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Royal Ordnance Factories / Royal Ordnance plc

Royal Ordnance [RO] manufactures and supplies to the armed forces a range of products and systems, ammunition and services. RO consists of four main groups: (1) the small arms group; (2) rocket motors; (3) guns; and (4) ammunition. RO's products in land systems range from ammunition, fuses and explosives to small arms, rocket motors and medium- and large-calibre guns. RO has 13 sites spread around the UK. Medium- and large-calibre guns (the field in which RO acts as a subcontractor to VSEL for its Mark 8 4.5 Inch gun and AS90) are manufactured at a facility in Nottingham.

Within BAe's land systems activities the largest operating company is RO which manufactures ammunition, guns and other equipment. Historically RO has provided complete gun systems, such as the 105 mm light gun, and barrels and breeches for larger guns, but guns now account for only some 15 percent of RO's turnover. RO was competing against VSEL to supply the US Defense Department with a lightweight towed 155 mm howitzer. There was no UK requirement for such equipment, so the loser was likely to discontinue its project. RO is the only UK maker of medium- and large-calibre gun barrels and breeches, providing these to VSEL for its AS90 self-propelled howitzer and its Mark 8 4.5 Inch naval gun.

RO has been successful in exporting large-calibre gun systems to Australia, the USA, Abu Dhabi and Brazil amongst others. The largest export contract was for the supply of 105 mm light guns to the USA. The designs and technology for gun barrels and breeches are well known and there are at least 15 other manufacturers of such components world-wide. Other equipment produced by RO includes combat engineering tractors, vehicle intercom systems and rocket motors. In ammunition, RO produces a high proportion of the UK's requirements for all classes of munitions including explosives, propellants and some rocket warheads, and in 1993 was awarded a fiveyear ammunition supply contract by the MoD.

It is uncertain when gunpowder manufacture was first undertaken in the district of Waltham Abbey, which was founded in 1060, but there has been a long tradition of work on explosives in the neighbourhood, as is evidenced by the tombstones in the Abbey church- yard where victims of several early accidents are interred. There is little doubt that gunpowder was made in Waltham Abbey about the time of the Armada, but very few records exist of the early days. This manufacture was in private hands and there were other important powder mills, notably at Faversham, Kent, by late Stuart times.

In 1787 there were complaints about the serviceability of black powder supplied to the Navy and after an enquiry, followed by firing trials conducted under the Board of Ordnance, it was estab- lished that Waltham Abbey powder was superior. It was recommended that the Powder Mills be purchased by the Government and they were taken over just in time for the Napoleonic Wars.

Under the organization existing at the outbreak of the Great War, the British Government had several ordnance factories at Woolwich, Waltham Abbey, and Enfield Lock for the manufacture of arms for the army, under the department of the Master General of Ordnance in the War Office. There was also a Royal Aircraft Factory. The Admiralty had other ordnance factories for naval armament. But munitions of war were also furnished to a large extent by contracts with five or six large private establishments.

On the formation of the Coalition Cabinet, Mr. Lloyd George was transferred to the new position of Minister of Munitions. An act establishing the Ministry of Munitions was soon passed, and became law on June 9, 1915. The Munitions of War Act1 is important, not only as the working basis for the new Ministry, but as a document making a far-reaching extension of government control of industry, including both labor and the profits of the employer.

Early in August, 1915, there were 345 controlled establishments operating under the supervision of the Ministry. By October of that year there were 1,000 such controlled establishments; 20 national factories had been established, and 11 more were under way; and 18 cooperative areas had been organized. Nearly 1,000,000 people were employed in the government and controlled establishments on munitions productions.

By the latter part of the summer of 1916, there were 4,300 controlled establishments employing more than 2,000,000 workers (some 400,000 women) engaged in constructing gun carriages, ammunition wagons, and other supplies. There were 95 national factories working for the land services 20 manufacturing explosives and materials, 18 filling gun and trench mortar ammunition, 6 making cartridges and cartridge cases, 32 shell factories operated by local boards of management, and 12 heavy projectile factories. Later in 1916, there were 53 shell factories, 38 local boards of management, and others managed for the Ministry by experienced munitions firms. The Woolwich arsenal, which in August, 1914, employed 10,866 persons, by June, 1917, had 73,571, about a third of whom were women.

By the end of 1917, there were 143 national factories and 20,000 private controlled establishments, with a total of more than 2,000,000 work people, of whom 644,000 were women. Including those employed on admiralty work, more than 2,700,000 were engaged in munitions works, of whom over 700,000 were women.

Following the Great War the British ordnance industry gradually withered and was dismantled, with only a handful of facilities remaining in production by the mid 1930's. The Royal Ordnance Factory organization took more and more of the gun manufacturing, and except for major-calibre naval guns the private gunmakers did little.

With the threat of a renewed war, rapid rearmament took place. Royal Ordnance Factories (ROFs) were the British government's munitions factories, built in the years immediately preceeding World War II. From 1938 a total of 44 Royal Ordnance Factories were built consisting of three main types: Engineering Factories, for the manufacture of guns, tanks and ammunition; Explosives Factories, for the manufacture of explosives; and Filling Factories, where ammunition was filled with explosives.

The ROFs were built to augment the capacity of the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, the Royal Gunpowder Factory (RGPF) Waltham Abbey, Essex and the Royal Small Arms Factory, (RSAF) Enfield, all of which were in or near London and thus considered vulnerable to aerial attack from Germany. The Royal Arsenal designed many of the ROFs and also served as the agent for the construction of the Rifles ROFs [ie, ROF Fazakerley and ROF Maltby], the Medium Machine ROF and the Small Arms Ammunition ROFs. The ROFs were the responsibility of the Ministry of Supply and later the Ministry of Defence until they were privatized in 1987.

