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• There is nothing in modern times to compare with the calamity in the feeling of wide-spread terror which it produced, or in the intense interest which it has since excited.'
Colonel Boxer’s Report enters fully into the questions of the quantity of gunpowder exploded—where the explosion first occurred and how it originated-and the effect produced on houses and buildings within certain areas. The scene of the explosion was in the magazines of Messrs. Hall and Co., of Faversham, and the Lowood Company, situated in the Plumstead Marshes, on the margin of the Thames between Erith and Belvidere. The magazines, distant from each other about fifty yards, were of very light construction as compared with Government magazines, and were situated close to the river bank, communicating with the river by a landing-stage or jetty, and having windows facing the river.
Early in the morning of the 1st October, 1864, two barges laden with powder were lying off the jetty communicating with Messrs. Hall's magazine, discharging their cargoes. There were in each barge probably 100 barrels, in Messrs. Hall's magazine about 750, and in the other magazine probably 200; in all about 1150 barrels of 100 lbs, each:
• The question as to where the gunpowder was first ignited, that is to say, whether in the barges or in the magazines, was satisfactorily answered at the inquest by various eye witnesses of the explosion : all agreed that the accident occurred in one of the barges lying at the jetty leading to Messrs. Hall's magazine.'-Reports, dc., p. 13.
There appears to be little doubt that some loose powder, probably from a leaky cask, must have been lying about the hold of one of the barges, and must have been ignited by some carelessness on the part of the crew. There were three distinct explosions, the barges being first dashed to atoms, and the explosion tearing down and igniting the two magazines adjacent. Nine or ten people who were about the magazines were killed, and about the same number dangerously wounded and burnt; the small number of casualties being accounted for by the unfrequented nature of the spot where the accident happened. All London was shaken as if by an earthquake. The shock was heard distinctly at Uxbridge, Windsor, Teddington, Chatham, and even at Ashford, fifty miles distant. A mass of earth work, 150 feet in length, forming part of the river bank, was carried away en masse, threatening the whole of the surrounding country with inundation ; the houses of the magazine-keepers were levelled with the ground; some shops at a mile distance had the whole fronts blown in; houses two miles and a half distant had the window-sashes destroyed; and windows of houses at ten miles distance were shivered by the concussion.
The amount of gunpowder exploded has been stated as about 115,000 lbs. :
• The bare statement of the amount, however, will fail to convey a sufficiently definite idea to most persons; and we may get a distincter notion by a comparison with other known explosions.
The explosion last January of the “ Lottie Sleigh,” a barge which was loading gunpowder in the Mersey, will not have been forgotten by our readers, certainly not by any one who was in Liverpool at the time. The amount in this case was about 11 tons or 25,000 lbs., and was therefore only a quarter, and probably only a fifth or sixth part of what exploded on Saturday. Yet it shook the whole town and shattered the windows throughout the city. No life was lost, for the explosion was foreseen, and every one had withdrawn from the vessel. Some recent military operations will furnish a still better standard of comparison. General Grant lately constructed a mine under the fortifications of Petersburg, from which great results were anticipated, and when it exploded it carried a fort into the air, and buried 250 confederates under the ruins. It was said, indeed, to have had such a startling effect that it actually made both armies pause in the attack and defence, which were to follow the explosion. The amount exploded there, however, was but 6 tons, or not 14,000 lbs. Again, the last mail from China brought us the account of a similar operation at Nankin. The Imperialist troops exploded a mine containing above 66,000 lbs. of powder, which made a breach in the wall of 120 feet in width. The present explosion, therefore, was vastly greater than any which is attempted by the most determined and reckless Generals in order to destroy the strongest fortifications.'-Times Newspaper, 3rd October, 1864.
Another London newspaper of the same date supplies the moral :—“We have been taught what gigantic dangers lurk near to our abodes, and how loosely the legislature has guarded against the chance of these tremendous disasters."
The correspondence printed in the 'Copies of the Reports,' &c., shows that the public mind was thoroughly alarmed, and that a regular systematic inspection, not only of all manufactories of gunpowder, but of every magazine in England and Wales, was actually ordered by Sir George Grey. The state of things at Chester, as described by Colonel Boxer, is sufficient evidence how urgently this was required. A circular was addressed to the chief constables of counties requiring them to furnish lists of manufactories and magazines of gunpowder. From these a few instances may be quoted. Cumberland contained no less than forty magazines; Cornwall furnished a long list of magazines ;' as did also Derbyshire, Durham, Gloucestershire, Southampton, Stafford, the North Riding of Yorkshire, and Carnarvonshire. Northumberland contained forty-one; Somerset sixteen; Warwickshire eighteen; the West Riding of Yorkshire seventeen;
Glamorganshire thirty-eight; and the other counties smaller numbers. The inspection, however, was never carried out. The principal powder-works and a few important magazines, about a dozen in number, appear to have been visited. But the work was too extensive to be attempted by any but regularly appointed Inspectors, whose whole time should be devoted to it, as in the case of Inspectors of Factories; and there being no such officials, the inspection gradually dropped, and the subject will probably be forgotten till a second Erith explosion again calls public attention to the subject. Another result of the public feeling on the subject was the appointment in 1864 of the Magazine Committee, consisting of six distinguished officers of Artillery and Engineers, with Sir John Burgoyne as President, to examine and report on the state of the Military and War Department magazines, and the measures that could be adopted, consistently with the requirements of the public service, for giving increased security to the persons living near them. The particular points they had to consider were: the existing arrangements for the safe custody of gunpowder in the magazines; the best mode of constructing the latter and the question of substituting floating instead of permanent ones; the measures that could be suggested with a view to check the effect of an explosion; and the arguments for and against a great central depôt in some comparatively uninhabited district and the consequent reduction of other stores.
