The Royal Arsenal Canal – The waterway serving the Woolwich military complex

The Royal Arsenal (or Woolwich Arsenal) canal was designed by Lietunant Colonel Pilkington and built between 1812-14, and extended again by 1816. It had a dual purpose – one was to deliver materials into the heart of the Royal Arsenal military complex and the other was to create a defence boundary to the east. It does not seem that it was intended for the repairs of military vessels, as dry docks nearby and at the Chatham naval dockyards were available for this purpose. Colonel Pilkington appears to have used the nearby Isle of Dogs canal as a design for his own canal, and it is quite likely that the military canal is in fact a smaller version of that on the Isle of Dogs.

Vessels that served the military canal

The main traffic venturing onto the canal was from the Royal Gunpowder Mills at Waltham Abbey on the River Lea (NOT the Lee Navigation.) The Gunpowder mIlls supplied the Royal Arsenal with most of its gunpowder requirements and vessels such as the Lady of the Lea were used for the trade. The Royal Arsenal Canal is sometimes known as the Pilkington canal.

Pictures that show the River Lea Powder Barges venturing onto the Royal Arsenal Canal do not seem to exist, but there is no doubt that they did, it was part of their work, and more importantly, for decades it was the safest way which gunpowder could be carried. The replica barges at Tottenham are the next best thing in lieu of any historic pictures, and below we see Renaissance and Judith:


Renaissance (left) and Judith (right) at Tottenham Hale Wharf

Renaissance and Judith, both based at Tottenham Hale Wharf, are replicas of the traditional gunpowder barges that used to work between the Royal Gunpowder Mills and the Royal Arsenal. They were built at Manor Marine, based on the Isle of Portland in Dorset. Details of their construction and interior pictures can be viewed here


Close up of the sterns of the replica River Lee Powder Barges at Tottenham’s Hale wharf

It is quite plausible that military vessels ventured onto the Woolwich Arsenal canal for possibly urgent repairs, although generally the facility that would have been used were the Woolwich Dockyards to the west near the Woolwich free ferry. The Woolwich Dockyard is where HMS Beagle was built prior to being used to transport Charles Darwin on his famous voyages. It may be possible that any military vessels that ventured onto the Royal Arsenal canal did so in order to have experimental or test-bed weaponry fitted. Otherwise it was that any military vessels came to the arsenal to collect firepower & sundries, and transport these down the Thames to the Chatham naval shipyards where the equipment was fitted onto naval ships. As the 19th century drew on the preferred mode of transport for firepower and spares would have most likely been by railway, as we will see next.

The railways that served the Royal Arsenal and its canal

The large railway system that was a feature of the Royal Arsenal was perhaps the better known to the world in terms of Royal Arsenal transport. It consisted of two substantial systems, standard and narrow gauge. The standard gauge railway initially opened in 1873, and it apparently had 400 miles of track at its zenith with 50 locomotives operating. The narrow gauge system (commonly known as the light railway) had about 60 miles of track route at the most. One of the narrow gauge routes crossed the canal’s entrance lock by a swing bridge, and it is clear that the canal was served mainly by the narrow gauge tracks. The swing bridge structure still exists at the time of writing (February 2010) along with the entrance lock. Very little is known of the roling stock and locomoitves of the Royal Arsenal railways, however, one ‘celebrity’ locomotive was called Carnegie. Until recently one could enjoy a ride behind Carnegie, at the Bicton Woodland Railway in Devon. She has now been moved to the Royal Gunpowder Mills.

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Early view of Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal Railway (image from Wikipedia)

History of the Royal Arsenal Canal

There is very little in terms of history of the Woolwich Arsenal canal. For much of its life it didn’t even officially exist. The entire Woolwich complex was never shown on maps for fear of invaders knowing its whereabouts. Even in the sixties, it was still difficult to know anything about the complex, and few photographs have emerged that tell us the obscure history of the complex.

