The Worst Ammunition-Handling Technique in the World

I’ve been reading Jonathan Coad’s Support for the Fleet: Architecture and engineering of the Royal Navy’s Bases 1700–1914. The book is a really excellent history of the design and construction of the buildings of the navy’s bases, but what really caught my attention was must qualify as the worst ammunition-handling technique in the history of gunpowder.

Beginning in 1667, the Royal Navy stored gunpowder in the former coast defense fort at Upnor Castle near Chatham dockyard. The gunpowder magazine was up in the fort but the shifting rooms (for inspecting powder) and docks were 30 feet below it. Until 1750, barrels were moved from the docks to the magazine by being pulled up on a pulley, for which the counterweight was a man who rode the rope down as the barrel went up. As a 1750 report from the Surveyor-General explained, this was not a very good idea – especially for the man on the rope:

for if he is too light the barrel would not ascend, and if he is too heavy he is sure to bruise himself against the pavement.

The magazine at Upnor stayed in service until 1983, although it expanded out of the Castle into new magazines in 1808, 1856, and 1862, and then onto new sites nearby at Chattenden and Lodge Hill. But, thankfully for the workers involved, the installation of a windlass in the 1750s meant everyone involved was able to stay safely on the ground.


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