The History of the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment

This history was written by the late Peter Baigent around 1991. Peter had a long and distinguished career in weapons design at Fort Halstead. We are very grateful to his family for giving permission to publish Peter’s research.


The roots of RARDE extend back into the 14th century and the Tower of London as the country’s workshop in which the Kings artificers plied their trades. During this period weapons advanced from the cross-bow to the sophisticated stores of today. Although on first glance the similarity between the modern weapons recently employed in the Gulf and the cannons used in the early part of the 14th century may not be immediately apparent, they and most warlike stores throughout the centuries have operated at the limit of known technology. Hence the evolution of weapons down the ages has been very much tied to the accelerating advance of science and technology. At the same time the organisation has expanded to reflect these changes with particular upsurges during times of national crises. For some 300 years this expansion was directly related to the development of the Royal Arsenal Woolwich, the main arsenal for the nation. However, it is only in the early part of the 20th century do we begin to see the emergence of an organisation devoted entirely to the development of armaments eventually becoming the separate establishment we see today.


In feudal time all expenditure concerned with the procurement of warlike equipment was regarded as a court charge personal to the ruler and not as a liability falling upon the national exchequer. Hence it is in the records of household expenses that we find the origin and early history of armament administration. In the early part of the thirteenth century, the wardrobe accounts included expenses connected with armaments and defensive works showing that besides carrying out its household duties, the wardrobe also co-ordinated such engineering, mechanical and technical services as then existed. A closer look at the records shows that not surprisingly the weapons then in use were not very formidable as in essential design they had changed little from those current at the fall of the Roman Empire. They may be classified under two headings: personal arms which included long-bow, spear etc. and warlike engines such as ballista, ram and similar. The latter were under the charge of a chief engineer, termed attilator or ‘artillator’.

Over the next hundred years as the activities of the wardrobe expanded in ever widening circles and its staff grew, it tended to extrude daughter organisations which remained stationary while the parent stem dealt with the routine administrative work and followed the court. Against this background it was unavoidable that the arsenal branch, involving skilled craftsman and workshop facilities, would become separated especially as the great wardrobes munition section was located in the Tower of London which from the dawn of the constitution had been the country’s workshop. It was here that the king’s artificers plied their trades such as the faber (smith), the carpentarius (carpenter) and included the armator (armourer). The latter office was naturally of prime importance since the king’s success in war ascended in no small measure on the capabilities and character of his armourer. Consequently as early as 1275, the armourer’s duties had become too onerous for one man to discharge and certain functions were transferred to subordinates who in time developed into independent specialists on their own. A further sub-division eventually took place when the ‘wardrobe of arms’ became the ‘privy wardrobe’ in the Tower on 17th July 1323. However the great wardrobe still continued to take an interest in warlike stores after this date.


The fourteenth century was a time of crisis in armament development in many ways similar to that of the twentieth century. Then it was the voice of the fire-arm clamouring to be heard, now it is the stentorian tones of the guided missile and the atomic weapon that rings across the world. Berthold Schwartz an Augustinian monk and alchemist of Freiburg im Breisgau is purported to have built the first cannon in Europe in 1313. Whoever may be credited with its invention however, the original gun must have been extremely primitive and during its infancy could only have played a very minor part in the symphony of war. The earliest mention of guns in this country occurs in the City of London archives where a record refers to six ‘gonnes’ probably delivered in 1339.

Although we find numerous references to guns being employed during the next 100 years artillery was regarded as an encumbrance, it being unwieldy and perhaps better left behind when serious fighting was contemplated. In the minds of some it was something that threatened the chivalry and pageantry of the battlefield and therefore to be resolutely discouraged; similarly as mechanisation to the horse. The only propellant available was gunpowder and its composition in 1350 was Saltpetre 66.7%, Charcoal 22.2%, and Sulphur 11.1%; this had the handicap of a liability to absorb moisture owing to the hygroscopic nature of the Saltpetre. For this reason, the ingredients were usually stored separately and made up locally as required. In the light of these factors it was perhaps not surprising that it took a century of effort on the part of the gunner to convince the world that the new weapon had come to stay; thus artillery in the modern sense of the word had begun to assume a definite place in the country’s armament by 1450. It was during this period that the gonner made his appearance not to be confused with, or accepted as, the attilator or artiller under another name as both were in existence by 1346. The latter was the cross-bow and ballista expert whereas the former specalised in the casting and handling of gonnes. Interestingly neither were soldiers in the fourteenth century, but engineers or artificers following their particular callings who usually manned the engines they had made when the occasion demanded, the common soldier of the period being unable to understand the simplest technicality.

The wardrobe accounts for the latter half of the fourteenth century show that apart from fluctuations from time to time due to the changing political situation the competence for artillery was slowly improving. The term being taken to cover any nonpersonal offensive weapon in which gas pressure derived from the combustion of a propellant charge ejects a missile. Weapon manufacture took place either in the Tower workshops or in the premises of private traders usually situated nearby.


It was on 22nd September 1414 that the famous warrant to Nicholas Merbury as master of the works of our engines guns and other ordnance that marks the birth of the Office of Ordnance taking over from the privy wardrobe. Charged among other things with artillery matters, it laid the foundation for a system of armament administration that has persisted down to modern times. Henceforth the business of munitions ceased to be a function of the Household and tended more and more to become the responsibility of a special department of State.

Due to the paucity of records ordnance development during the fifteenth century remains somewhat conjectural until the reforms introduced by Henry VIII in the middle of the sixteenth century. It had been the fashion in England to mainly employ foreigners as gun-founders presumably because they were considered better craftsman. However, Henry who had immense pride in the capabilities of his people encouraged native skills and heralded the emergence of a number of important ironmasters operating both in London and Sussex. In 1543 Ralph Hogge was responsible for casting the first iron gun at Buxted. As the century drew to a close England was making a name in the art of manufacturing military weapons with the iron industry of Sussex becoming an asset of first class importance to the State, and the Tower being the core of the national defensive effort. Under this influence the Office of Ordnance took a more prominent part in the affairs of state. Near to the Tower was the famous ‘Artillery Ground or Garden’ where all guns cast by the trade – there being no government made cannon in those days – were proved by the Officers of the Ordnance. A situation that continued until the opening up of Woolwich as a national arsenal rendered the Artillery Garden obsolete for proving.

There were no startling developments during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but rather a gradual supercession of simple types by those of a more advanced character. Although the cross-bow and long-bow lingered on until Tudor times, the value of the more clumsy engines of war waned as the power of artillery increased until they had practically disappeared before Agincourt. Since open warfare was predominantly an affair of horse and foot and the guns that took the field were cumbersome in movement and slow in action, they tended to play only a minor part. The gunfounders thus tended to concentrate their skills on improving heavy cannon designed for siege operations; manoeuvrability as a function to be developed was not recognised until the end of the seventeenth century.


After Henry VIII became King he decided to leave Eltham and make Greenwich the centre of his court. The Royal Palace subsequently built at Greenwich included a tilt-yard together with armoury under the Office of Armoury. As the seventeenth century advanced the work of armourers declined in importance until in 1671 the Office of Armoury was absorbed in the Board of Ordnance and the tilt-yard became exclusively devoted to Ordnance affairs. Greenwich had long been the principal powder magazine in the country and on the abolition of the armoury the Great Barn in the tilt-yard had been turned into a laboratory for the manufacture of fireworks. Towards the latter end of the seventeenth century public concern was aroused at the potentially dangerous situation that the laboratory presented to the local inhabitants.

