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Royal Small Arms Factory (and Anderson Building), Enfield
Enfield Island Village, Enfield Lock, Greater London, UK
Royal Small Arms Factory (and Anderson Building), Enfield
associated engineer
John By
John Rennie snr
Sir John Anderson
date  1811 - May 1816, 1854 - 1858
UK era  Georgian  |  category  Factory/Industrial Plant  |  reference  TQ371985
ICE reference number  HEW 2242
photo  Jane Joyce
The Royal Small Arms Factory was built on 12 hectares of marshland on part of an island between the River Lee (or Lea) and the River Lee Navigation at Enfield Lock to the north of London. It is famous for producing the Lee-Enfield rifle. Since its closure, the factory buildings have been redeveloped for residential, community and retail uses.
During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) with France, Britain needed large quantities of reliable weapons. Consequently, in 1804, the Board of Ordnance issued warrants for small arms (such as revolvers, pistols, rifles, carbines, muskets, bayonets and swords) to be made at the Tower of London (TQ336805) and at a new factory to be constructed on the River Lea, under the direction of Captain John By (1783-1836) of the Royal Engineers.
Nothing happened until August 1811, when By sought design advice from Scottish engineer John Rennie (senior, 1761-1821). Rennie gauged the river, estimated the water power available to run the hydraulic machinery and suggested the layout of the works, including the construction of a mill leat (watercourse) on the west side of the island adjacent to the navigation channel. Captain By had envisaged three water mills but only one, with two waterwheels, was built.
The land was acquired in 1812, work began in 1815 and the factory opened in May 1816, making smooth-bore barrels for muskets and assembling weapons. The original two-storey building is of brown brick, 26 bays long and topped by a series of hipped Welsh slate roofs. A timber-framed carpentry shop was added to the north end and a rectangular millpond, connected to the leat, to the east.
The advantages of the Enfield site — with ready access to water for power and transport — led to barrel manufacture being transferred from the Lewisham works (established 1804). In 1818, lock and finishing operations also moved to Enfield and the Lewisham factory closed. Sword manufacturing began in 1823 but, by 1831, Enfield too was on the brink of closure.
However, the factory survived, producing small arms on a comparatively modest scale until the Crimean War (1853-56) began. The conflict highlighted the varying quality of handmade firearms assembled using parts sourced from different locations, and increased the demand for reliable arms and ammunition.
As a result, in 1854, armaments engineer John Anderson (1814-86, later Sir John Anderson), visited America to understand their small arms manufacturing methods. He used this knowledge to design a new mechanised workshop at the Enfield factory, as part of Britain’s effort to centralise mass production. At the time, Anderson was Engineer at the Royal Brass Foundry, Woolwich Arsenal. He later rose to Chief Mechanical Engineer for the Arsenal as a whole.
The building that bears Anderson's name (pictured) was completed in 1858 for the Board of Ordnance, north east of the original buildings along the leat. It is a one-storey structure of yellow brickwork with redbrick detailing, 23 bays long and three bays wide, with a long hipped Welsh slate roof surrounded by cornicing.
A three-storey clock tower and belfry occupies the centre of the south elevation. Its clock was made by Thwaites & Reed c.1783 and installed here c.1857. The clock’s bell "Albert", which strikes hourly (though now muffled at night), is about 1m in diameter and 900mm high and was cast in October 1856 at the Royal Brass Foundry (TQ437790). The clock was rebuilt in 1808, but its whereabouts before arriving at Enfield remain a mystery.
Two ancillary buildings with saw-tooth roofs and north-facing skylights are located to the north. One of four gables adjoins the north east end of the machine shop and another with nine gables is an isolated structure — both are of yellow brick. Wrought iron trusses over cast iron columns at 6.1m centres support the roofs of their open interiors. The hollow columns conceal drainage downpipes.
The workers and their families were well looked after. New houses, a library and a church (demolished c.1928) were built for them on the island because the nearest town at that time was some 2km distant.
The factory’s machine shop was equipped with steam-powered tooling from Springfield in New England, USA, that allowed the assembly of complete weapons — literally ‘lock, stock and barrel’. Its machinery was set up and run by American gunsmith James Henry Burton (1823-94), superintendent of the factory in 1855-60. In 1856, the workforce numbered 1,000 people.