As far as history goes, basically the canal was opened in 1816 and for the next 115 years it remained more or less the same as when built. Its entrance lock had a single pair of gates at the top end, but a double pair at the other. This was for the purpose of allowing boats to lock down into the Thames, or even up into the Thames if the tide was higher than the level in the canal itself. Of course the outer pair of gates also served as a flood defence for the arsenal complex. There was a lock-keepers house on the eastern side of the lock, sited such that the lock-keeper could see vessels aproaching and thus prepare the lock ready for immediate use. No trace of the lock-keepers house remains. The lock had a swing bridge across the top end of its chamber, which carried one of the light rail routes. The bidge was hydraulic operated and had to be opened to permit vessels to pass into the canal itlsef. The canal headed in a southerly direction from the entrance lock then turned almost westwards after about a quarter of a mile (400m.) Two branches split off, known aas the Northern and Southern canals. These ended at about where the western most extremity of the Broadwater estate lies. The total length of the canal system was just over three quarters of a mile (1.25km)

Two north to south secondary canals linked the North and South arms and this mini network of waterways served the timber yards, shell filling department and cartridge establishment. In 1931 the canal was cut back to the junction of the two arms. For some of the canal’s life a draw bridge existed about half way, connecting the Gun Yard and the Rocket establishment. There doesnt seem to be any indication of when the canal finished work, but it could have been at the same time as the arsenal railway closed in 1961.


The Royal Arsenal canal at its fullest extent before its shortening in the early thirties

The above map shows the fullest extent of the canal system at the Royal Arsenal. It doesnt show the extent of the covered ways over the canal arms, the various departments or armoury stores. On the east side of the canal was the rocket establishment where work was undertaken to develop better canon and missiles for military use. The gun yard is obvious as to the nature of its work. The timber yard was based on the westernmost island. That yard was replaced by a new chemical research establishment in 1937 using reclaimed land from the route of the canal. The cartridge establishment was sited on the south banks of the Southern canal, whilst the shell filling department was found on the easternmost island. The islands area is sometimes referred to as Frog Island, perhaps reflecting the area known as Fish Island on the River Lea.

A more detailed map showing the canal within the Royal Arsenal complex in 1877 can be seen at the Royal Arsenal Woolwich wesbite

Besides the closure of the canal and railway, the complex finished most of its work in 1967, although a small part at the western end continuned until 1994. Most of the eastern area is now given over to housing and the canal itself has been retained in a somewhat dubious role. Part of its former western alignment was dug out to provide a lengthy water feature from the Thames to Broadwater Green (Goosander Way.) It was widened somewhat and its sides were recast in concrete, new wooden fendering and mooring rings were provided along the entire length of the waterway. I expect there was some hope that re-use of the canal would occur and used for the mooring of yachts and boats off the Thames.

The present state of the Woolwich Arsenal canal is a typical case of what not to do with a canal that has finished work. It reminds one of that quite ugly development at Paddington. Perhaps it would have been better to have filled the Royal Arsenal Canal rather than leave it in this somewhat dubious state of existence, where it is a totally un-loved waterway. A working waterway would have been much better even if it was only for pleasure boats.


One of the few pictures to come out of the Royal Arsenal! This picture of Carnegie and Royal Arsenal staff can be seen on Flickr. It is said the picture was taken in 1961, however Ian Bull of the Crossness Engines Trust says this shows the locomotive on her delivery to Woolwich in 1954. The site has been identified as being at a location just to the south west of the Morrisons store in Thamesmead.

Readers may be interested to know that the site where many of the Woolwich class narrow boats were built was actually located in North Woolwich, directly opposite the entrance lock to the Arsenal Canal. Harland & Wolff’s yard has long gone, replaced by new blocks of flats in what is now Fishguard Way, off Woolwich Manor Way. It is quite likely that brand new Woolwich Class narrowboats were first stored in the Royal Arsenal canal, before heading up the Thames to the Regents Canal dock at Limehouse.

Next: The Royal Arsenal Railway’s history and the canal

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