The earliest association between the government and the Warren at Woolwich took place in 1651 when Navy Commissioners were instructed to supply timber for making three butts at Woolwich for the trial of Ordnance by General Blake. During the subsequent years, further butts were constructed. After the sale of Artillery Garden in 1682 a good deal of proof converged on Woolwich, the government having purchased Tower Place and the Warren in 1671. However even prior to the sale of Artillery Garden guns were being proved on the Warren in increasing numbers. Early in 1681 a special experiment with fire-shot was carried out by Captain Leake, Master Gunner of England, in the presence of Charles II. This was evidently considered an occasion of great importance from the preparation to the butts that took place. His Majesty also visited the Warren in 1684 for a trial of three mortars, the invention of Captain Leake. No record of this experiment before Charles II seems to have survived. Captain Leake was a man of sound technical knowledge who spent his time carrying out experiments to improve the efficiency of the somewhat simple armaments of his time, he was Master Gunner from 1677-1696.

Proving guns at Woolwich during those early years must have been a dangerous occupation, the Register of Deaths in Woolwich for 1688 records the death of two gunners. At that time factors of safety were still an unknown quantity and no proper precautions were taken to safeguard the proof detachments. A burst gun in those days was regarded as an Act of God and not as a piece of careless ignorance on the part of man. However, the local inhabitants also appear to have been at some risk since not only did guns burst but their projectiles were apt to take on an erratic course in flight either missing the butt altogether or ricochet on the parapet and into the space beyond. There are frequent references to the payment of compensation for repairing houses and on one occasion for killing a cow and calf in the Parish of Plumstead due to shells fired from Warren proof butts.

Throughout this period storehouses were expanded with ordnance being transferred from the Tower and when all guns and carriages in store at Deptford were ordered to be removed to Woolwich, it was fast becoming a rival to the Tower, as the Premier Ordnance depot in England. With the exception of firework making with ingredients obtained from breaking up old fireworks and Saltpetre refining (1670-80) there was as yet no production at Woolwich. There was it is true a certain amount of repair to gun carriages but as they were only simple wooden structures, which mainly required the services of a carpenter, it could hardly be described as manufacture. More than a hundred years were to elapse before a Carriage Department was set-up. Manufacture may be said to have commenced in 1696 with the completion of the laboratory, afterwards known as the Royal Laboratory, and the transfer of firework manufacture from the Tilt-yard Barn at Greenwich to Woolwich.


The dawn of the eighteenth century had little effect upon the Warren which continued with the routine of firework manufacture, proof of guns and minor repairs. With trees abounding everywhere and the Warren stretching away to Plumstead marshes and the tenant farms beyond, it presented something of an idyllic picture of rural England. However, an event was to take place some sixteen years later which was to make a profound imprint on the garden factory and erstwhile storage depot, introducing changes that would develop it into a factory with machines of modern industry.

On 10th May 1716 an explosion occurred at the foundry of Mr Bagley at Moorfields in London. In those days cannon were cast from new metal and old pieces; on this occasion it was decided to utilise the guns captured from the French by the Duke of Marlborough and recast them into suitable natures of English ordnance. Since casting was still something of a curiosity there were a number of spectators present, including some Ordnance Officers. Unfortunately the moulds were still damp when pouring commenced and in the resulting explosion, seventeen people were killed including Mr Bagley and his son, many others were injured and burnt. For armament supplies it was a minor disaster, with no official brass foundry in the kingdom, no guns worth speaking of for Land Service and a deteriorating situation in Europe; the Board of Ordnance were galvanised into action. By June they were proposing the building of a Royal Brass Foundry at Woolwich, this was completed within twelve months and Andrew Schalch appointed as gunfounder.

This was one of four main building projects carried out during the next four years. The Great Pile of Buildings adjacent to the foundry, the erection of the first block of artillery barracks – Royal Regiment of Artillery having been formed in 1716 – and the complete transformation of Tower Place which included a new front elevation containing the ‘Great Room’ on the right hand side of the main entrance used as a Board Room for the Principal Officers of the Ordnance. These may be said to have formed a consecutive whole and laid the foundation for the future Royal Arsenal. It is interesting that while the star of the Royal Brass Foundry was ascending, the Royal Laboratory was placed on virtual care and maintenance.

After the hectic rush of four years expansion of the site a period of consolidation took place until 1741 when a further modification of Tower Place was necessary in order to accommodate the establishment, afterwards to be known as The Royal Military Academy, set-up for educating in artillery matters and the business of engineering. With the increasing strains of war, it was appreciated that if the Royal Laboratory was to function effectively it must be p1aced on a proper footing and various officers were appointed to what the Order in Council defined as ‘the Art of making Fireworks for real use as well as for Triumph may again be recovered’.

Proof continued to be carried out in large numbers for a range of natures in both iron and brass from 32 to 1/2pdrs, 8inch howitzers and various mortars. The iron ordnance were from various private contractors including some of the largest contractors in the Weald, notably John Fuller of Heathfield, the brass ordnance and mortars being largely cast in The Royal Brass Foundry. Improvements in ballistics, though small, did have an effect on range and muzzle velocity of the guns and under pressure from the local civilian population the proof butts were eventually resited.

1770 marked the end of an epoch with the retirement of Andrew Schalch who had been master founder for 54 years since the inception of the foundry at Woolwich. John and Peter Verbruggen were appointed to take over and like all new brooms swept clean, initiating many changes and innovations over the next few years. A system of proving naval guns by subjecting them to water pressure was initiated in 1778; the first water proof recorded in 1780 on a 18pdr was something of a disaster with water discharging in every part of the King’s mark. The test was repeated on a 12pdr carronade, but with the Kings mark on the trunnion, with similar results. Messrs Verbruggen were evidently averse to their products being treated in this cavalier fashion, the Board agreed and ordered that no brass ordnance were to be so subjected until further orders.

The rate of expansion of the Warren was now gaining momentum due to the wars with Spain, France and Holland. The Royal Laboratory had successfully introduced an experimental press for the extraction of Saltpetre and were now expanding their capacity. Peter Verbruggen died in 1786, his father having died earlier, but the post of master founder was not filled until 1797 when it was placed under the Inspector of Artillery. At the close of the eighteenth century, the garden workshops amidst pleasant orchards had vanished, together with the little community of some fifty souls. Under the stress of war, the outlines of a modern factory had arisen with its team of busy workers with regulated hours and security regulations, an establishment of 1500 soon to be increased to 5,000 after Napoleon’s triumphal victories.

The passing of an Act of Parliament in 1776 had made convict labour available for this and subsequent building expansions in the early part of the nineteenth century. These convicts were housed under desperate conditions in hulks moored in the Thames. The hulks continued to disfigure Woolwich Reach until they were abolished in 1858. Interestingly in view of the recent building of a prison on that part of the Arsenal site formerly housing the Research Department, there was some discussion in 1853 of replacing these hulks with a prison but the idea was rejected.

With the increasing output of carriages being demanded by war and the growing variation in carriage design it was decided in 1803 to establish the Royal Carriage Department. No longer could the gun carriage be regarded as the Cinderella of artillery equipment and henceforth it would rank with ordnance and ammunition so the three could form a trinity of equal partners; undoubtedly this influenced the development of more mobile artillery pieces.

