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Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield

A government munitions factory was opened in Enfield Lock in 1816. It had initially been created in an attempt to reduce the number of contractors in government employment, but it was after a fire at the Tower of London, in 1841, that the site grew in size and significance. It became home to the Pattern Room and by 1859 the site had been prepared to embrace a system of mass production.

By the end of the nineteenth century the Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) had become one of the most significant ordnance factories in Britain, producing arms for the Crimea and Boer wars. However, the start of the twentieth century saw tensions at the factory as the labour force was reduced, and many felt the RSAF should follow the privately owned Birmingham Small Arms enterprise which had moved into motorcar production. This was to change at the outbreak of the First World War, where the experience and capabilities of the factory put it in an important position in 1914.

During the conflict the RSAF almost doubled its workforce as the rate of production increased. This saw the manufacture of rifles rise from one thousand before the outbreak of war to 10,500 by July 1917, in addition, approximately 2,500 rifles a week were being assembled from components manufactured elsewhere, and between 7,000 and 9,000 rifles were being repaired each week. Enfield made 2.2 million nearly new rifles during the course of the war. Alongside the famous Lee Enfield rifles the factory also produced a number of Calvary swords (though this was quickly abandoned) and Maxim machine guns, as well as repairs to other weapons including the Vickers machine gun.

The work performed at the RSAF was vital to the war effort and consequently labelled a reserved occupation which meant that employment there initially exempt some men from going to war. Unsurprisingly this advantage coupled with a wage that was higher than an army wage meant that jobs at the RSAF were in high demand. Nonetheless, though the RSAF needed to increase its workforce it had to adapt to the war and the need for war-fit men.

From 1914 a policy was quickly established that restricted recruiting men between the ages of 19 and 35. Despite this policy when conscription was introduced in 1916 395 men were ‘de-badged’ following orders to release all unskilled and semi-skilled male workers under 41. Workers were still needed and this saw the first women employed by the RSAF from April 1916. Between August and November of that year the number of women employed in the factory rose from 575 to 983.

The growing workforce saw increased pressure on the factory’s facilities and consequently four of the local pubs were nationalised and converted into canteens for workers, additionally temporary accommodation was provided by the YMCA, who built 60 huts on a six-acre meadow east of the railway station.

The armistice on Monday 11 November 1918 was marked by gun fire and the factory was closed to allow everyone to celebrate.

Discovery of RSAF Documents

After the war production was reduced, but the RSAF continued to be an important employer in the Enfield area throughout the twentieth century; it was closed in 1988. At this time the Pattern Room was moved up to Nottingham and eventually became part of Royal Armouries collection through the National Firearms Centre in Leeds. The site of the RSAF has since been converted in to housing and community space, with a small interpretation centre curated by members of the RSAF Apprentices Association and overseen by the RSA Trust.

It has generally been thought that after the RSAF closed down many of the archives relating to the work of the factory had been lost or destroyed, to the great disappointment of Enfield residents and genealogists as well as military, technology and social historians. However, in summer 2013 the Library and Archives Manager at Royal Armouries discovered a number of files and documents among the Pattern Room archives that had gone unnoticed for years.

These include:

  • Royal Small Arms Factory Annual Reports 1905-1913, 1924-1928
  • Royal Small Arms Factory Annual Accounts 1863-1879
  • Royal Small Arms Factory Balance Sheet 1906-1914
  • Royal Small Arms Factory Staff records of service c1870-c1945 (a number of volumes holding different types of detail and over varying time periods.)
  • Royal Small Arms Factory Staff Memorandum 1904-1945
  • Royal Small Arms Factory Office Memorandum1888-1823
  • Royal Small Arms Factory Local Instructions and Standing Orders 1878-1942
  • Royal Small Arms Factory Sport and Social Committee: Minutes 1905-1908, Accounts 1906-1922, 1941-1951
  • Royal Small Arms Factory Institute and Library c.1900-c.1907
  • Royal Small Arms Factory Provident Society 1886-1892, 1901-1946
  • Royal Small Arms Factory Plans, Conveyances and Leases: various documents across the period 1808-1943
  • Royal Small Arms Factory Miscellaneous Plans and Photographs

As part of a First World War Centenary project, and with support from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, the Royal Armouries is now working to digitise these records to make them accessible to the general public. Find out more here.

Royal Armouries, Tower of London.

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Take a Tour of the RSAF

Using one of the original site plans, tour around the different areas of the factory via historic photographs.

The Assembling Shop
The assembling shop, mechanics put together the various parts of rifles.

A Rifling Machine
A rifle machine, showing the large guiding model besides the cutter which, due to the sliding block (righthand corner), copies the inside of the barrel.

The Boring Machines
The boring machine for the rifle barrels, capable of boring five rifles every 40 minutes with cutters making 1000 resolutions per minute.

Gauges for the body of the service rifle
Gauges for the body of a service rifle: the body requires 68 different gauges; the bolt 29; and the barrel 41.

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