7. Built 1904 in yellow brick.  Originally this was one room, with "truck porches" at each end to tramways ran with a "barrier board" to keep out dirt. Round openings show where steam pipes entered. The building is associated with the making of cordite, and is a development of the manufacturing process and was designed to extract acetone used as a solvent. This is now in use as the entrance to the museum

Horsemill Island
Gloom stove built at the northern end in the 1790s – this is a drying process using a hot iron fire back, or gloom. A horse powered corning and glazing house near it was demolished in an explosion after only a few years use.
Horsemill incorporating houses built here in 1804. Horse mills were quick and cheap to build.  The factory ceased to use horses from 1814 and the various horse mills were demolished

Horsemill Stream
Runs west of and parallel to the Flood Relief Channel
There were a number of horse mills along this stream in the late 18th used in connection with the then gunpowder works. They may have been involved at an early stage in the process for the preparation of ingredients.

Lee Navigation
Waltham Common Lock
The Lock House was built on the site of an older one.” In the 1890s – a plaque on the house says ‘1892’.

Loop Road.
Building L149. The core of this brick building was built 1869 as "Pellet Powder Buildings" with an Accumulator House, Engine House and Boiler House. It was converted into incorporating mills in 1877-8 and a new Boiler House and coal yard was built using an earlier chimney. A Pump House was later. The accumulator House has a plaque ‘1887-8’ Cast-iron columns outside were part of an open verandah. The original gearing for the incorporating mills remains underneath. Gunpowder was pressed into pellets for a more consistent performance and it was important for the large-bore guns being developed then

Middle Road.

Building L157. Gunpowder Incorporating Mills built 1861, and converted for cordite incorporation c1898-9. It is brick with an engine and boiler house with a coal yard and chimney. The building was served by a tramline to the west – and represents a break from reliance on water power and water transport. . Incorporation –means the grinding and combination of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal to form gunpowder. This building was the first steam-powered incorporating mill - probably in the world – and was a model for others.  Along with its ground breaking technology it uses a sophisticated architectural style similar to work at Woolwich and Enfield. It was one of what was planned as a complex of such mills with new types of machinery, transportation methods and safety features.
Building L133.  Magazine built 1879 in brick. It was served by a canal to the east which has now been filled in.
Building L135. Tray magazine built 1882 in brick. It became a workshop in the 1950s. It was served by a canal to the west which has now been filled in
Building L136. Accumulator tower built 1879 in brick. It has a stone plaque saying "RGPF VR 1879". It became offices in the 20th and therefore has floors, staircase and so on inside. It ewes however a remote accumulator and represents the expansion of the hydraulic network to provide power to the north of the site. Hydraulic power for gunpowder presses represented a safer working method.
Building L148. Gunpowder Incorporating Mills built in brick 1888-9 and later converted for cordite incorporation c1898-9. Brick has replaced wood and canvas walls in 20th and there was an open verandah along the front. The complex includes an Engine House and Boiler House with a coal yard by the Boiler House. The building was served by a tramline to the west.
Building L141. Sorting House built 1889 in brick. It was originally served by an iron tramway.
Building L153. Gunpowder Incorporating Mills Built 1867-8, converted for incorporation c1898-9. It is brick with an adjacent Engine House and Boiler House with a coal yard and chimney. The drive shaft and machinery was underneath the building to minimise the risk of explosion. It was served by a tramline to the west. The mills each had a pair of large heavy iron edge runners, which revolved on a circular bed.
L145. Gunpowder Incorporating Mills built 1878 and converted for cordite incorporation c1898-9. It is in yellow brick and is adjacent to an Engine and Boiler House.
Building L154. Expense magazine to store gunpowder before it was taken north for pressing, moulding and drying. It is brick and a brick arch over a doorway was where it was served by an iron tramway. It was later converted into a store for cordite dough
Building L165 Mineral jelly store. Built 1914-17 in Brick. This was for the incorporation of cordite which was developed by the Government's Explosives Committee, and patented in 1889 - experimental manufacture was carried out here. Useable cordite needed acetone as a solvent and mineral jelly as a stabiliser.
Building L167 Charcoal store which was later converted into a Reel Drying Stove. Built in in brick. The drying stove represents the next stage in the manufacture of cordite after pressing, when it was taken here to dry on racks before it was taken to the reeling house for winding.
Building L170a Expense magazine. Built 1857 in brick it was originally served by a railway on a trestle

Millhead Stream
This was a man made leat, probably monastic, on which there had previously been a fulling mill. It is over a mile long a designmed to build up a head of water for the mill at the mill head.
The late 18th a gunpowder works was laid out along this stream – in a number of buildings concerned with different parts of the process. Gunpowder production here was by private enterprise but and there are claims of an operational site as early as 1561. However but it seems that an oil mill situated here was converted to a gunpowder mill in 1665.  In 1665 it was owned by the Hudson family and 1702-87 by the Walton family who became a major supplier to the Board of Ordnance.
Site of Press house. Glazing mill, gloom stove and corning house pre 1827 also Site of incorporating mills, charcoal mixing house, coal and sulphur mills pre 1827. After 1850 the layout of the factory moved away from Millhead and into the area between Millhead and the Old River Lee.
Various canals were built to link Millhead to other parts of the works,

Old River Lee
Charcoal cylinder house installed here late 1820s. There was an associated barge repair yard.  A new cut was dug to link it to the canal network and a metal bridge installed.

Powder Mill Cut
Built to allow access to the Grand Magazine


Edith has become very remiss lately in referring to her source material. It would however be very wrong, in connection with Waltham Abbey Government Works not to mention the role of Wayne Cocroft’s, amazing and magisterial ‘Dangerous Energy’.  (English Heritage 2000).  If only there was more like it!!


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