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The Laboratory and Examining Room at the Newington Armory

The Laboratory

Building 140 at the Newington Armory is one of the original buildings constructed in 1897-1898. With the Powder Magazine (Building 20), Examining Room (Building 142) and Dry Gun Cotton Store (demolished c. 1920s), it formed a group of buildings devoted to the storage and maintenance of the ammunition.

1897 Laboratory at Newington Armory

The 1897 Laboratory at Newington

In the instructions of the period, a laboratory is described as:

"the block of buildings (with the passages and ways leading thereto) in which the examination of all ammunition will take place, cartridges made up, and shells filled. In most works suitable buildings for the purpose have been erected, consisting of a lobby with barrier at the entrance, and filling room for shell or cartridges, with hatches or openings for the admission and delivery of powder or filled cartridges and shells. Where no laboratory exists a tent will be used." (Regulations to be Observed in Making Up Cartridges, Filling Shells, and Examining Ammunition in Laboratories in Artillery Charge Issued with Army Circulars dated June 1873).

The Newington Laboratory measures 35 feet 6 inches by 16 feet (10.8 metres by 4.9 metres). In 1984 the National Trust described it as:

" A face brick (English bond) building ...with a gabled slate roof, sandstone capped gable ends, round-headed windows and cream brick lintels and round vents in the gables. Interior has a board ceiling with roses. Note also the receiving and issuing hatches for gunpowder ... There is a disused well outside. The floor of the building is at the same level as the ground outside, but with a step up at the door - purpose of this is uncertain.¹ "

The Plan shown below is not of the Newington Laboratory, but one of a number of similar laboratories designed for military use in Australia between 1897 and 1918 (in this case, at Mount Nelson Battery, Hobart. Another was designed for Enoggera in Queensland).

Typical Laboratory c. 1880

Typical Laboratory as Built for Australian Military Use c. 1897 - 1918

Note the 3-compartment floor plan, the presence of issuing and receiving hatches, and the division into "clean" and "unclean" areas, separated by a physical barrier. These features are also present in the Newington Laboratory, and are typical of British Army practice in the 19th century and even earlier. It is known that field laboratories, essentially a 3-compartment tent, were in use prior to 1800. A modern tentmaker advertises a British Artillery Tent:

"This tent comes directly from a drawing in Grose's "Military Antiquities" of 1803. It is captioned as a British Artillery Laboratory Tent and is shown with a simple trim at the eaves and a very tall ridge line. It has been explained that these tents were used for the making of gunpowder with the interior divided into three sections. Apparently they could also house a gun gin if the need arose in inclement weather."

How the Laboratory was Worked

Typically at this period in British Army laboratories the ideal working party consisted of 18 men when working at full capacity. Two of these were engaged in issuing gunpowder from the Powder Magazine and receiving the filled shell or cartridges. Four men were employed in conveying the powder barrels and cases between the Magazine and the Laboratory. Two men were stationed at the issuing and receiving hatches to pass materials into and out of the Laboratory, and to ensure that these were clean and free from grit before being passed in. Eight men worked within the Laboratory, unheading the gunpowder barrels, weighing out the charges and making up cartridges or filling shell.

The men working in the Laboratory were required to exchange their clothing and boots for laboratory clothing and slippers in the "unclean" area, and to reverse the process when leaving. Floors were covered with wadmiltilts when in use. (A wadmiltilt is a strong woollen cloth covering used to shield gunpowder barrels during transport, or the floor of a laboratory whilst handling loose gunpowder. Designed to prevent ignition from sand, grit or spark. Leather hides or hair cloths were used as an alternative.)

Making up of cartridges, and filling of shell, were never carried out simultaneously. Not more than two barrels of gunpowder could be in the Laboratory, or in transit, at any time.

