HISTORY: Gunpowder Mills' long and illustrious past
WHEN Lawrence of Arabia blew up Turkish train tracks in the First World War he used explosives sent 1,500 miles from a Waltham Abbey factory. JOE CURTIS investigates.
The Royal Gunpowder Mills shipped tonnes of gunpowder and munitions to war zones across the globe.
This included supporting T. E. Lawrence's guerilla attacks in Turkey and inventing the explosives used in the Dambusters raids during the Second World War.
Military historian David Kenyon is based at the site. He said that the importance of the site is not widely known, even by those who live nearby.
But he explained the facility produced explosives for the British effort during the American Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War and many others.
A total of 6,000 workers were employed there during the First World War. Many were women who had previously been housewives or had domestic jobs.
Dr Kenyon said: "It's an incredible story.
"It has witnessed major social change in Britain and the changing nature of warfare as well.
"We'd love people to know more about it, it's a local piece of history."
Built in the 1600s, the factory began creating gunpowder using huge water-propelled millstones which would grind the ingredients into the powder.
But it was not a risk-free process.
"It was a dangerous place to be," Dr Kenyon said. "Right through the 19th century there were serious and fatal explosions and accidents. People were risking their lives working there."
An entire set of mills blew up in the 1860s and the Abbey Church and greenhouses a mile away from the mills had their windows shattered by two blasts which killed 10 people.
Three surviving workers were awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal - now the George Cross.
Dr Kenyon said: "The three men knew that if they left, the nitroglycerin could explode. They stayed at their posts, even though concrete was coming through the roof, to stabilise the mixture."
Because of the factory's proximity to London it played only a small role in the Second World War over fears of it being bombed.
However, its role was a small but vital one.
The government found out about two explosives invented by a mill scientist while they looked for stable charges that would work in the Dambuster bombs.
These had to withstand the vibrations of bouncing on the water.
Dr Kenyon said: "They found that the mills' inventions of Torpex and RDX, which were mainly used in torpedoes, worked well because they were designed for underwater use."
It became one of Britain's most successful bombing missions ever.
The site has now been turned into a museum where visitors can learn the mills' history.
For more details please visit royalgunpowdermills.com. .