On 29th April 1805 we find the first reference to the new Congreve rocket which the inventor considered would supersede the gun. Major-General Congreve, Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory was ordered to afford William Congreve, his son, such assistance as might be required in preparing the different articles in the Royal Laboratory; the Board of Ordnance took the new rocket project very seriously and wished it to be pushed forward with all possible speed. Sir William Congreve, as he afterwards became, brought a powerful imagination to bear on his project as the rocket work steadily progressed and their manufacture became a standard product of the Royal Laboratory for many years. Congreve himself said “The rocket carcass is not only fired without reaction upon the point from which it is discharged but it is unencumbered with the necessity of heavy ordnance to project it”. With the limitations of artillery in his day Congreve was sound in his conclusion and his vision penetrated further into the future with more truth and substance than perhaps he appreciated, although it was not until the twentieth century they were realised. The rockets were used with effect at Boulogne in 1805 and Copenhagen suffered serious damage from rocket bombardment in 1807, however it was their use at Leipsig in 1813 that vindicated Congreve’s faith in the value of rockets in the field. Congreve did not invent the rocket for as a weapon it has flashed through the pages of history.


Expansion continued apace and it was George III on his visit in 1805 who commented on how inappropriate was the name of the place and as a compliment to his Majesty’s suggestion the Warren was subsequently renamed Royal Arsenal. In 1813 Colonel Henry Shrapnel was carrying out experiments with his spherical case shot, afterwards known as shrapnel shell, having put forward his ideas for such a projectile as early as 1784. Although it had been approved for service at the latter end of 1803 it suffered teething troubles and trials were carried out over a number of years to eradicate the shortcomings. Lt General Shrapnel as he afterwards became died in 1842 and did not live to see either the perfection of his shell nor to learn it was forever to bear his name.

Although the end of the Napoleonic wars supplied the key which unlocked the Industrial Revolution in Britain it spelt disaster for the Royal Arsenal with the manpower shrinking from 5,000 in 1814 to 500 in 1835, so it was a period of consolidation not expansion. During this period William Caffin, a clerk (Designer/Draughtsman) in the Royal Laboratory, invented a form of grape shot known as ‘Caffin’s grape shot’. The pattern was approved in 1822 but not manufactured until 1856, presumably due to the lack of Service demand with cutbacks. Firework displays in London celebrating the Peace of Paris in 1814 and the coronation of George IV in 1821 were both under the direction of the Royal Laboratory which also manufactured the devices. The responsibility for official firework displays made an interesting peacetime activity for the Royal Laboratory, a practice that continued into Victorian times. Although for many years the senior posts in the Royal Arsenal had been usually occupied by military officers, they were nevertheless still civil appointments.

Mr James Marsh the originator of the percussion tube which superseded the portfire in the Royal Navy in 1831 and the Army in 1845 was a man of considerable scientific attainments. Born 2nd September 1794 he was employed as a young man in the Royal Laboratory which he left in 1824 to study chemistry with considerable success. Subsequently he became the surgery man and dispenser of medicines to the surgeon apothecary in the Royal Arsenal and chemical assistant to Dr Faraday, Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Military Academy. In this period he invented a type of concussion fuze which purported to explode shells on striking, however it proved to be insufficiently reliable to accept for service. A number of other versions were tried but all failed until Quartermaster Freeburn submitted his concussion fuze which was approved for the Army in 1846. A newspaper cutting of 1841 records experiments on the barrack field with a. newly invented fuze by Mr Marsh, a chemist of the Royal Arsenal, for exploding shells given a number of seconds after projection. The fuze being in the form of a screw with the composition being placed in the hollow and when ignited burning at the rate of 1 inch in 2 seconds.

The introduction of shrapnel shell made an efficient time fuze necessary and Captain Boxer proposed a new fuze which consisted of a wooden cone with a centre channel and a series of side channels filled with pistol powder into which radial holes could be bored to set the required time. After extensive trials with spherical case shot, it was pronounced satisfactory and introduced into Land Service in 1850. Col. Boxer, as he had now become, was also involved in rocket development and the Boxer rocket sealed in 1864 gave improved accuracy over Congreve‘s. However a new type of rocket appeared around 1845 invented by Mr Hale a mechanic in the Royal Arsenal which was an improvement on both the Congreve and Boxer varieties. The Hale rocket differed in principle from either of its predecessors in having turbine rotation instead of a long stick to control their flight. Although this rocket lingered on in service until the end of the First World War they were never extensively used. An interesting peace-time application of this rocket work was the life-saving rocket introduced by Col. Boxer which remained in use for many

3 years until superseded in the middle of the twentieth century by a modern cordite rocket developed at Fort Halstead at the end of the Second World War.

With the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854, there was a period of quickening tempo at Woolwich. That same year Mr Frederick Abel was appointed Ordnance Chemist, subsequently referred to as the War Department Chemist; his appointment was to have a profound effect on the development of explosives during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Born at Woolwich in 1826, Sir Frederick Abel as he subsequently became, was an eminent chemist of world-wide renown whose chief study was the science of explosives. He wrote several treatises on various aspects of explosives and in 1899 took out with Sir James Dewar a patent for the invention of Cordite. Previously in 1866, after long and careful research in conjunction with Wheatstone, he introduced his electric tubes for firing guns. He held numerous important posts in learned Societies and received many honours before his death in 1902.

At the latter end of 1854 the Inspector of the Royal Carriage Department was authorised to commission Messrs Moreton & Foster to fit the wheels of a 24pdr carriage with their endless railway or what we would term today a caterpillar track. When fitted it was to undergo trials at Woolwich, regrettably no record of its performance appears to have survived. However this does show this particular method of enabling heavy vehicles to traverse rough ground has been around for some time and had been invented some 60 years before the Hornsby-Askroyd tracks came to the market.

The Crimean War showed there was a need for something heavier than the current in service 13inch mortar throwing a shell of 167 lbs. This requirement was met by Robert Mallet, an engineer of vision and recourse who conceived the idea of an enormous mortar built up in portions such that each could be carried separately and erected in situ. The final completed mortar had a calibre of 36ins, weighed 12tons and it achieved a range of 2,759yds with a shell weighing 2,395lbs, a truly terrifying weapon. The trials were dogged with minor troubles and in the meantime the Crimean War had ended, so without the sanctioning of the necessary expenditure for repairs the largest mortar ever constructed passed into oblivion. It was a great achievement and perhaps Mr Mallet deserved a better fate, but such was the price of being a pioneer in the armament field. The two mortars produced are currently in the Royal Arsenal and on Woolwich Common.


In 1855 a significant administrative change took place with the dissolving of the Office of Ordnance after 441 years of corporate existence. It was one of the greatest and oldest Departments of State. The Board of Ordnance had its Letter Patent revoked and its duties vested in the War Department. Faint writing on the wall had become manifest some 20 years earlier with various committees and commissions being set-up during the subsequent years to enquire into the civil administration of the Army. The record of muddle and inefficiency displayed during the Crimea was well known and although the Board came out with credit, a scapegoat had to be found to appease the country.

Although no major changes took place at Woolwich during the time of transfer, in 1857 the Royal Brass Foundry became the Royal Gun Factory. It is something of a mystery why this obvious change of title should not have been bestowed much earlier. Development took place naturally during the years 1857-1886 in every phase of warlike equipment, but the most notable achievement was the supersession of the smooth bore muzzle-loading guns by the larger and more powerful pieces of rifled breech-loading ordnance. Although rifling the piece had been experimented with on the continent as far back as the seventeenth century, it was under the stress of the Crimean War that rifled ordnance was first temporarily introduced into British Service. These guns based upon the Lancaster principle achieved rotation of the shell by means of an elliptical section bore with a twist of 1 in 30, projectiles being made oval in section to correspond. Some ordnance of this type was employed in the Crimea achieving reasonable accuracy at ranges up to 5000yds, but for some reason the guns did not come up to expectations and their use was discontinued.

