A Blast from the Past

By Maureen Storey

This article was published in the April 2016 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society

Ed: Maureen Storey, the Sole Research Co-ordinator sent me a report from The London Standard, of Monday, December 30, 1867 concerning an explosion at a gunpowder factory in Faversham, Kent, which killed William Sole. At the time Faversham was one of the main centres for manufacture of explosives and there had been many explosions prior to this one. In 1916 the worst explosion in the history of British explosives took place in Faversham. The full report is on the website and edited version follows. I should warn readers that there are some fairly gruesome parts of this report.

Terrible Explosion of Gunpowder at Faversham – Eleven Men Killed
A few minutes before eleven o’clock on Saturday morning the inhabitants of Faversham were startled by a terrific noise, followed in an instant by a second and third report even louder, and accompanied by a concussion which shook the place like an earthquake. Almost instinctively people knew what had happened. For many years past the manufacture of gunpowder has been carried on in the vicinity by the well-known firm of Hall and Son and unhappily this was by no means the first time that a similar dreadful sound has been heard. But since the memorable explosion of gun cotton in July, 1847, when thirty-five lives were destroyed, no shock like that of Sunday has been experienced. The first feeling of mute terror was succeeded by extraordinary excitement, as the town clock struck eleven, the roads leading to the powder mills were crowded by hundreds of men rushing wildly towards the scene of the disaster. Nearly two hundred families are dependent on the labours of those employed in this perilous manufacture, and consequently the most fearful apprehensions prevailed regarding the fate of relatives and friends. After the exact locality of the accident – for as such it must now be described – had been discovered, a long interval of agonising suspense elapsed before the extent of the fatality could be ascertained. In an hour the horrible truth became known that eleven men had been killed, that as many wives were made widows and nearly thirty children left fatherless. The only element of consolation in relating a disaster of this magnitude is that the destruction might have been fifty-fold greater. The powder which exploded bears a very small proportion to that which escaped ignition. It is impossible to estimate what the consequences would have been had a spark communicated with the magazine, and that its contents remained intact is little short of a miracle
Messrs Hall and Son have three different powder mills in the neighbourhood of Faversham, of which one is at Ore, and a second at Ludenham. The third, which was the scene of the terrible catastrophe on Saturday, is situated on the marshes near the river, and is about a mile and a half from the town in a north-easterly direction. Passing through the long winding lane which goes by the entrance to the works and down to the water’s side, one would scarcely suspect the existence of the powder mills. In summer the low buildings in which the work is carried on would not be seen through the high elm trees that overhang the road.
Words will only convey a faint idea of the scene presented on Saturday afternoon. There was nothing picturesque about it. It was simply ghastly and revolting – a sight to shudder at, not to see. Large elms had been uprooted and thrown across the lane. Others were almost completely stripped of their branches and showed nothing but broken splintered trunks. The young trees around the corning house had been cut down as if with an axe, and those more remote were blasted and destroyed. The ground was torn into furrows, or scooped into holes. The dyke was blocked up with fallen masonry. Not a vestige of a roof remained on three of the buildings. The walls facing the river were totally swept away, and away for hundreds of yards over the adjacent fields brick were strewn thickly. An immense mass of iron weighing 18 cwt had been lifted off the press house and flung about 200 yards, into Ham Farm, where it made a deep pit. Numbers of dead rabbits and pheasants were found in the plantation. But where were the human remains? At first not a trace was to be found; then somebody saw something black amongst the leafless branches of a high tree, which turned out to be the leg of a man, and by degrees fragments of bone and flesh and shreds of clothes were picked up in the debris that covered the marshes. Those who conducted the search had a horrible as well as extremely dangerous duty to perform. It was doubtful for a long time whether the scattered powder from the glazing house might not take fire. The walls which still stood were exceeding hot, and though there was no perceptible flame there were lots of charred and smouldering timber scattered everywhere. The greater part of the awe-struck crowd kept at a safe distance; and though watchmen were posted immediately there was little need for their services. He must have been a brave man who first ventured near the glazing house. A small party of police, under Sergeant Basset, of the county constabulary, did manfully and were assisted by a number of the labourers; but several times it was thought prudent to order them to fall back for fear of some greater fatality.

