The Suburban Village Where Rifles, Muskets And Swords Were Manufactured

The Suburban Village Where Rifles, Muskets And Swords Were Manufactured
The River Lea flows right through the village. Photo: Northmetpit

Enfield Island Village. Sounds idyllic, doesn't it? It is indeed an island, plonked between the River Lee Navigation and River Lea to the northeast of Enfield Town. As for village, it's more like a small town itself, home to a Tesco Express, a gym, a library and a nursery. So far, so mundane. However, this slice of suburbia has a colourful history.

The name Enfield Island Village has only existed since around 1997, when the housing estate was built in the area. It's one of those marketing names given to areas that are being redeveloped to make them sound a bit more appealing. The name gives no clue as to the site's former occupation — an arms factory.

The Royal Small Arms Factory opened on the island in 1816, and functioned right through until 1988, manufacturing rifles, muskets and swords. Several notable incidents took place throughout this time, including an explosion which injured three workers in 1895, and the death of a worker due to a grindstone falling through a floor in 1894.

Prior to the Enfield factory a smaller one had been operating in Lewisham, but within two years of the Enfield site opening, production ceased in Lewisham. The demand caused by the Crimean War in the 1850s provided the factory with a boost, and later conflicts including both world wars enabled it to expand further.

The Lee Enfield rifle, which was issued to British and Commonwealth armed forces in the early twentieth century, was made here originally.

This building, still standing today, was part of the original factory. Photo: Christine Matthews

Former nearby pubs, including the Gun & Magpie, and The Rifles (the latter originally known as the Royal Small Arms Tavern, and converted to housing after a fire in 2004) are a nod to the area's history.

Interestingly, just across the River Lea from the village is Gunpowder Park and just a hop across the M25 into Hertfordshire is Royal Gunpowder Mills (now a tourist attraction). So why is this corner of north London so obsessed with weaponry?

In short, the answer is the river. Royal Gunpowder Mills was set up in Waltham Abbey on the site of a former mill, which in turn was set up by the monks of the eponymous abbey. They chose the site because the Millhead Stream, a tributary of the River Lea, provided the water power needed to make the mill function. It was converted to gunpowder production in the 1660s.

Parts of Royal Gunpowder Mills are now open to the public.

Similarly, the Enfield Island Village site was chosen due to the river. Not only did it provide energy for a water mill in the factory's early days (replaced by steam power in the 1860s), but completed weapons were transported by barge to the Thames, 15 miles away, where they were loaded into ships and transported around the world, their destination dependent on where conflicts were being fought at the time.

Other than the river, there seems to be no reason why the Gunpowder Mills and Arms Factory wound up within a couple of kilometres of each other.

Gunpowder Park is so named because munitions used to be tested here. Whether this was part of the arms factory or the Gunpowder Mills is unclear. Either way, this sounds like it was once a dangerous part of Enfield to be in.

Last Updated 13 October 2017