In 1854 Mr Armstrong, a Tyneside civil Engineer, had brought out a 3pdr breech-loading rifled gun. Instead of the usual cast iron, the gun used wrought iron coils or layers shrunk onto an inner tube giving increased strength to the bone. The rifling consisted of a number of shallow grooves in the bore of the gun, polygroove system as it is known today. The breech was closed by means of a vent-piece (or breech block) and pressed against the chamber by means of a breech screw. The elongated projectile was coated with lead and made slightly larger than the bore so that the whole shell acted as a driving band. After extensive trials Armstrong was asked to produce a 9pdr and 12pdr on the same lines. Accepted for issue in 1859, they can be said to mark the greatest step forward in British Artillery equipment also being the first type of wrought iron ordnance to be manufactured at Woolwich.

At first sight these guns gave great promise, however due to obturation difficulties they did not live up to expectations. In 1865 following the failure of the Armstrong 7in rifled breech-loader a committee was set-up to decide between the merits of breech-loading and muzzle-loading. They reported ‘breech-loading guns are far inferior to muzzle-loading as regards simplicity of construction and cannot be compared to them in this respect in efficiency for active service.’ This report also helped to establish the principle that ordnance of the heavier nature must be of the muzzle-loading type with few grooves. The final plan adopted was that of three grooves only, the so called ‘Woolwich M.L. Gun’ a far cry from the polygroove system favoured by Armstrong. These ‘Woolwich’ guns designed by Mr R.S. Frazer, one-time manager of the Royal Gun Factory, built up the gun with a few long double or triple coils instead of several short single ones of the original Armstrong guns. This made for a good and cheap gun capable of enduring 2,000 rounds with extraordinary charges before finally giving way; the original ‘Woolwich Infant’ a 35ton M.L. Gun introduced for turret ships, was subjected to these very hard tests. A subsequent committee in 1868 confirmed this view in deciding in favour of M.L. field guns, which is perhaps a little difficult to understand when the rest of Europe was beginning to realise breech-loading was the greatest step forward. By 1870 smooth-bore cannons had disappeared and rifled muzzle-loaders were established for both land and sea.

Ordinary black gunpowder had proved satisfactory during the time of smooth-bore and light spherical shell but when rifled elongated projectiles were introduced, a slower burning powder was required to achieve maximum velocity. Due to the short barrels, some of this powder was ejected unburnt; the solution was obvious and barrels became relatively longer. In 1879 one of the 38ton RML guns on HMS Thunder burst during practice in the Mediterranean when the lengthy investigations showed conclusively the incident was due to double loading. The question of the BL gun once again became a live and pressing matter. With developments in powder giving rise to larger chambers and longer barrels (with attendant loading difficulties) together with improvements in breech construction, it became apparent that the future was with breech-loading. As a result of trials, a number of BL guns were ordered in 1881-82.

The organisation and administration of the three factories at Woolwich had remained unchanged since the War Department had assumed control and the tradition of complete independence inherited from the past persisted. The three factories designated ‘Ordnance Factories’, called the Royal Gun Factory, Royal Carriage Department and Royal Laboratory making guns, carriages and ammunition of all kinds, were each under a Superintendent assisted by a civilian manager acting under his orders. Although these Superintendents were serving officers, the posts were classed as ‘civilian’ and had been so since the days of the Board of Ordnance; military officers had always been appointed on the grounds that the salaries offered by the Treasury were insufficient to attract the right kind of civil engineer. These Superintendents were appointed for five years only and were responsible through the Director of Artillery and Stores to the Surveyor-General who in turn was responsible to the Secretary of State for War. Each factory, under the charge of the manager, designed in drawing offices the articles it manufactured but these three departments had no connection with each other and seldom communicated with each other on official matters. The design procedure ostensibly operating at that time is of some interest in view of subsequent events. When a new pattern of store or equipment was required, the Director of Artillery and Stores gave the order. Suppose for example it was a gun of a certain size to perform a particular task then designs for the gun, its carriage and the ammunition were prepared by the requisite managers under the direction of their Superintendents who submitted them when completed to the Director of Artillery and Stores. The latter might approve the designs after experimental evidence and seal the patterns for service having obtained the sanction of the Surveyor-General of Ordnance, or in important cases the Secretary of State himself. Before giving approval the Secretary of State often referred the design to the reconstituted, in 1881, Ordnance Committee or Ordnance Board as it subsequently became, for them to examine and test. They did not initiate, only giving opinions on subjects referred to them.

The organisation of the factories at Woolwich was obviously far from ideal with each pursuing its own course within its self‑appointed area of independence. Although since taking them over some 10 years earlier the War Department had endeavoured to break down this spirit of exclusiveness by placing them under the Director of Artillery and Stores, he was too enmeshed in other duties to effectively supervise or harmonise their work. It was this feeling that all was not well within the Ordnance Factories that induced the Government to set-up the Morley Committee in 1886 to review the whole question.

The Morley report, issued in 1887, was far-seeing in the nature of the reforms advocated. Although the recommendations would be normal enough in modern eyes, they were in their day revolutionary showing a visionary perception which was far from shared by contemporary thought. In the design area they commented that the system of each department having its own design branch meant the designs of the gun, carriage and ammunition were prepared quite independently and great advantages would accrue if the various designs were prepared in a central office. Hence they recommended the designing drawing offices should be centralised under the Superintendent of Ordnance Factories. Although the Treasury approved in general the scheme recommended by the Morley Committee, the proposal to concentrate the design work under a single head was not implemented. The authorities considered that such a concentration in a central design office would weaken the responsibilities of the Superintendents in regard to their own stores and it was to take a war of the first magnitude nearly thirty years later to initiate a separate Design Department. However the proposal for a system of independent inspection of all warlike stores was adopted.

For several reasons the Morley reforms did not live up to the high hopes originally held out. Apart from the failure to centralise the design offices the post of Surveyor-General of Ordnance, destined to have become the supreme controller of supply and the keystone of the new organisation, was abolished. This weakened the scheme by divorcing the Director of Artillery from the factories, thereby severing the close contact between the Services and the manufacturing departments which was then deemed so essential for efficiency.

The twentieth century, like the nineteenth, opened under the shadow of war albeit a colonial conflict in South Africa and far away from these shores. However the Boer War, as wars have a habit of doing, shook the country’s war machine and revealed a number of weaknesses. The search for reforms since the days of the Crimea had been long and tedious with numerous Royal Commissions and Committees (567), but at last an overall War Office administration was emerging that would, subject to certain changes, survive two world wars. With the cessation of hostilities in 1902, the number of employees at the Royal Arsenal was systematically reduced with the continuing decline in work until by 1907, it was decided to amalgamate the Royal Carriage Department under the Superintendent Royal Gun Factory.

Meanwhile science was making great strides forward both on the pure side and its application, similarly armament engineering technology was advancing in complexity and knowledge. Hence it was becoming evident that before a design could be undertaken, research had to take place and this could best be done by somebody trained especially for this purpose. As a result, the Research Department was formed in the Royal Arsenal in 1907. Its genesis goes back to the early days of the century; in 1900 the Director-General of Ordnance referred to the proposal by the Explosives Committee, under the chairmanship of Lord Rayleigh, for an Experimental Establishment to carry out original research and investigations into a large range of subjects including explosives and steels. By 1903 various experimental buildings had been erected on the edge of Plumstead Marshes adjacent to the Proof Butts. Prior to this the War Department Chemist Woolwich had carried out research and experiments for both services especially with respect to explosives. In 1904 Dr O.J. Silberrad, who had been appointed additional chemist in 1901 was referred to as the Superintendent of Chemical Research; also in 1904, a Metallurgical Research Department was formed. In 1906 it was agreed that a Mechanical Research Department should be established in the Ordnance Factories to carry out the testing of materials and investigations into mechanical problems. It became obvious that duplication was taking place between the various research organisations sponsored by the Explosives Committee and the Ordnance Factories, so it was agreed they should be grouped together and formed into ‘The Research Department’ from 1 April 1907. Major J.H. Mansell R.A. was the first Superintendent of Research; Lieut. Duncan R.N. was the Proof and Experimental Officer; Captain H.G. Howarth was Assistant Superintendent Mechanical; and Dr Robert Robertson was Assistant Superintendent Chemical Research. The Research Department besides controlling the Proof and Experimental Establishment consisted of three branches, explosives, ballistics and metallurgy.

