The Royal Arsenal at Woolwich
by Diana Kennedy
This article was originally published in the July 2000 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
The Royal Arsenal (RA) at Woolwich has provided work for thousands including some of my Sewell ancestors. The RA began storing guns from the 16th century, including those captured by Sir Francis Drake. The site, known originally as The Warren, established a laboratory for manufacturing ammunition, fuses and gunpowder in 1695. By 1777 it occupied 104 acres and employed 500 people. In 1805 after a visit by King George III it became the Royal Arsenal. At the same time the working day was shortened to 4 periods of 2 hours instead of 2 1/2 hours. The Great Storehouse was developed between 1805 and 1814. The Crimean War increased the need for guns and ammunition and by 1856 the RA was a major industrial centre.
During the 1870's, The Royal Gun Factory, The Royal Carriage Department and The Royal Laboratory, the three factories on the site, became co-ordinated into one, The Ordnance Factory. By 1907 it had expanded to occupy 1,285 acres. It reached a peak of activity during the 1914-18 war, employing 80,000 people including many thousands of women. After the war it continued to employ 10,000 but turned to other manufacturing such as milk churns and railway locomotives as well as armaments.
With rearmament in the 1930's, gun and ammunition activity increased. The Second World War however had less impact on Woolwich, as factories were now dispersed throughout the country. Once the war was over the RA continued to produce guns and ammunition as well as tanks and military stores. It was finally closed in 1967.
Three generations of my Sewell family have worked at the RA. My Grandfather, Thomas Edward Sewell (1885-1954) worked at the RA for over 50 years retiring in 1952. He was first a machinist, then an overlooker in the laboratory and finally worked in the storeroom. The house that my grandparents lived in at Eltham was one of many built to RA specifications before the First World War. It included a bathroom, range, scullery and garden with a green in the centre of the road between the houses for the children to play.
His father William Thomas Sewell (1858-1920) according to the census of 1871 at the age of 14 tears was a Cartridge Maker alongside his two elder brothers. John (Daniel John b.1850) age 20 was a labourer, while Alfred (William Alfred Jones b.1856) at 15 years was a Bullet Maker. William Thomas continued working at the RA as a labourer in the Laboratory until his death in 1920 at the age of 61 years. Their father, Jonathon William (1824-1881) had moved from Suffolk, where he was born, to the East End working as shipbuilder and engineering labourer. When the family moved south to Plumstead in the early 1860's he worked as a labourer at the RA.
Unfortunately, the personnel records for the RA have been completely destroyed. I was however given a reference in the two-volume book 'The Royal Arsenal' by Brigadier O.F.G. Hogg. On page 1209 it records that 'on 10th July 1840 a William Sewell was one of 6 labourers appointed at 2s.4d. a day to fill vacancies caused by the superannuation and removal of labourers no longer able to do a good day's work in the Storekeepers department'. The appointment was subsequently confirmed following a medical examination on 29th July 1840. A Labourer had to be under 30 years of age. Lads were also employed at 1s.6d. a day and were over 18 years. While Boys over the age of 14 years earned 1s.0d. a day.
Unfortunately, the William Sewell mentioned does not belong to my branch of Sewells who were still in Suffolk at the time. However, from my research I believe this William was born in 1820 in Woolwich, and worked at the RA as a foreman labourer (census 1871). The 1881 census describes him as a superannuated foreman from the stores department at RA. His son William Caleb age 36 was a machine worker at RA. He also had two other sons, Thomas (b.1841) a confectioner, Caleb Young (b.1847) overlooker, and two daughter Phyllis Elizabeth (b.1949) and Fanny (b.1855). William senior was married to Anne and died in 1892. Perhaps someone in the Sole Society is related to this family?
The Royal Arsenal, Wesley Harry, 1987, Royal Arsenal Woolwich Historical Society
The Royal Arsenal, Brigadier O.F.G. Hogg, 1963, London University Press
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