The American Civil War (1861-5) gave the factory plenty of work supplying large numbers of rifles to both Confederate and Union armies. In 1866, the number of steam engines increased to 16 and the site was almost completely powered by steam, though the grindery was still driven by a waterwheel until c.1887.
From about the 1870s, the factory produced hand guns with helical grooves inside the barrels, known as rifles. The grooves impart spin to the missile, improving accuracy and allowing aerodynamic pointed bullets to be used instead of the round shot and gunpowder needed for firing muskets. Successive rifles manufactured here included the Martini-Henry, Martini-Enfield, Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield models.
Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield rifles were designed by armaments engineer James Paris Lee (1831-1904), who was born in Scotland but emigrated to Canada aged five and died in the USA. The British Army adopted the bolt-action repeating Lee-Enfield rifle in 1895, and still uses updated models of it today. Its first combat use was probably during the second Boer War (1899-1902).
In the 1880s, the factory was described as probably "the most perfect of any gun-making establishment whether private or Government, at home or abroad". The number of employees in 1887 had increased to 2,400.
In 1889, William Anderson (1834-98, president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers 1892-93) — no relation to John Anderson — was appointed Director General of Ordnance Factories, a post that gave him responsibility for arms factories at Enfield, Woolwich Arsenal, Birmingham and Waltham Abbey.
The success of the works meant that by the 1890s, more than 160,000 rifles, including bayonets, swords, scabbards, magazines and other accessories, were being produced each year. From 1889, all blades were forged by machine rather than by hand. British Army and Royal Navy machine guns were also repaired here.
The factory was lit partly by gas (made on site) and partly by electricity. As well as illuminations, the gas was used on the brazing tables and to harden and temper steel components. The buildings were heated by steam, which also powered the machinery and dynamos with 16 engines of 783kW fed by 19 Lancashire boilers working at 207-552kPa pressure. The in situ electricity generating engines supplied 1,400 Edison-Swan incandescent lamps.
Production increased further during World War I (1914-18). In 1916, a new model of Lee-Enfield (the Mark III*) was introduced and some 418,000 of them were made. By the end of 1918, more than 1.6 million had been produced.
During World War II (1939-45), the factory was supplying Bren light machine guns (designed 1935), Sten submachine guns (1941), pistols, barrels and parts for the Mark III*. Many older firearms were also dismantled, refitted and brought back into service.
The Korean War (1950-3) prompted a burst of large-scale weapons manufacturing. Production gradually dwindled thereafter and, in 1963, part of the site closed and the millpond was infilled.
In 1984, Royal Small Arms Factories at Enfield and elsewhere were privatised, becoming part of Royal Ordnance plc. Three years later, British Aerospace bought Royal Ordnance and closure of the Enfield site was announced shortly afterwards. In 1988, arms production ceased and the factory’s work was transferred to other sites, including Nottingham. On 2nd February 1989, Enfield’s buildings were Grade II listed.
In 1996, following a feasibility study, a consortium of local businesses tackled the transformation of the factory into the focal point of Enfield Island Village. Funding came from the European Regional Development Fund and commercial investors.
Redevelopment commenced in 1998 and was completed for the official opening in 2001. Works included full restoration of the clock by Thwaites & Reed (its original makers), refurbishment of the factory buildings for residential, community, amenity and commercial uses. The machine shop became the Island Centre and museum, managed by Royal Small Arms Island Village Ltd and the Royal Small Arms Trust.
In 2006, some of the housing in former factory structures was destroyed by fire but was rebuilt and re-opened to residents in 2007.
The following video was made by the RSA Trust ...
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Rolling machines (1816, 1858): Greenwood & Batley, Leeds
Contractor (1998-2001): Mansell Cnstruction Services
Research: ECPK
The Engineer, series of articles on Royal Small Arms Factory Enfield, London, March-June 1859
"The Manufacture of Small Arms" by John Rigby, in Minutes of ICE Proceedings, London, pp.129-161, January 1893
reference sources   CEH LondBDCE1

Royal Small Arms Factory (and Anderson Building), Enfield