The Board of Ordnance, responsible for machines and instruments of war, can be traced back as far as the thirteenth century. During the reign of Edward I the accounts for military expenditure were overseen by the Keeper of the King’s Wardrobe, with the Chief Engineer responsible for the general manufacture of machines and their repair. In 1414 Nicholas Marbury was appointed the first Master of the King’s Ordnance, by which time the royal arsenal was firmly established in the Tower of London.
In the late seventeenth century Charles II implemented a programme of modernisation for the department which expanded to absorb the roles of the Royal Armoury. As a result the Board of Ordnance became responsible for the armoury displays, an increasingly popular visitor attraction at the Tower. Their military museum extended to include items of historic interest, such as the ‘Rack to extort Confession’, first noted in the Ordnance collections in June 1675.
As munitions increased in sophistication, the eighteenth century saw a need to improve and develop the department, which at times was criticised for its inefficiency in times of conflict.
Following an Act of Parliament the Office of Ordnance was eventually disbanded in 1855 and its duties and collections were absorbed by the newly formed War Office.
Adam’s unexecuted scheme for a new Ordnance Office is not dated and its intended location is unknown. King suggests a probable date of c1778 which coincides with William Tyler’s commission for an Ordnance building, constructed between 1779 and 1780. Bolton proposed that Adam’s scheme may have been intended for the Tower of London, the Board’s historical home, but as Tyler’s building was executed in Westminster, it is likely that Adam’s design was produced with the Office’s relocation in mind. King suggests the intended site as New Palace Yard, however an elevation of Tyler’s building dating to c1780 notes the office’s location as ‘standing against the East End of St Margaret Church, Westminster’.
Robert Adam’s scheme proposed a 140ft by 30ft building, two-storeys in height, with a central arch and narrow terminating bays. Bolton notes from the section drawings the intended use of brick arches combined with timber floors and roof.
William Tyler (d. 1801) was a founding member of the Royal Academy and a celebrated sculptor who specialised in funerary monuments and architectural models. Working with George Dance, Tyler acted in the role of the Royal Academy’s first auditors. Tyler also worked as an architect, with his designs for the new Ordnance Offices at Westminster executed in 1779-80. He also produced a scheme for the Villa Maria, the Kensington home of the Duke of Gloucester. Tyler’s Ordnance building was demolished c1805.
A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume II, Index p. 59; J.H. Leslie, ‘The Honourable the Board of Ordnance. 1299-1855’, Army Historical Research, September 1925, pp. 100-104; G. Raudzens, ‘The British Ordnance Department, 1815-1855’, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, 1979, pp. 88-107; D. King, The complete works of Robert and James Adam & unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume II, pp. 28, 57; H. M. Colvin, A Biographical dictionary of British architects, 1600-1840, 1995, pp.999; ‘William Tyler RA (1728-1801)’, www.royalacademy.org.uk; ‘History of the Royal Armouries in the Tower of London’, www.royalarmouries.org; ‘Unknown artist, Elevation of the Ordnance Office, after 1780’, www.collections.britishart.yale.edu (accessed March 2021)