Posts Tagged ‘woolwich’

Gunpowder & Geometry: The Life of Charles Hutton, Pit Boy, Mathematician and Scientific Rebel by Benjamin Wardhaugh. This book review is a guest post by London Historians Member Laurence Scales. 

gngThis is the biography of Charles Hutton (1737-1823). Charles Who? To those in the know he was a Georgian mathematician. For those of you who might just possibly have overlooked him, he was the first person to draw a mountain using contour lines – for a grand project we will come to shortly.

To paint Hutton quickly with a few contour lines, he was a significant figure in publishing, gunnery and scientific politics. His is a story of a snakes and ladders career in the long 18th century for someone with few advantages of birth, but with wits and ambition. Social mobility at that time is something we usually think uncommon and remarkable though the exceptions are numerous: Humphry Davy from Penzance, George Stephenson from Tyneside and Thomas Telford from Scotland, for example. Some of them may have lived their whole life being regarded by nobility as oiks. But they were respected oiks, and able to afford comforts that many would envy. Hutton came from hewing coal to taking a plate of oysters with Sir John Pringle, the President of the Royal Society. Pringle’s successor, Sir Joseph Banks, was a snob and, as a plant collector, had no time for mathematics. The Royal Society came close to disintegrating. Hutton’s rift with the Royal Society gives the biography an edge.

Hutton was from Tyneside, but it was a home he quitted permanently for London when, as a young man, he was appointed a professor at the Woolwich Royal Military Academy then turning out cadets for the Royal Artillery and later Royal Engineers. The appalling behavior of cadets (and fellow staff) is typical of the colourful detail that makes his story enjoyable.

Within a few years Hutton was working on one of the greatest practical experiments of the age, nothing less than the weighing (more properly, calculating the density) of the Earth. The delicate measurements, hundreds of them, were taken in Scotland by the Astronomer Royal, and not in a nice comfortable Edinburgh observatory, but on a mountainside in the dreich. But the number crunching, requiring contour lines to size the mountain, was done by Hutton longhand in Woolwich.

Hutton was a glutton in that he had an extraordinary appetite for long, tedious and repetitive calculations, the details of which we are spared while still gaining insight into the vital but unrecognised toil behind the mathematical tables for astronomers, navigators, surveyors and financial houses. As you might expect from this period and our distance from it, individual women do not play a large part in this story, but a few, and many unknown women, are tantalisingly glimpsed.

An insight I have gained is that Hutton was, I might say, only an artisan mathematician – a virtuoso problem solver and a great teacher playing by all the known rules. But he did not change the game. Although Hutton read several languages it took Cambridge mathematicians such as mechanical computer pioneer Charles Babbage and others to challenge the staid British mathematical community by hailing continental brilliance.
The author, Benjamin Wardhaugh, is an Oxford academic spanning mathematics, history and music. He has slogged to tease out the differences in hundreds of pages in each of umpteen different editions of Hutton’s works to try and read his mind. We can appreciate his effort and, as a result, we are relieved of it. Wardhaugh has published academic papers on Hutton. This biography, nevertheless, comes to us with a light and engaging style while carrying the authority of an academic writer. Recommended.

Gunpowder & Geometry (312 pp, illustrated) by Benjamin Wardhaugh is published in hardback by Harper Collins.

Laurence Scales is a guide specialising in the history of science and technology in London, a volunteer in the archives of the Royal Institution and Royal Society of Arts, and is working on an alternative history of engineering.

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Firepower, the museum of artillery in Woolwich, closes its doors today for the last time. This is a tragedy. As a former gunner myself I am possibly biased, but in my opinion it was the best military museum in London with brilliant staff, brilliant volunteers and an outreach programme second-to-none.

The museum’s archive has already been shipped out, leaving military history researchers in the lurch. Now the guns, ammunition, displays, ordnance equipment, medals collection (including 22 VCs from the 62 awarded to gunners) will be crated up, transported and stored at the Royal Artillery HQ in Larkhill, to be seen again when – who knows?

I realise that there were – and are – challenging problems, mainly financial, relating to the museum, but I believe a better way forward could have been sought and found. Surely. The Regiment appears to have taken the easy way out and another strand of the thread connecting Woolwich with gunners has been severed. A “gunners gallery” is to be opened at the Greenwich Heritage Centre later this year apparently. Big deal.

I understand from speaking to various people that the ultimate decision to close the museum came from the Master Gunner, General Granville-Chapman.

Anyway, there you go. More heritage denied. I’ll pop into the museum for one last look today. I’d like to thanks all the staff and volunteers at Firepower for their enthusiasm and hospitality they’ve extended every time I’ve visited, an experience shared by many thousands down the years. Good luck with all future endeavours. Ubique!








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Short of using your own boat or swimming, there are three ways: the DLR, the Woolwich Free Ferry, or the Woolwich Foot Tunnel. To commemorate the 100th birthday of the latter, a small group of London Historians walked the tunnel yesterday. An unhappy birthday as it happens, because this and its counterpart in Greenwich are mired in controversy.  Since 2010 they have had £11 million from Greenwich council fire-hosed on refurbishments that should have been completed last year. Instead, in the case of Woolwich, the ground level buildings on both banks are both shrouded in scaffolding, surrounded by blue hoarding, and the lifts don’t work. The fiasco has been covered over the period by this angry blogger.

