A memorial to 19 men killed in two explosions on the Royal Arsenal more than a century ago has been restored thanks to the fundraising efforts of Greenwich’s ceremonial mayor, Leo Fletcher.
The obelisk was unveiled by one of Fletcher’s predecessors, Lewis Jenkins Jones in 1904. The mayor of Woolwich had promised that “every care and attention should be paid to the memorial”.
Until the First World War locals gathered each year to remember the dead, but the 15-foot obelisk later fell into disrepair. Even relatives of those who died did not know that the memorial existed. The modern-day Greenwich Council, which took over the borough in 1965, did not have it on its list of heritage sites.
After a relative of one of the men wrote to him, Fletcher set about trying to honour Jenkins Jones’s promise. The mayor obtained funding from Berkeley Homes, which is redeveloping the Arsenal, and the council’s parks department.
The restored memorial was unveiled in a ceremony just before Christmas, with Fletcher wearing the old Woolwich chain of office, as Jenkins Jones would have done 118 years ago.
Three men died on the Arsenal in February 1903 when gun cotton – also known as nitrocellulose – exploded. Another 16 died the following June when another substance, Lyddite, exploded.
Workers at the Arsenal raised money for the memorial, after a year described in a local newspaper report as being one of “very great and awful gloom for Woolwich and Plumstead”.
Darren Beck, whose great-great grandfather, George Case, died in the Lyddite explosion told 853: “I grew up in Welling, and would have passed Plumstead Cemetery hundreds of times on the way to the woods as a child and have certainly driven past it many times as an adult without knowing that the memorial was there. As is no doubt true of many of the other families of the men who died.
“I discovered my connection to the monument in lockdown and when I visited it found it in need of restoration.
“Having seen contemporary local newspaper coverage that included a quote from the then mayor of Woolwich accepting responsibility for the monument and promising to look after it, I wrote to the current mayor. Much to my surprise, he made it his mission to see the memorial restored.”
At the ceremony, held on December 21, Fletcher said: “This monument is dedicated to those 19 souls in total who were killed in two separate explosions at the Royal Arsenal.
“The then mayor, Lewis Jenkins Jones, said they would take every care and attention in looking after this monument. As mayor today, 118 years later, and as mayor of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, and wearing the Woolwich chain of office, today, as mayor Jenkins did, I commit to that pledge for the Royal Borough of Greenwich.
“I would like to say a huge thank you to Parks & Open Spaces and Berkeley Homes for raising the funds to restore this monument. And also to Darren, whose great-great grandfather is commemorated here, for bringing the state of the memorial to our attention.”
Beck said he was “very grateful and delighted” to see the memorial renewed.
He said later that the restoration of the memorial “wouldn’t have happened without his drive and determination” of the mayor.
“His Parks and Open Spaces colleagues and the Berkeley Homes representatives were all very positive and enthusiastic about the restoration. It seems to be a genuine example of people doing something because they think it is the right thing to do rather than because there is anything in it for them.
“All credit to them for securing the future of the monument when they could so easily have ignored it and let it decline further.”
The memorial is the only physical reminder of what happened on the Arsenal, which used to occupy a vast area of the riverside between Woolwich and Erith.
The site of the Lyddite disaster is now occupied by a housing development at Miles Close in west Thamesmead.
Help 853 continue reporting on public interest issues in Greenwich and southeast London – we are the only outlet regularly producing original journalism in the borough, and we can only do it with your funding.
Please join over 100 donors who use Steady, PressPatron or Patreon to give a little towards our costs every month. The money pays the bills, a wage for the editor and pays others to write for the site.
You can also buy the editor a coffee at ko-fi.com. Thank you.