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The Board of Ordnance was a British government body responsible for the supply of armaments and munitions to the Royal Navy (until 1830) and British Army. It was also responsible for providing artillery trains for armies and maintaining coastal fortresses and, later, management of the artillery and engineer corps. It also produced maps for military purposes, a function later taken over by the Ordnance Survey. The board existed under various names from at least the early fifteenth century until 1855, with headquarters in the Tower of London.


The introduction of gunpowder to Europe led to innovations in offensive weapons such as cannon and defences such as fortifications. In the 1370s, to manage the new technology, the royal household appointed a courtier to administer weapons, arsenals and castles. The office and main arsenal were located in the White Tower of the Tower of London.[1] The earliest known Master of Ordnance was Nicholas Merbury, appointed about 1415-1420 by Henry V of England. Merbury was present at the Battle of Agincourt.[2] The Office of Ordnance was created by Henry VIII of England in 1544 and became the Board of Ordnance in 1597,[3] its principal duties being to supply guns, ammunition, stores and equipment to the King's Navy.

The Board of Ordnance consisted of six principal officers:

In 1830, the principal officers were reduced to four by the abolition of the posts of Lieutenant-General and Clerk of the Deliveries.

The Treasurer of the Ordnance was also an important officer of the department, although he did not sit on the board. This office was consolidated with several others in 1836 to form that of Paymaster-General. A number of other inferior officers reported to the board, such as clerks, storekeepers, engineers, and master gunners.

Issues of performance in the Crimean War, especially disastrous lack of due provision for operations during the Russian winter of 1854[4]:p 53 brought about the Board's demise in 1855. [See also the reference to Lord Raglan below.]

As a result of enquiries made into the breakdown of transport and hospital arrangements during the first winter of the war, the Board of Ordnance, which had been in existence for four hundred years, was abolished, and the Artillery together with the Royal Engineers came directly under the Commander-in-Chief and the War Office like the rest of the Army.[4]:p 55

The former board was incorporated into the War Office by an 1855 Act of Parliament (18 & 19 Vict. c. 117) as the Department of the Master-General of the Ordnance.

Subdivisions of the Board of Ordnance

The Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers answered to the Board of Ordnance instead of the War Office until 1855. The Ordnance Medical Department was established to provide surgeons for these corps.

Ordnance Board

Almost fifty years later, after the Second Boer War, and unease that the British Army had been ill-equipped, a new office called the Ordnance Board was created. It consists of a board of munitions experts, whose purpose was to advise the Army Council on the safety and approval of weapons. The Ordnance Board, and its name, survived within the Ministry of Defence until the mid-1990s when it was renamed the Defence Ordnance Safety Group. Long before then, the Ordnance Board had extended its scope to encompass more than just the safety and approval of the Army’s ordnance.

Notable staff

  • One of its 18th century map-makers was noted water-colour artist Paul Sandby.
  • Lord Raglan, the British commander-in-chief during the Crimean War, was also the last Master-General of the Board of Ordnance.[5] It is very likely that his incompetence in the field of battle was more to blame than the Board of Ordnance for the 1854-55 supply failures. Ironically, he himself died of dysentery in the Crimea on 29 June 1855 at a time when his forces were afflicted with cholera and reeling from a disastrous series of military failures.[6]:p 302

    (In 1855) . . . a loud outcry against Lord Raglan had begun in the press. He was charged with neglecting to see to the actual state of his troops, and to the necessary measures for their relief. Their condition was becoming more and more pitiable; their numbers dwindling rapidly from death and disease. The road between Balaclava and the camp had become a muddy quagmire, the few remaining horses of our cavalry were rapidly disappearing, every day the difficulty of getting up food and other necessaries from Balaclava was becoming more serious, and still no provision was being made for supplying an effective means of transport.[6]:p 181

See also


  1. Royal Engineers Museum - The Corps, Ordnance and its Train (1370-1713) - Part 2
  2. Part 01 - Arms of the Board of Ordnance
  3. Board of Ordnance (Britain) on Flags of the World website
  4. 4.0 4.1 Graham C A L DSO psc, Brig Gen The Story of the Royal Regiment of Artillery RA Institution, Woolwich 1939
  5. Abolition of the Board of Ordnance,1855 On website of Royal Engineers Museum
  6. 6.0 6.1 Martin T The Life of His Royal Highness the Prince Consort Smith Elder & Co, London (1877) Vol III p 180 (Online version transcribed from copy in the University of California)

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