A trip to Woolwich Arsenal: In Search of Numbers

In order to move forwards in this digitisation project, we have quickly realised that we need to gain a firmer knowledge of what we actually have down at Woolwich Arsenal. Numbers are extremely important, not only in order to gain more accurate quotes from suppliers but also to determine how long the full project is likely to last and the volume of material that will be in the process at any one time. As a result, Sean and Charlotte went down to the stores to begin the laborious task of sampling the number of documents in the archival boxes the collection is stored in. However, the combination of the welcoming, knowledgeable curators at the National Maritime Museum and the exciting finds that we made throughout the day made it all worthwhile!

Unfortunately, the archival system of storage is not helping our task because it has been organised by port of survey, whereas the paper based catalogue we have is organised by ship name. It means that the documentation contained inside each box is likely to vary in volume depending on which port is being considered and how much they sent to London to be archived. Some, like London (130 boxes +13 plan boxes), Newcastle (105 boxes), Sunderland (105 boxes), Glasgow (54 boxes + 98 plan boxes) and Greenock (61 boxes) have many and make up a large percentage of the collection, whereas many other ports only have 1 or 2 boxes associated with them. As a result, we have decided to sample a few boxes from each major port, as well as few from those that are less represented in the archive to gain a better idea of potential numbers. There is one notable exception to the rule, which is the iron ships. These were often separated from the rest of the collection as they were considered experimental at the time. To add to the variety, we also found that some of the London documents have been conserved, whereas many of the other ports have not.

These differences within the archive all need to be taken into consideration in the project plan to ensure that the process goes smoothly. What follows are some of our finds from the day.


Looks like a typical survey report?


Take a closer look at the date - 1836!

We began with looking at some of the London reports, which tended to number between 500-550 separate documents in each box! With the back of each document included, this means more like 1000 images per box … and there are 130 London boxes, making about 130,000 shots for just the London boxes!


However, the London boxes are a large part of the entire collection (about 15%) and the boxes from other ports are unlikely to be quite so full (we hope!). Part of the reason for this overcrowding is because some of the London boxes were conserved during the 1970s, which means they were cleaned, flattened and any envelopes etc were removed. This is not the case in the majority of other boxes, which have less room for the documents themselves.

It seems like we need to go back down to the Brass Foundry quite a few more times until we have a better picture of the collection! However, even having only been down there for a day, Sean and I found some truly incredible things. We saw early reports from 1836 and the plans that were hand drawn by surveyors are simply mesmerising. The complexity, accuracy and simple artistic value of each is stunning.



A fantastically complicated boiler plan. Boilers had a habit of blowing up during their lifetime so the archive is full of these schematics! Can you even imagine drawing that, let alone understanding it?

In total, we counted almost 6000 separate documents in one day! The dirtiness of the collection is highlighted by the state of Sean’s hands when we finished- he looks like he’s been playing football in the mud!


One thing’s for sure, we can’t wait to go down there again! As always get in touch if you have questions, comments or similar experiences to share!