by Helen Moon
The son of the first Sir William (a professional soldier who had done much to develop the Royal Artillery’s capabilities both in Woolwich and beyond), Congreve was a great scientist and inventor. In 1804, he began experimenting with rockets at the Royal Laboratory. William was inspired by the rockets he had seen in India in the Anglo-Mysore Wars (1767-1799). He used his own money to fund his experiments and develop his inventions.
His rockets were not immediately successful. It was discovered that, whilst highly destructive, they were inaccurate, unpredictable and dangerous for the soldiers who used them. Despite this, William received the honorary rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1811 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society the same year. He also became finance controller, or Comptroller, of the Royal Laboratory in the Royal Arsenal in 1814.
William had many famous friends, including the Prince Regent (later King George IV), who supported his rocket projects and used his position and influence to ensure that the rockets were used by the British Army and Royal Navy. This was of great frustration to certain commanders, such as the famous Duke of Wellington, who did not see much military value in Congreve’s Rockets. Nevertheless, they were used by the British Army (including at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815) and by the Royal Navy for bombarding towns and cities.
In later years, he remained a prolific inventor, and talented businessman and entrepreneur. He was taken ill in France, where he died in 1828, aged only 55.
Are you interested in finding out more about other famous Woolwich people, or knowing more about your own family’s history? Then contact or visit the Search Room at Greenwich Heritage Centre.
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