by Helen Moon
Colonel Sir Vivian Majendie first came to Woolwich in 1851, when he joined the prestigious Royal Military Academy on Shooters Hill. After studying there for 3 years, he was commissioned into the Royal Artillery, served in both the Crimean War (1853-56) and the Indian Rebellion of 1857. In 1861, he was appointed Captain Instructor of the Royal Laboratory, at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich.
In 1871, because of his exemplary work at the Royal Arsenal, Majendie was made the Chief Inspector of Explosives to Queen Victoria, a role he was to hold for the rest of his life. It was in this role that his expertise in the study of explosives led to him becoming a pioneer in the fields of bomb disposal and the forensic investigation of explosives and their effects.
For his work on preparing the Bill that became the 1875 Explosives Act (which greatly improved the safety requirements for the production and storage of explosives), he was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB). But his expertise soon found him taking on an even more demanding and much more dangerous role.
In 1881, the Fenian Bombing Campaign began. Irish Republican groups, such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Clan na Gael organised a four-year campaign of bombings, targeting infrastructure, government, military and police targets. Majendie’s study of the bombs used and the advice that he gave the British authorities is recognised as having saved many lives. On 26 February 1884, at great personal risk, he defused a bomb at Victoria Station, which could have gone off at any moment.
Majendie was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) in 1895, as a reward for all he had done. He died suddenly of heart failure in 1898, leaving behind him a pioneering legacy that is still being felt today. His portrait still hangs in the Forensic Explosives Laboratory, a lasting reminder of impact that he has had.
We offer our sincere thanks to Dr John Hodson for sharing with us the history of Col. Majendie. If you would like to discover more about the history of a famous individual or family member, then contact or visit the Search Room at Greenwich Heritage Centre and the team there will assist you.
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