An explosive establishment

The Royal Arsenal, Woolwich is a facility in Woolwich, south-east London, England, that was used to produce weapons and ammunition, conduct explosives research, and proof them for the British armed services. It is located on the south bank of the River Thames.

At Tower Place in Old Woolwich, a domestic complex gave rise to the Royal Arsenal. Martin Bowes, a prosperous goldsmith and businessman who subsequently became Lord Mayor of London, had a Tudor mansion named Tower Place constructed for him in the 1540s.

The Office of Ordnance, which bought the Warren in the late 17th century to expand an earlier installation at Gun Wharf in Woolwich Dockyard, is largely responsible for the site's early history.

The facility significantly increased in size over the following two centuries as operations increased and improvements were explored. The Arsenal was 1,285 acres (520 ha) in size and employed close to 80,000 people during the First World War.

1877 map of Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, Southeast London.

1800's Maps - Royal Arsenal History (

Workers leaving the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich by way of Middle Gates., circa 1900.


The Luftwaffe strike

Woolwich, and especially the Royal Arsenal, suffered badly on the night of the 7th September 1940 when German Bombers marauded their way across South East England before droppingtheir payloads in South London, close to the River Thames.

The arsenal suffered extensive damage and several casualties, with scenes of chaos and destruction all around. The first night of the Blitz proved to be a terrifying one for many of the occupants of the Arsenal as well as residents in the surrounding area.

Munitions workers at the Arsenal in 1940. 

Imperial War Museum

Numerous pumps and cars of all kinds and shapes clogged the streets outside. On the sidewalks and in the gutters, hosepipes coiled and zigzagged. A massive blaze raged out of control inside the structure. In the face of falling bombs, nitroglycerine containers bursting, stacks of live munitions, and shells from burning dumps hurtling everywhere, the AFS and the full-time professionals of the London Fire Brigade (LFB) bravely fought a developing conflagration. 

Numerous warehouses, a fuse factory, a filling works, a gun factory, acid stores, office buildings, railroad sidings, a police station, and many other structures were set ablaze. At the Royal Arsenal, 50 men were killed in all, accounting for more than 10% of all casualties in the raid.

German bombers flying over Woolwich Arsenal on a raid.

Many of the individuals battling the fires were nominated for valour medals. One such individual was a firefighter by the name of Samuel Frederick Pritchard, who received recognition for his exemplary leadership and commitment to the fires on the evening of September 7.

Pritchard was frequently in charge of the flames that night on his own, with just the assistance of auxiliary, who frequently had little to no training. Pritchard's leadership was praised; it was noted that "several of the soldiers began to waver due to the continuing bombardment of the site, which inflicted countless casualties, but by outstanding leadership, Pritchard rallied them." He made a significant contribution by stopping the fire from spreading to other explosives-containing structures.

German Luftwaffe Target Aerial Reconnaissance Photo

North Woolwich Station. Bomb damage. 7 September 1940.

On 30th January 1941, around noon, further death and destruction struck Woolwich Arsenal, the scene of several previous heavy raids. Twelve people lost their lives on this occasion, which also damaged Marks & Spencer and a restaurant and caused the Arsenal to suffer its heaviest casualties since the infamous Dockland raid. The local restaurant was the scene of numerous narrow escapes, according to the Kentish Independent newspaper.

One waitress was carrying a tray down a flight of stairs when she heard the bombs coming: Although she happily escaped death or injury, the same could not be said for the tray she was carrying, she commented ruefully. Reporting such relatively light-hearted aspects to the raid helped boost morale and take people's minds off the very real death and destruction that was occurring on a nightly basis.

Further reading