Terrible Explosion of Gunpowder at Faversham

By Maureen Storey

This article was published in the August 2015 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society

The London Standard, Monday, December 30, 1867
Terrible Explosion of Gunpowder at Faversham
Eleven Men Killed

This year which is now rapidly drawing to a close will long be remembered as the year of great explosions. Before the profound impression caused by the outrage at Clerkenwell and the accident at Newcastle has passed away we are obliged to record another calamity involving a greater loss of life than either. 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. On the side nearest the town is an extensive tract of land known as Ham Farm. The factory consisted of five or six contiguous edifices, to each of which was assigned a distinct process in the manufacture. Along the base of these houses ran a canal or broad dyke used partly for the purpose of drainage and partly for the conveyance of powder to the river. The grounds are grown with young trees and brushwood in which Mr Hall has preserved a large number of pheasants and rabbits. On that side of the works that adjoins the lane stood the “corning house,” a large structure surrounded by thick walls about thirty feet in height. Similar in appearance was the next house, in which the process of mixing was carried on, and which was divided from the first by an interval of about 20 yards. Beyond this, at the same distance, was the press house, and still more remote the glazing house, in which the powder was finished. Behind this last is the magazine, where a vast quantity of gunpowder was stored. For the protection of Faversham against any contingency immense embankments of earth have been piled against the back walls of all the buildings, while the brickwork on the side of the canal, though of considerable strength, was not defended in the same manner, the object being that should the powder blow up, the force of the explosion would take the direction of the marshes, where comparatively little mischief could be done. This brief description of the works is necessary in order to explain the fearful disaster that has taken place. The whole appearance of the place has been changed. There were three distinct explosions, the first occurring at about five minutes before eleven, the second half a minute afterwards, and the third was only separated from the second by an interval of about ten seconds. The first took place in the corning house, where the process of granulating the crude mass of moist material which had been prepared in the adjoining building was being performed. “Corning” is the most perilous and difficult stage of the manufacture, and the workmen employed in it are always the most experienced and careful that the manager can select. Only a very small quantity of material is operated on at a time, and the object is to accomplish the work with the smallest possible amount of friction. The destruction of the first building communicated the fire to the mixing house and from this it spread to the third structure. Most providentially, although the walls of the glazing house were shattered and its roof broken, the contents were not ignited. This will seem all the more remarkable when it is stated that, the powder was strewn around in immense heaps and the broken walls were greatly heated by the effects of the concussion.

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 more thickly than in the prison yard at Clerkenwell. 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.

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. At first it was difficult to ascertain the names of the dead but after patient investigation the following list has been made out which there is reason to believe is correct:

John Young, aged 42 married, four children
Edward Young, aged 45, married, four children
George Taylor, 67, married, one son
William Sole, 41, married eight children
Christopher John Cock, 30, married, no children
Thomas Baldock, 27, married, two children
William Austin, 25, married, two children
William Eley, 37, married, no children
John Payne, 39, married four children
Thomas Back, 29, married, four children
Thomas Amos, 40, married, no children

From this 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. George Taylor had been more than thirty years in Messrs Hall’s employment and had escaped several previous explosions. Thomas Back lost a brother by the disaster of last April. 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.

Towards evening it was considered necessary to post a large number of watchmen around the works, to prevent the ingress of sightseers, who became bolder when it appeared that there was little danger of another explosion. No one was allowed to enter except the police, the proprietors, and the manager. Even the ground on the river side of the canal was similarly guarded. The best view of the ruins was obtained from the marshes outside the plantation. The tremendous force of the explosion was evidence 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. All the windows in Ham farm-house were broken, some of the sashes and frames were clean torn out, and the roof cracked and partly stripped. In Faversham a great deal of glass was smashed, and furniture thrown down. The people declare that in some places the houses, which were for the most part low and very strongly built, perceptibly rocked. It was stated that in Canterbury the reports were heard with great distinctness, and the shock sensibly perceived. As far away as Herne Bay and Margate people heard a crash like a distant peal of thunder. Two or three persons who were working in the fields and marshes, near the mills, describe the immediate effects as something marvellous. They saw the roofs of the houses blown into the air to a height of several hundred feet, and falling in huge fragments to the ground. The place was covered with a dense cloud of smoke and dust, which hung for a considerable time in the foggy air. The water in the river was greatly agitated, and some of the pools in the marshes were literally emptied.

Happening at a time when almost every outrage is associated with Fenianism, it was quite natural that in the first panic the explosion should have been ascribed to the same devilish malignity which caused the ruin of property and loss of life at Clerkenwell. But the slightest investigation seemed to disprove such a supposition. The manufacture of gunpowder has always been subject to terrible risks and the Messrs Hall have already suffered to a considerable extent by previous disasters near Faversham, and by the destruction of their stores at Erith. Of course, 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 were 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. Reference has already been made to previous calamities which have occurred at the same works. In 1847 a large quantity of gun cotton, prepared for blasting purposes exploded at the very same spot, and thirty-five persons perished. On the 1st of April last an explosion took place at Ore, half a mile distant from the marshes and five were killed. In August last there was another fatality, involving the loss of three lives, on all these occasions Messrs Hall did their utmost to console the bereaved and to mitigate suffering, and it is gratifying to state that on Saturday evening they came promptly forward to assist the families of the unfortunate victims.

The excitement caused by the catastrophe had not at all abated yesterday, and in the afternoon an immense number of sightseers flocked to the place. Trains brought hundreds from Canterbury, Chatham, Werrington, Teynham, and all the neighbouring towns. The narrow lanes leading from Faversham were densely thronged by men and women, but very few saw anything beyond the bricks scattered in the fields and the broken trees. The pallisading surrounding the mills which had in many places been broken, was replaced by temporary barriers, the watchmen guarded every foot of the enclosure, and without the consent of the proprietors or the police it was quite impossible to get a near view of the ruined buildings. Accordingly most of those who came to gratify morbid curiosity went home disappointed. Valuable service was rendered by Mr Green, superintendent of the constabulary for the Sittingbourne division of the county, and a number of his men remained on guard from daybreak to nightfall. Both Messrs Hall and Mr Green telegraphed to the Home Office describing the catastrophe as accidental. The superintendent was occupied for the greater part of the day collecting evidence for the inquest, which will be held this afternoon at two o’clock in a house near the mills. Mr Delassaux, coroner for East Kent, will preside but from what has already been stated, it seems clear that there is very meagre chance of identifying any portion of the remains, or shedding any light upon the origin of the explosion. The inquiry, however, is looked forward to with intense interest, and the testimony to be given regarding the management of the establishment will possess considerable importance.

Biographical note:

William Sole was born in Throwley, KEN, in 1821 and was the youngest of the nine children of Edward and Ann (nee 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 – the other two children mentioned in the article were from Catherine’s previous marriage. Catherine remarried in 1880 and died in 1907 aged 86.