Despite all of this, we enjoyed ourselves, underground and over water. I shall stay brief because the wonderful Caroline’s Miscellany has already posted and so has The Londoneer. Here are some pictures.

woolwich foot tunnel

This smart sign has very recently replaced one written in felt-tip pen, possibly as a result of mockery from local blogger 853.

woolwich foot tunnel

Folorn: North side entry building, 1912, scaffolded, hoarded-up, broken.

woolwich foot tunnel

woolwich foot tunnel

The James Newman, one of three vessels on the Woolwich Free Ferry, introduced in 1889 by Joseph Bazalgette; taken from the Ernest Bevin. The crew simply call them One, Two and Three.

woolwich foot tunnel

Happy Historians

woolwich foot tunnel

North Woolwich mainline station (1858). Lovely station architecture, unfortunately long-closed, boarded up, abandoned.

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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.

woolwich, royal artillery museum, firepower

The Woolwich Arsenal complex has many wonderful old buildings.

woolwich, royal artillery museum, firepower

woolwich, royal artillery museum, firepower

woolwich, royal artillery museum, firepower

Very early siege gun, 15C

woolwich, royal artillery museum, firepower

woolwich, royal artillery museum, firepower

This tiger gun belonged to Tipu Sultan (1750 – 1799), the “Tiger of Mysore”

woolwich, royal artillery museum, firepower

woolwich, royal artillery museum, firepower

Ammo galore.

woolwich, royal artillery museum, firepower

A chunk of this breech has been cut off, providing the bronze from which Victoria Crosses are made.

woolwich, royal artillery museum, firepower

The greatest field gun ever? One of 25 25 pounder guns owned by the museum. This one is in storage.

woolwich, royal artillery museum, firepower

More guns from bygone wars in storage.

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.

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Today is the anniversary of this massive tragedy which occurred 132 years ago.

We all remember the horrific Marchioness disaster of 20 August 1989 when 51 young revellers lost their lives after the pleasure boat was struck by the dredger Bowbelle and sank instantly. But apart from those directly involved, the memories of the incident are fading. We’re somewhere in the timeline of the Marchioness story between traumatic news headlines and historical footnote.

SS Princess Alice

The saloon steam boat Princess Alice. © National Maritime Museum, London

Small wonder then that few will have heard of the Princess Alice disaster of 3 September 1878, similar in many ways to the Marchioness affair, but with over 12 times the number of casualties. It remains Britain’s worst public transport disaster in either peacetime or war. As many as 650 people lost their lives when the vessel was smashed in two in broad daylight by the BywellCastle, an 890 ton steam collier departing London after a lick of paint at Millwall Dry Dock.

The paddle steamer sank in under four minutes.

The known facts are these. Princess Alice was carrying day trippers on a journey from London Bridge to Gravesend and Sheerness via Woolwich and back again. The fare was a not inexpensive two shillings. On the return leg, at about 7:45 pm, she was about to drop passengers off in Woolwich while the Bywell Castle, was heading downriver to pick up her next consignment of coal from Newcastle. The coal ship’s skipper, Captain Harrison, accompanied by an experienced river pilot, was following traditional Thames routes rather than obeying the new portside-to-portside regulations of 1872. When the boats became dangerously close to each other, what followed was a classic chain of misinterpreting what the other party was attempting to do, until a collision became inevitable. Despite her engines running in full reverse, Bywell Castle struck Princess Alice on the starboard side with such force that the pleasure steamer split in two and began to sink rapidly.

Bywell Castle did its best to rescue survivors, assisted by vessels scrambled from the shore. But many were trapped inside Princess Alice and of course, few people could swim back then. To make matters worse, the water was highly contaminated by 30 tons of raw sewage, the local sluices having been opened just an hour beforehand. Yuck.

People complain nowadays about ghoulish and sensationalist reporting of disasters, but as now, so it was then. Reporters flooded into Woolwich and remained for weeks afterwards as bodies continued to be recovered. “Our man at the scene”, reporter W. T. Vincent of the Kentish Independent, was inundated with requests for frequent news wires from newspapers further afield.

 “Telling the Dread News.—It was near midnight when I reached the post office with my budget of adversity. I had previously warned the telegraph clerks, as agents of the press are privileged to do, and they were ready.”

His slightly self-important, first-hand summary – in wonderfully mawkish Victorian style – can be found here.

princess alice flag

The Princess Alice’s flag, held at the Thames River Police museum in Wapping.

Most bodies were recovered and identified within seven days. According to W. T. Vincent “a dozen or so” bodies could not be identified, although other reports put the number as much, much higher. 120 of the victims were buried in rows at Woolwich cemetery behind a memorial cross in the Irish style, which was paid for by sixpenny subscription from over 23,000 donors.

Irish style memorial cross

The memorial cross at Woolwich Cemetery

The official inquest of the disaster lasted over 30 days; the jurors took more than 10 hours through the night to reach a majority verdict which found against the Princess Alice. Another jury in Millwall found against the Bywell and the Admiralty Court opined that both vessels were blameworthy – “the net result was of questionable value.”

Many safety measures were put into place soon after the disaster. The port-to-port rule was enforced on the river; sewage outlets were moved much further downstream; limits were placed on passenger numbers;  legislation was passed in 1880 for adequate lifebelts on ships; watertight bulkheads were introduced in ship design.

How many survived and how many died? Estimates remain horribly vague. Survivors have been numbered between 69 and 150, although it seems 120-150 to be closer to the mark. Contemporary estimates put 700 passengers on board and 150 survivors, leaving 550 dead. But W. T. Vincent pointed out at the time that the totals from two separate inquests alone numbered around 590 deaths.  Subsequent estimates of the total on board have gone up to 750. Taking this into account and the fact that Vincent’s estimate only included known dead i.e. excluding those never recovered, it is probably safe to say that the total fatalities were over 600, which seems now to be the accepted tally.

Disaster model

© National Maritime Museum, London

There is a dramatic model of the disaster at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich and many pictures at the portcities.org web site (below).

 Mike Paterson




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