Thursday, 25 July 2013

NEWSFLASH: New Arrival at Crossness!

Welcome to a special update. A Century old, and very historic item of Royal Arsenal Railway rolling stock has arrived at Crossness!

The importance of the Royal Arsenal Railway cannot be understated. Until the First World War the security of the UK and the British Empire was totally dependent on the Arsenal, and the Arsenal was totally dependent on its railway system. Many of the magazines, to their last days in the 1960s, never had any road access, only rail. To transport munitions to those magazines the RAR developed a specialist wagon and eventually there would be just over 1,000 of them.

...Now, only one remains.

The Powder Wagons.
Perhaps remembering centuries of gunpowder usage these bogie vans were always known as 'Powder Wagons'. The basic design dated back to the beginning of the Arsenal's narrow gauge in the early 1870s. By 1898 a shallow bodied version five planks high was in widespread usage each carrying up to five tons. From that time the bodies were extended upwards to seven planks in height with an increase in capacity to seven tons. Some of the wagons were built in the Arsenal but most came from the outside manufacturers of Oldbury Railway Carriage and wagon Co. Ltd, Cravens Ltd, and Dick Kerr Ltd. The subject of this update is a late version having been built by Cravens in 1913. The lower five plank versions were also extensively used at the Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills.

Withdrawal and preservation.
Arsenal railway operation ceased in 1971, one Powder Wagon being kept for possible preservation. By the mid 1980s it was becoming clear to the Arsenal's staff that closure was looming and that the Ministry of Defence had little intention of preserving anything from the site which had defended the Nation for four and a half Centuries. Concerned employees formed the Royal Arsenal Woolwich Historical Society (RAWHS) and set about ensuring the preservation of some two shipping container loads of artefacts and records, they also saved the last Powder Wagon.

In 1989 the wagon was sent for display at the former North Woolwich Old Station railway museum. Unfortunately, by the mid 2000s it had become apparent that this museum was likely to close. The Royal Arsenal site was by this time being re-developed by Berkeley Homes and their work had included provision of the new Greenwich Heritage Centre. The Heritage Centre contains many artefacts from the RAWHS collection and it was agreed that the Powder Wagon should be placed in the care of Greenwich Council and displayed outside the building.

Various proposals emerged for restoration including the building of a glass box around the old vehicle. Sadly no money could ever be found and the wagon began to deteriorate. By 2012 the condition of the wagon was causing concern and it was suggested that it move to Crossness pumping station where we're restoring 'Woolwich' the last RAR narrow gauge steam locomotive. Such a proposal would secure the Powder Wagon's long term future but required expenditure on transport, money which no one had.

A dramatic rescue.
Removal attained a now or never state of urgency during the bad winter of 2012/3 when many fixing bolts sheared through corrosion in the salty riverside air and the near continuous precipitation noticeably increased its toll on the woodwork. The day was saved by the good offices of Tamesis, the firm which is rebuilding Crossness Sewage Treatment Works. They very generously supplied specialist equipment and staff and were thus instrumental in saving the last of the 1,000 Powder Wagons.

Our thanks go to...
We'd like to thank Malcolm Farance for arranging the transport, Dave Evans for overseeing the loading, Paul Tomlin for conducting the loading and overseeing the offloading, and Ben Martin for operating the fork lift vehicle. We'd also like to thank Tracy Stringfellow of the Greenwich Heritage Centre for her understanding on the day, Berkeley Homes for allowing access at short notice and providing staff to keep an eye on events. Finally, our thanks to the Royal Arsenal Woolwich Historical Society for entrusting the welfare of their historic wagon to us, an appreciated vote of confidence.

Pictures speak a thousand words particularly when they are captioned, so please do look at the photographs!

As always, if you'd like to make sure of knowing about what we're doing just enter your e-mail address in the box to the upper right of this page. Also, if you'd like to see 'Woolwich' and the Powder Wagon, do come to one of our open days:

  • Sunday 28th July
  • Sunday 1st September
  • Sunday 13th October
You'd be most welcome!


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  3. So what happened to the 4 wheel van preserved by the the Greenwich & District Narrow Gauge Railway Society? I was involved in it's rescue from the Arsenal in the early '70's. It was in very good condition and was placed in permanent loan with a museum I can't remember.

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