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The Board of Ordnance was a British government body; established in Tudor times, it had its headquarters in the Tower of London. Its primary responsibilities were 'to act as custodian of the lands, depots and forts required for the defence of the realm and its overseas possessions, and as the supplier of munitions and equipment to both the Army and the Navy'. The Board also maintained and directed the Artillery and Engineer corps, which it founded in the eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century, the Board of Ordnance was second in size only to HM Treasury among government departments. The Board lasted until 1855, at which point (tarnished by poor performance in supplying the Army in Crimea) it was disbanded.
- 1 Origins of the Board
- 2 Activities
- 2.1 Storage and supply: the Ordnance Yards
- 2.2 Manufacture: the Ordnance Factories
- 2.3 Forts and fortifications
- 2.4 Personnel: the Ordnance Corps
- 2.5 Other activities
- 3 Demise and Aftermath
- 4 Notable staff
- 5 See also
- 6 References
Origins of the Board
The introduction of gunpowder to Europe led to innovations in offensive weapons such as cannon and defences such as fortifications. In the 1370s, to manage the new technology, the royal household appointed a courtier to administer weapons, arsenals and castles. The office and main arsenal were located in the White Tower of the Tower of London. The earliest known Master of Ordnance was Nicholas Merbury, appointed about 1415-1420 by Henry V of England. Merbury was present at the Battle of Agincourt. In 1544 the Office of Ordnance was created by Henry VIII of England, its principal duties being to supply guns, ammunition, stores and equipment to the King's Navy. In 1671, the Board of Ordnance was established, successor to both the aforementioned Office and to a department called the Office of Armoury (a parallel body, which had originally been responsible for provision of armour; latterly there had been substantial overlap between the two offices).
The Board of Ordnance consisted of six principal officers. Two overseers:
And four heads of department:
- Surveyor-General of the Ordnance (in charge of quality)
- Clerk of the Ordnance (in charge of purchasing)
- Storekeeper of the Ordnance (in charge of storage)
- Clerk of the Deliveries of the Ordnance (in charge of issuing)
The two senior officers wore uniforms as for a general and lieutenant-general respectively, but of blue cloth with scarlet facings (rather than scarlet with blue).
From the seventeenth century through till 1828 the Master-General routinely had a seat in Cabinet, and thus served as de facto principal military adviser to the government. Some of the most illustrious soldiers of their generation served as Master-General: Marlborough, Cadogan, Cornwallis, Hastings, Wellington, Hardinge.
The Treasurer of the Ordnance was also an important officer of the department, although he did not sit on the board. (This office was consolidated with several others in 1836 to form that of Paymaster-General.)
A number of other inferior officers reported to the board, such as clerks, storekeepers, engineers, and master gunners.
Coat of Arms
The Arms of the Board of Ordnance first appeared in the seventeenth century, and were given royal approval in 1806, confirmed by a grant from the College of Arms in 1823. The blazon is as follows:
- Arms: Azure - 3 Field Pieces in pale, or; on a chief, argent, 3 cannonballs, proper.
- Crest: Out of a mural crown, argent, a dexter cubit arm, the hand grasping a thunderbolt, winged and inflamed, proper.
- Supporters: On either side a Cyclops, in the exterior hand of the dexter a Hammer, and in that of the sinister a pair of Forceps, restong on the shoulder of each respectively, all proper.
- Motto: sua tela tonanti. ['To the thunderer his weapons'; also more loosely translated as 'To the warrior his arms'].
Storage and supply: the Ordnance Yards
Headquarters: the Tower of London
In the medieval period, storage and supply of weapons and armaments was the responsibility of the King's Wardrobe. Royal palaces (including the Tower of London and Greenwich Palace) were therefore used for storage of armour, weapons and (in time) gunpowder. When the Office of Ordnance came into being, the Tower of London was already established as the main repository, and it remained the administrative centre of the new Board. Gunpowder was stored in the White Tower (and continued to be kept there until the mid-nineteenth century). Small arms, cannon, ammunition, armour and other equipment were stored elsewhere within the Tower precinct, a succession of Storehouses and Armouries having been built for such purposes since the fourteenth century. The New Armouries of 1664 served the Board as a small arms store (it can still be seen today in the Inner Ward). The vast Grand Storehouse of 1692 served not just as a store, but also as a museum of ordnance, precursor to today's Royal Armouries. (It was destroyed (along with its contents, some 60,000 objects) in a fire in 1841).
