Prototypes, UK - Waltham Abbey

This article was published May 17, 2012.

A few traces survive to show that there was a network of railways at the Royal Gunpowder Mills as extensive as the waterways. Railways did not come here until new steam powered mills were built from 1856 to help meet the demands of the Crimean War. These are the buildings facing the south and east sides of Queen's Mead.

The first railway linked the long-demolished charcoal mill and gunpowder-mixing house (situated just to the west of the roundabout) to the Mills on the south side of Queen's Mead, the small stores and the main canal to the east. By 1888 the system largely built on raised wooden platforms 4" wide level with the floors of Mills, had reached the present viewing tower, and was of 2"3' gauge (the distance between the rails). The wagons and trolleys were pushed by hand never pulled and were turned round on small metal turntables.

The rails were generally of wood faced with iron on the top and inner surfaces. Meanwhile, the industrial use of narrow-gauge railways had been revolutionised in 1862 by chief engineer John Ramsbottom at the Crewe works of the London & North Western Railway, where he chose the narrower gauge of 18in to link the workshops. This meant that materials and components could be moved easily and safely not merely between but into each building. Tight curves became possible, and large awkward items like locomotive boilers could be moved when spread over several small flat trucks. We have three of these; originally from the LNWR's Wolverton carriage works, and made to a design of 1866.

The Government was quick to see the advantages of the 18in gauge. Extensive systems became widespread, including those at Woolwich Arsenal and Chatham Dockyard. At Waltham Abbey, the lines were converted to 18in gauge by 1897 and were greatly extended to the north and east as more of the site was built on. Wagons were still pushed by hand and a surviving push trolley is in the exhibition. In the process, areas of the cordite factory buildings all-wooden rails were used to avoid risk of sparks from wheels on steel rails. The Superintendent's request to use brass rails there was refused because of cost.

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 called for a further increase in the Mills output, and in the railway's mileage. In 1916, a new line was built linking the Mills on the north side of Highbridge Street to those on the south, which no longer survive. These then connected with the standard gauge branch from the Main Liverpool Street Cambridge Line serving Enfield Royal Small Arms Factory and the Mills coal wharf on the bank of the Lee. Exchange sidings between the two gauges were put in next to the wharf, but coal for the Mills own powerhouses and gas works coming by rail continued to complete its journey by barge.

From RoyalGunpowderMills.com with permission.