In about 1867 Dr C.W. Siemens had put forward the suggestion that gun recoil might be checked by the resistance of water flowing through an orifice. This idea was developed on a number of carriage designs in continental Europe during the latter part of the nineteenth century, the most successful being that of the famous French ’75’ which remained perfectly steady during firing. A committee was set up in 1901 to evolve new quick-firing equipment for the Army. A series of experiments from trade and Ordnance Factories followed. As a result of the committee’s recommendations in 1905 the Q.F.18pdr Mk1 for the field and the Q.F. 13pdr Mk 1 for the horse artillery was introduced. These steel carriages were a composite from the various designs submitted and had several novel features; a tubular trail terminating in a spade, a hydraulic buffer for controlling recoil, a shield for the protection of the detachment, a telescopic sight and an intermediate carriage housing the cradle which could be traversed across the trail. The 18pdr proved to be a very successful equipment during World War 1, firing nearly 100 million rounds. It is perhaps a demonstration of its longevity that the 13pdr is still used by the R.H.A. when firing ceremonial salutes in Hyde Park.


The First World War breaking out on the 4 August 1914 was to have a profound effect on the Royal Arsenal and the administrative organisation for design which had changed little in essentials since the reorganisation of 1888 arising from the Morley reforms, design being still closely integrated with the factories. During the autumn of 1914, work was mainly concentrated upon bringing to completion important patterns already under consideration. Trials of TNT were hastened such that in September 1914 this explosive was accepted as a substitute for picric acid, or lyddite as it became known when melted, the standard high explosive used for filling all classes of shell up to that time. The process for TNT manufacture was evolved on a semi-production scale on plant improvised by the Research Department within its own boundaries.

On 9 June 1915 responsibility for the supply of munitions for the armed forces was taken over by the Ministry of Munitions under Mr David Lloyd George, a man who had realised earlier than most people that it would be ‘an engineers war’. After much discussion, responsibility for design was finally transferred from the War Office to the Ministry of Munitions on 29 November 1915. This change was viewed with some apprehension by the Army Council who feared least military considerations would suffer in equipment design. At the outbreak of war the Director of Artillery had as his main technical adviser the Ordnance Board which had available as consultants the Chief Superintendent of Ordnance Factories in matters of manufacturing, the Superintendent of Research in regard to ballistics and chemical questions and the Superintendent of Experiments Shoeburyness for trials of gun equipment. It was firmly maintained by the Director of Artillery that no officer should judge the serviceability of any pattern or modification that he himself had created. Consequently, the initiation of stores design was left to the Ordnance Factories, the Research Department, contractors or the private individual, while the officers of the Directorate passed sentence upon the design submitted in the light of military experience and general policy.

During the early days of the war the demand for design and its consequential experimental work increased to a very marked extent; so unfortunately did the demand for changes to pattern necessary to facilitate supplying the higher levels of output. Thus the drawing offices became congested and the subsequent establishment of the Ministry of Munitions seriously hampered getting decisions on urgent design questions. Despite protests the necessity for expediting this situation was so overwhelming that a Department of Munitions Design was formed in December 1915. The Director-General of Munitions Design was the authority for all designs relating to artillery, small arms and trench warfare but excluding mechanical transport, tanks etc.

In March 1916, Lt Col C.C. Noott was appointed Superintendent of Design to watch the interests of design and experimental work. He had a staff of designing officers and controlled the three departmental drawing offices although administratively they remained under the control of the factory Superintendents. The Superintendent of the Gun and Carriage Factory remained responsible for design, however the Superintendent of the Royal Laboratory retained no responsibility for design, the Superintendent of Design placing a number of officers in that area. A proposal to centralise the Superintendent of Design with his staff in London was abandoned since it was considered desirable that they should remain in close contact with the factory and see the stores being made and alter the design as necessary. The establishment of national factories and increased trade involvement as the war progressed meant the design of munitions became to a certain extent decentralised, although complicated designs and matters involving prolonged research were still done at Woolwich.

It was during this period that the tank first made its appearance on the battlefield although its initial impact on the conflict was perhaps not as significant as might have been expected; the struggle having stagnated into trench warfare. By January 1915 definite recommendations had emerged simultaneously from a number of quarters for an armoured vehicle carrying a gun, men or both. While the proposals laid before the War Office were for a ‘land cruiser or destroyer’ the name ‘landship’ had been most commonly used at the Admiralty during the experimental period. When the question of bulk supply arose, the name ‘tank’ was adopted at the latter end of 1915 in order to ensure secrecy, the new supply committee being styled ‘Tank Supply Committee’. The first prototype tank known as ‘Mother’ was successfully tested over a mock trench system in February 1916; production followed and they were first deployed during the offensive on the Somme in France on 15 September 1916. Because they were scattered along the front, they failed to achieve a breakthrough despite local successes. The first mass attack took place at Cambrai in November 1917 when 378 tanks lumbered over the Hindenburg Line to a depth of 4 miles. However, it is not until some twenty-five years later that the full potential of the tank to change the battlefield scenario was demonstrated. A War Office Tank Committee was created in May 1917 to formulate specifications which the design section of the ‘Mechanical Warfare Supply Department’ put into effect, approving designs before manufacture commenced and directing subsequent field trials.


With the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, the ‘Great War’ as it was then called was over and the Royal Arsenal had now to face the greatest problem of its existence of how to adapt itself to a post-war world of changed values. However the future administration and use of the factories had been the subject of much consideration before the Armistice, indeed the Minister of Munitions had in July 1918 appointed a committee under the chairmanship of Rt Hon. T. McKinnon Wood, M.P., to report on the future organisation and role of the Royal Arsenal. This was to prove only the first of many committees which sat almost continually until 1926. In spite of the enormous dislocation and changes needed to achieve victory, the war had left few permanent scars on the overall armament administration. The Ministry of Munitions gradually wound up and the whole business of armaments reverted to the War Office, the design and research functions being transferred in March 1919 and the factories the following year. One of the conclusions of the McKinnon Wood committee was that the whole basis of munition design was wrong and that a separate Armament Design Office should be formed apart from the Ordnance Factories.

It had been a debatable point for some time whether design should be linked to production or be a function of the user i.e. a civil or military problem. Certainly the user must say what he requires, but is he the most qualified to interpret his requirement in terms of design? Alternatively if design is too closely affiliated to production it may dominate it to the exclusion of the user’s interest. After the war the balance of opinion was in favour of a military solution, which meant setting up a military organisation apart from the Ordnance Factories which had now become largely civilian in character. Therefore in 1919 a Design Department emerged under the Director of Artillery. At a following interdepartmental conference in 1921, presided over by the Master-General of the Ordnance, a joint Service Design Department was brought into being. It was to be an establishment of technically trained officers from the three services who were to work in close collaboration with the Ordnance Factories, but the drawing offices were still administered by the Chief Superintendent of the Ordnance Factories. Hence ‘The Manager O.F. Drawing Offices’ was Chief Designer serving two masters: the Superintendent of Design and the Chief Superintendent of the Ordnance Factories. The Design Department was responsible for initiating armament designs for the three services and consisted of a number of sections dealing with guns, carriages, small arms, ammunition, tanks and transport vehicles; they were also expected to deal with designs from other sources.

