Firepower: The Royal Artillery Museum


The Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, SE18 6ST





Opening times:

Tue-Sat 10:00-17:00

How to get there:

Station: Woolwich Arsenal (from Charing Cross)

Entry fee:

Admission charge

Additional information:

Café and shop

The museum of artillery was founded in 1776 by Lt Gen. Sir William Congreve as a teaching collection, known as the Royal Military Repository. His son, Col. Sir William Congreve, succeeded his father as Superintendent of the Military Machines at Woolwich, and managed to have the collection installed in the Rotunda (viewable by appointment), a strikingly original building by John Nash (1820). Modelled around the huge tent designed for the meeting of the allied sovereigns at Carlton House Gardens in 1814, and built to celebrate Wellington’s victory at Waterloo the next year, the Rotunda remained the museum’s home until early 2001, when the museum moved into the buildings of the Royal Ordnance Factory at the Royal Arsenal. The Royal Artillery Regiment was founded here in 1741.

The approach to the museum passes an impressive variety of 18th-century buildings, including the Royal Brass Foundry (1717) and Verbruggen’s House (1772). The latter was purpose-built by The Ordnance Board for Jan Verbruggen, Master Founder, his two daughters and son Peter. During the Second World War it housed the Ordnance Committee and also the Ordnance Board. Dial Square, with its imposing archway designed by Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor c. 1717–20, one of the earliest of their collaborations to survive, was also the birthplace of Arsenal Football Club, which started life in 1886 as the Dial Square Football Club, a team composed of workers in the gun machining factory. The modern Firepower! museum is housed further down No. 1 Street, the Royal Arsenal’s processional avenue down to the river, in the former Paper Cartridge Factory: early 19th-century buildings where the majority of workers would have been women.

The Museum

The displays are introduced by a 15-minute presentation called Field of Fire, an audio-visual display in a large, darkened auditorium that gives visitors a loud and vivid impression of gunners and gunnery in action. The History Gallery, on the balcony level overlooking the main hall, describes the development of artillery pieces from the trebuchet through cannons and mortars to the Maxim machine gun. In 1240 gunpowder was rediscovered by the English monk Roger Bacon, possibly while working with texts captured from the Arab world. He concealed his dangerous secret in code—nevertheless, an explosive combination of saltpetre, nitrate, sulphur and charcoal was in use by the end of the same century. Bacon’s exact formula remained undeciphered until the 20th century, when Lt Col. Hime broke the code.

Some of the earliest guns in the collection are displayed here: a pair of Chinese t’ungs, small short-range pellet-firing weapons, one of them dated 1409, and the Bodiam Mortar. This early siege weapon, dating from the 15th or 16th century, was unearthed in the moat of Bodiam Castle, Sussex. The oldest English piece in the collection, it was designed to fire incendiary bombs or showers of small stones. A falconet from the English Civil War, one of the lightest pieces of field artillery in use in the 17th century, is mounted on its original carriage. Nearby, the three-pounder Galloper gun, from 1756, was designed to be pulled by one horse. The story continues with a six-pounder from 1796, typical of those used in the Peninsular War, and replaced by the nine-pounders used at the Battle of Waterloo, up to an early British Maxim machine gun. Made in London in 1895, it is the kind that was sold to the Boer Republic in 1899–1902.

A unique survivor on display here is the Gatling gun, dated 1865, manufactured by Colt. Both weapons make an appropriate introduction to the exhibition on the First World War, recounting the key role played by the Royal Artillery in that terrible war of attrition.

On the ground floor, the Gunnery Hall is home to a formidable collection of retired artillery pieces: a rare World War Two British 18-pounder Mark II, donated by the Jordanian Army, of the type used in France by the British Expeditionary Force in 1940; a Maxim Sokolov machine gun M1910, used by the Russian army against Japan; anti-tank and self-propelled guns; a Thunderbird missile launcher Mark 6, 1960, the first guided anti-aircraft missile system used by the Royal Artillery; and a Rapier anti-aircraft missile system from 1985, used in the Falklands and the Gulf.

Across No. 1 Street, the East Wing Gallery houses a collection of trophy guns, including a superb French 12-pounder presented to Queen Victoria by the Emperor Louis Napoleon. The Cold War Gallery tells the story of the regiment from 1945 to the present day, using an impressive collection of tanks, armoured cars and self-propelled guns.

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Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

FULL LISTING of CURRENT EXHIBITIONS in London from Apollo Magazine »

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