View of the Explosion as seen from Burrage Road, Plumstead, by Captain Paisley
We are indebted to Captain Pasley, R.E., for a sketch of the appearance of the explosion, as seen from the window of his house in Burrage-road, Plumstead.
The main drainage outfall works at Crossness are shown to the left hand.
Early, on Saturday morning last, two gunpowder magazines, situated on the southern bank of the Thames, between Woolwich and Erith,
exploded with terrific violence, killing eight or nine persons, if not more, wounding others, and carrying consternation and alarm among the inhabitants
for miles round.
Although the scene of the catastrophe is distant about fifteen miles from Charing-cross, the shock was felt more or less throughout the whole metropolis, and even at places forty and fifty miles from the spot - as far as Newmarket and Cambridge on the one hand, and Windsor and Guildford on the other.
The Explosion occurred in a gunpowder dépôt belonging to Messrs John Hall and Sons: and almost simultaneously in a magazine of smaller size used by the Low Wood Gunwder Company, formerly known as the firm of Messrs. Daye and Barker, both of them located in the Plumstead marshes, on the margin of the Thames, two miles west of Erith, and about an equal distance from the village of Belvedere, on the North Kent Railway.
Here, on about twenty acres of ground, separated for obvious reasons from the rest of the neighbouring houses, but in three cottages in the immediate vicinity of the scene of their daily labour, lived a few working men with their families.
One was George Rayner, who acted as storekeeper in the dépôt of Messrs. Hall, and who was a married man with a family, and another, named Walter Silver, also married, acted in a similar capacity under the Low Wood Gunpowder Company.
Each of these had a cottage to himself about 100 or 200 yards from the magazines, and the rest, who were men employed in the larger dépôt, occupied a cottage in common.
The Messrs. Hall have been engaged in the business of fabricating gunpowder for more than fifty years, and have executed large contracts from time to time both for our own and many foreign Governments.
They have a large factory in the neighbourhood of Faversham, in Kent occupying about 200 acres of ground, part of the works at which were erected in the reign of Queen Elizabeth.
There the work of manufacturing and packing gunpowder is conducted by a body of trained artisans, with the safeguards and precautions suggested by experience; and within the last few years the proprietors have purchased a large tract of adjacent land in order the more completely to seclude their operations from the habitations of men.
Their magazine at Belvedere was a substantial building, about 50 ft. square, and consisting of two floors.
It was erected five or six years ago, at a cost of about £3000, and around it were eighteen acres of land, with a view to isolate the building.
For miles at that part of the river there is an embankment, which protects the low-lying marshes from inundation.
Both their dépôt and that of the Low Wood Gunpowder Company stood close behind the embankment.
The quantity of gunpowder stored in Messrs. Hall's magazine at the time of the explosion, and in two of their barges which lay off the jetty, is estimated by themselves at about 750 barrels in the dépôt, and perhaps 200 more in the barges, each barrel containing 100lb.
The quantity in the magazine of the Low Wood Company was only about 9000 lb., as they were expecting a large supply of powder from their mills at Newton-in-Cartmel, Lancashire, which had been delayed through export and other orders deliverable at their other dépôts.
Their magazine at Belvedere was about 40 ft. long by 30 ft. in width, and consisted of two floors.
It was erected about four years ago, and stood at a distance of sixty or seventy yards from that of Messrs. Hall.
Both Messrs. Hall's magazine and that of the Low Wood Company had a wooden jetty projecting into the river for the loading and unloading of gunpowder.
It should be understood that these were places used entirely for the storage of gunpowder, and in no sense for its manufacture, and that none but experienced men were employed at them.
Rayner had been storekeeper to Messrs. Hall for twelve years, and accustomed to the manipulation of gunpowder from his boyhood.
He was an intelligent and most efficient man, and they had complete confidence in him.
Between their mills at Faversham and the magazine at Belvidere, a distance of about thirty miles, the gunpowder is conveyed in sailing-barges, each navigated usually by a couple of men, and two of these, as has been stated, were moored alongside the jetty on Saturday morning, discharging cargo.
The gunpowder, carefully packed in barrels, is borne on trucks with copper wheels along wooden rails, in order to preclude the possibility of a spark from friction; and the operation is conducted with other precautions, such as the wearing of list slippers by the men engaged in it.
By common consent, the explosion occurred at between eighteen and twenty minutes before seven o'clock in the morning, and it is presumed that, Messrs. Hall's men, were then unloading one of the barges.
A clock in the house of Mr. Henry Hall, at South Darent, about three miles from Dartford and seven from the powder magazines, was stopped by the explosion itself at precisely eighteen minutes to seven.
There were three distinct explosions immediately following each other, and the belief of persons conversant with the trade is that the first took place
on board one of the barges; that the terrific concussion produced by it tore asunder, the larger magazine, and some of the burning fragments alighting in it
caused an explosion infinitely more appalling, and which was instantaneously followed by the explosion of the smaller dépôt.
