Anthony Gormley sculpture

Woolwich Royal Arsenal is now is a residential complex with its fare share of luxury apartments with riverside views, anxiously awaiting the opening of Crossrail to boost prices even more. It dates back to the C17th and has a remarkable number of listed industrial buildings. Over 20 Grade 1 and 2 buildings now refurbished into apartments. It’s difficult to imagine that towards the end of the C19th this was one of the world’s largest heavy plants manufacturing arms. During the First World War that it went through a massive expansion.

Munitions workers

Munitions workers

War on an industrial scale required a lot more ammunition. Lloyd George stated that during the fortnight of fighting in and around Neuve Chapelle almost as much ammunition was spent by the artillery as during the whole of the two and half years of the Boer War. The Royal Arsenal needed more workers. By January 2015 there were 30,000 rising to 75,000 in 1917. Of these 28,000 workers were women. The expanding workforce came from all parts of the country and needed somewhere to live. In the Kentish Independent May 1915 a local doctor wrote about the health risks of overcrowding with many families taking up to 8 lodgers in their modest artisan dwellings.

A new Garden City opened in 1916 with an additional 1200 homes but this still didn’t meet the demand. From January 1916 the building works department of the Royal Arsenal began erecting “hutments” in Eltham and along Wickham Lane in Plumstead.

Hutements

Hutments

Work in the Royal Arsenal was hard and dangerous. Men worked up to 96 hours a week. Medical advice to them included taking a bowl of beef broth on arrival home, a sponge down followed by a quiet rest and a smoke!

Women from the Shell shop

Women from the Shell shop

Working class women had always done paid employment but now they had to replace men in heavy industry working twelve hours including night shift. They became known as “munitionettes”. Its a wonder how they had the time to form bands like this one – The Jolly Boys Concert Party.

Jolly Boys Concert Party

Jolly Boys Concert Party

In 1916 Cyril Henry Nursery School was founded as a Day and Night Nursery for children of local munitions workers in the Royal Arsenal. The nursery was funded by Lady Julia Henry, in memory of her only son who was killed in the war. The work of the nursery was depicted in a painting by Sir John Lavery, a Ist World War artist, and is currently on display at Royal Chatham Dockyards. The nursery was merged with Mulgrave Primary school after the Second World War. The original wooden nursery building was demolished.

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