One effect of World War 1 was to expand mechanisation, not only did mechanical transport become universal but the tank had arrived to stay; both of which grew in complexity and numbers. Up until 1924 all mechanisation had been dealt with by the Director of Artillery as a side-line of armaments. With the increase in mechanisation problems, it was decided to split the Directorate in two, ‘Director of Artillery I’ to control artillery development and ‘Director of Artillery II’ (renamed Director of Mechanisation in 1927) to deal with mechanisation and small arms. A further reallocation took place later with Director of Artillery taking over small arms and Director of Mechanisation acquiring the engineer and bridging side. Therefore by 1930 the Master-General of the Ordnance had under him four Directors; the Director of Artillery, the Director of Mechanisation, the Director of Ordnance Services and the Director of Ordnance Factories, making him responsible for the research, design, development, experiment, production, inspection, care, maintenance, custody and issue of all warlike and general stores including armaments for Land Service.

The Mechanisation Board established at Woolwich in 1934 to deal with technical matters affecting mechanised fighting and transport vehicles was an expansion of the earlier Technical Sub-Committee of the Mechanical Warfare Board. However its cramped environment was deemed unsuitable and they left Woolwich just prior to September 1939.

During the 1930’s foreign relationships in Europe increasingly deteriorated until by 1935 they proved to be sufficiently alarming to lead the Government to embark on a rearmament programme. The Royal Arsenal was soon affected as orders poured in and the Design Department became involved in preparing new weapon designs. One of these was the 25pdr which, designed a few years earlier and shelved due to the disarmament policy, was to prove so successful as a field piece. It was used very extensively during World War II and Korea, remaining in service until the mid-1970’s. With the coming of the tank there was a requirement for tank and anti-tank guns firing high velocity armour piercing shot. Also, the need to combat fast high-flying aircraft resulted in a new design of A.A. gun with a very high muzzle velocity. All this kept an expanding Design Department fully stretched as the war clouds thickened and the European situation became more threatening.

Just as the rearmament programme was gathering momentum it was considered that effective control of M.G.O.s Department was too much for one man. Therefore in September 1936, M.G.O. gave way to a Director General of Munitions Production with a Deputy Master-General of the Ordnance under him to carry out the military functions of the late office and control the Director of Ordnance Services.

A serious explosion occurred in the Research Department in July 1936 during the experimental filling of an HE shell by the screw method which resulted in 5 persons being killed. This demonstrates that despite scientific advances, experiments with weapons and explosives will always contain an element of risk. It was during the period up to 1939 that the powerful explosive RDX was developed under Dr G. Rotter, Director of Explosives Research, and subsequently used extensively in bombs and shells during World War II. One of the machines used today to assess the sensitiveness of explosives, known as the Rotter Machine, dates back to that period.

In 1935, under the direction of Dr H.J.Poole, work had been started in the Ballistics Branch of the Research Department on rockets for A.A. weapons. By 1937 a design of a 2in calibre weapon had been established and a larger 3in version was under consideration. At this time Dr Rotter became apprehensive of the unexplored hazards involved in burning large cordite charges at Woolwich and insisted the work should be done on a more remote location such as a quarry or similar. It was Brigadier J.L.P.Macnair, subsequently to become Chief Superintendent of the Research Department, who remembered the chain of Forts that had existed around London. At the latter end of the nineteenth century, a series of Forts had been constructed along the North Downs to serve as mobilization stations for metropolitan Volunteer units and storehouses for ammunition and stores. On inspecting a number of these sites, Brigadier Macnair found Fort Halstead to be in the best state of preservation and eminently suitable for the experimental rocket work. The original land for Fort Halstead had been purchased by the War Office in 1890/1891 and during the 1914-18 war the buildings had been used for ammunition storage. In 1921 the site was purchased by a retired army Colonel at an auction in London and for the next sixteen years remained in private hands. On learning the purpose for which the site was needed, the Colonel readily acquiesced to selling and it was repurchased by the War Office in November 1937 for about £9000. A small filling factory was established and a test stand erected for testing the then novel rocket motors, as an experimental outstation of Woolwich, thus marking the beginning of Fort Halstead as a research and development establishment. In 1938 the success of the 3in rocket work, which subsequently formed the basis for the rocket batteries deployed in the air defence of London, led to a decision to form a separate establishment for the development of rockets. Thus the Projectile Development Establishment was born under the Directorship of Sir Alwyn Crow and it severed its connection with the Research Department at Woolwich. So as in the previous century we see rockets being added to the weapon armoury.


The opening of the Second World War, signalled by the sirens at 11.30a.m. on Sunday morning of 3 September 1939, found the Royal Arsenal and its Departments in a better position for the changeover from peace to war than in 1914, having had time to prepare since 1936. As the European situation had become even more threatening in the months leading up to September, the Government had eventually given way to pressure for a Ministry of Supply by creating the new Department on 1 August 1939. Shortly after the Ministry’s inception the Director-General of Munitions Production shed his responsibility for mechanisation to a new Director-General of Tanks and Transport.

On the outbreak of war, the bulk of the Projectile Development Establishment moved from Woolwich to Fort Halstead. However with the fall of France in 1940 and the evacuation from Dunkirk, a secret establishment located in the probable line of invasion caused much concern. So the staff were despatched off to Aberporth in Wales where a trials range had already been constructed. They were to remain there until the end of the war when some of the tasks and staff returned to the Research and Design Departments.

During the period of the ‘phoney’ war Woolwich activities continued much as usual, although shifts and overtime were instituted, until that fateful afternoon on Saturday 7 September 1940. As the formations of Heinkels and Dorniers swept across the Kent coast and proceeded inland on a perfect summer afternoon, it became evident that for the first time London was their sole target. Three waves of German aircraft wheeled over Chislehurst towards the Royal Arsenal dropping their bombs with such accuracy that not one fell outside the walls. Among the many buildings seriously damaged was the Central Office, the home of the Design Department drawing offices. This necessitated their being evacuated to temporary accommodation at Raglan Road School in Woolwich. This was to prove a watershed as the Department was never to return to the Royal Arsenal, subsequently becoming a ‘sovereign power’ separate from the Ordnance Factories in every respect. Later that year they moved to a more permanent location at Halstead Place School and two houses, Ashgrove and The Grange in Knockholt, adjacent villages in the Kentish Countryside near Fort Halstead.

Towards the end of 1941 a major reorganisation occurred when all research and development was concentrated under a Controller-General of Research and Development. The following year the prefix ‘Armament’ was added to both Research and Design Departments, with the latter having its first civilian head, Mr F. E. Smith seconded from ICI and styled ‘Chief Engineer Armament Design’. Subsequently a further allotment of responsibilities at H.Q. resulted in the Director-General of Artillery retaining development whilst that for research except fighting vehicles, passed to the Chief Scientific Officer who had the Director of Armament Research to assist him.

Throughout this period a range of new weapons was developed to meet service needs for heavier field guns together with more powerful tank and anti-tank guns to combat the increasing level of

tank protection. Probably the most well-known of these was the 17pdr used extensively during the latter years of the war. This expertise has continued through to the development of the powerful tank weapons of today.

