Sir William Congreve, 1st Baronet

Lieutenant General Sir William Congreve, 1st Baronet (d. 1814)

During the second half of the 18th century, the British government became increasingly concerned over the volume and quality of gunpowder produced by the private manufacturers. It became involved directly in the process starting with the purchase of the powder mills at Faversham in 1759.

In April 1783, the British Board of Ordnance appointed Major William Congreve to be responsible for the manufacture and proof of gunpowder in Britain. In his previous post of Deputy Comptroller (acting Comptroller) of the Royal Laboratories at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, he had already demonstrated his remarkable ability for invention and organisation. He set about making the government manufacturing facilities model factories and encouraged private companies to follow the innovations he introduced.

His previous work in experimentation allowed him to make the transition between research and production a smoother process and to introduce manufacturing changes that would have far-reaching implications on the quality and quantity of output.

His work to 'establish a proper mode of proof' was important to the armed forces at the time who complained about the consistency of the powder. Congreve felt that the quality of ingredients was at the root of problems and set about building refining capability into his factories.

He became involved in political wrangles with the Prime Minister of the time, William Pitt, who, prompted by private manufacturers, asserted that government powder was more expensive and of inferior quality. Congreve not only argued for the continuation of government manufacturing at Faversham by showing that stronger, cheaper powder was produced there but he achieved his aim of purchasing a second plant, the mill at Waltham Abbey. He purchased the facility from the Walton family in 1787 for the sum of £10,000. This became known as the Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills.

Congreve reviewed the process of corning black powder and established the advantaged of using larger grain (measure) powders in cannons and finer grain powders in small arms, overturning the Board of Ordnance policy of a single grain size for all weapons.

Congreve continued to develop new production methods. This included detailed experiments in 1785 at the Faversham Mill into the different types of wood used to produce charcoal, the most variable of the three ingredients of powder. In collaboration with Dr Watson, Bishop of Llandaff and following a method proposed by George Fordyce, he established that stronger powder could be made from charcoal produced in sealed iron retorts or cylinders.

Congreve was made a Baronet in 1812 and died in 1814. He was succeeded in his posts by his son, William Congreve (inventor) of the Congreve Rocket.

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