The history of the ROFs as a whole is very nearly that of the military history of the United Kingdom in the mid-20th century, while the history of the individual factories is quite varied. James Nasmyth (1808-90) was one of the most famous engineers of his time. His Bridgewater Foundry had been established and was engaged in production under the name Nasmyths Gaskell and Go., 1836-45, Nasmyth Gaskell and Co., 1845-50, and James Nasmyth and Co., 1850-56. The company changed its name from Nasmyth Gaskell and Co. to Nasmyth Wilson and Co. in 1867 and that it became a limited company in 1882. During the later nineteenth century the company came to concentrate on producing locomotives. In 1940 it ceased production and went into voluntary liquidation. The works were taken over as a Royal Ordnance Factory.

Guy Gibson and his Dambusters use the Bouncing Bomb made at Glascoed. One of the best and most widely used cluster bombs is the BL 755, developed and produced by Hunting Engineering in partnership with the Royal Ordnance Factory at Glascoed. In 1974 Iran ordered 125 Shir 1 and 1,225 Shir 2 MBTs from Royal Ordnance Factory Leeds. The Shir 1 was sssentially a late-production Chieftain, already entering service with Iran in arge numbers. The Chieftain replaced the Centurion gun tank in the British Army. There were two production lines for the Chieftain. one at the Royal Ordnance Factory at Leeds and the other at Vickers' Elswick works.

The royal ordnance factories were transformed into a company, Royal Ordnance plc, which operated on a fully commercial basis in the same way as any other company. Vesting day was 02 January 1985. On that day, a scheme came into effect pursuant to section 1 of the Ordnance Factories and Military Services Act 1984 which transferred assets and liabilities of the ROF trading fund and certain other establishments to the Royal Ordnance plc. The existing shares in the company had all been transferred to the ownership of the Secretary of State for Defence.

On Vesting day, the twelve remainin ROFs, together with the Waltham Abbey South site, RSAF Enfield and three Agency Factories, became parts of Royal Ordnance plc. Its headquarters was moved to ROF Chorley, Lancashire; with its registered office located in central London. The intention of the government at this stage was to privatise Royal Ordnance as soon as possible through a stock market flotation.

When the Government started the process of selling off the ordnance factories, the factories were said to be valued at about 400 million, but that figure was rapidly reduced, until by early 1986 an optimistic view in the City would have set their value at 150 million. Many, if not all, Conservative Members thought that it is right to pursue a policy of privatisation, as they won the general election on it.

On 17 June 1986, the Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Younger) announced the Government's decision not to proceed with the planned flotation of Royal Ordnance plc. He also made it clear in answer to questions on 18 June that the government would review all the various options to decide how best to achieve our aim of privatisation. On 24 July 1986 that review ws completed and he announced that, with the exception of one factory, it remains a firm preference to sell the company as a whole. MOD would hope to do so by a private sale if that proves practicable. Over the following weeks, MOD invited bids on the basis of a selling memorandum.

The exception was the tank-building business at Leeds. Following discussions between the Ministry of Defence and Vickers, an offer has been made by Vickers plc to purchase Royal Ordnance Leeds, which the Government and the board of Royal Ordnance have accepted, subject to detailed discussions now taking place between Royal Ordnance and Vickers to finalise the agreement. The price will be related to an audited net asset value but we expect it to be about 11 million. As part of the agreement, Vickers will build a major new facility at the Leeds site, similar to its factory at Newcastle. That reflects its faith in the business and its determination to win the export orders that are critical to the continuing future of the factory. In the light of the agreement, the way was now clear for a decision to order a seventh regiment of Challenger tanks, subject to detailed contract terms. Vickers has agreed that the tanks would be manufactured at Leeds and the MOD negotiated with Vickers prices that represent an improvement on the terms offered by Royal Ordnance.

Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli) responded that "The most significant and perhaps the most disturbing announcement in the statement, which was leaked heavily in this morning's newspapers, is the sale of the tank factory at Leeds to its main and only competitor, Vickers. We believe that that sale is another step in what will turn out to be the dismemberment of the Royal Ordnance factories. The Secretary of State's "firm preference" and fine words mean nothing at all after the way in which the Government and his Department have treated both the management and employees of the Royal Ordnance factories. It is extraordinary that a policy of privatisation that was supposed to encourage competition within the British defence industry is eliminating that competition and creating a monopoly supplier in the British economy for main battle tanks."

In 1987 four companies were seeking to buy the Royal Ordnance Factories plc: British Aerospace, Ferranti, GKN and Trafalgar House. In accordance with plans announced by the Secretary of State for Defence on 24 July 1986, the Ministry of Defence was negotiating to sell royal ordnance plc as a whole. Firm proposals were made by BAe and GKN for the acquisition of all the share capital of Royal Ordnance plc. Ferranti decided not to make an offer for the share capital of Royal Ordnance. BAe won it. What it bought for 190 million was the business as a going concern, with its weaknesses as well as its strengths.

Average number of employees Number of redundancies declared1
9 months to 31 March 1975 18,550 13
Year to 31 March 1976 20,556 nil
Year to 31 March 1977 22,535 nil
Year to 31 March 1978 23,169 nil
Year to 31 March 1979 23,235 509
Year to 31 March 1980 22,084 122
Year to 31 March 1981 21,672 1,018
Year to 31 March 1982 20,208 461
Year to 31 March 1983 18,859 91
1 Redundancy figures are those declared in a calendar year.

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Page last modified: 13-05-2013 11:45:39 ZULU