Building had continued at Fort Halstead and by 1942 it was ready for occupation; with the Projectile Development Establishment firmly ensconced in Wales and the fear of invasion receding, it was decided that the site should be given to the Armament Design and Armament Research Departments. At the end of that year the first occupation took place with the carriage and ammunition branches of ADD moving in from Halstead Place School, followed shortly after by some ARD staff. This migration continued over the succeeding years as more and more buildings were constructed until by the early 1950s, the bulk of both ADD and ARD staff (renamed ADE and ARE in 1948) were located at Fort Halstead.


After the war the Ministry of Supply absorbed the Ministry of Aircraft Production which dispelled any doubts that it might suffer the same fate as the Ministry of Munitions. In the post-war reorganisation, the Ministry of Supply was divided into three divisions each under a Controller, one of whom was the Controller of Supplies (Munitions), styled CS(M), responsible for research, design, development and production of armaments for Land Service. Immediately post-war ADE was heavily involved in trials to increase the rate of fire of the 3.7in A.A. gun to around 100 rounds per minute. One development from this work was the 3in/70 gun for the Navy firing about 120 rounds per minute. Although a prototype A.A. equipment with a high rate of fire was built, the success of guided missile development made this type of weapon superfluous.

Shortly after the end of the war, ARE was charged with the development of Britain’s first atomic bomb, without doubt the biggest and most important project in its history. A separate Department (High Explosives Research) was founded under Dr William Penney, later Lord Penney; it expanded rapidly until more than half the entire staff worked on this one job. It remained at Fort Halstead until 1955 when it transferred to a much larger site at Aldermaston, becoming the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment.

The Design and Research Establishments were amalgamated in 1955 to form the Armament Research and Development Establishment (ARDE) under a new Director Mr Ewen McEwen. This integrated all stages of research, design and development into a single organisation, a logical outcome particularly as the two departments occupied the same site. On the 8 February 1962 the present title Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment (RARDE) was granted.

In October 1959 the Government in its wisdom transferred the Ministry of Supply into a Ministry of Aviation, such a metamorphosis rendering the Munitions Division quite out of place in its new surroundings and another home was required. The War Department was the natural choice, so the erstwhile child returned to the bosom of its parent after 20 years; when this reunion took place, the office of the Master-General of the Ordnance was revived. Nevertheless, something of an anomaly remained within ARDE in that some staff working on guided missile projects were still considered Ministry of Aviation staff.

During the mid-60’s studies commenced into a new 105mm field gun for world-wide use with an air-portable capability. Among the many new features incorporated in the design of the 105mm Light Gun was an innovative structural technique to achieve a robust construction within the overall weight limitations. The equipment entered service during the 70’s and its ‘go anywhere’ capability and helicopter portability were thoroughly tested and its worth amply proved during the Falkland Islands operations. It was recently successfully deployed again in the Gulf conflict.

On 1st April 1964 a combined Ministry of Defence was formed covering all three Services and their supply organisations. In the succeeding years it became apparent there was scope for improving the administrative efficiency of what had become one of the largest Ministries of State. Following a review by Derek Rayner, later Lord Rayner, of the weapon system procurement activities of the Ministries of Defence and Aviation Supply, the whole function of defence procurement was rationalised in 1971. The two procurement systems were combined into a single organisation, the Procurement Executive, formed as an integral part of the Ministry of Defence. Apart from the establishment of a separate Controller for sea, land and air systems it also led to the setting up of a Controller of Research and Development Establishments responsible for the management of all defence research and development establishments of which RARDE was one. Hence for the first time the Master-General of the Ordnance or his predecessors was not administratively responsible for research and development. So from modest beginnings at the end of the 19th century to establish separate departments for research and design, a fully independent organisation had emerged for managing all such activities across the whole weapon spectrum, ‘a comming of age’. Although as one would expect from its history RARDE works primarily for the Army, it also gives scientific support to both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, apart from assessing and developing weapons for all three services, a reflection of its Royal Arsenal beginnings.

One branch that could be described as something of a Cinderella within the overall RARDE mission is the Forensic Explosives Laboratory, although their profile has increased in recent years with the rise in terrorist activities The origin of the forensic laboratory goes back to 1923 when the Government decided the Home Office needed a specialist forensic service to assist the Police in investigations involving explosives. It was an obvious choice to set up such an organisation in the War Office Research Department at the Royal Arsenal; eventually becoming the Home Office Branch of RARDE, it remained at Woolwich until it moved to Fort Halstead in 1985. It works very closely with the Metropolitan Police and the Police Forensic Laboratory and has over the years investigated thousands of cases involving the criminal use of explosives. The need for this forensic work does not appear to be diminishing and the development of new equipment and techniques to meet future threats must continue if expert advice is to be given to counter threats as they arise.

In 1984 a further amalgamation took place with RARDE, the Explosives Research and Development Establishment (ERDE) Waltham Abbey and the Fighting Vehicles Research and Development Establishment (FVRDE) Chertsey coming together to form the much wider RARDE of today with the emphasis on research. As the origins of all these establishments go back to the Royal Arsenal, the wheel has turned the full circle with them once again being merged into a single administrative unit.

We have over the centuries seen the fortunes of armament procurement wax and wane as the political situation changed. In spite of no major conflict in the last four decades, a high level of armament activity has been maintained throughout this period which is perhaps unique in history. In this period, we have seen an accelerating advance in weapons technology to a degree so clearly demonstrated in the recent Gulf conflict. However, with the ending of the Cold War the pressure and financial support for advanced weapons programmes will be greatly reduced in the future. In this climate and with the present Government policy of placing competitive design and development contracts for equipment with industry, the activity level and function of RARDE will undoubtably change. Hopefully account will be taken from past lessons and we shall continue to ensure our weapons are kept up to date with the latest technological advances. Whatever the future may be, RARDE, like its predecessors will undoubtedly meet the challenge.


Departments of State responsible for Armament Development

Before 1414 Wardrobe
1414 – 1855 Office of Ordnance
1855 – 1918 War Office
1915 – 1919 Ministry of Munitions
1919 – 1939 War Office
1939 – 1959 Ministry of Supply
1959 – 1964 War Office
1964 – Ministry of Defence



Research and Armaments Research Departments


1907 – 1910 Major J.H. Mansell, RA.

1910 – 1914 Commander L.A. Duncan, RN.

1914 – 1920 Lieut.-Colonel R.A. Craig, CMG., CBE., RA.

Chief Superintendents

1920 – 1924 Commander A.C. Goolden, OBE., RN(retd).

1924 – 1928 Colonel R.K. Hezlet, CBE, DSO.

1928 – 1933 Commander A.C. Goolden, OBE., RN(retd).

1933 – 1936 Colonel W.MacC. Burden, CBE.

1936 – 1940 Captain H.R. Priston, RN(retd).

1940 – 1942 Brigadier J.L.P. Macnair.

1942 – 1945 Professor J.E. Lennard-Jones, MA., PhD., DSc, FRS. (Later Sir)

1945 Professor W.E. Garner, CBE., FRS.

1945 – 1950 Dr W.S. Penney, OBE., MA., PhD., DSc., FRS. (Later Lord Penney)

1950 – 1954 Dr H.J. Poole, CBE., PhD., ARIC

Design and Armament Design Department


1919 – 1920 Lieut.-Colonel C.C. Noott, CMG.,DSO., ,RA. 

1920 – 1921 Colonel W.E. Edwardes, CMG.

1921 – 1924 Colonel M.L. Wilkinson, CBE. 

1924 – 1925 Colonel K.E. Haynes, CMG., CBE.

1925 – 1929 Commander H.G. Jackson, OBE., RN(retd). 

1929 – 1930 Colonel H.M. Vandeleur, CBE.