Distribution points: the Royal Dockyards
Storage facilities were needed in the vicinity of the Royal Dockyards, to enable easy transfer of guns, ammunition, powder, etc. on board ships (for use by the Navy at sea or for delivery to the Army in areas of conflict). They also provided armament storage space for ships 'in ordinary' (i.e. out of commission).
These areas, generally known as Gun Wharves, developed into purpose-built Ordnance Yards in the course of the eighteenth century. Built alongside deep-water quays, they usually comprised an assortment of buildings for storage, administration blocks, workshops (for woodwork, paintwork and metalwork) together with accommodation for officers, usually built around a central Grand Storehouse (primarily used for gun carriages). Exterior courtyards were laid out for the storage of cannonballs. The principal home Yards included:
- HM Gun Wharf, Chatham
- Morice Yard, Devonport (replaced an earlier gun wharf just east of Mount Wise)
- Gunwharf, Portsmouth
- Gun Wharf, Sheerness
- Gun Wharf, Woolwich. (The proofing and storage facility at Woolwich Gun Wharf expanded to the east in the late seventeenth century, eventually becoming the Royal Arsenal: a key Ordnance Board facility.)
Smaller Yards were built in parts of Britain to serve particular strategic purposes at particular times (such as the Yard in Great Yarmouth, built to service the fleet stationed in Yarmouth Roads during the Napoleonic Wars).
During the Napoleonic Wars, concerns were expressed about the vulnerability of the nation's ordnance stores to attack from the sea. One response was the establishment of a Royal Ordnance Depot at Weedon Bec, well away from the coast in Northamptonshire: a sizeable complex of storehouses and gunpowder magazines constructed along a waterway, it was connected to the Grand Union Canal to facilitate access and distribution.
Ordnance Yards were also constructed in colonial ports overseas; like their counterparts in Britain, these were usually built in the vicinity of naval dockyards. Bermuda's, begun in the 1830s, remains largely intact behind the dockyard fortifications; its magazines and storehouses are arranged around a small pool, where boats would arrive by way of a tunnel through the ramparts to be loaded with ammunition.
For storage of Gunpowder, a nearby fortified building was often used initially: the Square Tower at Portsmouth, the Citadel at Plymouth, Upnor Castle at Chatham; later, the Ordnance Board created purpose-built Gunpowder Magazines, often apart from the Yards, and at a safe distance from inhabited areas. There were also smaller magazines, supervised by Ordnance Board staff, at several fortified locations around the British Isles (from Star Castle on the Scilly Isles, to Fort George near Inverness).
At Greenwich, following the establishment of Greenwich Hospital in 1692, the Board came under pressure to remove large quantities of gunpowder which had been stored for centuries on the site of the old palace; eventually, in 1763, this powder store was transferred to a new set of magazines at Purfleet. Named the Royal Gunpowder Magazine, it was used as a central store, to receive and approve gunpowder from the manufacturers prior to distribution around the country. In the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the need for effective storage and maintenance of gunpowder increased. New purpose-built storage facilities were constructed close to the principal Dockyards at Portsmouth (Priddy's Hard) and Devonport (Keyham Point), and at Chatham the Upnor facility was (eventually) expanded. These centres continued to grow, as processes for refining and preserving gunpowder became more complicated and as new explosives began to be used, requiring their own storage and maintenance areas.
In 1850, Devonport's magazine depot was moved from Keyham to a new complex at Bull Point (where it was integrated with a nearby proofing and purifying facility) - this proved to be the last major construction project of the Board before its disestablishment.
Manufacture: the Ordnance Factories
Prior to the eighteenth century the Board had generally relied on private contracts for the provision of armaments: small arms often came from the Birmingham Gun Quarter, gunpowder from Faversham (also, later, from Waltham Abbey), and cannons and shot from foundries such as those in Moorfields. In time, the Board made moves to set up or purchase its own facilities.
