The Royal Arsenal in Woolwich is now becoming a hub for flats and shops But for almost five centuries, it was a strategic naval and military site defending the interests of England and then the United Kingdom. It was effectively a factory of death, building weapons of mass destruction to suppress populations across the globe and extend or reinforce imperial control. FRANK PACHAS tells how it became crucial to victory in the First World War – and its history from the reign of Henry VIII.
Historians consider the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich as, for centuries, the greatest military factory the British Empire had.
Some even say that without it Britain could not have even considered taking part in the First World War.
At its peak, the Royal Arsenal, which had already been a large gun and ammunitions manufacturing site for about four centuries, expanded in an unprecedented scale over some 1,300 acres between 1914 and 1918.
Its expansion and production were staggering.In December 1914, the site produced 28million rounds of small arms ammunition, but two years later the figure was 418 million rounds a month.
It measured up to three miles long by one-mile-wide and within its borders it housed testing ranges as well as a multitude of factories connected by three separate internal railway systems. One newspaper called it “one of the biggest factories of death in the world”.
Here around 80,000 people worked to make the millions of munitions, bombs and artillery for the British troops.
The expansion was such, that in 1915, Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith ordered a 90-acre estate to be built at Eltham –known as the Progress Estate –with more than 1,200 homes to accommodate the workforce.
For the duration of the war, they worked in great secrecy, so it became known as a secret city within a city.Its employees were forbidden to sketch,draw, and even to have small talks.
They were submitted to a search when they arrived at work –and also when they left.
At the beginning of the war, most of the workforce was male, but 18 months later,when it was painfully clear the conflict would continue, women joined the war effort.
They were known as the Munitionettes and by the end of 1917, the nearly 26,000 women represented 35 per cent of the Royal Arsenal’s workforce.
Some say that it was thanks to women’s participation in the Great War, that the Welfare State was born. Progressive ideas for factory employees did not exist before 1914.
If women were needed, they also needed to be looked after. For this reason,the Royal Arsenal began providing them with war crèches for their children.
There were also hotels for women workers and large-scale canteen facilities,which could have no fewer than 17,000 workers.
Despite these and other incentives, the conditions they worked in were often hazardous, deplorable –and certainly unacceptable for today’s standards.
Also known as the Canary Girls, due to their faces becoming yellow from exposure to gunpowder, the munitionettes were overcrowded and underfed.
Many would faint at their workbenches as they would often work more than 12-hour shifts. There were not even suitable toilets for them –so men and women had to take turns to use the same toilets.
But women were resilient and they even had a song: “If it wasn’t for the ammunition girls, where would the Empire be”, which they would sing together inside the Arsenal.
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