Thamesmead: A late 20th century New Town

The Royal Arsenal

The area also had great military and naval importance. In 1515 Henry VIII (r.1509 – 1547) ordered the building of the warship Henri Grace à Dieu as part of an effort to improve and enlarge the English Navy and to this end established a major dockyard at Woolwich, very close to the area now occupied by Thamesmead.

It was from this point onwards that the area became an important naval and military centre. The Thamesmead site, mostly on the Greenwich side of the boundary, was used for storing ordnance or ammunition from as early as 1565 and gradually more and more land was given over to what became the Royal Arsenal.

This institution made and tested guns and ammunition. The land was ideal for this purpose, as there were still very few people living in the area. In addition the marshy ground deadened the impact of explosions and therefore was safer when testing ammunition. One of the weapons tested on the marshes near Plumstead was called Mallet’s Mortar. It was meant to be portable but ended up weighing 42 tons! Mallet’s Mortar was not a successful invention – on its first test firing in October 1857 a fracture appeared in the metal and the project was abandoned.

The Royal Arsenal brought much-needed trade to the area as people employed in the munitions factories came to live in the nearby towns and villages. The area became more and more important militarily throughout the 18th and 19th centuries – England was at war with many countries, including France and Spain. The Crimean War of 1854 – 56 placed big demands on the Arsenal.

By the beginning of the First World War the Arsenal was operating at full capacity, providing employment for 73,000 people. However, partly because of isolated Zeppelin raids on the Arsenal during the First World War, officials became worried about the manufacture and testing of guns and ammunition so close to densely populated areas. The Arsenal was now surrounded by residential developments as London expanded further and further outwards. Therefore from the 1920s onwards the site was scaled down. Both the testing and manufacture of weapons were moved to more remote and secret areas.

The Second World War merely confirmed the need to move the Arsenal elsewhere. Its location was well known and it was easily visible, with the result that the Luftwaffe could target it for bombing raids – and this meant that surrounding residential areas were also badly damaged.

After the Second World War the Arsenal was less and less used. By the late 1950s the London County Council (LCC) had earmarked part of the land – together with about 500 acres of virgin marshland at Erith – to form the site for a new riverside town development to help cope with the demand for housing in the London area.