The Board's primary manufacturing site, and a key location for several of its activities, was the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. Guns had been stored and proved there from the mid-seventeenth century. It later expanded into a large-scale production facility, specializing in:
- manufacture of shells, projectiles and propellants (Royal Laboratory, established at Woolwich in 1695, previously based at Greenwich)
- manufacture of cannons, mortars and other artillery pieces (Royal Brass Foundry (aka Gun Factory), founded 1717)
- manufacture of gun carriages and other ancillary items (1750s onwards; given identity as the Royal Carriage Works in 1803).
Gunpowder manufacture was mostly kept separate of other operations (though some took place at Woolwich in the early years, inherited from the Wardrobe's earlier activities at Greenwich Palace). Beginning in the eighteenth century, the Board began to purchase mills that had been established under private ownership:
- Faversham became the Royal Powder Mill in 1759
- Waltham Abbey became the Royal Gunpowder Factory in 1787
- In Ireland, the Ballincollig Royal Gunpowder Mills were purchashed in 1805, having been set up as a private enterprise ten years earlier.
Ordnance Board activity at Ballincollig ceased in 1815; both it and Faversham were returned to private ownership in the 1820s-30s, but Waltham Abbey remained in Government hands until 1991.
Small Arms manufacture
Small arms manufacture was begun by the Board on Tower Wharf in 1804, before being moved to Lewisham (Royal Manufactory of Small Arms, 1807) and then transferring ten years later to Enfield (Royal Small Arms Factory, opened 1816). RSAF Enfield continued manufacturing until its closure in 1988.
Forts and fortifications
From the mid-17th century the Board of Ordnance began to be involved in the design, building and upkeep of forts, fortifications and various garrison buildings. Around the year 1635, a Francis Coningsby was appointed 'Commissary-General of all His Majesty's Castles in England and Wales'. From 1660 the title was Engineer-in-Chief. The Chief Engineer had responsibility for drawing up designs, supervising site surveys and building works, and visiting established defence sites to evaluate their state of repair, readiness etc. An illustrious holder of this post was Sir Bernard de Gomme. In 1802 the post of Inspector General of Fortifications was established, and this official took over supervision of these works.
The Board also had responsibility for the building and upkeep of barracks and associated structures (except during a 30 year period, 1792-1822, when responsibility was transferred to the War Office).
Personnel: the Ordnance Corps
A number of different Corps were established by the Board of Ordnance to carry out its work both in its home establishments and on the field of battle; they had (and to some extent retain) a very distinctive identity and ethos. Principal among these were the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers. These Corps were under the authority of the Board of Ordnance, rather than the War Office (until the Board's demise in 1855). They were not part of the Army, and their officers' commissions were issued by the Master-General of the Ordnance rather than by the Commander-in-Chief of the Forces. The Ordnance Medical Department was established to provide surgeons for these corps.
In 1716 the Duke of Marlborough, in his capacity as Master General of the Ordnance, oversaw the formation (by Royal Warrant) of two permanent companies of field artillery, based (together with their guns) at the Warren (Royal Arsenal), Woolwich. Prior to this, artillery pieces had been conveyed to the front line in any conflict by ad hoc artillery trains (their personnel convened for a limited duration by Royal Warrant). The men of the new artillery companies (which became the Royal Regiment of Artillery from 1722) now provided troops for this purpose; before long, they were also providing guns and heavy artillery for forts and garrisons around the country and indeed across the Empire. In addition, the Artillerymen did on-site work at the Arsenal and at other Ordnance Board facilities, from preparing fuses and proving weapons to providing a guard. 1793 saw the formation of the Royal Horse Artillery (who were likewise under the authority of the Board of Ordnance) to provide artillery support to the Cavalry.
