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Victorian Military Campaign Ammunition Chemistry Set with Royal Laboratory stamps for 1882 - Royal Arsenal


A rare and possibly unique Victorian military ammunition chemistry set marked to The Royal Laboratory.

Contained in an extremely well made purpose built leather case with quality Hobbs of London brass lock and original key, the interior is fitted out in pine with circular cut outs for the placement of chemist bottles. The exterior is stamped RL with a broad arrow mark between the letters and with a date stamp to 1882.

The bottles are all devoid of their contents but the labels are stated as:

Ammonium Nitrate

Liquid Potassium Hydroxide

Ung. Resorcin Co.

Acid Hydrobromic Dil.

Tinct. Scillae

Cadmium Sulphide

Through consultation with some of the staff at the sadly now defunct Royal Artillery museum in Woolwich, it was confirmed that this case would have been used by staff from the Royal Laboratory in the field whilst carrying out experiments with ammunition and gunpowder mixes.

The date on the case associates it to the period of the Anglo-Egyptian war, a response from the French and British to a military coup attempt against the Khedive. Strong interest in the Suez canal and its access to the colonies being the main catalyst for British involvement and a war in which the Royal Artillery keenly participated.

The Royal Laboratory formed part of the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich whose history dates back to the Board of Ordnance’s purchase of the Woolwich site called “The Warren” in the late seventeenth century. The Board of Ordnance was eventually comprised of four sectors, The Ordnance Store (a store for ammunition and weapons), The Royal Laboratory (an ammunition laboratory), The Royal Brass Foundry (a gun foundry) and The Carriage Works (manufacturers of gun carriages).

Set up for the experimentation of ammunition, the Laboratory was headed up in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth century by the Congreve family responsible for the Congreve rocket, an early ballistic missile much disliked by the Duke of Wellington during the Peninsula Wars but the forefather of all that followed in term of missile technology. The late nineteenth century was dominated by Sir Frederick Abel famous for his invention of cordite and for being sued by Alfred Nobel for infringement of his patent for a similar “smokeless powder” substance called Ballistite. A case that was only finally resolved in Abel’s favour in 1895.

This piece is a rare survivor of the period when the British Army was transitioning from its “red coat” beginnings into the force that we see today. It is pre-Sudan and General Gordon, pre-Boer war and pre-Kitchener. A significant and somewhat obscure piece of military history that perfectly reflects the period of military experimentation.

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