1930 – 1933 Colonel G.F.B. Turner, DSO. 

1933 – 1937 Colonel F.C.N. Bishop.

Chief Superintendents

1937 – 1939 Brigadier A.E. Macrae, OBE

1939 – 1941 Brigadier G.Temple, MC.

1941 – 1942 Captain F.G. Fowle, DSC., RN(retd).

1942 Captain C.T. Nuthall, RN(retd).

Chief Engineers and Superintendents

1942 – 1945 Mr F.E. Smith.

1945 – 1952 Commander S.C.C. Mitchell, RN(retd).

1952 – 1954 Mr A.P. Wickens.

Armament Research and Development Establishment Directors

1954 – 1958 Mr Ewen McEwen, MSc., MIMechE.

1958 – 1962 Dr D.H. Black, CMG., PhD., MSc., FInstP.

Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment Directors

1962 Dr D.H. Black, CMG., PhD., MSc., FInstP.
1962 – 1967 Mr E.W.Chivers, BSc.
1967 – 1970 Dr W.H. Penley, CB., CBE., B Eng., PhD., CEng., FIEE., FRAeS.
1970 – 1975 Mr F.H. East, BSc., MInstP., CEng., FIEE, FRAeS., idc.
1976 – 1979 Mr W.B.H. Lord, CM., MSc., MA.
1979 – 1980 Dr D.H. Davies, MA., PhD., FiEE.
1980 – 1983 Dr F.H. Panton, MBE., BSc., PhD., CChecm., FRCS., FRAeS., FRSA.
1984 – 1986 Dr T.P. McLean, FRSE
1987 – Dr A.C. Baynham, BSc, PhD., rcds.


The Origins of Fort Halstead

Fort Halstead originates from a scheme drawn up in 1888 by a Committee under the Assistant Adjutant General for the defences of London and not in Napoleonic times as has been suggested by some sources.

In the 1880’s General Sir Edward Hamley, Conservative M.P. for Birkenhead and a leading writer on military strategy, conducted a vigorous campaign in and out of Parliament for the adoption of measures to prevent the invasion of Britain from the Continent. At the time extensive French and Russian naval building programmes had undermined confidence in the ability of the Navy to safeguard the country. Hamley was an enthusiastic supporter of the Volunteers, a movement which was essentially of the rapidly increasing Victorian and professional middle classes and as such was disliked by the regular officers from the landed gentry families. In the event of an invasion, Hamley believed the Volunteers could play a particularly valuable part in the defence of London. In his book issued in 1889, Sir Edward outlined a scheme for the establishment of a series of lightly fortified assembly points around London to serve as mobilization stations for specially trained metropolitan Volunteer units and also as focal points for the organisation of defence.

His views were accepted in 1888 by the Government of the day and a confidential memorandum prepared by the War Office in July recommended that sites should be acquired for the erection of elementary works. A defence line was mapped out running from Guildford along the North Downs to Halstead and Knockholt, then up the west side of the Darenth Valley to Dartford and north of the Thames from Vange by Brentwood to North Weald. It was proposed to build a number of storehouses which would form points of support for a series of entrenched positions to be constructed all along the line if the need arose. It seems quite clear that there was no intention of mounting guns in the Forts, although some of the works e.g. Pewley Hill, Reigate and Halstead were well sited to command the country to the front and cooperate in the defence of the main positions.

Mr E. Stanhope, Secretary of State for War, in his Estimate Speech of 1889 gave an outline of the steps the Government were taking to implement Hamley’s proposals but asked members in the national interest not to press for details. Approval was obtained for acquisition of the sites and a further committee appointed to prepare a detailed scheme This Committee produced a report in 1892, the year Hamley retired from Parliament; he died the following year and without his advocacy interest for the scheme flagged considerably.

Construction work on the defence line continued for some years, but no attempt was made to relate the training of the London Volunteers to the new defence arrangements. This situation was highlighted in a book published in 1896 by Spencer Wilkinson, a leading authority on the Volunteer movement. In response to a request by Mr Dalziel, Radical M.P. for Kirkcaldy, for an opportunity to consider the policy of the fortification of London, the Government said the scheme and the work in progress was in accordance with that approved by Parliament. When the Bill came up for discussion in February 1897, Dalziel limited his remarks but a strong attack was made on the scheme by Mr Lough, the member for Islington.

Land records show that 3 acres of land were purchased for Fort Halstead in 1890 and a further 6¾ acres in 1891. Although the precise date for the building of Fort Halstead cannot be fixed, it can be safely put between 1895 at the earliest to 1897 at the latest. Some of the contractors’ drawings dated 11 October 1894 with working notes added in pencil show the earthworks to contain a layer of hand-picked flints some way below the surface, presumably to form a bursting layer.

During this period confidence was returning in the ability of the Navy to defend the country against invasion. With the ‘Blue Water School’ in the ascendancy, Hamley’s scheme passed into oblivion. By 1903 the whole subject of the London Defence Positions was again under review and a Handbook was issued by the War Office to bring into force a provisional scheme based, with some modifications, on that of 1892 which could be brought quickly into action if required. It describes the defence line with its base depots and lines of communications, the units of infantry and artillery, both Volunteers and Regulars, allotted to the various positions and the construction of the earthworks that was to be done by civilian contractors in eight days.

When Haldane became Secretary of State for War in 1905 in a new government, he began to eliminate those Army features which did not accord with the ‘Blue Water School’. In his first Estimates speech on 8 March 1906, he describes stumbling upon one of these curious structures containing large amounts of ammunition and stores in the neighbourhood of Dorking and he was advised units had not been to the site and the guns were at Woolwich. He told Parliament the sites were going to disappear root and branch as fast as possible. The Member for Reigate tried to secure the retention of the sites as a national property, but he was unsuccessful and the decision to sell was announced on 25 February 1907.

Whatever the fate of the other sites Fort Halstead remained War Office property and was evidently concerned with the storage of ammunition during the 1914-18 war. A laboratory was built inside the Old Fort in 1915 and a storehouse outside in 1920. Both buildings exist today as do a number of cottages, one with double doors originally in the front wall which might have housed field guns. Fort Halstead was by far the most expensive of all the forts constructed with the site costing £2,939 and the works £22,354.

Eventually the Disposals Board advertised the sale of Fort Halstead by auction on Tuesday 8 November 1921 at the London Auction Mart in Queen Victoria Street, London. It was bought by a retired Army Colonel who then lived in the laboratory and let the cottages. He used the site as a camp for Territorials, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and as a home for destitute refugees. For the next sixteen years it remained in private hands until Brigadier Macnair on his inspection of the forts found it so eminently suitable for rocket work. When the Colonel learned the purpose for which the War Office required the site, he proposed to give it to the Crown gratis. However, his lawyers persuaded him this was needlessly altruistic and the property was repurchased by the War Office in November 1937 for about £9000.

The Old Fort of today is still very much the original 100 year old structure and a valuable part of our fascinating heritage. Although some of the moat has been filled in, the majority remains, the steep slopes of the ramparts leading to the moat still retain their 19th century charm and the bottom of the moat is still a formidable obstacle. On the inner side of the ramparts there is still evidence of the raised levels for observers or riflemen offering a commanding view of Sevenoaks and the Weald.


The Royal Arsenal: Brigadier O.F.G. Hogg

The History of the Ministry of Munitions

The Story of the Gun: Lieut. A.W. Wilson, RA.

The Battle of Britain: Richard Hough and Denis Richards. 

RARDE Fort Halstead, A Short History: Neil Griffiths

RARDE Halstead, The First Fifty years.