From the start, the Board (and its predecessor the Office) of Ordnance had had a department of military engineers and surveyors to build and improve harbours, forts and other fortifications. In 1717 a Corps of Engineers was founded by the Board of Ordnance, again at their Woolwich base. Initially an officer-only corps, the Engineers (called Royal Engineers from 1787) were engaged in the design, construction and ongoing maintenance of defences, fortifications and other military installations. They were also engaged for large-scale civilian projects from time to time. A civilian corps of 'artificers' provided the non-commissioned workforce of carpenters, stonemasons, bricklayers and other labourers; this corps was militarized in 1787, and named the Royal Military Artificers (they were then renamed the Royal Sappers and Miners 25 years later). The year after the demise of the Ordnance Board, the Sappers and Miners were fully amalgamated into the Royal Engineers, and at the same time the Corps moved from Woolwich to its present headquarters in Chatham.
Supply, storage and provision of small arms, ammunition and other armaments to front-line troops was also within the remit of the Board of Ordnance. A Field Train department was established in 1792 to oversee this work; after the Board's demise, its responsibilities were eventually consolidated into what became the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. It remained headquartered at the Tower of London, even after the Board's departure, preserving the (by then) centuries-old link between the Tower and ordnance storage & supply - a link which was only broken when the Corps' successor (the Royal Logistic Corps) left the Tower for good in 1993.
Education and training: The Royal Military Academy
The Board of Ordnance placed a high value on providing its future officers with a scientific and military education. In the eighteenth century there was no requirement for would-be Army officers to receive any formal military education; but the Board, in contrast, moved fast (after the establishment of its artillery and engineer corps) to provide for the education of its officers. In 1720 there were moves to set up an 'academy' within the Warren at Woolwich where the corps were based; and on 30 April 1741 the Academy was formally established there by Royal Warrant. The fact that the Warren itself was a place of scientific experiment and innovation no doubt helped form the style of education that emerged. Initially, it was a gathering of 'gentlemen cadets', brought together to learn 'gunnery, fortification, mathematics and a little French'. By 1764, the institution had been renamed the Royal Military Academy, and in the words of the Survey of London, 'it became a uniquely enlightened establishment in which training comprehended writing, arithmetic, algebra, Latin, French, mathematics, fortification, together with the attack and defence of fortified places, gunnery, mining and laboratory-works [...] along with the gentlemanly skills of dancing and fencing’. In time, the Academy outgrew its original home in the Arsenal, and in 1806 it moved into new headquarters on Woolwich Common. In 1946 it amalgamated with the Royal Military College to form the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
Mapmaking: the Ordnance Survey
As part of its duty of maintaining and building harbours and fortifications, a department of the Board was in place to undertake surveys and to produce maps. This department developed into the Ordnance Survey, which remains in place today as Britain's national mapping agency. The principal offices and drawing room of the Survey were in the Tower of London; this not only accommodated surveyors and draughtsmen, but also functioned as a place where cadets (some as young as eleven or twelve) were trained in mathematics and draughtsmanship by leading practitioners. In 1841 a fire prompted the Survey to move to new premises in Southampton; following the demise of the Board, it became part of the War Department.
The Royal Observatory, Greenwich
In 1675, the post of Astronomer Royal was established by Royal Warrant. The Board of Ordnance was warranted to pay the Astronomer's salary, and also to construct a Royal Observatory in Greenwich. This has been called the first instance of government funding for science; money was to be provided from 'the sale of old or decayed gunpowder'. The Board of Ordnance continued to provide annual funding for the Observatory until 1818, when the Admiralty took over this responsibility. Despite providing funds, the Board was not in any way involved in the operational side of the Observatory, which was managed independently by the Astronomer Royal under the governance of a Board of Visitors.
Demise and Aftermath
In 1830, the principal officers were reduced to four by the abolition of the posts of Lieutenant-General and Clerk of the Deliveries. Arguably, this exacerbated the problems that led to the Board's demise.
Issues of performance in the Crimean War, especially disastrous lack of due provision for operations during the Russian winter of 1854:p 53 brought about the Board's demise in 1855: [See also the reference to Lord Raglan below.]
As a result of enquiries made into the breakdown of transport and hospital arrangements during the first winter of the war, the Board of Ordnance, which had been in existence for four hundred years, was abolished. With the Board's closure, the Artillery together with the Royal Engineers came directly under the Commander-in-Chief and the War Office like the rest of the Army.:p 55
The former board was incorporated into the War Office by an 1855 Act of Parliament (18 & 19 Vict. c. 117) as the Department of the Master-General of the Ordnance, which took over most of its activities. Its storage, research and manufacturing sites were for the most part allotted either to the Admiralty or to the War Office (several remained active through to the latter half of the twentieth century, as Royal Ordnance Factories, Royal Naval Armaments Depots, etc.).