At Erith and Belvedere, where the shock was most felt, the feeling produced by it is described as awful beyond description.
At Woolwich, about four miles off, the first impression was that the powder-works in the arsenal had exploded, and the wives and families of the artisans at work there rushed to the spot in a state of consternation.
They were not allowed to enter the place, and they stood terror-stricken in the square in front.
Shortly after the explosion showers of letters, invoices, and other papers, which had been borne on the wind a distance of four miles, fell within the precincts of the arsenal, and clearly indicated the scene of the catastrophe; but it was long before the people outside could be persuaded that their relatives were safe.
Immediately after the calamity an immense pillar of smoke rose from the spot high into the air - thick, black, and palpable, with a huge spreading top - and, about a quarter of an hour elapsed before it died away.
As soon as it was supposed to be safe to do so, people from Erith and Belvedere proceeded to the spot and ventured to explore the ruins in search of anyone that might be living.
Of the magazines themselves not a single stone remained upon another, the very foundations being torn up, and the site of that of Messrs. Hall was marked by huge fissures and chasms in the earth, immense lumps of which had been scooped out and hurled about the adjacent fields.
The barges, with the jetty, had been split into fragments and blown into the air, and an enormous rent had been made in the embankment itself,
exposing miles of country to the peril of inundation.
Of the cottage of the foreman Rayner, nothing was left standing but a bit of brick wall and a doorway.
The lifeless bodies of the unfortunate man himself and of his son were found close by, and his wife and a child were dug out of the ruins alive, but hurt in various ways.
A child, niece of Silver, the foreman at the other dépôt, was killed, while he himself escaped with some slight injuries.
His wife, fortunately, had gone on a visit to some friends at Maidstone a few days ago and had not returned.
The cottage in which they lived is simply a ruin, and the whole immediate neighbourhood is covered with the debris of the fallen buildings.
Those of the sufferers, nine in number, who were still living were conveyed with as much care and speed as possible to Guy's Hospital.
One of them, Elizabeth Wright, a child nine years of age, died shortly after her admission; and another, James Eaves, died on Sunday afternoon; the rest of the nine, except Elizabeth Osborn, a child of seven, are said to be likely to recover.
It is supposed that the men on board the two barges were blown to pieces, as their bodies have not been found.
Their names are William Jemmett, master, and Luke Barker, mate, of the barge Good Design; and John Dodson, captain, and Daniel Wise, mate, of the barge Harriet.
A man named Wright, who was the under-storekeeper at Messrs. Hall's magazine, is also missing.
The names of those known to be dead are George Rayner, storekeeper at the magazine of Messrs. Hall; John Yorke, a boy of thirteen, employed there; Elizabeth Wright, about the same age, daughter of the missing under-storekeeper; and John Hubbard and James Eaves.
The two last named were labouring men, unconnected with the magazines, but who were engaged in constructing a river-wall in their immediate vicinity.
At the time of the explosion they were collecting their tools in an outhouse attached to the cottage of Walter Silver, the storekeeper at the Low Wood magazine, preparatory to beginning work for the day.
The escape of Silver himself was little less than miraculous.
He was straining milk through a sieve just within the back door of his cottage when he was startled and thrown down by the first explosion in the barge, while the second and still more appalling one in the magazine shattered the house about his ears.
He was afterwards dug out of the ruins with a few bruises about the head and body, and has since been going about.
As soon as the extent of the damage was perceived, it became evident that what required the most prompt attention was a huge gap in the embankment
of the river, thirty feet deep and upwards of seventy-five feet in length.
There was nothing to indicate whether this embankment had been forced inwards by the explosion of the barges, or outwards by that of the more westerly magazine; but it was quite certain that only the most active measures would preserve the low-lying district along the banks of the river from a second disaster more devastating than the first.
Fortunately, the tide was out at the time of the explosion; and it was necessary to close the gap before high water at one o'clock to prevent an inundation that would have caused incalculable damage.
Mr. Lewis Moore, an engineer connected with the Metropolitan Board of Works, who resides at Erith, sent a message to Mr. Webster, the contractor at the main-drainage works at Crossness; and he, with praiseworthy promptitude, at once dispatched a strong force of 350 navvies, who set to work with a will.
Information of the danger was telegraphed to the authorities at the Horse Guards, who, in reply, telegraphed an order to Woolwich that every available man in the garrison should be sent to repair the breach.
General Warde, the Commandant, at once dispatched 1500 men, marines, horse artillery, and engineers, with 2000 sandbags.
This force reached the spot before ten o'clock, and, under the directions of Colonel Hawkins, R.E., Colonel Masters, Colonel Milman, Colonel Gage, and Major Lyons, commenced vigorous operations.
Part of the troops lashed beams and spars together and floated them in front of the breach to act as a breakwater and prevent the swell of passing steamers from washing away the newly-formed embankment.
Others were stationed on the place where the embankment was to be raised: from these double files were extended to another large party in the rear.
