Blast From The Past
In 1818, a thoughtless prank at a Nottingham canal wharf cost the lives of up to 16 people.
“A dreadful and melancholy catastrophe” was how local paper the Nottingham Review summed up the events of 28th September 1818. The details were infinitely more gory – reports of mangled corpses (“heads completely taken off”, “limbs and flesh scattered about in different directions”), the anguished cries of relatives who rushed to the scene, and an entire canal warehouse blown “several yards into the air and then burst asunder into innumerable fragments”. Twenty-one barrels of gunpowder and a horrendously ill-judged jape had turned Nottingham’s waterways into a bloodbath.
These days you’d hardly know it. The Canal & River Trust website describes the Nottingham & Beeston Canal through the heart of the city as “buzzing with bars, nightlife and alfresco dining”. In 1818 it was just as busy, but with the steady chug of coal traffic rather than chomping jaws of gastropub patrons.
The gunpowder on Joseph Musson’s boat that late September afternoon would have also served the coal industry: the barrels, from Messrs Flower at Gainsborough, were en route to the mines of Derbyshire via Cromford. Alongside was assorted other cargo: cotton, molasses, soap and stone. The small crew aboard, all employed by the Nottingham Boat Company, included, with Musson, Benjamin Wheatley and one Hezekiah Riley as captain. Having already cruised upriver, past Torksey and Laneham, with an overnight stop at Burton Joyce, the boat was heading to the canal company’s wharf in Nottingham, near where the present Canalhouse pub stands.
So far so good. It was only on arrival in the basin – as each wooden barrel, containing about 100lbs of gunpowder, was being unloaded into the adjacent warehouse – that events took a calamitous turn. Riley later explained to an inquest how some barrels contained a bung at one end. In the process of transferring them off the boat, one of these plugs worked loose from a barrel and dribbled a quantity (around 4lbs) of powder out onto the wharf. The crew set the barrel down, did their best to scoop up the spill and shovel it back in, and then continued the unloading. Riley himself, seeing that the task was in hand, disappeared to the counting house, leaving his subordinates to complete the job by themselves.
Joseph Musson couldn’t help himself. Whether out of boredom or bravado, he sensed an opportunity to spice up their now-unsupervised drudgery with a little pyrotechnic display. Seeing a fire alight on a neighbouring barge, he announced: “Lads, I’m going to have a flash.” A hot coal from the embers was gingerly lifted off the boat between two sticks and carried towards the dusting of powder left over from the spill. As tongs, the sticks performed poorly. Musson kept dropping the coal, picking it up, dropping it again, before eventually resorting to juggling it between his own hands. When he got to the start of the powder trail, he dropped it again. It would be for the last time. In an instant the flame ignited not just the stuff on the floor, but all 21 barrels at the end of its path.
Ten people were killed instantly. So great was the impact that Musson’s body – or bits thereof – were flung to the far bank of the river known as the Tinker’s Leen. Other fatalities included John Howell, an 11-year-old boy who had been fishing in the canal, and a waggoner killed as the warehouse collapsed around him. Several others in the vicinity were seriously injured, and press reports in the days that followed pushed the final death toll up to nearer 16.
But there were also tales of extraordinary survival – none so amazing as that of a stonemason named Hall. The force of the initial explosion threw him onto a boat. Still alive, he hardly had time to count his blessings before realising the craft he had landed on had suffered catastrophic damage and was taking on water. As the boat sank, Hall was rescued from drowning at the last moment.
Damage to property was significant too. Windows were smashed and many nearby buildings also lost their roofs in the explosion. There were reports of an entire house collapsing – and its occupant miraculously crawling out from underneath the rubble. The warehouse, of course, was reduced to ruins and its contents – including 4,000 quarters of corn, some paper and cheese – lost with it.
Although insured, the firm providing the policy refused to pay out and the canal company successfully sued Masson’s employers, the Nottingham Boat Company, instead. The victory was short-lived – of the £1,000 payout won in court, they had to settle for just half that amount as Nottingham Boat Company couldn’t raise the cash. Relatives of the victims, meanwhile, were given a financial helping hand by a fund set up by the people of Nottingham.
On the 200th anniversary in 2018, Nottingham Civic Society erected a plaque to mark the event - and it was unveiled at 3pm on 28th September – on the day and time the explosion happened. Kevin Powell, who initially proposed the idea, said that he plaque should go some way towards redressing the lack of local – and waterways – knowledge of the accident.
The explosion is also commemorated in Bonnet & Belt theatre company’s show Canals of Old England, and in a folk song called ‘William Parker’, by the late Buz Collins. The latter recounts the tale of 15-year-old William, originally from Carlton, a suburb to the east of Nottingham. There’s an awful inevitability to the lyrics, which trace his route to employment with the Nottingham Boat Company and end by dwelling on the violent nature of his death that day: “My body thrown across the canal to the path where the boats were towed / And I died there in the sand.” It continues: “I’ll haunt that warehouse where my body was torn and burnt / ...I’ll haunt that warehouse for my spirit shall never be free / So remember the great explosion at the Nottingham Boat Company.” You can listen to the whole haunting track on Songs of the Inland Waterways website
Nottingham isn’t the only city to have been scarred by gunpowder tragedy on its waterways. Just over half a century later came London’s turn when, in the early hours of 2nd October 1874, the barge Tilbury – third in a train of boats being towed westwards from City Basin by steam-tug Ready – exploded under Macclesfield Bridge. All three crew members were killed. Of the bridge, only the abutments on either side of the embankment remained. The blast itself – the biggest in London before World War I – was felt for miles, as far as Barnet in one direction and Peckham Rye in the other.
An inquest found the cause of the explosion was a mixture of benzoline (a colourless, volatile, flammable liquid that was also being carried aboard) and “atmospheric air in proportions sufficient to burn and ignite the [gun]powder”. The Grand Junction Canal Company was found guilty of gross negligence in omitting proper precautions in the stowage and transit of the cargo. However, the jury also found the existing statutory laws inadequate to secure the public safety and just a few months later, in 1875, the Explosives Act was passed to regulate the manufacture and carriage of dangerous substances.