Sterling, Peter: My Smith ancestors, three generations at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich

by Peter Sterling

Around 1850 one of my ancestors, Henry, went to work at the Royal Woolwich Arsenal. The Arsenal was a large factory complex situated on the bank of the Thames River just east of London. Over the next 60 years three generations of my family worked at the Arsenal. The Royal Arsenal began operation around 1664 and eventually closed in 1994. From its inception the Arsenal made naval guns, artillery and ammunition for the British Army and Navy. By 1850, when Henry joined the work force, it employed about 2,000 people. Over time the complex grew and eventually covered an area approximately 2 miles long and 1 mile wide. In 1855 shortly after Henry began working, the standard work week was set at 56 hours per week.

Blacksmiths shop, Woolwich Arsenal

Workers inside the blacksmiths shop at Woolwich Arsenal.

The Industrial Revolution brought a period of expansion at the Woolwich Arsenal. Prior to Henry’s arrival, the first steam powered machinery had been introduced into the complex in 1805. A steam powered saw-mill was added in 1811-13. From the late 1840’s steam-powered mechanization spread throughout the complex. On the Arsenal’s east side the first steam hammers were installed in 1848-9 housed under a light iron roof. Another period of concentrated building activity came in the 1850’s shortly after Henry’s arrival. Intensive modernization was undertaken during this period with the installation of steam driven and cyclopean machinery in capacious sheds. By 1856-7 there were nine iron framed buildings, 68 steam engines, 18 steam hammers and 2,773 machines for every conceivable process previously done by hand. To operate this equipment the workforce had grown to 10,000 men working a 56 hour week.

Bullet Factory, Woolwich Arsenal

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Around 1871, Henry’s son Frederick, then aged 17; (my great grandfather) began working at the Woolwich Arsenal. The 1881 census, taken ten years later, shows that Edward, Frederick’s brother, was also working at the complex as a Carman. Edward’s occupation coincides with further developments that were taking place at the Royal Arsenal. Starting in 1824-5 a railway had been built within the walls of the complex for wagons carrying heavy loads including cannon balls. This original system was horse drawn and was further expanded in 1854-5, without steam power.

In 1868-73, the original system was reconstructed as the narrow gauge steam-powered railway. The Royal Arsenal Railway (RAR). The first of the original 12 steam locomotives was delivered in 1871 shortly before Edward was hired as a Carman. Eventually this railway would be expanded to its zenith with 80 narrow gauge locomotives, 2500 wagons, 22 carriages and 147 miles of railway line in an area of 2 square miles. The most complex and densest railway network in Britain.

In 1894 the workers got a break when the standard work week was reduced to 48 hours (42 hours per week for clerical workers) at that time there were about 20,000 people working at the complex.

Around 1901, Albert, Frederick’s son and my Great Uncle began working at the factory. Albert was the third generation of the family to work at the factory. The factory continued to grow and at its peak, during World War One, it employed 75,000-80,000 people. By 1917, 28,000 employees were women working four, 12 hour, shifts per week. The factory was eventually closed in 1994 and is currently being developed into a housing complex.

Woman operating rifling machine

A woman worker operates a naval gun rifling machine in the Royal Gun Factory at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, London.

Image Credits:

Blacksmiths shop: National Maritime Museum Reproduction ID: H0699. From

Bullet Factory: National Maritime Museum Reproduction ID: H0687. From Flickr :

"Woman operating rifling machine": photograph Q 27839 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.