The remains of the Corning House at a neighbouring factory in Faversham. Here ‘slabs’ of gunpowder were reduced to small grains or ‘corns’. Image: David Anstiss, licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license

It happened strangely enough that at the time of the explosion both Mr Hall and his son were present at the meet of the hounds on a neighbouring farm. They rode up to the place immediately and exerted themselves in the utmost in allaying the panic and asserting order. As soon as possible the search was proceeded with and here and there among the ruins pieces of flesh were discovered which were carefully gathered and deposited in an adjoining carpenter’s shed. Not a limb was perfect and the unfortunate mourners were totally unable to recognise the mutilated remains of their husbands and fathers. In one case there is some hope of identification. The widow and friends of a young man named John Young think that a disfigured head found in a heap of fallen bricks belonged to him. But until the inquest is held nothing can be told with certainty. A sickening sight is the interior of the shed where all that is left of the victims of the explosion has been placed to await the inquiry.
It will be seen that twenty-nine children have been left orphans and the calamity is rendered more deplorable by the fact that the majority of these are of tender age, and are, therefore, perfectly helpless. All the deceased were experienced and skilful workmen and in point of remuneration were more comfortably situated than those who performed less perilous duties. The others were well known in the neighbourhood as respectable, intelligent, and careful men. Shortly before the explosion there were twelve workmen in the three building already described. One of these, named Frederick Sherwood, left the corning house at about quarter to eleven for a few minutes and it was while he was absent that the accident occurred. He heard the first report, and was then flung senseless on his face, and knew no more until he was lifted up near the ruins half dead with fright. The engine-driver, Thomas Jones, was attending to his duties, and also escaped, although he received a severe shock. A carter coming to the coring house was thrown in the air but has only suffered a few slight contusions. A man named William Bramble, employed in loading a boat, was also in a very dangerous position, but sustained no injury.

What’s left of the glazing house at Oare Gunpowder Works today. Photo courtesy of Kent County Council

The tremendous force of the explosion was evidenced by the immense rents which had been made in walls more than six feet thick. The upper portions of these had been broken off, and projected distances of between 50 and 100 yards. Single bricks were found on a rising ground nearly three-quarters of a mile away. The damage would have been infinitely greater but for the larger embankments which surrounded three sides of each of the houses in the mills. The exact manner in which the accident of Saturday occurred cannot be ascertained. Everyone that saw it has perished. No one survives to say how the material in the corning house became ignited. Sherwood can tell nothing, except that he left the work going on as usual. It was known to some persons that within the last two or three weeks Messrs Hall, like other firms engaged in dangerous trades, had hints and warnings of mischief and as a consequence had prudently doubled the precautions against explosion. The result is to show that no care, however minute, can guarantee the manufacture of gunpowder against loss of life and property. The works were admirably designed. The engine house [was] separated by a considerable interval from any of the other buildings, and the machinery in each department was worked by a single immense shaft. Everything was constructed so as to ensure the minimum friction. The men wore leather clothes and walked in felt slippers. No fire was permitted except in the boiler room. Each man worked a day and watched a night alternately. The roof of the glazing house was covered with large tanks filled with water, and this precaution probably saved its contents. The processes of manufacture are few and comparatively simple, but require great skill, coolness, and vigilance in those who are employed. The material is first prepared in the mixing or charge house, then pressed into cakes in another building, granulated in a third and glazed in a fourth. Between these departments immense barriers of earth and masonry have been erected by Messrs Hall, and it seemed that in case of accident each house would be completely isolated.
Biographical note: William Sole was born in Throwley, Kent, in 1821 and was the youngest of the nine children of Edward and Ann (neé Summer) Sole. He married Catherine Wise at Preston Street Wesleyan Chapel on 8 October 1854. William and Catherine had 6 children, the youngest of whom was only a few months old at the time of William’s death. Catherine had two children from a previous marriage who were living with the family. Catherine remarried in 1880 and died in 1907 aged 86.