Great Harry to Great War and beyond

Four centuries before, it was Woolwich Dockyard, built by order of King Henry VIII in 1513.

His flagship The Great Harry (also Henri Grâce à Dieu) was built there and in her day it was possibly the largest ship in the world.

The dockyard was expanded over the years and many more prestigious ships would be built there until the late 19th century.

In 1667, England feared the Dutch would raid the dockyard, as it had happened on the driveway. So a 31-acre rabbit farm, or domestic warren, was bought nearby and a gun battery was built.

The site became known as the Woolwich Warren. In 1805, King George III suggested the name should be changed to the Royal Arsenal as by that time it was already associated with the production of cannons, rifles, and gunpowder.

The start of the 19th century was also a time of increasing hostility between England and mainland Europe.

England once again feared invasions of overseas territories, this time because of French and Russian expansionist policies. So the Royal Arsenal increased its activity during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and the Crimean War (1853-1856).

The Victorian British Army became increasingly professional, particularly in the fields of artillery and engineering.

The Royal Arsenal now took up 104 acres. It housed an ordnance storage, the Royal Laboratory, the Royal Carriage Department and the Royal Brass Foundry –which still survives and is in Beresford Street.

Its military office was home to the Royal Regiment of Artillery and a field train to ensure the supply and storage of guns, and ammo.

Royal Arsenal engineers were responsible for the design, construction and maintenance of buildings, wharves and bridges. The artillery moved to Wiltshire in 2008.

The Royal Regiment of Artillery, active since 1716, was used to conduct proof tests and gunnery practice. Its building was demolished soon after, but a copy constructed in 1741 survives today as residential Building 11 near Wellington Park.

Also in that building was the Royal Military Academy focusing on maths and the scientific principles of gunnery and fortification.It also taught around 130 cadets French, Latin,writing, fencing, mapping and drawing.

The English idiom “talking shop” —meaning to discuss work subjects not understood by others — is believed to have been coined there around 1840 when the first building the academy used, known as the shop, was turned into a workshop.

The academy closed in 1939 and later on was merged with the Royal Military College in Sandhurst.

The building, used for about two centuries was demolished in the 1980s for road widening.

British domination of the seas,reinforced by Merton resident Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, led to some suspicion of land armies.

But the Napoleonic conflicts until Waterloo in 1815 led to a glamorisation of soldiers and the expansion of the Royal Arsenal to assert the empire’s power. But that would not have been possible without convict labour.

The Royal Arsenal had ‘prison hulks’ –prisonships –with prisoners of war and those who later were sent to penal colonies.

Massive unemployment, high taxes and sky-rocketing food prices caused by the 19th century wars led many to enlist to fight against Napoleon –that was better than dying of starvation or cold weather.

Woolwich, once an underpopulated area, had 40,000 inhabitants by 1861.

The ground was also marshy, which was ideal to silence the impact of explosions and proofing. It was also out of range of any possible aid raid –though not forever.

Although the Royal Arsenal kept active during the Second World War, its production dwindled considerably as it was distributed among other Royal Ordnance Factories nationwide.

Warfare also changed –the site was within range during the Blitz in September 1940. Its central offices were damaged and its explosives were evacuated.

There were only 15,000 workers by August 1945 –of which 103 were killed and 770 were left injured during 25 raids. After the Second World War, the Royal Arsenal went through a quiet period, but it still built railway wagons and knitting frames for the silk stockings industry.

Armament production increased again during the 1950-1953 Korean War, but the writing was on the wall for the Royal Arsenal.

In 1953, the Royal Arsenal Estate was set up to dispose of areas no longer needed and when the Ministry of Defence left the site in 1994, the Royal Arsenal ceased to be a military establishment.

Now, the historic buildings are a conservation area –and an urban regeneration project, with light industry, flats and leisure facilities. Some would argue its lasting cultural legacy is in another field altogether.

Royal Arsenal workers did have a bit of spare time. By the end of the 19th century, some formed a football club, initially called Dial Square.

They entered the professional Football League as Woolwich Arsenal in 1893, and moved north of the river to become Arsenal FC in 1913.

The club has won 13 league titles and a record 14 FA Cups.



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