26 May 2014, the Royal Artillery Museum Board via its Chairman (literally no names, no pack drill it would seem) issued a statement to the effect that the museum in its current form at its current home would close at the end of 2016. The statement went on to say that an alternative site in the local area would be secured to house the collection. Whether this is likely to be in anything like its present form is not discussed, but this seems highly unlikely. There is a petition to attempt to rescue the current museum, but it looks like the closure has been presented as a fait accompli. I’m resisting the temptation to “go off on one” until I know more.
The motto of the Royal Artillery, meaning “everywhere”, as in “ubiquitous”.
As a former gunner, I’m ashamed to say it has taken me 32 years to heft my sorry butt across town to the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich, also known as “Firepower”. Last Tuesday a small group of us were privileged to have the curator himself, Mark Smith, give us a two hour tour. It was absorbing, it was magnificent. But there is so much to this fabulous tribute to the art of killing your enemy from afar that I shall have to go back, and soon. For a gun anorak like me, at least five hours are required. For the enthusiastic “neutral”, possibly three or four.
First opened to the public in 1820, this facility is the oldest military museum in the country, its first curator being Sir William Congreve of rocket fame, who also invented many other gunnery innovations. (Congreve’s father, also called William, was similarly involved in ordnance innovation, specifically with gunpowder). Today the main part of the museum is housed in a former cartridge factory dating from 1850. And like most museums what is on display – in true iceberg fashion – is but a fraction of the 13 million objects which have been amassed over the centuries.
Woolwich Arsenal, as the name suggests, was far more than simply the home of the Royal Artillery. It was also where virtually all Britain’s munitions were manufactured, which was all well and good until the advent of attack from the air. After a near miss from a Zeppelin-delivered bomb in the First World War, the government immediately dispersed armaments manufacture far more widely around the country.
The Royal Artillery moved its HQ Larkhill, Wiltshire in 2008, leaving this museum to commemorate its rich history and tradition in Woolwich.
The museum has an extensive medal collection which includes many of the 62 VCs won by gunners.
We learned many things at Firepower. My favourite? Early guns were typically made using bands of iron, by coopers, hence the word barrel. I never knew that. I was also reminded that, as a west Londoner, I really must explore the other side of town more often. Watch out, Eltham Palace.
Firepower is open Tuesday – Saturday 10:30 – 18:00. I’d suggest you don’t have to be especially into military history to have a thoroughly absorbing outing. Highly recommended.