FROM the Anglo-Dutch War in the 17th century to the Falklands War in 1983, British soldiers relied for nearly 300 years on the military technology created and perfected at the Royal Gunpowder Mills, in Waltham Abbey.

Situated on the banks of the River Lea, the site was originally home to a ‘fulling’ mill, built by monks from the nearby abbey – which manufactured different types of fabric.

With the decline of clothmaking in the area, the mill was briefly used for the production of vegetable oil during the early 1600s, before finally being bought by businessman, Ralph Hudson, who converted it into a gunpowder works.

Demand for explosives rose rapidly throughout the 17th century, with the mill producing a large proportion of the gunpowder used by the Royal Navy during a series of major campaigns, such as the second Anglo-Dutch War in 1665.

The mill was taken over by the Walton family at the end of the 17th century, and greatly expanded to meet the needs of the growing British Empire.

The family soon constructed a number of new buildings along the Millhead Stream near the Lea, enabling the site to produce gunpowder on an industrial scale for the first time.

The mills were one of the first examples of an 18th century industrialised factory system, and were described in 1735 as, “the largest and completest works in Great Britain.”

The outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1775 led to concerns over the quality, scale and security of gunpowder production for the British Army.

Military technologist, Lt General, Sir William Congreve, advised the Government to buy Waltham Abbey Mills to ensure secure supplies and to establish a centre of excellence to develop new ways of manufacturing gunpowder and ensuring its quality.

The Crown purchased the mills from John Walton for £10,000 in October 1787, with Congreve put in charge of its re-organisation.

The General helped introduce scientific methods to the manufacture of explosives at the site, turning the mills into Britain’s highest quality producer by the beginning of the 19th century.

Production was greatly expanded during the Napoleonic Wars but went into steep decline in the years following the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815, with the workforce dramatically reduced.

The site did not lay dormant for long – with production once again increased to meet the needs of the British Army during the Crimean War in 1854 and a number of colonial conflicts, such as the Boer War, in 1899.

Although the mills produced explosives primarily for the military, it also supplied explosives for a range of industrial uses such as, mining, quarrying, tunnelling and railway construction.

Further innovations in production were introduced by Sir Frederick Abel, who oversaw the development of new forms of explosives at the site, such as guncotton and cordite.

Despite the global importance of this groundbreaking scientific work, the mill remained a low-key enterprise, with little public awareness of its role.

The mills’ production levels peaked during the First World War, with its workforce doubling from 3,000 to more than 6,000 people to cope with demand – most of whom were women from the surrounding area.

Explosives production at the mills was scaled down between the wars, with much of the work transferred to sites in the West Country, safely out of range of potential enemy aircraft .

Waltham Abbey remained an important cordite production site during the Second World War, and was the sole producer of newly developed explosive, RDX, at the beginning of the conflict.

Much of the mills’ explosives production had been relocated by 1943, with the site reopening in 1945 as a research centre for military propellants and high explosives – in particular, rocket fuel technology.

The centre played an important role in the development of a wide range of military hardware from ejector seats for fighter planes to the production of rocket motors.

The site was finally closed in 1991, bringing an end to 300 years of explosives production and research at the site, which was turned into a museum and opened to the public in 2004.

For more information about the museum, visit