Hundreds of sandbags were filled with earth by the party in the rear; then, as fast as they were filled, they were passed to those at the front, by whom they were piled.
Another large working lparty employed themselves in carrying wheelbarrows full of earth to the party making the embankment, who used the earth in filling in the interstices between the bags, and also piling it up and stamping it on each side.
The moment of danger was about one o'clock.
But by the most energetic and praiseworthy exertions on the part of all engaged - civilians and officers, navvies and troops - the temporary embankment was raised rapidly enough to koep pace with the rising tide.
At high water the river was found to be oozing through in several places, and great apprehension was felt for the result.
There was no despairing, however : the navvies redoubled their exertions, and fresh detachments of troops took the place of comrades wearied by strenuous labour; so that the dangerous period was got over without any serious influx, and before the tide had fully ebbed the breach was so strengthened that there was no immediate danger of an inundation.
There can be no question that a terrible disaster was averted solely by the exertions of the navvies and the troops.
The ground was kept clear by a detachment of the 5th Fusiliers and, later in the day, by the marines, from the garrison at Woolwich, sent in aid of the police.
The exciting scene presented by these operations is shown in the Engraving, from a sketch taken on the spot by our own Artist.
The Site of the Powder-Magazines after the explosion
The Sappers and Miners Repairing the embankment after the Explosion
Our third Illustration is a view of the ruins as they appeared some hours after the explosion.
It has been observed that the only buildings of any kind on the spot, or within a mile of it, were the two magazines and the two houses used by the foreman
and others connected with them.
The buildings are totally demolished; but of the two houses there are just sufficient remains to mark their site and to show the terrible fate which overtook the inmates.
At Mr. Rayner's (the foreman) there are left the front doorway and a portion of the first floor.
In front of the house there was a small flower garden.
Here and there, amidst heaps of bricks and the confused portions of smashed furniture, parts of fruit and other trees are to seen, but so torn up and burnt as only to look like withered sticks.
The kitchen range is lying at some distance from the house, and split into several portions.
Fragments of a bedstead and other pieces of furniture are scattered about, and, being utterly valueless, served as firewood to warm a party of marines who were on duty, and rather chilled by the sharp east wind.
During Saturday night and Sunday morning hundreds of navvies and labourers continued to work at the embankment.
Towards noon on Sunday it was feared that their efforts would fail, owing to the high tide, increased by a gale of wind which was blowing, while the men were almost worn out with so many hours' incessant toil.
In this emergency, as not a moment was to be lost, a telegram was sent to Woolwich, again requesting the assistance of the troops.
Major General Warde received the telegram just as the men were leaving church at one o'clock.
He at once ordered 500 of the Horse Artillery and sappers and miners, together with a strong force of marines, to proceed to the railway station.
The General himself took command, accompanied by Colonel Hawkins, R.E.; Colonel Price, C.B., R.H.A.; Colonel Gage, R.H.A.; Colonel Anderson, 4th Brigade; Brigade Major Hay, Captain Nangle, Captain Williams, A.D.C., and other officers.
Captain Gordon, of the Royal Arsenal, gave all the assistance possible by forwarding a great quantity of sandbags for the construction of an embankment, as well as the tools used in throwing up an intrenchment.
A force of 500 marines was kept ready at Woolwich in case it should be found that their aid was wanted.
The troops were conveyed rapidly to Belvedere by the North Kent Railway, and from the station they marched to the spot, 500 of the troops being actually at work in an hour from the time the telegram was received at Woolwich.
Before three o'clock the troops had succeeded in making a good barrier.
They continued to work until half-past four o'clock, and left the embankment proof against all danger of inundation.
An inquest on the bodies of the persons killed by this explosion was opened on Tuesday by Mr. Carstar, one of the coroners for Kent, at the Belvedere Hotel.
Mr. Poland attended as counsel for the Messrs. Hall, and Mr. M.B.Filby as London agent for the Low Wood Company, while Mr. S.H. Perrein, solicitor, appeared for some other parties interested.
The evidence of Mr. Silver, the storekeeper; Mr. Sydney Turner house-surgeon at Guy's Hospital; and Mr. Churton, a surgeon at Erith, was briefly taken; after which the inquiry was adjourned for a week.
A public meeting was held at Erith on Monday - Archdeacon Smith, the Vicar, presiding - when a committee was appointed to take steps for obtaining some compensation for the large amount of property destroyed.
Resolutions were passed thanking the military authorities at Woolwich, Mr. Moore, Mr. Webster, and their men, for the assistance they had rendered.
It was also resolved that the disasters clearly proved the impropriety of large quantities of gunpowder and other explosive materials being allowed to be manufactured or stored in the vicinity of populous places, and that communications should be made to the Home Office and to the licensing magistrates pointing out the dangers attending the establishment of gunpowder manufactories and warehouses in such places, and urging the discontinuance of existing licenses and the refusal to grant new ones for such places in future.