Almost fifty years later, following unease after the Second Boer War that the British Army had been ill-equipped, a new office called the Ordnance Board was created. It consists of a board of munitions experts, whose purpose was to advise the Army Council on the safety and approval of weapons. The Ordnance Board, and its name, survived within the Ministry of Defence until the mid-1990s when it was renamed the Defence Ordnance Safety Group. Long before then, the Ordnance Board had extended its scope to encompass more than just the safety and approval of the Army’s ordnance.
The old Board's coat of arms is remembered in the capbadge of the Royal Logistic Corps, which has the shield at its centre (it was previously used, along with the Board's motto, by the Royal Army Ordnance Corps). The shield is also used by the modern-day Master-General of the Ordnance; and the crest appears on the ensign of the Royal Engineers.
- One of its 18th century map-makers was noted water-colour artist Paul Sandby.
- Lord Raglan, the British commander-in-chief during the Crimean War, was also the last Master-General of the Board of Ordnance. It is very likely that his incompetence in the field of battle was more to blame than the Board of Ordnance for the 1854-55 supply failures. Ironically, he himself died of dysentery in the Crimea on 29 June 1855 at a time when his forces were afflicted with cholera and reeling from a disastrous series of military failures.:p 302
(In 1855) . . . a loud outcry against Lord Raglan had begun in the press. He was charged with neglecting to see to the actual state of his troops, and to the necessary measures for their relief. Their condition was becoming more and more pitiable; their numbers dwindling rapidly from death and disease. The road between Balaclava and the camp had become a muddy quagmire, the few remaining horses of our cavalry were rapidly disappearing, every day the difficulty of getting up food and other necessaries from Balaclava was becoming more serious, and still no provision was being made for supplying an effective means of transport.:p 181
- List of Masters-General from 1415
- The Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers, both of which were Board of Ordnance initiatives
- The Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, set up by the Board to train and educate its officers
- Royal Ordnance Factories
- Ordnance Survey
- Ordnance yards and other facilities, including Gunpowder magazines
- Tower of London, headquarters of the Board
- Woolwich Royal Arsenal (a key Ordnance facility)
- Broad arrow
- Anthony Roll
- History of the Ordnance Survey, quoting older sources
- Skentlebery, Norman (1975). Arrows to atom bombs: a history of the Ordnance Board. London: Ordnance Board.
- Royal Engineers Museum - The Corps, Ordnance and its Train (1370-1713) - Part 2
- Part 01 - Arms of the Board of Ordnance
- Royal Armouries detailed historical overview
- Confirmed 'by command of the Prince Regent', General Orders, July 1811.
- Reproduced copy of the grant of arms
- Tower of London website
- English Heritage survey of Naval Dockyards
-  Listed building descriptions
- English Heritage: Thematic History of Ordnance Yards and Magazine Depots
- Coad, Jonathan (2013). Support for the Fleet: Architecture and engineering of the Royal Navy's bases, 1700-1914. Swindon: English Heritage.
- National Archives: historical summary
- Saunders, Andrew (1989). Fortress Britain. Liphook, Hants.: Beaufort.
- Douet, James (1997). British Barracks 1660-1914.
- National Army Museum regimental history page
- Saint & Guillery, The Survey of London vol. 48: Woolwich, Yale, 2012.
- Seymour (ed.) (1980). A History of the Ordnance Survey. Folkestone, England: Wm Dawson &Sons.
- The Royal Observatory: history
- Royal Armouries: Board of Ordnance
- Graham C A L DSO psc, Brig Gen The Story of the Royal Regiment of Artillery RA Institution, Woolwich 1939
- Abolition of the Board of Ordnance,1855 On website of Royal Engineers Museum
- Martin T The Life of His Royal Highness the Prince Consort Smith Elder & Co, London (1877) Vol III p 180 (Online version transcribed from copy in the University of California)