Waltham Abbey Powder Mills

Despite this being within cycling distance and my having driven past it hundreds of times I’d never ventured to visit. On a recent wet Monday, having little else to do, I finally made the expedition.

Initially set up in the 1660s the site was purchased by the Crown in 1787 the site was ideally placed being ell inland and thus reasonably secure from enemy incursion. There was a plentiful supply of water for both motive power and transportation, the site had no fewer than three levels of canal serving it. the mills were greatly expanded in the 1850s due for demand for powder to pursue the war against the Russians. It was at this point that steam replaced water as the main source of power although a hydraulic accumulator tower was also in use.

This is the junction between two canals on the site with lock-gates connecting the two levels.

Buildings were designed to contain explosions, either by having massive concrete walls or traverses separating them from each other. The external walls and the roofs were light weight and designed to be blown either off or out without causing injuries from flying debris.

Numerous isolated magazines were provided next to the canals (now dry) for the storage of finished gunpowder. If one blew up there was enough space between them to prevent a chain reaction. The magazines were connected to other facilities by either a narrow gauge railway or by boats on the canals.

To make gunpowder more effective and easier to transport it was compressed in the Press House. The press itself would have been in a wooden structure to the left of the massive traverse. The building with the arched roof was the hydraulic pump house, powered by a cast iron water wheel. The pump house was roofed with corrugated iron, one of the first recorded instances of the use of this material.

The area of grass in front of these two magazines was the ‘Burning Ground’ where faulty or unwanted material was burnt off.

During the First World War production largely switched to making cordite and the site was greatly expanded to increase supply. This part of the site was known as the ‘New Establishment’.

When the site ceased production of propellants it became a research centre for British rocketry until it was closed completely in 1991. There is a small museum showing some of the rockets produced there, an armoury with a small collection of modern firearms and numerous bits and pieces of equipment scattered around the site, the biggest of which is this ballistic pendulum

Well worth a visit if you’re in the area.