Here is a description from the 1890s of how to make up propellant cartridges:

"Care will be taken to see that the cartridge-bags are properly dry before being filled, and the proper charge will be carefully weighed out and inserted in the bag by means of the "funnel, copper, cartridge". They will then be choked by drawing together the mouth of the cartridge into several pleats with a brass needle, threaded with three strands of worsted for serge cartridges, or with silk twist for silk-cloth cartridges; the silk twist being doubled for 9-inch cartridges and upwards. After drawing together the mouth of the cartridge, three turns will be taken round the pleats, and the choke thus formed will be further secured by passing the needle five times through it alternately above and below the turns, thereby stitching down the turns round the choke at four points equidistant from each other."(Source: Manual for Victorian Naval Forces, 1890)

And, from the same source, the procedure for filling Common shell:

"The shell is to be placed upon its point, which maybe inserted in a block of wood hollowed for the purpose, or in any convenient place to steady it. No special pattern of block is necessary; it can be provided on the spot, and the recess cut by any carpenter.

To remove the plug, the shell is to be held firmly by one man while another applies the removing wrench to the plug, and unscrews it. Place the filling-rod in the bag, and fold the latter round the rod; insert it through the plug-hole; taking care not to force the end of the rod through the bottom of the bag; carefully push in the bag until the neck only is in the plug-hole, a portion being kept outside, as the whole bag must not be allowed to slip into the shell during the operation of filling; then withdraw the rod, and insert the funnel in the neck of the bag, pressing the funnel well down into the plug-hole; pass the filling-rod down through the funnel, and gradually pour in two or three pounds of powder; take out the funnel and rod, lift up the bag, and jerk it, so as to "set " the powder well down to the bottom, and to open the bag. Then re-insert funnel and rod as before, and continue the filling. The filling-rod should be moved up and down while pouring in the powder to facilitate its passage through the funnel, the powder in the shell being tamped on at the same time. The use of a large mallet against the side of the shell (any piece of wood will answer the same purpose) will materially assist in getting the maximum amount of powder into the shell.

When the shell is quite full, withdraw the funnel and filling-rod and tie the neck of the bag with two half-hitches of twine close to the top of the plug-hole. Cut off the superfluous choke, and push the neck of the bag well down, and to one side of the plug-hole: then screw in the plug as required.

No preparation of the bag by pricking or otherwise is necessary."

The Newington Laboratory was constructed at a transitional period when gunpowder was being replaced by cordite as a propellant, and by cast fillings such as Lyddite (picric acid) for shells. Use of gunpowder was therefore declining, as the Army became more reliant on ammunition supplied in a ready-assembled form from filling factories overseas.

Laboratory Equipment

A laboratory was equipped with work benches, including a weighing bench at which gunpowder was measured out using a set of weighing scales. A mallet was also required for heading and unheading (closing and opening) the gunpowder barrels, and there was likely a dustpan and broom for cleaning up spilt gunpowder. The remaining tools would be specific to the job being undertaken. A list from 1878, of tools used for shell filling includes:

The Examining Room

The Examining Room, Building 142, is also one of the original group of buildings devoted to the storage and maintenance of the ammunition. Examining Rooms were originally for unheading (opening) barrels of powder, examining the contents, and re-packing where necessary. Prior to 1875, they were officially known in British practice as Shifting Rooms - after 1875 the latter term was applied to a staff facility for changing clothing, washing, depositing personal belongings etc.

Examining Room at Newington

The 1897 Examining Room at Newington

In design, Examining Rooms were mini-laboratories, suitable for dealing with a single barrel of gunpowder, with "clean" and "unclean" areas as in the larger Laboratory. The Newington example was equipped with issuing and receiving hatches (the latter obscured in the photograph by the doorway installed later). The Room is also located close to the 1897 Cooperage (Building 143), where gunpowder barrels were repaired. As use of gunpowder declined, the building probably became a general purpose facility for inspecting ammunition packages on receipt into the depot. Under later Navy operation it was a general purpose laboratory room.

Further Information

More information is available about the Military Magazine at Newington, and later laboratory operations:

The Military Magazine at Newington

Ammunition Repair and Maintenance

Notes:

1. The step up at the door is most likely intended to reduce the amount of dirt and grit entering the laboratory by being blown along the ground.

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Robert Curran
borclaud @ tpg.com.au