The different classes of magazines examined by the Committee were the great reserve depôts, such as Marchwood and Purfleet, which contain respectively 76,000 and 52,000 barrels; the magazines at the outports for the equipment of our ships, such as Upnor Castle, Portsmouth, Plymouth, &c., some of them containing as much as 40,000 barrels ; and the garrison and barrack magazines throughout the kingdom, which are in charge of officers of artillery, and generally contain smaller quantities of powder. The principal point discussed by them after the questions of the best methods of packing and transporting powder, was the actual construction, arrangement, and distribution of magazines, and the distances they should be from other buildings. The conclusions arrived at are best told in the Committee's own words:
The principle on which they have based their recommendations has been to draw a distinction between the great reserve depôts where the gunpowder is in quiet deposit; and the working stations where the receipts and issues of powder are of daily occurrence, and where constant manipulation of the material takes place. These latter establishments they have recommended should be rebuilt on other sites, and on principles which they believe will give complete security to the inhabitants in their neighbourhood even in the event (which is extremely improbable) of an accidental esplosion.
“In the cases of the great reserve depots, the Committee believe the risk to life and property to be so small, that bearing in mind the , importance of economy, they consider it would not be justifiable to recommend works of such magnitude as would be involved in the reconstruction of these establishments. At the same time they recommend the adoption in all new establishments, of the precautions to which they have adverted in the former part of the Report.'--Report, dc., p. 14.
The principle which the Committee recommend for the rebuilding of the magazines at the working stations, or for the erection of new ones when required, is briefly the substitution of a group of small magazines, long, low, and narrow in shape, each capable of containing 2000 barrels as a maximum store, and separated from each other by thick traverses of earth, for fewer but larger buildings, containing immense stores of powder, and situated in close proximity to each other; the intention being to prevent the accidental explosion of one of the small magazines extending to the others, or causing violent injury to other property at moderate distances.
• The most favourable feature of ground for a set of magazines would apparently be a gentle slope in which the site for each building could be excavated for about half its height, the material from the excavation being added to make up a substantial traverse of not less than thirty feet in thickness at the top, to be carried round on every side on which mischief would occur in the event of an explosion.Report, &c., p. 7.
An important feature in the Report is the recommendation of a new establishment for the proof of gunpowder. At present the whole examination and proof of new gunpowder, whether made at Waltham Abbey or obtained by contract, takes place at the Purfleet magazines, which are only ten miles from Blackwall, and contain 52,000 barrels, an unpleasantly large store to be so near London. Ten
per cent. of the number of barrels is taken out of each general stock of new powder, and placed in the examining house for the purpose of being subjected to various proofs. The examining house is situated less than forty yards from the nearest magazine and separated from it by a slight traverse of earth. Here the barrels are unheaded and remain open whilst under examination, frequently to the number of 300 at a time.
• The risk attending the examination and proof of gunpowder far exceeds that involved in the mere operation of storing the material, and while we have reason to believe that every precaution is duly taken under constant and careful supervision to prevent the possibility of accident, still it is fearful to consider that the arrangements of this station are such that the accidental ignition of any portion of the powder, either in a barge at the wharf, or within the precincts of the
magazine, would entail the explosion of the whole mass of 52,000 barrels; and that this mass has not the security of an enclosed depôt rarely touched, but is dealt with daily to an extent requiring thirty or forty men permanently employed in the work of the station.'— Report,
It would be impossible to add anything to this as a reason for the immediate removal of the proof establishment elsewhere.
The interest excited by the Erith explosion on all subjects connected with the storage of gunpowder had not subsided when Mr. Gale, of Plymouth, announced his process for rendering gunpowder non-explosive or explosive at will. This consisted simply in mixing a non-explosive substance, such as ground glass in fine powder, with the grains, and thus filling up all the interstices between them, and cutting off the communication from one to another, so as to render the powder absolutely non-explosive. When required for use, all that had to be done was to sift out the fine powdered glass on a sieve, and the powder was restored to its original condition. Nothing could be simpler; a barrel of powder could in a few minutes be mixed up with the powdered glass, in which condition a red hot iron might be safely thrust into it without the slightest risk of explosion ; and again sisted and restored to its original properties as speedily as it had been converted. Here was a solution of all the difficulties and dangers connected with the storage of gunpowder! And yet the plan has been unequivocally condemned for many
It appears that the idea was an old one, and had been actually tried and condemned both by the French and Russians as early as 1835, being fully described by Piobert. The only difference between the French and Russian plan and Mr. Gale's, was that the former used with success sand, charcoal, graphite, and even saltpetre, to dilute the gunpowder, while Mr. Gale preferred finely-powdered glass. The objections to the plan are many, but the principal and insuperable one is that the powder is to a great extent spoilt by the process. In the first place, its glaze and surface is destroyed, and its shooting qualities seriously affected, no slight matter in these days of accurate shooting; and in the second, no amount of sifting or dusting can get rid of all the foreign element. It appears also to be admitted that the mixed substances would not bear transport without a partial or total separation of the gunpowder from the glass. And the operations of mixing and sifting would be attended with great danger; the latter would always have to be performed more or less hurriedly when the powder was required, and would be impracticable on board ship. True these objections would not refer to the actual storage of gunpowder in large quantities; but it is precisely when powder is securely stored in magazines that